At night, once the pyramids are closed and the ordinary tourists have left, come the organised tours of New Agers, seeking ancient secrets and enlightenment at pounds 18,000 a head. Lesley Downer investigates the mille nnium fever gripping Cairo
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Have you been to Egypt before?" I ask Darla Deck as we stroll towards the poolside bar of one of Cairo's most luxurious hotels, where she is staying. "No," she replies, then looks straight at me. "Not in this lifetime," she adds, with a guileless smile.

Darla Deck seems so normal. She is a large, bouncy American, in shorts and a T-shirt, who pauses every now and then to check her pink lipstick. The only thing that distinguishes her from any other tourist is the size of her smile. Her four women friends, all from Wichita, Kansas, also have beatific smiles. As they eagerly explain, they are not in Egypt to sight-see. Far from it. It would not be overstating the case to say that they are out to save the world.

They have been travelling at top speed through Egypt which, she explains, is "like a person". The Nile is the "spine", the "feet" are in Upper Egypt at Abu Simbel, and the seven chakras, or spiritual energy nodes, are at different historical sites from Aswan and Luxor to Thebes and Memphis. At each site, they meditate; in their words, they "do some Om". They have now reached the apotheosis of their journey at the Great Pyramid, the "head".

"I'm not from here, as you know," Deck tells me between sips of Diet Coke, as casually as if we were having a conversation about where she buys hand cream. "I'm a love energy from another dimension. I'm here to set aright the keys and the doorways so that earth can ascend." She gets out her bag and touches up her lipstick. "We take energy up to the King's Chamber because that's actually an ascension palace - that's where beings from Venus would come through into this planet. They had to acclimate, so they used that room to, like, decompress." It's beam me up, Scottie, Venusian-style.

As the Millennium approaches, a locust plague of New Agers like Deck are descending on Egypt from all over the Western world in a last-minute rush to get in on the secret of life, the universe and everything. There are a lot of Californians and other Americans, as one would expect, but also growing numbers of French, Germans, Swiss, South Africans, Japanese and British. The first British tour, organised by Quest Magazine, arrives in Cairo in November, seeking peace, enlightenment or higher knowledge.

Ever since Herodotus put stylo to papyrus in the 5th century BC, the mysterious monuments on the edge of the Cairo desert have proved fruitful ground for any number of extraordinary theories and beliefs. The New Age shelves of bookshops groan with tomes which purport to reveal the true message of the pyramids and the sphinx. The ancient symbol of the freemasons is an eye above a pyramid, as shown on the American $1 bill; and there is a whole school of thought to do with the power of the shape itself. Many people, not least our own Duchess of York, believe in the benefits of sitting or meditating in pyramids.

At night, once the pyramids are closed and the tourists, camel drivers and purveyors of knick-knacks have left, the New Agers arrive by the busload. Their Holy Grail is the King's Chamber, inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Until recently, no one was allowed in outside of normal hours. But, finally, the Egyptian director of the pyramids, Dr Zahi Hawass, agreed to let them enter for a fee. Sometimes there are three or four groups waiting to scrabble up the steep, claustrophobic passageway to the tomb-like King's Chamber (which, it has to be said, has all the appeal of a pharaonic bus shelter).

Rawya Ismail, of the Egypt Exploration Society, worked as a guide for several years and often found herself in charge of New Agers. "They don't come for history or archaeology," she says. "They don't need a guide but a tour manager." Often they bring with them a tiny pyramid made of stone or crystal. Once inside the chamber, they put the little pyramid in the centre of the floor, light incense and oil lamps, then gather round in a circle, humming, chanting mantras and praying.

"They want to get the power of the pyramid into this stone," says Ismail. Then they hold hands and start to dance around it. "They wanted me to join in!"

Some New Agers lie in the sarcophagus, the stone tomb to one side of the King's Chamber. Their purpose, according to Power Places Tours from California, is to "connect to the spiritual experiences once available only to Egypt's highest initiates". Others stand in front of a wall, a statue or an inscription with their eyes closed and their arms folded for hours. It's also rumoured that, out at Abusir, a more remote area, people pay to spend the whole night inside the more isolated pyramids and walk the desert naked in the morning; though the locals would take as dim a view of that as locals would seeing foreigners prance naked around Stonehenge.

