Stranger things: the mystery of the lost children of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
A group of children and their teacher were forever lost underground at this UNESCO site. Or were they?

Melanie Drury

One of the more intriguing stories to come out of the Maltese islands tells of thirty school children who, they say, were forever lost in the hidden underground tunnels accessible from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. The tale has even made the headlines in national newspapers. The story is now the stuff of legend, with many claiming it is a hoax of sorts and others believing it to be a truth which someone has an interest in keeping hidden. Here's the available information so you can make up your own mind.

The legend of Malta’s underground tunnels

In the third (and last) sub-level of the Hypogeum, one of the burial chambers located at floor level is supposedly a doorway into another underground world. Interestingly, this lower level is no longer physically accessible to visitors after the recent refurbishment of the Hypogeum.

Local lore commonly states that Malta is riddled with underground tunnels. These, supposedly, exist in many overlapping layers that intersect and travel far and wide across the country; even beneath the sea all the way to Rome.

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You may even stumble upon a conspiracy theory supporting the existence of a completely undocumented rock-cutting civilisation in Malta. It supports the notion that the Knights built their forts and cities over preexisting dug-out structures, using these ready-made ditches as a foundation for their own outstanding buildings. Among the evidence supporting this conspiracy theory is that rock-cut architecture was common in the ancient Mediterranean while ditches were no longer typical in the 16th century, when many of the Knights’ fortifications were built. Meanwhile, the carved bedrock is more weathered than the stone structures built over it and there are several strange features such as broken staircases and blocked up doorways.

With places such as the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum having been discovered several feet underground, and indicating that a rock cutting civilisation did abound on Malta, the notion of carving tunnels across the country does not sound so unrealistic. Could Malta truly have a hidden underground network of tunnels and catacombs kept hidden from public view?

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The official statement

With regards to children lost in such tunnels, two printed articles on reputable magazines have surfaced, but officials today dispute the validity of the information given therein. Heritage Malta, the authority responsible for prehistoric sites in Malta, considers the story to be a myth; a myth that may have been created to force children to shy away from Malta’s many caverns and tunnels from fear for their own safety.

That the UNESCO World Heritage Site has been well-investigated would make sense. Meanwhile, an official report into the incident of lost children, or evidence of a collapse inside the Hypogeum which was meant to have entrapped them, has not been discovered.

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The legend of the lost children

Since there’s nothing strange about the site and no evidence to support the story that children got lost in Malta’s secret underground, why does this tale still get told? 

The tenacity of the legend can be blamed on these two independent reports, one appearing on the reputable National Geographic magazine and the other being a personal anecdote of Lois Jessup, British government employee, which was first published in Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science magazine by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (BSRF).

The National Geographic report

In the 1940 August issue - no. 78 - of the National Geographic magazine, Richard Walter wrote:

"Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island's fortifications and defense system. Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta, some of the underground areas served as homes for the poor. Prehistoric men built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned." (pages 253–72).

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The Jessup anecdote

Just a week before the alleged disappearance of 30 children, Lois Jessup had visited the Hypogeum for the first time. There, she convinced the guide to allow her to investigate one of the aforementioned burial chambers, and she was allowed to do so, though "at her own risk".

She crawled through the passage and emerged on a ledge inside a large, seemingly bottomless cavern. Another ledge across the chasm led to an entrance in the far wall. From this, she witnessed several giant humanoids emerge in a single file. Noticing her, they raised their palms towards her, causing her to panic and retreat. Then, a slippery wet creature brushed past her and a violent wind blew inside the underground cavern, snuffing out her candle. The rest of her party was emerging onto the ledge at this point and, terrorised, she insisted they turn back to the Hypogeum, where the guide, seeing her state, gave her a "knowing look". 

Eventually, she revisited the Hypogeum only to discover that the tunnel was boarded up and her first guide, seemingly, never existed. The new guide denied everything. This is the story she told.

Truth or legend?

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Following last weeks post on the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni I was asked by @pathsunwritten to comment about the sealed entrances of the Hypogeum. I did some minor research on this, and I should note that after 10 years studying about the history of Malta I have never heard about this intriguing past of Malta. The story that I am about to recount happened before the break out of World War 2. The @natgeo - National Geographic - magazine (August 1940 edition) reports about a group of 30 children vanishing in the Hypogeum. The children were roped together, with the end of the rope tied to the opening of the cave (to find their way when they returned) but as the last student turned the corner the rope was clean cut and the walls caved in. Miss Lois Jessup is believed to have entered the same entrance sometime before it collapsed. Her guide reluctantly gave her permission. Jessup notes that she saw a procession of tall Humanoids with white hair covering their bodies, and when they sensed that Jessup was looking at them a strong wind began to blow through the cavern. She also notes that that something slippery and wet moved past her as well. Eventually she returned back and the guide gave her a knowing look that he knew what Jessup saw down there. A few days later the students entered in the same entrance and it caved in. Now the underground entrance to the caves in Malta have been sealed off and nobody is allowed to investigate the site. Photo credits: Source of information: ; ; 

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Allegedly, the children were never found but were heard wailing from underground for several weeks in different parts of the island. However, no-one could locate where the sound was coming from. And - adding further to the mystery - none of these so-called witnesses are alive today to explain more.

There's mention of an official story that the children and their teacher had entered a tunnel which had caved in just as the last one made it through. Yet, while there's no evidence of a cave-in, and there are no surviving official news reports, the authorities are striving to 'bust the myth' at the new visitor centre. Could there have been a cover-up? Could there have been an attempt to erase the story of the lost children from collective memory, as if it had never even happened?

Why would Walter and Jessup have made up such a story and in what interest would the Maltese authorities hide its network of underground tunnels? Meanwhile, conspiracy theory or not, the Knights are known to have changed the face of Malta with their forts and palaces; and they had good reason to bury any evidence of previous prominent civilisations on the island before their arrival.

In your opinion, should there be a renewed interest in exploring the foundations of such historic forts and cities and in snooping around Malta’s underground?

17th April 2021

Melanie Drury
Written by
Melanie Drury
Melanie was born and raised in Malta and has spent a large chunk of her life travelling solo around the world. Back on the island with a new outlook, she realised just how much wealth her little island home possesses.

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