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Atlantis in the Mountains of Italy

Ross Robertson

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WIE visits one of the world’s most successful communal experiments—the Federation of Damanhur—and explores the ins and outs of esoteric spirituality, the secrets of time travel, and what the utopias of tomorrow have to do with yesterday’s golden age.

What would you say if I told you there was a place nestled in the foothills of the Italian Alps, by the wild gray waters of the Torrente Chiusella, where dreams are not just for children, and magic has not yet gone from the world? A place where men and women live together in harmony with the land and in tune with the cosmos, working and building, playing and cooking, ringing out the evening’s greeting on conch shells that echo from village to village across the forested valleys, gathering at night to revive the lost rites of history’s great kaleidoscope of sacred traditions in underground halls and temples under the moon? It is a place washed by mysterious energies, where people seem to age more slowly and latent creative abilities bubble up spontaneously in young and old alike. A place where artists and artisans, merchants and councilmen, poets and architects all walk the paths of a university dedicated to the quest for esoteric knowledge and the spiritual advancement of humankind. You might even hear stories of quantum physicians plying the borders of matter and energy who claim to have penetrated the information codes underlying human DNA; or psychic technicians who speak of traveling the earth’s planetary energy lines, slipping backward in time to set events in motion that may be destined to change the course of the distant future . . .

What would you say if I told you the story of a people, a vision, a whole society that sounded less like anything you’ve ever heard of in this world and more like something Gene Roddenberry dreamed up for an episode of Star Trek—one of those classic undisturbed planets, idyllically isolated from the rest of the galaxy, where people wear colorful flowing robes, the kids run right up to the crew of the Enterprise because they never learned to be suspicious of strangers, and the atmosphere is perfumed by a sort of quaintness and real dignity and also by a certain feeling of doomed innocence? Would you even believe me if I told you this was no science fiction utopia at all but was every bit as real as the stone farmhouses and stone-covered hills of the Italian countryside that surrounds it, just fifty kilometers north of the city of Torino?

The First Spiritual Autonomous Region of the New World

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Oscar Wilde

Here at WIE, we’re lovers of innovation, fans of the unusual, and suckers for the radical. So when we heard about an intentional community in northern Italy’s Piedmont Alps so bold as to call itself “the first spiritual autonomous region of the new world,” suffice it to say it piqued our curiosity.

The more we learned about this place, the more intrigued we became. For one thing, it’s no small-time operation: More than a thousand people live there, spread across an entire subalpine valley and deeply incorporated in the local community, culture, and economy. Two, their society is based on something that is all too rare in this cynical world—unrestrained, unabashed optimism—and they have consciously dedicated their lives to what they see as the reawakening of the divine within both the individual and the larger collective. Three, perhaps more successfully than hundreds if not thousands of other communal experiments founded on utopian ideals over the last fifty years, they have not only stood the test of time but prospered. Established in 1975, they seem to have remained in a state of dynamic growth for more than three decades now, boasting dozens of thriving businesses; their own daily newspaper; their own currency, constitution, and government; their own schools, political movement, and fire department; and, most of all, a spirit of passionate self-reinvention that consistently refuses to be quenched.

And there’s more. For all you esotericists out there, the citizens of the first spiritual autonomous region of the new world also claim to be inheritors of the mystical legacy of Egypt and Atlantis, guardians of a lost and ancient knowledge they fervently believe is going to help awaken and evolve human consciousness. All that Star Trek stuff I said before about quantum technology and time travel and DNA codes and such? It barely scratches the surface of their belief system. They’ve even codified and immortalized their entire esoteric scheme into sacred architecture, in the form of a gigantic chain of underground temples that looks like it came straight out of the pages of Tolkien. But these adherents of a philosophy so heady and complex it would take me every page of this magazine to explain it are somehow, at the very same time, unusually down-to-earth and refreshingly action-oriented. After all, they excavated every last square inch of these “Temples of Humankind” by hand, with no help at all from professional engineers. “The search for the inner self and God,” they explain on their website, “is founded on . . . a harmonious and continuous inner transformation, the overcoming of personal limits, the capacity to measure ourselves through action and practical work, [and] the respect for all forms of life, be they subtle or physical.”