As a modest Egyptian woman, what Ismail finds most amusing is that these Westerners wear long white gallabeyas, the Egyptian national dress, with nothing on underneath. "They take all their clothes off," she says in tones of utter disbelief. "They wear gallabeyas above nothing!" She has a simple explanation for their outlandish ways: "They don't have anything to keep them busy."

Like the cultists who hoped to hitch a lift with Comet Hale-Bopp, New Agers are not poor. They tend to be well-educated professionals, prepared to pay for whatever they want. At least one tour operator is said to charge $30,000 (pounds 18,750) a head for a three-week tour taking in the sacred sites from Luxor, Kamak and Aswan to the pyramids at Giza. The tour operators justify their prices by claiming that it costs a great deal to persuade the authorities to open the pyramids for the night. In fact, the fees are public knowledge: 2,000 Egyptian pounds (pounds 365) for up to 15 members, then pounds E50 (pounds 9) per person thereafter, for two hours per group. Compared to the huge sums which the tourists pay, this is a pittance, though in Egyptian terms it is enough to pay a young archaeologist a good salary or to do a great deal towards preserving a crumbling monument.

One of the leading tour companies is Mystical Journeys, run by Mohammed Nazmy, a suave Egyptian with an American accent and a mobile phone whom Darla Deck describes, with a joyous laugh, as "a beautiful man - beautiful body, beautiful soul". He has several batches of New Age tourists shuttling up and down the Nile, and it is he who will organise the British trip in November. Darla Deck and her companions paid, they say, about $4,500 (pounds 2,800) a head for their trip.

"I welcome them all here," booms Dr Zahi Hawass, Director of the Pyramids. "The Cayce Foundation, the Rosicrucians, the Red Shriners, the New Age, the Eleven Eleveners, the Twelve Twelvers... I make a joke. I say that the Great Pyramid of Khufu is the best psychiatrist in the world, because everyone who has a problem, they enter inside, they meditate."

Bronzed, hawk-nosed and overflowing with energy, the charismatic Hawass has the air of King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Officially, his job is to conduct archaeological research and work on the preservation of the monuments at Giza. In practice, he has had to become an expert on the New Agers in all their weird diversity.

"You haff to make a difference," he says. "The New Agers are wonderful people. They have a belief inside. They're peaceful. They don't harm anyone. And there is lots. For the last three years, there is lots of them. They became thousands of thousands, even millions now. They are believer [sic]. What annoys me are the crazy ideas of certain individuals. I call them the Pyramidiots."

Archaeologists date both the Sphinx and the pyramids to about 2500BC. The pyramid builders - who were not slaves, as Herodotus thought, but well-paid workmen - had bakeries, breweries producing barley beer, pottery, boats, villages with sewage systems, and tombs which looked a lot like miniature pyramids. A whole civilisation grew up around the monumental constructions - not so much a case of how the Egyptians built the pyramids but, as Dr Hawass puts it, "how the pyramids built Egypt". There is no evidence whatsoever, he adds, for any advanced civilisation existing in Egypt prior to 3200BC.

But a little thing like lack of evidence is not going to get in the way of the New Age theorists. The main tenet of most New Agers is that the pyramids and Sphinx are much older, dating from at least as early as 10,500BC, and that they were built not by the Egyptians, who were merely caretakers, but by a lost civilisation, an ancient super-race long since disappeared. This was most probably the Atlanteans, who, according to ancient Greek writings, displeased Zeus and disappeared beneath the waves; though it might have been creatures from outer space.

The high priests of the doctrine argue their case in mind-numbing detail. Chief among them are authors Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, whose latest volume, Keeper of Genesis, not only lays out the New Age case but also devotes several chapters to rubbishing Dr Hawass and his Egyptologist colleague, the American archaeologist Mark Lehner. They cite an American geologist who deduced by observing the weathering patterns on the Sphinx that it must have been carved before the Sahara dried up, between 5000 and 6000BC. John Anthony West, a mystical author who leads New Age tours of the sacred Egyptian sites, has pointed out, quite accurately, that there is no physical evidence whatsoever of any civilisation at that time. But, he concluded, that proves that the Sphinx and the pyramids must be even older - the relics of a lost civilisation hidden so deep beneath the sands that it has yet to be found.

