Underground Worlds

A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places


By David Farley

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A visual and anecdotal exploration of the curious worlds hidden beneath our feet, including ancient cities, salt mine cathedrals, underground amusement parks, and more.

From bone-filled catacombs to sculpted salt churches to hand-carved cave complexes large enough to house 20,000 people, Underground Worlds is packed with more than 50 unusual destinations that take some digging to find. Award-winning travel writer David Farley revels in the unexpected, whether it is a cave city in China which houses one of the world’s largest collections of Buddhist art or an old salt mine converted into a theme park in Romania.

Stunning photos help readers see places they could not even imagine, such as a three-story underground train station in Taiwan that is home to the a 4,500-panel “Dome of Light” that is the largest glasswork on Earth, as well as secret spaces, such as an ornate temple built beneath a suburban home in Italy. Throughout the fascinating text are themed entries of underground systems such as the 2,500-year-old water tunnels of Kish Qanat in Iran or engineering marvels like the New York City steam tunnels.


Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, 1598, by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625).


HUMANS HAVE GONE UNDERGROUND SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL. Or at least for the last forty-three thousand years or so. That’s when archaeologists believe the oldest known mine in human history was created. The Ngwenya mine, also known as the Lion Cavern, is located in Swaziland in southern Africa. It was discovered in 1970 when archaeologists Adrian Boshier and Peter Beaumont, having unearthed some ancient digging tools in the area, began rooting around a mountain and found the mine, which is rich in iron ore.

Humans chipped away at the cavern’s interior until about twenty-three thousand years ago, extracting hematite presumably used to create red ochre for art and cosmetics, after which the mine lay dormant, waiting to be rediscovered. To put this into context, consider that the mine was possibly first used in 41,000 BC, sixteen thousand years before humans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to North America and thirty-one thousand years before the first Agricultural Revolution.

It’s possible that we’ve been digging into the ground since much earlier than that. Or at least sheltering in caves, naturally made “homes” that are conveniently protected from the elements and predators. In 2014, archaeologists announced that after conducting a series of new tests on cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, they determined the paintings—of handprints and something called a “pig deer”—were much older than previously believed. They dated the paintings to be at least thirty-five thousand years old. But certainly humans took up the troglodyte lifestyle long before it occurred to us to decorate our living room cave walls with images of pig deer.

Besides literally going below the surface of the earth, we have a long, creative history of figuratively burrowing ourselves into the underworld. The subterranean world has long captured our imaginations. Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and E. M. Forster’s increasingly prophetic short story “The Machine Stops,” in which earthlings are forced to live underground because the earth has become uninhabitable, are a few examples that come to mind. Perhaps the most famous portrayal is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first third of his epic The Divine Comedy, where the protagonist goes on a journey to the netherworlds—Hell sectioned into nine circles.

In both fact and fiction, human life belowground has been motivated by utilitarian reasons—shelter, safety, and access to minerals or water—but also for more divine reasons: every culture, every religion and faith, has their notion of the underworld. In Buddhism, it’s Naraka; in ancient Greece, it was Hades; the Incas called it Ukhu Pacha; in Persian mythology, it’s Duzakh; and of course, in Christian lore, it’s called Hell. Whether feared as punishment for the sins of the living or revered as the eternal realm of the dead, it’s often believed to be a physical, not just metaphysical, place.

In this book, the motivations behind creating subterranean worlds are as diverse as the cultures they come from. In Derinkuyu, located in Cappadocia, Turkey, humans honeycombed the subterrestrial world to hide from invaders. In Coober Pedy, Australia, they holed up to flee the extreme heat. In the Cu Chi tunnels outside of the Vietnamese metropolis that locals still call Saigon, the North Vietnamese soldiers outlasted American troops, David outwitting the technologically superior Goliath via the use of underground passageways. Similarly, the Sarajevo War Tunnel, constructed in the early 1990s during the Bosnian conflict to transport medical supplies, food, and civilians into a part of the city that had been blocked off by Bosnian Serbs, was a desperate (and successful) instance of using the underground for survival.

Whatever has led us to the netherworlds—figuratively and literally, for shelter or survival, to commune with the dead or to seek treasure—the world beneath our feet remains a mystery and a fascination.