For all that, you probably haven’t heard of them before. They kept a low profile over the years for several reasons, not least of which is that they lacked permission to be digging out a seventy-meter-deep, six-thousand-cubic-meter series of tunnels and caverns underneath a local mountain. And they haven’t exactly gotten a lot of good press for the whole time-travel thing. Italy is a conservative country, nearly ninety percent Catholic, and this curiously inspired group of occultist communitarians was probably wise to play it conservative themselves. But you can’t keep a secret forever, and in recent years they’ve opened their doors to the world and are beginning to travel more and more to share their ideas and the lessons of thirty years of hard work. Visionary artist Alex Grey has taken an interest in the extraordinary painting, sculpture, and glasswork of the Temples of Humankind, now recognized as an Italian national treasure and featured in a new coffee table book out last fall from Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors Press. They’ve got twenty affiliated centers now in Italy, with twenty more in Europe, Japan, and the United States. They’re stepping up their involvement on the international stage, taking a leadership role in the Global Ecovillage Network and hosting a major conference next summer for the International Communal Studies Association called “Communities: Yesterday’s Utopia, Today’s Reality.” And they’re hard at work on their next temple project, a massive thousand-seat underground amphitheater they plan to offer to the United Nations.

Our interest was piqued all right. Remember, we’re talking about more than one thousand people here. From everything we could tell, they seemed to have tapped directly into something remarkable, some deep creative drive that has kept them growing and evolving all these years, aligned under the unifying banner of a shared commitment to higher ideals. They also seemed to have devoted incredible amounts of energy and attention to arcane philosophies and sci-fi mythologies, not just one or two but whole grandiose hosts of them, and although I’m as big a fan of a good sci-fi mythology as the next guy, it wasn’t yet clear how it all fit together. In short, from the communities of Auroville in South India to Findhorn in Scotland to the Farm in Tennessee, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fascinating—or more enigmatic—example of the age-old utopian impulse manifesting itself in modern times.

They call it the Federation of Damanhur, and when the opportunity presented itself last summer to spend a few days there, we simply could not pass it up.

Francis Bacon, Model Damanhurian?

It would be an unsound fancy and self-contradictory to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.

Francis Bacon

I love this quote by Francis Bacon because it captures what I love the most about Damanhur. It’s the spirit of the place. It’s the adventurousness, the frontier mentality, that certain je ne sais quoi of creative exuberance and curiosity and seemingly endless goodwill, that in the end, I think, defines them better than anything else. Truth be told, their lives are so wildly multifaceted—and in many ways, so ambiguous and so hidden—they’re a bit hard to define otherwise. That’s not going to stop me from trying, but I thought I should at least warn you: When I first drove up that twisty little road from the Piedmontese village of Castellamonte on a muggy afternoon in July, past dark-canopied forests and skinny lanes and fields the colors of an impressionist painting, I scarcely appreciated how big a whirlwind of wonder and confusion I was getting myself into.

That being said, whatever it was that I was getting myself into, I think Francis Bacon would have approved. He’s the type of guy who seemed wildly multifaceted himself, especially if you believe the stories that say that in addition to being a trendsetting seventeenth-century philosopher, ethicist, lawyer, statesman, scholar, and astrologer, he was also the enlightened founder of the esoteric Order of Rosicrucians and the true author of the plays published under the pseudonym “William Shakespeare.” Bacon had a curious and adventuresome spirit, too, as befits the man who invented the revolutionary theory of observation and experimentation we know today as the modern scientific method. What’s more, he was a dyed-in-the-wool utopian idealist who penned one of the great classics of the genre, The New Atlantis (1627). In a nutshell, he was inventive, industrious, artistic, determined, and spiritually conscious—all in all, a pretty good model of the perfect Damanhurian. And this statement of his could be their motto: “By far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and to the undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this—that men despair and think things impossible.”

Damanhur - hall of earth

When I arrived at the broad marble steps of the Olami welcome center, I was met by a keen-eyed woman named Gufo (Italian for “owl”) who took me for a walk around the capital of Damanhur. There, the Federation’s earliest inhabitants had built an open-air temple with statues of sylvan gods in red clay and pillars of white marble from Tuscany and ornate iron gates shaped in the symbols of a sacred language purportedly from Atlantis. I saw shops and homes and offices, solar arrays and old bits of Greek-looking statuary, chic electric cars in the parking lots, jungle gyms and eco-friendly water systems and spiral labyrinths of painted stone, and everywhere, signs of construction and work in progress. They seemed to be building and growing so fast, I felt like I was on an archaeological site, with different eras of Damanhur’s history visible in the different planes and angles of the landscape. “It has been difficult to write a book about Damanhur,” Gufo admitted, “because by the time the book is finished, Damanhur is different.”

