Feature Articles – The Magic Mountain
A mountain near Rennes-le-Château is becoming a focal point for unwanted 2012 hype. But the true mysteries and enigmas of Bugarach are fare more interesting, with a real-life Indiana Jones character who dug for the Ark of the Covenant!
by Philip Coppens
On December 21, 2010, the English newspaper “The Daily Telegraph” drew attention to the tiny French village of Bugarach, population 200, and the saga of the end of the Mayan calendar which will occur on December 21, 2012. The mayor of Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord, announced that his tiny village was becoming a refuge for “esoterics” who believed that the village played an important role in the 2012 scenario, maybe as a place of salvation, or where the apocalypse might be played out, where alien beings might intervene or even rescue those present. He and the locals were unhappy with this development, which was upsetting the villagers’ tranquillity. As France has a sad past of cults committing mass suicide, Delord felt people should hear his warning that these “esoterics” might do something similar in the near future. Bugarach is indeed a tiny village, sitting in the shadow of the “Pic de Bugarach”, rising 1230 metres above sea-level and the highest mountain in the Corbières region – though dwarfed by the Pyrenees that rise to the south. The earliest recorded mention of the mountain was as Burgaragio in 889 AD, which is also known as Pech de Thauze. From a geological perspective, Bugarach is an oddity, an “upside down mountain”, as its tops layers are millions of years older than the lower strata. It is as if someone shot the mountain in the air, flipped it around, and then it landed again.
Today, the village that sits on its slopes is somewhat quaint – the French school system has statistics which reveal that the suicide rate amongst teachers in the village is the highest in France! – and on a rainy day, Bugarach does exude an energy that can be hard to take. However, when the sun is out, it is lovely and the castle that is almost collapsing and the multi-coloured church make it apparent that this village has existed for hundreds of years.
The mountain has always inspired the imagination of so many, including the French father of science fiction, Jules Verne. The mountain is made of limestone, which means it has several caves and galleries, which are rife with local legends and also provide the perfect backdrop to let one’s imagination veer off. And that is what has happened, on numerous occasions. If you leave the local folklore behind and go on the Internet, as “The Daily Telegraph” reported, it “abounds with tales of the late President François Mitterrand being curiously heliported onto the peak, of mysterious digs conducted by the Nazis and later Mossad, the Israeli secret services. There is talk of the area, near to the Cathar castles, holding the Holy Grail or the treasure of the Templars. A visit to Bugarach is said to have inspired Steven Spielberg in his film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The locals will indeed confirm that they believe strongly that Spielberg in his search for an enigmatic mountain to host the finale of his movie considered Bugarach as a film location, but in the end opted for Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. His choice might seem quite logical, knowing that many locals report many enigmatic UFO sightings around the mountain – though few of these have been properly investigated. The story of Bugarach and 2012 was picked up and expanded by “The New York Times” in their January 31, 2011 edition, making it a story that brought it to the attention of the world’s media. But despite Bugarach’s recent somewhat-fame, it will no doubt always play second fiddle to the nearby village of Rennes-le-Château, which went on to inspire so many, including the likes of Dan Brown, who wrote “The Da Vinci Code”. Indeed, the man who put Rennes-le-Château on the map, Noël Corbu, lived in Bugarach when he learned of the estate of the enigmatic priest Bérenger Saunière. He sold his home in Bugarach and moved his family to the nearby village, where he began to promote the mystery of the “billion dollar priest”.
For Franck Marie, an “esoteric” writer who has lived in the region for many years, Bugarach has a “natural cave system which without a doubt was occupied by our earliest ancestors, in the Magdalene Era”. He also proposes that there was a link between the mystery of Saunière and Bugarach, seeing it as a “spiritual treasure” that was linked with “primitive Mankind” – some type of esoteric knowledge that has been passed down over time. Marie believes that the site was placed under the protection of certain initiates that kept part of the cave system secret.