A British archaeologist, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: "It's like telling an astronomer that someone painted sand in Day-glo colours and threw it up to stick to a board in the sky to make stars! It's far easier to get on that bandwagon than to spend 20 years in Egypt learning what the pyramids are really about."

This master race had some mighty purpose, probably astronomical, in building these stupendous creations, goes the argument. Hancock and Bauval go into mind-boggling detail on the geometry and alignments of the pyramids, which, they say, exactly mirror the belt of the constellation Orion as it was in the year 10,500BC. And, to our great good fortune, we may yet have the chance to find out if they are right. For, we are told, the ancients recorded their higher wisdom and the "true history of mankind" and stored it in the Hall of Records, a chamber located under the paws of the Sphinx, before being swallowed up by the waves.

Edgar Cayce, the so-called Sleeping Prophet, an American visionary who died in 1945, took the story quite a bit farther. He was, he said, the reincarnation of the Atlantean high priest, Ra Ta. The Hall of Records, he predicted, would be discovered. Not only that, he gave a specific date: the year 1998. It will be entered by "three who would make of the perfect way of life" [sic], though its contents will not be revealed to the general public for many years. And its discovery will precipitate the Second Coming of Christ, when the pyramids will turn upside down onto their points - certainly a sight worth seeing.

Cayce has caused Dr Hawass major headaches. New Agers, eager to be among the Chosen Three, are frantically bombarding the Egyptian authorities with applications to be allowed to drill beneath the paws of the Sphinx in search of the Hall of Records. They are also interested in a tiny "door" which is said to lead to a hidden chamber deep within the Great Pyramid.

"If you are an amateur, you cannot work in the pyramids," explodes Dr Hawass. "According to our law, only scholars should work around the Sphinx and the pyramids."

There are, he readily agrees, natural cracks and fissures in the Giza plateau, including some beneath the Sphinx, but these are not rooms. Permission has already been given in the past to drill and nothing was found. "We can't let people make holes here and there. We have to protect the Sphinx."

Such obduracy has made Dr Hawass a hate figure to Hancock, Bauval and their followers, who regularly attack them on the Internet, the main battleground in the dispute. The Egyptian authorities, they say, are operating a massive cover-up to prevent the world discovering the truth about Egypt's ancient secrets.

"I'm not hiding anything about a lost civilisation," groans the exasperated Hawass. "If they need a victim to sell their books, they can make us the victim. I'm not against human rights, but when it comes to protecting the monuments, I have to."

Back at the pool, Darla Deck and her colleagues have spent the early hours of the morning in the Great Pyramid, where they "wore garments like Egyptian garments". They have already found the Hall of Records, Deck tells me matter-of-factly as we sit at the poolside bar, where the skyline is dominated by the pyramids. "We know where it's at exactly. We've seen the doorways. We've been at the doorways and the little man has come out to greet us with the keys."

I am curious to know whether all their meditation will have any effect. "Yes, ma'am!" She and her colleagues laugh merrily. "That's why you're here. You're here to write it!"

I wonder, uneasily, if her claim to read minds are true. Can she see my deep scepticism?

"It'll start now, and it will finish about February or March '98," she goes on briskly. "I assumed originally that the head of the Sphinx would fall off like today or tomorrow, but I think not until Cairo is swallowed, in about a year. All of Cairo will be swallowed into the sands. Then, when the head of the Sphinx falls, it'll be because of the erupting buildings that are underneath and shaking round. Because my interpretation, from being underground and seeing some of this, is that the Sphinx sits as an ornament on the top of a very large building."

It seems a rather rough way to save the world, I say.

"The earth has to ascend," she says breezily. "Period. Earth has to wake up. We have to realise that we're all part of one energy and that only through love are you going to be able to stop the wars and destruction.

"Everywhere we went, from the beginning of the trip, men were gifting us flowers," she adds. "They didn't know why. Men have been attracted and been following. Well, hey! It's the light!"

I feel duty bound to warn Dr Hawass of the imminent demise not only of Cairo but of the Sphinx's head. "You will have to give me sanctuary in London," he booms down the phone with a huge laugh, "because in that case I shall be out of a job!"