The people we passed were casually dressed, more or less, perhaps with a preference for vibrant colors and flowing lines, and a few wore sashes of bright fabric at their waists. Their smiles were warm, their manner relaxed yet purposeful. We came to a building and entered a room probably twenty feet square that was dominated by a kingly central table covered in white cloth. Gufo peeled it back with a flourish, surprising me with what had to be the world’s most colossal board game, a lavish homemade version of Risk. She told me a group of thirty people had been playing at least three nights a week for—no joke—fifteen years running! It was a long-term political, social, economic, and historical case study, she said, an in-depth exploration of the mechanisms of population growth, migration, crisis, and war. And the esoteric twist—there is always an esoteric twist at Damanhur—is that supposedly everything the gamers were learning about human relationship and human conflict was being “transmitted” psychically into the collective knowledge banks of the race as a whole.

I’ll try to explain more about the psychic transmission thing a little later on. For now, what’s important is that Gufo was showing me an example of what the Damanhurians call spiritual “research,” a word I heard a lot while I was there. Research is the key to their spiritual lives, she said. It is the practice of ongoing study, experimentation, and transformation they apply to themselves and, more importantly, share with each other every single day. They have research groups in the School of Meditation, she explained to me, Damanhur’s very own esoteric mystery school; there are the seven so-called Spiritual Ways, different paths for integrating their research with their daily lives and livelihoods; then there are the temples themselves, which I soon found out were chock full of spiritual research laboratories of their own. And so on. It was all a bit complicated, but Gufo—perhaps noting the slight glaze in my eyes—said not to worry about it. In order to help me understand just how central the spirit of research really is to the spirit of Damanhur, she said, she was going to tell me the story of their founder—a man named Oberto Airaudi, aka Falco (falcon), an esotericist and philosopher-poet and multidimensional Renaissance man who reminded me, it just so happened, of that other esotericist, philosopher-poet, and multidimensional Renaissance man I’d been thinking about . . . a man named Francis Bacon.

Gufo’s tale, as recorded that day in my notebook, slightly embellished:

Oberto Airaudi was born in 1950 in Torino. An unusual city. Home of the shroud Jesus is said to have worn at the time of the resurrection. Onetime residence of the world’s most famous soothsayer, Nostradamus. One of three cities (with San Francisco and London) known to occultist lore as the corners of an infamous triangle of black magic and paranormal energies.

Whether or not Torino was the reason for it, Falco was definitely not your average kid. Allegedly rolled eggs across the kitchen floor as a toddler using only the power of his thoughts. Remembers conjuring up ghostly apparitions to frighten his opponents on the soccer field and attaching rockets to the sides of his bicycle to see if he could fly. As the years went by, started having visions of large subterranean cathedral dedicated to evolution of cosmos and spiritual rebirth of human race. Tried (unsuccessfully) to build one by himself out back in the family garden.

Key point: Over time, began to funnel his interests in the further reaches of human potential in more and more practical directions, incorporating the language and attitudes of science into his investigations of psychic and spiritual phenomena.

By age fourteen, experimenting with hypnosis, levitation, and out-of-body travel; giving lectures on physics, math, music, and esoteric philosophy to crowds of eighty or a hundred people; and laying out the first rough principles used later to guide development of Damanhur. Knew he was on to something when able to convince two of his Jesuit teachers at school to quit in order to come study with him . Opened center in Torino named after Horus, falcon-headed Egyptian sky god whose name he also took for his own, where he managed as many as thirty-six different esoteric research groups at once, all of them pursuing independent projects simultaneously.

Ran successful insurance business and developed pranatherapy clinics and psychic healing courses all over Italy. Made a rule for himself that he would 1) invent at least one new thing per day and 2) read at least one book per day—a rule he has kept ever since. Established Damanhur, naming it after an Egyptian city that was the site of a temple to Horus. Has now written over three hundred books and countless articles, stories, and plays; sold in excess of fourteen thousand of his own paintings; still gives at least two lectures a week.