Bugarach has therefore definitely deserved the distinction of being a mystery location in its own right. It had been called “the sacred mountain” – though few know why – before Saunière ever set foot in Rennes-le-Château in 1885. It not only inspired Spielberg, but also Jules Verne, who created a character “Captain Bugarach” for his “Clovis Dardentor” (1896).
Michel Lamy is the author of a book on Jules Verne, in which he explores the possibility that one of the founding fathers of science fiction was aware of certain esoteric knowledge about the mountain that he worked into his novels. Specifically, that Verne wrote about Bugarach in relationship with the existence of an underground – lost – civilisation. But even Lamy is at a loss to explain why Verne would have become so enchanted with Bugarach – unless, of course, he was fully aware of the local legends, which he merely transcribed into his novels, or maybe he was even one of those initiates and protectors of the “sacred mountain”? But whereas there might be people who protect the enigma of Bugarach – for no-one really knows why it has been labelled a sacred mountain for centuries – there is the enigmatic story of a man who came to Bugarach to uncover its secrets, meeting his death while doing so.
Both on the internet and locally, wild variations of the story circulate. Here is the truth. Daniel Bettex was a Swiss citizen who was a security officer at Geneva airport. Bettex frequented the south of France on his holidays and was enchanted by its beauty. Eventually, he contacted the local Cathar organisation that had been founded by Déodat Roché, the mayor of nearby Arques, and which tried to research and promote Catharism, the religion destroyed by Church during the so-called Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century. In his correspondence with the organisation, he enquired about places where he could help them with research. He desired remote locations, so that he was left undisturbed. Roché thus advised him to study the sector of Bugarach, which had been little prospected by other members of his organisation, even though it was known that the Cathars were familiar with the village. To this end, Roché also recommended to Bettex that he contacted Lucienne Julien, the then secretary of the organisation, and use her as his liaison with the organisation. The latter thus maintained a close correspondence with Bettex, as he progressed in his Bugarach research.
Over the ensuing years, Bettex leafed through files while he was in Switzerland, and when he descended to the South of France during his summer vacations, he explored and dug. He also studied the old registers that existed, which had details of mining activities and which contained information on the underground network that existed in this limestone environment – and learned how much – or how little – had been explored.
Bettex also uncovered a work on the mythology of the mountain, written by a university student during the Second World War. The author had been called up for military service and his fate seems to have been unknown. The thesis referenced several legends and myths, with some of the legends going back as early as the 15th century. It was clear that Verne was not the first to invent a mythology about this mountain – that was many centuries older.
Of course, such a compendium is not an archaeological report. But the stories did show a superposition between various myths and locations around the mountain… locations that people, for generations, were linking with an entrance to a mythical underground world. Bettex wondered whether he could be the one who would locate the entrance and finally reveal its existence. Would he prove that Verne was not a science fiction writer, but had written a factual account – was there an entrance to the Centre of the Earth? Bettex was able to find one of the entrances listed in the account, but found it was blocked. He re-opened it, to find that it led to a peaceful underground river, which was deep, but possible to navigate. He also found that there was a type of quay or landing, in an L-shape, which suggested that this was not the result of a geological event, but was manmade – purposefully built. But by whom, when and for what? Those were questions he could not answer.
He had taken photographs of this and other voyages in the belly of the mountain, as he explored its known and less known and sometimes even forgotten caves. He showed them to Julien, who reported that there were several stone structures inside the underground cave system, proving they were once inhabited. But it proved little else.
Bettex had also entered the local derelict castle. He spent a great amount of time in the basement of the castle, work he carried out with the full knowledge and participation of the owner and the relevant authorities, even though in those days, there was far less paperwork to cope with. There, he found several stones with graffiti, some of which was clearly in the shape of a container and a stretcher, a scene suggestive of the Ark of the Covenant being carried on a stretcher. Could the graffiti mean that the mountain was the resting place of the Ark?