And sometimes the reasons remain a mystery, as they perhaps were even to the people who first broke ground. These inspired excavators were often guided by a sense of the divine. Such was the case with Levon Arakelyan in Yerevan, Armenia, who was driven to dig by what he claimed to be the voice of God. Initially, he began digging a potato cellar as a favor for his wife, but as the voice in his head directed him to continue, he just kept chipping into the earth. It’s the same with the devotees of the Federation of Damanhur, located outside of Turin, Italy, who collectively saw a falling star and took it as the sign they’d been waiting for that it was time to put shovel to earth. Why? To build a system of temples dedicated to unlocking the hidden potential of the human spirit. In the end, both Arakelyan and the disciples of Damanhur created their own versions of paradise, subterrestrial sanctuaries that started in the mind and became a physical reality.

The Ngwenya mine, or Lion Cavern, in Swaziland.

Digging into the earth is not just a thing of the past. Far from it. Recent digs have given new meaning to the term “groundbreaking.” The G-Cans, located on the periphery of Tokyo, is the world’s largest sewer system, protecting the Japanese metropolis from severe flooding. It houses cisterns big enough for Godzilla—as well as Rodan, Mothra, and a couple of his other on-screen pals—to comfortably bathe. Perhaps a bit more aesthetically pleasing is the Dome of Light, the largest single piece of glasswork on the planet, located in the Formosa Boulevard subway station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. And no discussion of twenty-first-century subterranean projects would be complete without including the world’s first underground park, the Lowline, located below New York City’s Lower East Side. The park uses cutting-edge technology to shoot natural light twenty-five feet below the bustling Big Apple streets.

Our contemporary fascination with the underground not only is borne out of military, religious, or engineering necessity but could also be a kind of evolutionary nostalgia, going back to the “caveman” days—that simplified view of hunter-gatherer societies when early humans took to caves to eat their pre–Agricultural Revolution diets (which happen to be currently in vogue) and doodle on the cave walls. Today, we’ve turned caves into everything from restaurants (Ristorante Grotto Palazzese in southern Italy) to hotels (Corte San Pietro in Matera) to bars (Cave Bar More in Dubrovnik), all for our own recreation and amusement.

Whatever has led us to the netherworlds—figuratively and literally, for shelter or survival, to commune with the dead or to seek treasure—the world beneath our feet remains a mystery and a fascination.

A partial view of the Tomb of the Valerii, one of the Necropolis’s most luxurious, which was owned by Valerius Philumenus and Valeria Galatia.


ON DECEMBER 23, 1950, POPE PIUS XII MADE AN ANNOUNCEMENT that shook the Christian world. On a radio broadcast heard around the globe, he said, “The tomb of the Prince of the Apostles has been found.” He paused for dramatic effect and then added, “Such is the final conclusion after all the labor and study of these years.”

By “labor and study,” he meant a massive undertaking that began eleven years earlier, an excavation as deep as twenty-five feet underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica. It had been rumored for centuries that the altar was positioned above the suspected grave of the fisherman of Galilee, Jesus’s apostle Peter, also considered to be the first pope. And now the Vatican was intent on confirming it. Led by German monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the excavation unearthed an entire city of the dead. Buried in the fourth century to provide a flat surface for the basilica, the massive necropolis contains Roman tombs, basalt-paved roads, and intricate two-thousand-year-old mosaics. But what mattered most is that they found what they were looking for: the burial place of Saint Peter.

Today, visitors can walk through a side entrance of the basilica, past the colorfully dressed Swiss Guards, and descend to the depths of the Vatican for a guided tour of this necropolis. It’s not easy, though. Only 250 people per day are allowed in the Vatican Necropolis, or Scavi, as it’s referred to in Italian, which is located five stories beneath the basilica. After applying online—being flexible with dates can increase your chances of being selected—lucky visitors simply receive an e-mail stating what date and time they should appear. To put it into perspective, consider this: thirty thousand art-loving tourists march through the ornate halls of the nearby Vatican Museums every day.

Situated directly under the dome of the basilica, Saint Peter’s Baldachin was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623.

Vatican Hill, as it was called two millennia ago, is just outside the walls of Rome. It’s no accident there’s a necropolis on this spot. Romans avoided dead bodies for fear of contamination, so Roman law dictated that all cemeteries must be outside the city walls. Hence the reason the famed catacombs, where early Christian martyrs were buried, lie in the countryside along the Appian Way.