I think Francis Bacon would definitely have liked the guy. In his own time, Bacon’s innovative methods of research and experimentation had yet to become the foundation for science as we think of it today but were instead associated with hermeticism, alchemy, and the occult—a connection echoed by Falco’s own empirical approach to esoteric philosophy. Bacon’s New Atlantis even tells the story of a utopian society ruled by a group of enlightened inventors who study alchemy, healing, and life extension in caverns deep underground and whose ultimate goal is “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Bacon wrote about it. But by all appearances at least, Falco has actually tried to build the place.

The Secret Corridors of Time

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling

No, this was not the early 1960s and I was not trapped inside an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there were times at Damanhur when it seemed like I should be. Times when things just slipped a little bit sideways, and the parameters of the everyday gave way to the territory of the unexpected.

This was one of them. I was standing in the central control room of the Temples of Humankind when I suddenly got the feeling I had somehow landed on the set of a sci-fi adventure serial in the early days of color television. Flasks and tubes for distilling alchemical liquids huddled on a workbench. Beakers and bottles of ingredients crowded the shelves on two walls. The room was lit only by black light, the contents of said beakers and bottles being susceptible to breakdown from regular incandescent light. Just outside the door was the Hall of Spheres, where nine crystal globes filled with said alchemical liquids stood on pedestals under a ceiling covered in twenty-three-karat hammered gold leaf. Perfume-filled chalices rested between them, a gallery of grails my tour guide went so far as to suggest included the honest-to-goodness holy one. Across the Hall of Spheres was Damanhur’s infamous time cabin, where some twenty or thirty Damanhurians claim to have traveled back to visit the Stone Age. And on the wall of the control room right in front of me, there was what you might call, for lack of a better word, the master computer. Made up of countless circuits of spiral wire, arcane symbols and schematics, a tenth liquid-filled crystal globe, and one nine-key crystal keypad, this command panel extraordinaire purportedly offered its operator full control over the cosmic flows of energy and information passing through the entire complex of the temples.

Damanhur - Airaudi

Standing there at the nexus of what I was told were numerous kilometers of specialized copper circuitry, I was actually standing at the center of Damanhur itself—not just at the physical heart of their temple structure but also at the heart of all their myriad forms of esoteric research, and even at the heart of the overarching utopian mission that brought them to build the temples here in the first place. You see, these subterranean chambers were located in this particular place on this particular mountain in this particular valley for a very particular reason. It all dates back to the days when Falco was a teenage occultist wunderkind living in Torino . . .

Of all young Oberto Airaudi’s many research projects, perhaps his most important involved what he called the “synchronic lines,” which he described as a planetwide system of subtle energy and information currents that encircles the globe and links it to the universe. “Synchronic lines are like rivers in which an infinite amount of knowledge is stored,” he says, “as if they were a library containing all that humankind has ever thought.” He actually spent his late teens and early twenties mapping this global akashic network, first by “projecting” his mind along the length of its astral highways, then by blazing the trail physically on an extended seven-continent-wide adventure. By the time he was finished, he’d found but two places on earth where four major synchronic lines intersected one another—supercharged regions he called “shining knots,” which allegedly served as access points for the entire system. The first was high in the Tibetan Himalayas, and the second, to his apparent surprise, was in a little valley in the Piedmont Alps just fifty kilometers north of home. Its name was Valchiusella.

“By carefully studying the flow of these energy channels,” Falco writes, “one can foresee what will happen in the future and thus modify the present.” By carefully studying the flow of these energy channels, the Damanhurians seem to believe they can do just about anything. The synchronic lines are the linchpin of their esoteric philosophy and the lifeblood of their esoteric research. If you ever ask them where the “information” they’re working with comes from—where they got their sacred language, for instance, or their knowledge of alchemy, or lost Atlantean technologies, or healing, or divination, or any of the rest of it—they’ll say it came from the synchronic lines. And it is the synchronic lines, in turn, which they believe allow them to transmit all the fruits of their spiritual experiments and all the insights they gain from research projects like the Risk game back out into society, the world, the galaxy, and the universe at large. As Falco’s theory has it, these akashic superconductors are attracted to natural features like mountains, rivers, and caves, both natural and manmade. That, in a nutshell, is why he came to Valchiusella to build the Temples of Humankind. Essentially, the chambers are like hollow synchronic antennae, deliberately excavated spaces within the mountain that ostensibly pick up and draw in these rivers of infinite knowledge and infinite potential, forming a living gateway through which the Damanhurians can directly manipulate this cosmic power and by which their efforts to evolve consciousness and transform the world can be magnified a millionfold. Or something like that.