A rumour circulates all the quicker if it is known as a secret. Thus, one statement went that Bettex was searching for the Ark of the Covenant, that he had now located it, as evidenced by his photographs and the graffiti: it was under Bugarach! A related rumour ran that General Moshe Dayan, the head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, had become personally interested in Bettex’s research. With such notorious Israel officials now apparently interested in him, Bettex’s local profile went up with several points… and the rumour of the Ark of the Covenant underneath Bugarach became more and better known. One rumour had it that Moshe Dayan contacted Bettex personally, warning him, advising him, to stop everything if he discovered the artefact and especially not to touch anything. Bettex must surely have been familiar with his Bible, which clearly spells out the dangers of touching the Ark. Daniel Bettex took a long time to decide where precisely he would carry out his major excavation. Once he had done so, he made sure that he could work in all solitude, undisturbed by tourists or locals who became more and more interested in him. But throughout, he kept Lucienne Julien informed of his progress; she meticulously retained all correspondence.
This private correspondence makes it clear that he was looking for an old cavity, whose entrance had become lost and which was located in the side of the mountain. After his death, rumours had it that his investigations had involved a filled-in mine, whereas others spoke of a low cave. In truth, no-one knows for sure – or where precisely it is located. Some even believe there was a secondary access to this system from inside the basement of the castle! He did indicate to Julien that he thought that there was a connection between the inexplicable graffiti, the remains of a hearth inside the castle and the entrance of a mining installation whose collapse had been intentional – but the mine seemed to have been outside of the village. In 1988, everything accelerated. He told Julien that it would take him a few more months of work, but that his research had also made it clear that it would lead to a fabulous deposit, exceeding anything that she or anyone could imagine… it would be an amazing revelation. Bettex was normally calm and methodical, true to the Swiss stereotype, but now he was excited if not manic. He next visited Julien, to tell her that he was almost at the end of his research. At most, four or five days separated him from reaching his final goal. He told her that within the week he would be back, carrying with him part of the treasure. “You will be immensely rich!” But instead, three days later, Julien learned that Bettex had been found dead in Bugarach.
There were – as could be expected – various versions of his death and its cause. For some, a cave had collapsed, causing severe injuries and ultimately his death. Others believed that he had left Switzerland with serious cardiovascular problems, which resulted in his death once he laboured in the South of France. Other rumours had it that he was stricken on the spot – instantaneous death by whatever. Some even said that his body had inexplicably dehydrated, either as the cause of death, or afterwards. Others argue he was able to walk to one of the gardens of the first houses of Bugarach, where he collapsed, apparently the victim of a violent heart attack. So many things have been and are being said about the death of Bettex, but we only truly know that he died, in mysterious circumstances, according to his own testimony very close to finding his lifetime’s ambition. If he did find something, he took the secret with him. Bettex’s death definitely triggered a reaction from the authorities. Lucienne Julien planned, several months after Bettex’s death, to continue his work on site, using members of her Cathar research organisation. She informed the Ministry of Culture of her intentions, as Bettex before had informed them of his. She had to resend her application several times, before she received a reply, which stated that it was out of the question that such research was to be carried out. She would afterwards learn that rubble and concrete had been cast inside the basement of the castle, in order to block any possible cavity forever. Another location in the village was subjected to a similar fate. But as the cement settled, the question rose whether Bettex only found death, or something else in Bugarach. Could an accidental death have such repercussions that the authorities decided to concrete the place over? France has never been the Mecca of health and safety regulations, and the circumstances of Bettex’s death were nebulous enough not to imply that the precarious state of the castle had caused his death.
More than two decades on, little about Bettex’s death and his quest is known. He has become one in a long line of seekers who went in search of, but did not find the answer as to whether there is a real reason why Bugarach is called the “sacred mountain”. What we do know, is that as 2012 approaches, another layer of mystery is piled on top of this Magic Mountain. Maybe this renewed attention, will finally bring about sufficient interest and insight into its past…