“Show us these temples or we will dynamite the entire hillside”, threatened Italy’s state prosecutor when police had failed to locate a rumoured network of mysterious chambers buried 30 metres in the foothills of the Alps. They had been dug by hand in complete secrecy in the 1970s under the direction of Oberto Airaudi, a philospher and artist who claimed to have had visions of ancient temples at age 10 from a previous life. The Temples of Humankind, a massive five-level complex of murals, mosaics, labyrinths and hidden doors is still only considered to be only 10% complete. When authorities finally discovered it in 1992, the architectural inspector for the Italian Heritage Ministry, said: “Nothing like this exists outside of the films of Indiana Jones.”
Excavation began in 1978 by just fifteen followers of the Federation of Damanhur, a peaceful, spiritual commune founded as a social experiment a few years earlier, 30 miles north of the city of Turin.
“The first pick struck the rock on a warm August night. It was a Saturday evening in 1978. Oberto and about ten other Damanhurians sat around a fire … A large star fell across the sky… It was a positive sign; a good moment to begin to dig a tunnel into the mountain … to build a temple the likes of which had not existed for a thousand years or more … The Damanhurians worked intensely, tenaciously aroused by an enthusiasm that united all in the pleasure of group activity and the taste for secrecy. Secrecy because at this point they did not have permission to excavate.”
Images (c) Damanhur
Images (c) Damanhur
More than a decade after building began, the entire community was awoken early one morning in a violent police raid. Police dogs searched houses for drugs while helicopters circled the sky above. Unable to find anything incriminating (such as an illegally-constructed underground temple), police armed with machine guns presented the resident lawyer with a magistrates warrant, stating an alleged tax evasion of 50,000,000 Lire (around $30,000). The charges were unsubstantiated but over the years the reclusive community had attracted local suspicion and negative attention from the press for its unusual practices.
Frequently labelled as a cult by outsiders, the group admittedly has some pretty far-out practices and holds a mix of New Age and neopagan beliefs. With its own constitution and currency, Damanhur also believes they are an experiment for the future, using technology bestowed upon them by the lost city of Atlantis.
Some of their more bizarre activities include playing music with plants to reflect their passion for nature and in the past they’ve even claimed to have unlocked the secrets to time travel, but Damanhur has always adamantly denied accusations that the community is a cult.
A year after the first raid, police stormed the eco-society again, this time in search of the temples, armed with a map obtained from a disgruntled former member of Damanhur who had been trying to blackmail the community. But the map was outdated by more than a decade and police were unable to find any entrances. It wasn’t until authorities threatened to blow up the whole mountain that the commune finally decided to give in and show the police their secret sanctuary.
Allegedly the policemen emerged from the tunnels an hour later, “tearful and overcome by the profound beauty of the Temples” and the prosecutor admitted to the founder Oberto Airaudi, “We must do something to save the Temples.” Even the police chief of the raid later became a great friend of the community.
On October 9, 1992 a press conference was held in Damanhur to announce the existence of the Temples of Humankind to the world, but its troubles weren’t over yet. The magnificent refuge built inside of a mountain was dubbed an 8th wonder of the world by the press while the Catholic Church immediately urged the local authorities to have it destroyed. Construction was ordered to cease and a long publicised court battle followed, but it only helped Damanhurians gain international support for the underground marvel they had created.
Eventually, the Italian government gave the community retroactive permission for their excavation and construction. The Temples are now open to the public and visitors are of course free to come and go, which would make the suggestion of cult activity more difficult to believe. The Damanhur website welcomes outside communities, saying it is open to sharing their knowledge and research and hosts thousands of visitors a year who participate in tours, seminars and courses through its own Damanhur University. This eco-society was even awarded by an agency of the United Nations as a model for a sustainable future.
From here, it doesn’t look like we’re dealing with a bloodthirsty cult; no enslaved children for Indiana Jones to come and rescue– more like a bunch of Italian hippies who once had a really cool secret. Right?