Peter was buried on Vatican Hill because he’d been martyred nearby at the circus of Nero—reputedly crucified upside down—sometime between AD 64 and 67, and Catholic tradition held that the dead be buried as close as possible to where they died. Emperor Constantine decided to build old Saint Peter’s, the church that originally stood where Saint Peter’s Basilica now resides, on the spot where the apostle was rumored to be buried. The rub, though, was that as the centuries ticked on, no one was certain Constantine was right about the placement of Saint Peter’s grave. It’s true that in the first few centuries of Christianity, bones—suspected to be those of Saint Peter—were discovered on Vatican Hill. And thus Constantine made his best guess, having part of the cemetery on Vatican Hill filled in with dirt, and the altar of old Saint Peter’s positioned on the spot they hoped was Saint Peter’s final resting place.

One thousand years after its initial construction, old Saint Peter’s, as we know it today, was in poor condition. So the church came up with a plan to build a bigger, better, more extravagant Saint Peter’s. After all, it was the late fifteenth century, and the new ideas and grand style of the Renaissance were spreading throughout Europe. Construction took 109 years and saw the reign of twenty different popes. At least ten architects worked on the project, including such illustrious men as Michelangelo and Bramante. For the building, material was stripped from ancient monuments, including tons of marble from the Colosseum and the Forum. In constructing the “new Saint Peter’s,” which it was called for a few generations, the necropolis beneath was nearly forgotten.

In the late 1870s, workers were preparing the tomb of recently deceased Pope Pius IX in the crypt, where most popes are buried, and found a larger necropolis underneath Saint Peter’s. But it wasn’t until 1939, when Pope Pius XII ordered a mass excavation to unearth the ruins, that they confirmed what they had hoped all along: Saint Peter’s tomb rests below the basilica’s altar.

Today tourists roam under Saint Peter’s Basilica among the arched and pedimented tombs in various states of disrepair. Some boast incredible black-and-white mosaics depicting chariots, warfare, and great moments in Roman history. Most of the graves are pagan. There are altars with legible Latin inscriptions etched into them. And then there are graves with no adornment, most likely the resting spots of slaves.

The papal tombs under Saint Peter’s Basilica, most of which date from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries.

On June 26, 1968, after researchers tested the bones found within the tomb and determined them to be those of a sixty- to seventy-year-old man, Pope Paul VI announced that the remains were Saint Peter’s. But there are many skeptics. After all, in the same tomb, archaeologists also recorded finding the bones of four different individuals and a number of farm animals, leading some experts to question the likelihood that the bones belonged to the saint. The Vatican, though, was convinced.

The tour takes ninety minutes and zigzags down ancient cobbled underground lanes flanked by hundreds of tombs designed with columns and friezes. At the end there’s the holy highlight of the tour: from a distance, through a small window, visitors can see inside the famed tomb and view the bones—or so the church hopes—of Saint Peter the Apostle.

In 2003, archaeologists discovered another swath of the Vatican Necropolis, realizing it is much bigger than anyone suspected. Located just next to the Vatican parking garage, the Vatican Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis boasts over one thousand tombs that date from 1 BC to AD 322.

One of the most memorable graves in the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis is that of Tiberius Natronius Venustus. On it is a bust of a young boy, most likely Tiberius, framed by a small templelike stone structure. The inscription reads that he had lived for four years, four months, and ten days. No cause of death was given. In another place in the necropolis, terra-cotta tubes stick out of the ground. They were used for pouring libations in honor of the dead, a pagan custom that was temporarily adopted and then abandoned by the Christians.

In another place in the necropolis, terra-cotta tubes stick out of the ground. They were used for pouring libations in honor of the dead, a pagan custom that was temporarily adopted and then abandoned by the Christians.

Up above the necropolis, inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the famed Baldacchino di San Pietro, designed by baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sits directly above the tomb of Saint Peter. The structure, which rises like a canopy almost one hundred feet above the altar, is made from bronze, 90 percent of which was stripped from the Pantheon, the most remarkable architectural relic of Roman antiquity.

The site opened to visitors in 2006, but it’s a separate tour and has a separate entrance from the Scavi. Like visitors to the Scavi, you can book a journey into this underworld via the Vatican’s website.


