Hidden away in a country renowned for its architectural beauty lies a massive hand-built place of worship many tourists never see.
An entrance that looks like a mineshaft opens up to a maze carved inside the mountain holding the Damanhur Temples of Humankind in the Valchiusella Valley, about 30 miles north of Turin. Click here to learn more about the Damanhur Temples of Humankind.
Damanhur narrates the history of human potential through art. With at least nine rooms — some with 25-foot high ceilings — it looks as if the secret doors and passageways were built centuries ago.
In truth, the unlikely temple is no ancient wonder and was built piecemeal by 150 people over a 15-year period beginning in 1978. The work was so secret, the Italian government never knew it was going on and never gave permission for it.
"We were very good at keeping the secret," Damanhur spokeswoman Esperide Ananas said. "When there was maybe loud work going on we would play records.
"If somebody happened to hear they would think we were just having a party," she said.
The handcrafted structure is full of dramatic beauty, and each apparent dead end really leads into another mysterious hall.
"You have to think that we did that without any engineer or architect," Ananas said. "Everything has been excavated by hand."
At least as mysterious as the temple itself is the utopian society to which it belongs,The Federation of Damanhur. Damanhur, which means city of light, comprises 800 people who live in communal homes.
The spiritual group's writings are in a coded language only they understand and its dances are full of symbolic movements.
Founded in 1975, the Federation of Damanhur thinks of itself as the builders of a new civilization that stands for peace and human potential. It prides itself on being an eco-society based on ethical and spiritual values.
Falco, as the group's founder is known, said that he always dreamed of the elaborate temples.
"I had the idea for the temples when I was 12, 13 years old," he said. "It was important to build them in secret or else we would never have been able to build them. Italian law does not foresee this sort of underground building."
The group wanted the temple to be "a gift to humanity" once it was completed, he said.
Visitors to the halls of the temple have expressed awe, delight and intrigue.
"My first reaction was, 'My goodness. Tiffany's is like kindergarten compared to what's happening here.' Everywhere I looked at Damanhur, the art is just exquisite," visitor Bonnie Cohen said.
Falco's vision for the temple was brought to life in several themed rooms, some with 20-foot ceilings. The themes of each of the rooms are connected to the group's spiritual beliefs.
"It is always a spiritual experience when you cross the different halls and spaces," said Damanhurian Gazza Solidago. "I think that they are a dream — a dream that is constantly evolving."
The Damanhurians use the various rooms of the temple, which has five floors and reaches about 100 feet down, for rituals of their own creation.
"They can even sleep in the temples if they want to do research on dreaming," Ananas said.
The rooms include:
Blue Temple, the oldest hall, is used for mediation on social matters. It guides the federation as a place of inspiration and reflection.
The Hall of Water is dedicated to water and the feminine principal. It is shaped like a chalice, and with blue as its dominant color, it creates a marine-like atmosphere.
The Hall of the Earth is dedicated to the male principal and the circular room rises in a cone shape toward the ceiling. It also is dedicated to all living things.
The Hall of Metals takes its name the Damanhurian philosophical belief that every age of humankind is related to a metal. The art in this hall tells the story of humanity, including delving into its vices.
The Hall of Mirrors is dedicated to music and the sky.
The Hall of Spheres' ceiling is covered with 24-karat gold leaf, as is the upper portion of its walls. It is considered the heart of the complex.
Finally, the Labyrinth is dedicated to the relationship between humanity and divinity. It covers the deities humans have worshipped over the centuries and uses 16 windows to depict divinities.