That was a church in Rome at midnight as the year 1000 came to a close. The description is from Richard Erdoes's book, AD 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse. The Christian world expected that with the end of the millennium would come the end of the world; the Pope stood motionless, arms upraised, before a congregation dressed in sackcloth and ashes, to greet the Day of Judgement.
To each age its own beliefs. Ours cannot wait until the third millennium truly arrives to begin its observance, and the fascination with the round number 2000 has infected even the prophets of doom, most of whom are predicting apocalypse at midnight on 31 December 1999 rather than a year later. But they are in a minority - the modern millenarian, if a survey of plans for the end of the century is any guide, will be seeing in the new era in an orgy of secular commercialism.
Proposals to celebrate the millennium around the world are characterised by those late 20th century obsessions: a suspicion of public funding and the urge to privatise wherever possible. While plenty of people and organisations aim to cash in - in the US sharp entrepreneurs have already registered the name "Millennium Celebrations" as well as "Billennium", with the latter also obtaining a trademark to call his project "The Official Celebration of the Year 2000" - there is a dearth of the kind of ambitious national projects considered appropriate a century ago.
Most surprisingly, Britain appears to be going further and faster in its planning than other nations. Although Sydney, for example, will be spending billions of dollars on the Olympic Games, it would be doing so whatever the year. Despite the squabbling over a giant ferris wheel on the Thames or the millennium dome at North Greenwich in London, they are among the most grandiose new structures mooted anywhere, at least so far. The notion of allocating large sums from the national lottery or any other part of the public purse has occurred to few other countries - again so far.
France, where nationally-fundedgrands projets seem to go unquestioned, has barely begun to think about the millennium. The only major event announced to date is the reopening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Outside a digital clock is counting down the seconds to 31 December 1999, when celebrations into the night will greet a three-year refurbishment.
It was only last month that the government announced the formation of a committee to oversee national millennium celebrations - Mission 2000 - chaired by the director of the Pompidou Centre, Jean-Jacques Aillagon. It is due to publish its thoughts on 4 April, 1,000 days before the Great Day, and until then, French intentions will remain sketchy. Mr Aillagon says that he wants celebrations to be "inclusive" to distinguish them from the exclusive nature of the Western civilisation theme of 1900, and hopes for "the biggest festival of culture ever".
In Germany, by contrast, the emphasis will be economic and political: the country plans to stage the World Expo in Hanover in the year 2000, but the brightest millennial fireworks will be illuminating the skies elsewhere. On 31 December 1999, the Chancellor is set to take charge of his or her new residence, a sprawling complex that will rise in Berlin's former no-man's-land.
On that day, the nominal capital will become real, fulfiling a 1,000- year-old dream on the eve of the new millennium. The eastward shift of the government of Europe's most powerful country will have important implications for the rest of the continent; from the new Chancellery, Paris and London will seem much further away, while with the Polish border only 60 miles off, Warsaw as well as Prague will be just down the road. Assuming that currency union goes ahead in 1999, Berlin will be the capital of Europe, a Europe which looks towards its most dynamic region, the east.
Rome, meanwhile, will claim to be the spiritual centre of the celebrations. The millennium will not only be a historical milestone, but also a designated Holy Year - an invitation to pilgrims across the globe to reinvigorate their faith with a visit to the Eternal City. Some 40 million of them are anticipated, with the economic benefits not absent from Italians' minds.
Italy is one of the few countries to announce a large package of public spending - 3.5 trillion lire (around pounds 1.5bn) for an impressive programme of public works that will supposedly include road-building, an extension of the city's underground railway system and the construction of new hotels and car parks. Private investors have been invited to participate in the renovation of countless buildings; the Catholic Church has launched an appeal for money to erect as many as 50 new churches in Rome, which already boasts more than 900.
As ever in Rome, however, the fear is that the grandiose schemes have been launched far too late, and all the public money will merely be squandered on half-baked schemes that will profit nobody except for the companies commissioned to build them. Memories of the 1990 World Cup, when Rome ended up with two unusable new stations, are still fresh in people's minds. Work has been delayed because of fears that it will destroy valuable archeological remains.
No such high-mindedness prevails in America, where official planning has been submerged by the army of merchandisers and private entrepreneurs preparing for a killing. But in Times Square, the traditional focus of American New Year celebrations, organisers propose giant television screens conveying millennium celebrations from each of the world's 24 time zones. Some more outlandish ideas were turned down, including one to have a spaceship land in the square at precisely midnight. Also rejected was a proposal to turn off the lights and ring in the millennium by having Barry Manilow sing "It's just another New Year's Eve."
The night will see bonfires lit in Iceland, giant beach parties in Rio and Colombo, and a fleet of Concordes and ocean liners converging on the international date line as the wealthy compete to be the first to see in the new millennium. Travel companies say that among the favourite destinations are the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu in the Andes, Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater and, of course, Nazareth.
But mention of Christ's birthplace highlights the fact that, for the non-Christian world, 2000 is just a Western number. The Chinese calendar predates Christianity, and there has been no public discussion yet about commemorating the millennium, even though the year is used as a deadline for several public campaigns, such as the one to wipe out iodine deficiency diseases. China is preoccupied in any case with the handover of Hong Kong on 30 June this year, while India, the world's second most populous country and Pakistan will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of their independence in August.
It is left to the idealistic private citizen - usually in the US - to come up with ways of marking the occasion that would awe the people of the year 1000. Take World Action for the Millennium, whose goal, disseminated on the Internet, is that "on 1 January of the year 2000 all inhabitants of the planet who can be reached by communications systems will be linked to receive and share for one minute a message - expressed in music - that can be universally understood as a way to empower the individual and express his or her belonging to the global community".
Something of the same feeling came to the congregation in Rome 1,000 years ago, according to Erdoes. "When the moment passed and the earth did not open to swallow church and worshippers, and when no fire fell from heaven, all stirred as if awakening from a bad dream. Then amid much weeping and laughing, husband and wife, servant and master embraced. Even unreconciled enemies hailed each other as friends and exchanged the kiss of peace, and the bells of every church on the Seven Hills of Rome began to ring as with a single voice. The bitter cup had passed, the ancient chroniclers relate, and the world was reborn."
Additional reporting by Mary Dejevsky in Paris, Imre Karacs in Bonn, Andrew Gumbel in Rome, John Carlin in Washington, Teresa Poole in Peking and Robert Milliken in Sydney.