It was dawn, October 1991. The sun had just peeked its head over the lush valley of Valchiusella in Piemont, Italy when the quiet was shattered by police helicopters and ground units moving in on a small community called Damanhur. Armed officers ordered people from their homes, equipped with drug-sniffing hounds and a camera crew. The search found nothing. Nobody mentioned the temples.
July of 1992, the small community was raided again. This time the State Prosecutor, Bruno Tinti was involved. "Show us these temples," he barked, "or we will dynamite the entire hillside." The people of Damanhur had no choice but to comply.
They led the police to the entrance of a secret underground temple, and decended through narrow corridors decorated with Egyptian hyroglyphs. The crew opened an ornate stained-glass door into the first chamber and stood awestruck. Inlaid marble floors supported a great hand-carved central column in the form of a man and a woman, adorned in gold leaf. They held up a stunning stained-glass ceiling that depicted the birth of the universe and glittering lights formed the constellations of the night sky 22,000 years ago when Atlantis is supposed to have existed.
This was only the first of nine chambers. Tinti and his men were led through three stories of interconnected temples, staircases, secret passageways and trap doors supported by hydraulic machinery; every surface sporting grand mosaics and murals devoted to the diversity of plant and animal life on Earth, as well as world religions both modern and ancient. The crew made their way to the final chamber - the Hall of Mirrors - and stood silently gazing up at one of the largest Tiffany-style glass domes in the world.
How had this massive and exquisite underground temple been constructed completely in secret, and why? Bruno Tinti demanded answers. The community founder, Falco, explained from the beginning...
Falco Tarassaco, born Oberto Airaudi (1950) began having strong visions of ancient civilizations when he was ten years old. He saw societies of peaceful people living together, one with nature and whatever lay beyond the stars. Most of all, he saw their temples - vast structures built to awaken the spirit of those who entered with the intent to realize the human potential that lay dormant in us all. He drew blueprints and even dug a small chamber under his parents' house, and later excavated a nearby cavern.
By 1975, Falco and a group of close friends were inspired to begin a sort of civilization of their own - a community based on solidarity between humans and nature, and a loving willingness to support one another in the search for spiritual and psychological fulfillment. And, of course, they would need to build a temple.
Nobody had any experience in building. The rag-tag bunch were equipped with some old hand-tools, a rich imagination and a lot of trust. They chipped into the mountain under the cover of night, carrying out rock in buckets and by hand. Nobody in Valchiusella had any idea this was going on. After all, they were just a bunch of ordinary people... except maybe Falco, who claimed to be led through the building process by visions from beyond. And that might sound a bit crazy, except that it worked. Magnificently. Today, The Temples of Humankind, as they are called, hold the Guinness World Record for largest underground temple, and the Italian government, among others, has called the structure "the eighth wonder of the world."
But this story really isn't about the temples. This story is about the kind of people who build temples like these. I'm talking about dreamers. I'm talking about the kind of dreamers who make their dreams a reality and do it with humor, imagination and kindness. These are the people who create communities like Damanhur.
Formica, a close friend of Falco's for over 30 years until his passing in 2013, stood where Falco stood as he revealed the temples for the first time to Bruno Tinti and his men. I took the place of Tinti. She hesitated for a moment at the entrance of the temple, pressing her finger to that intricate stained glass door. She turned her head and smiled. She already knew that I would not be able to believe my eyes. She just wanted to take in my reaction. The door swung slowly open along with my jaw.
It is said that Bruno Tinti left with tears in his eyes that day. He had come looking to bust some backwards hippie cult for drugs and orgies and found instead a community of resourceful people devoted to world peace, universal spirituality, and the right of all to cultivate happiness, health and fulfillment that lasts. How had they done it? Chisel by chisel, brick by brick. Why? In part, to prove that anything is possible when we work together. This is what community is about.
It was this impossibly beautiful structure of human imagination and ingenuity - The Temples of Humankind - that had brought me to Damanhur in the first place. But I found so much more. I found the last piece of the eco-community puzzle that we had been looking for all along.
"Look up." The hall of mirrors sports one of the largest Tiffany-style glass domes in the world.
Hydraulic trap doors - this one turns the mosaic-marble floor into a secret staircase
One of many narrow passageways between temples. That's Formica, who we'll meet in the next post
And it just keeps going...
What would a secret temple be without trap doors and magic orbs?