AROUND 1480, A TEENAGE BOY WAS PLAYING ON THE OPPIAN HILL near the Colosseum when he slipped through a crack in the ground and plummeted into the darkness. City authorities, with torches in hand, were lowered into the pit to find the boy and figure out what this mysterious crevasse was hiding. To say they were surprised would be an understatement. As they moved the torches around to shed light on parts of the long-forgotten room, they saw ornately painted frescoes from the Roman era, which were around fifteen hundred years old at the time.

Built by Emperor Nero in the first century, the Domus Aurea rests in the Roman Forum.

The teenage boy had inadvertently rediscovered the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, the pleasure palace of Roman emperor Nero. After Nero died in AD 68, the space was covered up, and the Baths of Trajan and the Colosseum were built on top of the controversial site. The emperor built his gargantuan palace on a previously urbanized swath of Rome that had burned down. Over the centuries, some historians have even suggested that Nero himself was clandestinely responsible for the fire, so that he could build on the spot. He hired Severus and Celer, the two best architects in the empire, to design and construct it. He had the city’s greatest living artist, Famulus, adorn the walls with frescoes depicting creatures from Greek and Roman mythology, such as the Cyclops. When the palace was finished, Nero publicly dedicated the Domus Aurea by proclaiming, without any trace of irony, “God, I can at last begin to live like a human being.”

The palace held a mile-long arcade, and many interior walls were covered in gold and adorned with mother-of-pearl. Hot springs bubbled up into rooms, channeled in from underground streams via fifty-foot aqueducts.

While Nero was living like a human being—finally!—ordinary Romans were sneering as they walked by. For many denizens of the capital, the palace was a symbol of Emperor Nero’s luxurious excesses. It became the epicenter of extravagance, the site of posh parties for the city’s upper crust. There were three hundred rooms and no sleeping quarters—Nero’s own official residence was on the nearby Quirinal Hill.

And then there was just the sight of this prodigious palace. Originally named the House of Passages, it stretched over half a mile from Palatine Hill to Esquiline Hill. But when a portion of the palace was destroyed in a fire, Nero rebuilt the structure and called it Golden House. The courtyard was so large, it was occupied by a 120-foot-tall statue of the emperor himself. The Colosseum actually gets its name from this “colossal” statue and rests on the spot where the palace’s famed artificial lake once was. The first-century Roman historian Suetonius wrote that the enormous water basins that made up the lake were “more like a sea than a pool.” The palace held a mile-long arcade, and many interior walls were covered in gold and adorned with mother-of-pearl. Hot springs bubbled up into rooms, channeled in from underground streams via fifty-foot aqueducts. The architects also created a domed dining room in which the ceiling would rotate, powered by slaves. While the well-heeled debauched themselves with food and wine, the turning frescoed ceiling would drop rose petals. As the story goes, at one such gathering, so many petals dropped from above that one reveler actually choked to death. Exotic-but-tame beasts roamed the gardens surrounding the palace, and sculptures from Greece and Asia Minor were imported to adorn the grounds.

Frescoes from one of the rooms in the Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

Amazingly, the lavish palace only stood for four years. After Nero committed suicide in AD 68, his successors tried to expunge him from history. Nero’s death marked the end of a turbulent time in Roman history—it ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had commenced with the reign of Augustus and evolved over the years to such levels of extravagance that Romans finally had enough. And so, not long after Nero’s demise, the Domus Aurea was dismantled. The lake was drained. The colossal statue of Nero was moved out of sight. The palace was stripped of all its posh ornamentation. And, finally, the vaulted halls and spacious rooms were filled in with dirt, as if the Domus Aurea had never existed. This once highly visible and glorious aboveground structure was condemned to lie beneath the surface of Rome for centuries.

A view from the underground passageways of the Domus Aurea.

What we now know as the Oppian Hill sat mostly undisturbed and abandoned for centuries, with the Domus Aurea hidden underneath, a silent witness to the dismantling of the Roman Empire. Though Rome’s population plummeted from one million at its most powerful zenith to just fifty thousand at the start of the ninth century, the Domus Aurea got a new life when that Renaissance-era teenage boy fell into the crevasse.

A true living palimpsest, Rome is a jewel box of archaeological underground treasures. Each time the city builds a new subway line, it takes longer than planned because of subterranean discoveries. For every ancient site that is uncovered, they must call in archaeologists to carefully dig it out. So in a city dotted with two-thousand-year-old catacombs, why is the Domus Aurea significant?

