Subterranean Crypts and Temples

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Subterranean Crypts and Temples

Subterranean resorts, crypts, and places of worship have always fascinated the human mind. The mysteries of the Egyptians and other peoples were held in underground crypts, possibly to render these ceremonies still more mysterious to ordinary people, perhaps because it was essential to the privacy they required, or possibly to symbolize the exploration of the hidden parts of the self. The caves of Elephanta, the Roman catacombs, and similar subterranean edifices are also well-known examples. There are also several lesser but perhaps more interesting underground meeting places and temples in various parts of the world.

An Underworld City in Central America

The Jesuit priests of the early eighteenth century left descriptions of the palace of Mitla in Central America that leave no doubt that in their time it contained many subterranean chambers, and one especially appears to have surpassed all others in the dreadful uses to which it was put.

Father Torquemada gave the following description of the place:

"When some monks of my order, the Franciscan, passed, preaching and shriving through the province of Zapoteca, whose capital city is Tehuantepec, they came to a village which was called Mictlan, that is, underworld (hell). Besides mentioning the large number of people in the village they told of buildings which were prouder and more magnificent than any which they had hitherto seen in New Spain. Among them was the temple of the evil spirit and living rooms for his demoniacal servants, and among other fine things there was a hall with ornamented panels, which were constructed of stone in a variety of arabesques and other very remarkable designs. There were doorways there, each one of which was built of but three stones, two upright at the sides and one across them, in such a manner that, although these doorways were very high and broad, the stone sufficed for their entire construction. They were so thick and broad that we were assured there were few like them. There was another hall in these buildings, or rectangular temples, which was erected entirely on round stone pillars very high and very thick that two grown men could scarcely encircle them with their arms, nor could one of them reach the fingertips of the other. These pillars were all in one piece and, it was said, the whole shaft of the pillar measured 5 ells [about 18 feet or 6 meters] from top to bottom, and they were very much like those of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, very skillfully made and polished."

Father Burgoa was more explicit with regard to these subterranean chambers:

"There were four chambers above ground and four below. The latter were arranged according to their purpose in such a way that one front chamber served as chapel and sanctuary for the idols, which were placed on a great stone which served as an altar. And for the most important feasts[,] which they celebrated with sacrifices, or at the burial of a king or great lord, the high priest instructed the lesser priests or the subordinate temple officials who served him to prepare the chapel and his vestments and a large quantity of the incense used by them.

"And then he descended with a great retinue, when none of the common people saw him or dared to look in his face, convinced that if they did so they would fall dead to the earth as a punishment for their boldness. And when he entered the chapel they put on him a long white cotton garment made like an alb, and over that a garment shaped like a dalmatic, which was embroidered with pictures of wild beasts and birds; and they put a cap on his head, and on his feet a kind of shoe woven of many-colored feathers.

"And when he had put on these garments he walked with solemn mien and measured step to the altar, bowed low before the idols, renewed the incense, and then in quite unintelligible murmurs he began to converse with these images, these depositories of infernal spirits, and continued in this sort of prayer with hideous grimaces and writhings, uttering inarticulate sounds, which filled all present with fear and terror, till he came out of that diabolical trance and told those standing around the lies and fabrications which the spirit had imparted to him or which he had invented himself.

"When human beings were sacrificed the ceremonies were multiplied, and the assistants of the high priest stretched the victim out upon a large stone, bareing his breast, which they tore open with a great stone knife, while the body writhed in fearful convulsions and they laid the heart bare, ripping it out, and with it the soul, which the devil took, while they carried the heart to the high priest that he might offer it to the idols by holding it to their mouths, among other ceremonies; and the body was thrown into the burial-place of their 'blessed,' as they called them. And if after the sacrifice he felt inclined to detain those who begged any favor he sent them word by the subordinate priests not to leave their houses till their gods were appeased, and he commanded them to do penance meanwhile, to fast and to speak with no woman, so that, until this father of sin had interceded for the absolution of the penitents and had declared the gods appeased they did not dare to cross their threshold.

"The second [underground] chamber was the burial place of these high priests, and third that of the kings of Theozapotlan, whom they brought thither richly dressed in their best attire, feathers, jewels, golden necklaces, and precious stones, placing a shield in their left hand and a javelin in the right, just as they used them in war. And at their burial rites great mourning prevailed; the instruments which were played made mournful sounds; and with loud wailing and continuous sobbing they chanted the life and exploits of their lord until they laid him on the structure which they had prepared for this purpose.