But that’s not all. They say the synchronic lines are also gateways through time. And at that very moment, I was essentially standing right on top of their main junction box. No wonder I felt like I was phase-shifting back to the sixties and hearing Rod Serling’s voice in my head.

Damanhur - people

Falco moved to Valchiusella with a dozen or so of his closest students in 1977, and they broke ground on the temples in 1978. The workers proceeded in secret and often in silence—camouflaging the entrance to the main passageway, masking the sounds of their hammers, removing dirt and rock one small bucket at a time, and scattering it carefully and inconspicuously about the forest floor so the neighbors wouldn’t notice. The labor was intense, yet they saw it as a meditative pilgrimage, an active metaphor for the journey deep within themselves. The seventy or eighty Damanhurians who took part in this work over the thirteen years their secret lasted speak convincingly of the power it had in their lives. But then came the day in the fall of 1991 when the authorities descended on them, with soldiers in helicopters, threatening to dynamite the mountain unless they divulged the hidden location of the temples. A disgruntled former community member had turned them in.

Falco was unfazed. He simply showed the state prosecutor in through the front door, and when the man emerged an hour later, he had tears in his eyes and vowed to do whatever he could do to help them stave off further trouble. It took them four years, but eventually they got the Italian government’s seal of approval, and the temples were legalized and opened to the public in 1996.

Inside the Temples of Humankind, it was abundantly clear how proud the Damanhurians were of their rich collective history, because it had been recorded everywhere. The walls were like history books adorned with paintings of many of the same people I met while I was there and many of the same stories I just told you. These walls bore cosmic histories also, panoramic visions of the birth and evolution of the universe and allegorical scenes of war between good and evil in the hearts of men. There were mosaics and statues of the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, Sumer and Babylon, Hindu and Zulu, Aztec and Algonquin. And of course, the omnipresent motifs of Egypt and Atlantis—shifting sands and swimming dolphins, warriors and dragons, scarabs and hieroglyphs, Osiris, Anubis, and the falcons of Horus. These artists’ marvels were not just mythological but technological as well. They had eight-meter-wide domed ceilings of stained glass, backlit by neon. They had secret doors like those in the pyramids of the pharaohs, except these were motorized. Secret motorized drawbridges dropped from walls and hidden motorized stairs dropped from the floor at the touch of unseen remote controls. They even had strange subtle-energy healing beds that looked like a cross between a CAT scan machine and the bench Dr. Frankenstein used to bring his monster to life.

According to my tour guide, these particular beds had brought countless cancer patients into remission, but if there was actual evidence for it—evidence, for that matter, for any of Damanhur’s esoteric claims—the Damanhurians weren’t telling. A few bits and pieces of information had slipped out about purported archaeological finds allegedly verifying traces of their visits to ancient times. A fellow named Gorilla is even said to have returned from a foray through the secret corridors of time with a large clump of prehistoric grass in his hand, understandably one of their more celebrated bits of evidence. But the evidence I found most convincing was the evidence that was literally all around me, writ large across the temple floors, columns, stairs, and walls in mortar and glass, metal and stone. According to Falco, most of what he needed to know to build these underground halls came to him via esoteric insight, through the quiet whispers of his intuition. And to my eyes, the miracle was really that a group of laypeople—none of them architects, none of them engineers, none of them even professional artists—had built the temples in the first place. “I had a very big head, so I thought I could do it,” Falco remembers. “In the Middle Ages, they built cathedrals without being engineers or architects. So if they made such things, why not us?”

Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Damanhur works as a human body. If there are parts that don’t work, the body rejects them. This is a society of warriors, not peacemakers. Because the Enemy is inside. It’s there, what we have to fight.

Oberto Airaudi, aka Falco

Damanhur - battle

My favorite mural in the temples depicts what Falco calls the Enemy of Mankind, an impersonal force of stasis, inertia, and conditioning represented by an evil horde of faceless warriors pouring over the plains like a dark tide. These gray soldiers of the Enemy are locked in combat with the colorful citizens of Damanhur, whose own faces are filled not with hatred or anger but with laughter, determination, and a certain steely-eyed joy. “As the Enemy can be identified with an absolutely negative force with a lot of power but very little intelligence,” Falco explains, “the way to oppose it is to use fantasy, invention, and creativity. You can consider the Enemy a rigid and unavoidable opposition that can be contrasted only with elasticity and fantasy.”

