Damanhur underground temples

Even though the underground Temples of Humankind have been called the eighth wonder of the world, until last year I had never heard of them.

Nor had I heard of Damanhur, the controversial Italian spiritual community that excavated and constructed them, in deadly secret, in the 1970s and 80s.

The fantastical fellow known as Falco, who thought the whole thing up, was an unknown quantity to me as well. So, deciding to make good this gaping hole in my New Age experiences, I booked a three-day introductory package with an open-minded friend, to see what we had missed.

Accordingly, we landed at Turin Airport and took a taxi to the 600-strong community 30 km away. We were met at the Welcome Office and shown our room, wondering whatever might be in store.

Damanhur – the name comes from that of an ancient Egyptian city devoted to Horus – is a sprawling collection of highly-decorated buildings, known as nuclei, each housing about 25 people who live communally. There are huge statues, columns and open temples in the grounds of the site, which apparently is on a magic confluence of four cosmic lines connecting our planet to the universe, and imbued with magical significance.

Falco himself – the name means falcon, or eagle – started out as prosaic Oberto Airudi, an insurance agent. A self-taught artist, he believed he was pre-incarnated from 400 years into the future, and hailed from another planet. Born in 1950, he developed a complicated system of alchemy, mysticism and magic designed to bring all of creation, including plants and metals, into harmony, healing and wholeness.

Gradually, he attracted followers, until the community grew to its present size.

We had come mainly to see the temples and the next morning, a small group of us were driven up the mountain by Gazza ('like the footballer') who has lived in the community for 30 years. At the top was an insignificant wooden door, like that of a garden shed, the other side of which was the miracle. Painted corridors led into vast domed rooms decorated with huge frescos, intricate mosaics, Tiffany ceilings, allegorical paintings and hieroglyphics. Every ancient religious and pagan culture was celebrated there.

As we walked round in wonder, Gazza – Italian for magpie - explained how it all came about. 'The vision was seen by Falco,' she said, 'and then we made it up as we went along. None of us are professional artists or architects, and the temples were all dug out by hand, with picks and shovels. Here, we are telling the story of humanity as it unfolds through various cultures and languages. The trapdoors open doors to new knowledge.'

There were pillars, lights, stars twinkling, precious metals, and also playful pictures of people at chess games, children of all nationalities and many happy smiling faces, mostly portraits of Damanhurians past or present.

It's not all ancient depictions, though. There are aeroplanes, cars and other artefacts of modern life painted on the walls. 'We all contributed to the paintings,' said Gazza, 'whether we were any good or not.' Around the floors of the temples are grotesque misshapen clay figures, about a foot high, again all made by Damanhurians. The good, the bad and the ugly were all there and it was much like a real-life Alice in Wonderland, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The art was a mixture of ancient Egyptian, Banksy, Ladybird Books and a cosmic Disneyland.

But a modern marvel, nonetheless. And the Temples would have stayed secret but for an incident in 1991 that brought them to public attention. A disaffected Damanhurian wanted to leave the community and demanded the return of money he had invested. When this was refused, he reported the underground work to the authorities, who ordered the temples to be dynamited. Apart from the illegal nature of the work, pagan cultures were being celebrated in a Catholic country.

A sympathetic magistrate pleaded, successfully, for them to be saved and since then, the public has been able to view them. Nowadays, visitors and tourists are encouraged to sample Damanhur for themselves. The community has kept expanding, and in 2003 they acquired an abandoned Olivetti typewriter factory, now known as Damanhur Crea, which houses Falco's huge mystical paintings, a restaurant, supermarket and art studio.

My friend and I had to sit through the interminable Ritual of the Oracle, where Damanhurians dressed in coloured robes danced and swayed to beating drums, worshipping the High Priestess. Afterwards we were brought down to earth with a pizza in one of the nuclei. We also had an explanatory talk– in English, thankfully – by Ornitorinco, or Duck-Billed Platypus, a founder member. All Damanhurians have animal or plant names, 'connecting us to the soul we share with them', we were told.

Mumbo-jumbo, divine wisdom or a mixture of both? Not sure. But eighth wonder? Yes, without a doubt.


For more about Damanhur: The number 9 bus to Utopia, by David Bramwell, published by Unbound; Damanhur, The Real Dream, by Jeff Merrifield, available on Amazon.