This Europe: Von Däniken brings pyramids to the Alps

Long before the X Files craze, when man was still preparing his first trip to the Moon, a Swiss hotel manager came up with a theory that earthly civilisation began with visits from aliens thousands of years ago.

Ridicule from scientists notwithstanding, Erich von Däniken sold 60 million books in 32 languages and made Chariots of the Gods part of the ufologist's lexicon.

Thirty-five years on, the fascination endures. There are plans for a 22-part TV series called Chariots of the Gods – The Mysteries Continue. And von Däniken's ancient astronauts are about to make a permanent landing at a disused airfield near Interlaken, when a theme park opens tomorrow devoted to ancient wonders such as the pyramids of Egypt and future possibilities such as the conquest of Mars.

Von Däniken, a 68-year-old grandfather who lives in the Alpine village of Beatenberg, said he first got the idea for his Mystery Park 20 years ago. He says he wants visitors to experience at first hand the sense of "wonder and astonishment" that inspired him to write Chariots of the Gods in 1966 while he was managing a luxury hotel.

"I claim that our forefathers received visits from the universe in the remote past ... that these 'strangers' annihilated part of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first, Homo sapiens," he wrote in the foreword to the book. Von Däniken backed up his ideas with detailed scientific "facts" and archaeological theories based on his study of pyramids and ancient ruins and lost cities.

The book was published in 1968 and caused a sensation. His theories on the origin of modern man brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and his argument in general was derided by scientists.

But readers loved them. Book followed book, allowing him to proclaim himself the bestselling non-fiction writer of all time.

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