Just don’t confuse his emphasis on the power of lightheartedness and imagination with being soft. On the contrary, over and over again throughout Damanhur’s history, Falco has not hesitated to shake things up when necessary in order to break through the structures of habit and complacency that tended to form between people over time. It first happened in 1983. Work on the temples was hopping, and life at Damanhur had gotten comfortable. Too comfortable. So Falco left. By the time he came back three months later, he had a whole bevy of new recruits with him, and soon the original group was vying with the younger one for his attention. His response? Deliberately sowing dissension between them, he eventually set up a no-holds-barred multiday version of the children’s war game “capture the flag.” Predictably, the mock fighting heated up till it hit fever pitch, but just as it threatened to come to actual blows, Falco called a halt and made the two sides sit down with each other to talk about their experience, and the rift between them finally unraveled.

That’s how the Damanhurian tradition called the Game of Life was born. It would become a central factor in the ongoing evolution of their communal society, a way to optimize the development of interpersonal relationships by playfully pushing against people’s natural leanings toward rigidity, security, and isolation. Since then, there have been many of these developmental exercises—artistic battles, traveling quests and journeys, wilderness survival challenges, the fifteen-year-long Risk game, and more—all emphasizing the confrontation with and the breaking down of boundaries between people. And the Damanhurians see the task of incorporating what they learn through the Game of Life into the constantly shifting structures of their community as a way for them to put their spiritual principles into practice, principles that call them to seek change, embrace uncertainty, and take personal responsibility for their own transformation.

The more I learned about the Damanhurians’ willingness to consistently reinvent themselves as the community has evolved over time, the more I got a sense of how they’ve been able not just to survive but to thrive through the years while so many utopian experiments before them have folded up shop or simply faded into the history books. I’ve lived in several communities myself—first on an egalitarian farm in rural Missouri and now as a member of the dedicated spiritual collective that is home to WIE—and I know from experience that getting people to come together, work together, and most of all stay together for the sake of a larger common mission is not always easy. For starters, one tends to have to work against the culture of extreme individualism and narcissism that most of us are automatically a part of simply by virtue of the times we’re living in, and that’s no small thing, to say the least. But in the battle against all the obstacles that inevitably confront those who try to forge extraordinary societies out of ordinary individuals, with all our many human foibles, frailties, and less-than-wholesome motivations, Damanhur has at least one big advantage going for it: Falco himself.

I first met him at a public lecture he gave to a crowd of about two hundred Damanhurians while I was there, a lecture I expected would finally give me the chance to see members of the community engaging with him directly about some aspect or another of community life, maybe even about their esoteric research if I was lucky. But what happened that night was a good deal more radical than that—and by the number of mouths I saw dropping open in astonishment, not something that happened very often. You see, just ten minutes into his talk, Falco abruptly stood up, threw his microphone down on the table, and walked out of the room. He was upset about the community’s reticence to make some long overdue changes at one of their projects, changes having explicitly to do with honoring their spiritual commitments. So upset, in fact, that he issued an ultimatum promising to dump the whole venture or even kick out the people who were dragging their heels if that’s what it took to get things back on track.

“I can’t believe that people who are making a spiritual journey decide to stop and don’t move from where they are,” Falco said to me the next day when we sat down to talk about his role as Damanhur’s spiritual teacher. “To stop for me means to go backwards. This is what happened last night. So we will see what people will be able to do in a very short time. Otherwise, I will have to select a smaller group who will move forward very quickly and let the others stay behind. But we still always try to push a certain edge that will keep the others above a particular level. Unfortunately, this has already happened many times in the past. We’ve had many moments in our history when we had to increase the level, to make it higher. If we hadn’t, everything would be superficial. So our system is very selective. Someone who is not involved enough in the main things, who stays on the side, is more and more on the side until we invite them to leave.”

“That’s beautiful,” I said, immediately regretting my choice of words.

“It’s not beautiful,” he corrected me, “but it’s the reality.”

The night before, someone had told me they felt Falco was being too harsh, more like a father scolding his kids than the leader of a community of mature adults. But when I mentioned this to him, he said, “That’s the last thing I’m interested in. Many people who want a teacher are only looking for a substitute for their parents. They only want reassurance, but the goal is to become divinity. To grow, and not to look outside yourself for what can only be found inside.”

“So would you say that your goal is to help people discover real independence?” I asked.