The unexpected and accidental discovery of the ancient palace and its intact artwork in the late fifteenth century set off a frenzy among central Italy’s artists. The original Roman frescoes were shielded from the ravages of passing time, preserving their vivid colors. Soon enough, artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, and Pinturicchio ventured down to get a look at them, helping to push the Renaissance along. The seeds of the Renaissance had already been planted, but the discovery of the frescoes in the Domus Aurea inspired the craze for classical antiquity. The mosaics are another artistic innovation credited to the Domus Aurea: for the first time, and apparently at Nero’s behest, mosaics made it onto the ceilings and the upper part of walls. Before then they were only inlaid in floors. This change would establish a highly influential precedent for Christian art in the following centuries.

Despite the Renaissance-era excitement for the rediscovered Domus Aurea, the remnants of the palace were soon ignored again, but not forgotten. By the eighteenth century, Oppian Hill was covered by a vineyard. And in the 1930s, Mussolini had the hill expanded, creating a park that offered a nice view of the Colosseum.

After a twenty-year restoration, the Domus Aurea opened to the public for the first time in 1999. Six years later, it was shut down, as it was deemed unsafe. Two years later, the doors were flung open once again, but were then closed two years after that when part of the roof crashed down to the floor. Finally, the Italian government got serious and decided to invest about $37.5 million to restore the Domus Aurea. During the renovation, archaeologists unearthed new parts of the palace, including a huge circular dining room. They are still working to restore the three hundred thousand square feet of frescoes—that’s more than thirty Sistine Chapels put together.

The Hall of Water in the Temples of Humankind.


ABOUT THIRTY MILES NORTH OF TURIN, ITALY, IN A SMALL TOWN underneath the towering Alps lies what some people have called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But standing in front of it, you’d wonder: What’s the big deal? That’s because the entrance looks more like a backyard toolshed than anything else.

Welcome to the Federation of Damanhur, a small property in the town of Baldissero Canavese in the Piedmont region, whose residents proclaim it to be an autonomous micronation. The “wonder” in question is a series of underground shrines, called the Temples of Humankind, that the disciples of Damanhur built. The organization, a community of six hundred people, helped fund the project by opening a series of small businesses in town. The temples are an eight-chamber, baroque, five-story subterranean complex one hundred feet below the surface of the earth that looks like the Palace of Versailles and a 1970s hippie commune collided. The high-ceilinged chambers include soaring pillars, colorful floor mosaics, walls bedecked in gold leaf, mirrors, and colorful psychedelic murals. Both Liberace and Tim Leary would have been very comfortable here. The multichamber complex consists of the Blue Temple, the Hall of Water, the Hall of the Earth, the Hall of Spheres, the Hall of Metals, and a massive four-sided pyramid called the Hall of Mirrors, which is covered entirely in—you guessed it—mirrors. Each chamber is more spectacular than the next: the ceiling and upper half of the walls of the Hall of Spheres are covered in twenty-four-karat gold leaf; the Hall of Water, dedicated to the female divine force, is clad in a deep blue and bathed in an aqua-colored, Tiffany-inspired glass cupola ceiling; the Hall of the Earth, made up of two connected circular rooms forming the symbol of infinity, is highlighted by floor-to-ceiling white ceramic columns near the walls and mosaic images of naked men looking triumphant and glorious; in the Hall of Metals, with metal representing every age of humanity, there are pillars bedecked to look like trees. This chamber has four niches in the walls, one of each standing for earth, water, fire, and air.

Founded in 1975 by Oberto Airaudi, a former insurance salesman, the Federation of Damanhur is named after the Egyptian town of Damanhur, located one hundred miles northwest of Cairo, and dedicated to the god Horus. The federation has their own government, currency, schools, newspaper, and tax code. Their belief system draws on pantheistic pagan and Egyptian convictions blended with new age philosophies. They subscribe to the power of human capacity and believe that humans have not fully tapped into their real potential yet, as if we could turn ourselves into superhumans. Maybe this is why they claim to have found a way to time travel. So far, they have not been particularly forthcoming on how they figured it out.

The multichamber complex consists of the Blue Temple, the Hall of Water, the Hall of the Earth, the Hall of Spheres, the Hall of Metals, and a massive four-sided pyramid called the Hall of Mirrors.


On Sale
May 15, 2018
Page Count
240 pages

David Farley author photo by Zrinka Marinovic

David Farley

About the Author

David Farley, the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, has written travel articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, AFAR magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, and Slate.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University.

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