"The last [underground] chamber had a second door at the rear, which led to a dark and gruesome room. This was closed with a stone slab, which occupied the whole entrance. Through this door they threw the bodies of the victims and of the great lords and chieftains who had fallen in battle, and they brought them from the spot where they fell, even when it was very far off, to this burial place; and so great was the barbarous infatuation of these Indians that, in the belief of the happy life which awaited them, many who were oppressed by diseases or hardships begged this infamous priest to accept them as living sacrifices and allow them to enter through that portal and roam about in the dark interior of the mountains, to seek the great feasting places of their forefather. And when anyone obtained this favour the servants of the high priest led him thither with special ceremonies, and after they had allowed him to enter through the small door they rolled the stone before it again and took leave of him, and the unhappy man, wandering in that abyss of darkness, died of hunger and thirst, beginning already in life the pain of his damnation; and on account of this horrible abyss they called this village Liyobaa, The Cavern of Death.

"When later there fell upon these people the light of the Gospel, its servants took much trouble to instruct them to find out whether this error, common to all these nations, still prevailed, and they learned from the stories which had been handed down that all were convinced that this damp cavern extended more than 30 leagues underground, and that its roof was supported by pillars. And there were people, zealous prelates anxious for knowledge, who, in order to convince these ignorant people of their terror, went into this cave accompanied by a large number of people bearing lighted torches and fire-brands, and descended several large steps. And they soon came upon many buttresses which formed a kind of street. They had prudently brought a quantity of rope with them to use as a guiding line, that they might not lose themselves in this confusing labyrinth. And the putrefaction and the bad odour and the dampness of the earth were very great and there was also a cold wind which blew out their torches. And after they had gone a short distance, fearing to be overpowered by the stench or to step on poisonous reptiles, of which some had been seen, they resolved to go out again and to completely wall up this back door of hell. The four buildings above ground were the only ones which still remained open, and they had a court and chambers like those underground; and the ruins of these have lasted even to the present day."

The Temple Hill at Jerusalem

The vast subterranean vaults under the temple hill at Jerusalem were probably used as a secret meeting place by the Templars during their occupation of the Holy City, and it was perhaps there that the strange Eastern rites of Baphomet that they later affected were first celebrated.

In his book Recent Discoveries on the Temple Hill (1884), Rev. James King gives the following account:

"On the occasion of a visit to the Noble Sanctuary, the author had an opportunity of examining the ancient masonry inside the wall at the south-east corner, as well as the vast subterranean vaults popularly known as Solomon's stables. A small doorway, under a little dome at the south-east corner, admits by a flight of steps to a small chamber known as the Mosque of the Cradle of our Lord, from the existence of a hollowed stone which somewhat resembles a cradle, and a tradition that the Virgin Mary remained in this chamber for some time after her purification in the Temple. Passing through the chamber, the spacious vaults, which extend over an acre of ground, are reached. These subterranean substructures consist of one hundred square piers arranged in fifteen rows, each pier being five feet wide and composed of large marginal drafted stones, placed singly over each other. The rows are connected by semi-circular arches, the intercolumniations of which range from ten to twenty-three feet. The floor of these vaults is about forty-feet below the Haram Area, and more than a hundred feet above the great foundation corner-stone. They are called Solomon's Stables by the Franks. But the Moslems call the place, Al Masjed al Kadim, that is, The Old Mosque. These vaults were used as stables by the Frank kings and the Knights Templar, and holes in which rings were fastened can still be traced on some of the piers.

"Since the floor of Solomon's Stables is upwards of a hundred feet above the foundation stone, it seems highly probable that there exists another system of vaults below, for the vast space from the rock upwards is not likely to be filled with solid earth.

"Some allusion seems to be made to these vaults in the writings of Procopius, a Greek historian of the sixth century. He was born at Caesarea, in Palestine, about 500 A.D., and as a young man went to Constantinople, where his eminent talents brought him under the notice of the Emperor Justinian. In 529 A.D. Justinian built a splendid church on the Temple Hill, in honour of the Virgin Mary, and in the writings of Procopius there is a full and detailed account of the edifice. The historian relates that the fourth part of the ground required for the building was wanting towards the south-east; the builders therefore laid their foundations on the sloping ground, and constructed a series of arched vaults, in order to raise the ground to the level of the other parts of the enclosure. This account is eminently descriptive of the subterranean vaults at the south-east portion of the Haram, and, according to [an authority], the stone-work of these vaults certainly belongs to the age of Justinian."

(See also Subterranean Cities )