“Yes—and in that, to become able to live together with others. When we speak about enlightenment, the idea is that people cannot be enlightened alone. Enlightenment can happen only with the help of others. In this way, we bypass the selfishness of the single individual who only wants to be enlightened for themselves.”

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning

Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I’m not turning

I’m headin’ for a land that’s far away beside the crystal fountains

So come with me we’ll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

Harry McClintock, aka Haywire Mac

Damanhur - labyrinthine

There’s an old country song called “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by a Tennessee troubadour known as Haywire Mac that reminds me a little of Damanhur. It’s a classic hobo ballad from the turn of the twentieth century, the tale of a comic utopia where the lakes are made of whiskey, the cops have wooden legs, the hens lay soft-boiled eggs, and there are always plenty of boxcars to sleep in. The song is based on a famous medieval paradise called the Land of Cockaigne (cakeland), a place where the peasants get rained on by honey waffles, the fences are made of sausages, and grilled geese fly right into your mouth.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Damanhur is anything like these farcical lands of plenty where everything is handed down free and easy on silver platters from on high. To the contrary, the multifaceted success of this utopian community may be outshined only by the scope of the effort, daring, and dedication that built it. Yet Damanhur’s fondness for forgotten civilizations and lost esoteric mythologies does imply a certain fascination with the idea of paradise all the same. On one hand, they’re some of the most practical-minded people you’ll ever meet; on the other, they’ve clothed themselves in a sort of storybook metaphysics, a great cosmic plot line that brings order and stability to their world and infuses it with a mythic sense of nobility and meaning. And perhaps the most interesting, most challenging, and most confounding aspect of my time there was trying to sort through this study in contrasts, to make sense of a society that was down-to-earth and veiled in mystery all at the same time, working like gangbusters to build a better future while concentrating great parts of its attention on the cryptic antiquities of the past.

By the time I left, I was still struggling with the question of how it all fit together. On one side of the equation, the impressive testimony of Damanhur’s accomplishments seemed virtually endless. They mint their own coins, for Pete’s sake. They’re producing hand-painted textiles for some of the top fashion houses in Milan. I got to see their new temple structure—or rather the incredible hole in the ground that will one day be their new temple structure, a megalithic glass-domed auditorium with a world-class library of esoteric books underneath, all connected to the current temples by an underground train. And although it seemed to me that it would take at least twenty years to complete it, they said they would finish it in two. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against them. They’ve triggered the economic, cultural, and political revitalization of a whole district in the Piedmont Alps. They count one local mayor and twenty-two council members from nine different towns among them, and they have townships where none of them even live asking them to run for office because of everything they’ve done in their own region and all the national grant money they’re bringing in. They’re so confident of their ability to foster healthy communities that they even submitted a proposal to NASA offering to act as consultants to the space program, to help with the design of future orbital colonies.

The Temples of Humankind are now recognized by the Italian Heritage Ministry, the regional beaux-arts authority, and Guinness World Records; and with Alex Grey’s new book, Damanhur: Temples of Humankind, now on the shelves, they may soon be reaching a broader audience. “We just don’t see contemporary sacred spaces that are not aligned with known world religions but that still articulate a devotional relationship to the cosmos,” Grey told me when I got back to New York. “We’ve been adrift for so long, and the story of art in the twentieth century has been filled with such titanic egos. It’s all about me and my new ‘ism,’ my own particular way of seeing the world. But the temples of Damanhur are more than one man’s vision. This is coming from all of them. I don’t know of anywhere else on the planet where artists and artisans are working communally this way to create sacred space. You’d probably have to go back hundreds of years, maybe even all the way to the medieval craft guilds that built places like St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It took them five hundred years to do those mosaics. And I think it’s an astonishing achievement to begin to evolve a community like this today.”

The flip side of Damanhur’s undoubtedly astonishing achievements is that everything they’re doing is based on the romanticized ideal of a long-gone golden age.“Through learning about Atlantis and the fabled past of our planet,” they explain, “we will have a better understanding of the ‘Great Plan’ that has been unfolding through time to bring humanity to higher levels of consciousness and harmonious living.” Damanhur’s version of the Atlantis myth can be traced fairly directly to the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century exemplars of Western esoteric thought, especially Madame H.P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and the great American psychic Edgar Cayce. Most of Damanhurian philosophy, in fact, seems to come straight out of this same esoteric milieu, so I was surprised when they told me it was all entirely original. Ironically unaware of their roots in a philosophical tradition without which their own ideas probably could never have existed in the first place, they seemed comfortable ignoring history. We still haven’t found any credible archaeological evidence for a historical Atlantis ten or twelve or twenty thousand years ago, at least as far as I’m aware, but if it did exist somewhere, it probably would have borne a greater resemblance to the prehistoric cultures of the time than to the futuristic techno-Eden the Damanhurians make it out to be. Plus, I couldn’t help but notice that the paintings the time travelers profess to have made of their visits to Atlantis showed an architecture more like that of Mussolini-era Italy (with an Art Deco twist) than, say, the world of Ancient Greece.

But perhaps the biggest drawback of golden age thinking in general is its tendency to pull you out of step not just with the past but with your very own times. I keep coming back to the disconcerting experience of slipping back through time that I had inside the temples, where intimate portraits of Damanhur’s communal history were placed side by side with the sweeping frescoes of an impersonal cosmic story. It was like another world down there, another era of myth and magic that for a moment seemed to wrap me up in its wide, enchanting arms. And that world surprised me. It was strangely comforting to what I think of as an older (perhaps even ancient) structure within my own psyche, a part of me that hungers for safety, familiarity, and, above all, certainty in the midst of a twenty-first-century life that is far too complex and far too insecure for its liking. But that longing for existential security was double-edged, because to another part of me, it felt claustrophobic, stifling, almost as though I was being drawn back into the mind of the mythic worldview of yester year, a state of consciousness where everything was known, fixed, sorted out, and tucked into place—including my own particular place in the overarching scheme of things. As comforting as it initially seemed, when my fascinating excursion through this subterranean wonderland came to an end, I was surprised at how relieved I was to come back out into the air and the daylight again.

Still, we do need some broader perspective to orient us in this age of fragmentation, some larger context of shared purpose and common value that can give us reasons for being that transcend whatever private fears and dreams we each happen to be haunted or inspired by. And for all its downsides, Damanhur’s golden age mythology is a pretty good example of why. The Damanhurians are some of the happiest and healthiest people I’ve ever seen. I mean, even the teenagers seemed happy at Damanhur. The people I met were almost uniformly passionate about a mission greater than themselves. Most of them came to Damanhur when they were young and idealistic, and ten, twenty, even twenty-five years down the road, most of them are very much idealists still. Life is full, and full of challenges. They’re very busy, but they’re happy to be busy because they feel themselves to be a part of something inherently meaningful. They take care of each other, and even better, they really seem to depend on one another. “It’s very difficult to see yourself objectively,” one of them told me. “We tend to fall into habits, to repeat the same situations and get stuck in our own ways of thinking, and that’s why we need the others. You can always see yourself in the mirror of relationships. It can be intense living this way, but for us, living together is really the cauldron where the alchemy of transformation takes place.”

In taking up the mantle of the utopian dream with a fertile imagination and no small measure of good old-fashioned perseverance, the Damanhurians stand out against the cynical bottom line of contemporary culture—and most importantly, they’re doing it together. Whatever you think of their metaphysics, the fact is, they’ve found a way to consistently tap into the deep strength of soul and self that can be liberated through a sustained, committed, and creative engagement with others. That’s what stuck with me the most when I came out from the temples and onto the landing at Porta del Sole, the “Gateway to the Sun.” The Damanhurians had first started digging there on a warm August night almost thirty years ago, making their first marks on the mountain with a single shovel and a pickaxe. Falco had been waiting for the right sign to appear before he told them about their real mission there—to build a hidden temple beneath the mountain—and it had come that evening while they sat together around a fire: a shooting star that blazed up and fell down in dazzling slow motion across the summer sky.

Who can say where Damanhur’s star is leading them now? I’m every bit as amazed and perplexed as I was when I first set foot there, and I haven’t even told you the half of it. Would you believe some say that Falco doesn’t just travel backward through time but that he actually came from the future in the first place? Six hundred years in the future, to be exact, when the world is apparently on the verge of apocalypse and a messenger is chosen to journey back to the past and set things aright. Your guess is as good as mine on that one, but whatever light it is that ultimately guides this modern-day utopian experiment, it seems to be growing brighter all the time. “This temple you have seen has been made by less than a hundred people,” Falco told me. “Now we are over a thousand. And we like to think that if all goes well, our future achievements will be proportional to that.”