CAIRO — For years, unconventional theorists have argued over who built Egypt's great Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Martians from outer space or giants from the Arabian peninsula are just two ideas. The controversy has heated up in Egypt recently, but this time the battlefield is in cyberspace - with a group claiming the builders were from the lost civilization of Atlantis.
Their Web pages claim that the Sphinx is 8,000 years older than originally thought and, therefore, built by people other than the ancient Egyptians. They also accuse the director of the Sphinx and pyramids, Zahi Hawass, of preventing them from investigating a door under the Great Giza pyramid that leads to the Sphinx's paws. These New Agers believe the Atlanteans left documents in the Sphinx that, when discovered, will lead to Armageddon. The expected discovery date, they say, is 1998.
Their Web pages also explain why they say the Egyptian government doesn't want their theory exposed. "If the Sphinx was created by an antediluvian civilization, predating ancient Egypt by thousands of years, then this upsets the entire world view of Egyptian society." They go on to claim that this could lead to an uprising by Islamic fundamentalists, which would topple the government.
The claims have outraged Egyptian officials, who call them an "organized campaign" to discredit Egyptian history and civilization. Mr. Hawass, for one, calls the New Agers "pyramidiots," saying they have no facts to support their claims.
"Not a single object or piece of an object has been found at Giza that can be interpreted to come from a lost civilization," Hawass says. "Instead, we find an abundance of tombs, bodies, ancient boats, hieroglyphic inscriptions, pottery, bakeries, and so on from the Egyptian culture of its Fourth Dynasty, about 2500 BC."
These New Agers base their theories on the ideas of Edgar Cayce, a visionary who claimed that while he was in a trance in 1935, he learned that people from Atlantis put documents on their history and the meaning of life in the Hall of Records, in the Sphinx's paws. He prophesied that this hall would be opened in 1998, unleashing horrific geological forces that would turn earth upside down.
While the Egyptian government allows New Age tour groups to meditate in the pyramids (at up to $600 an hour), they don't want them digging or probing. In 1991, Hawass forbade one Cayce follower, American tour guide John Anthony West, from visiting the site after he investigated the area with radar.
The real concern among Egyptian antiquities officials and archaeologists is that the group will do serious damage while searching. "If it makes them happy to believe [their theory], then fine, as long as there is no damage to the monuments," says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist. "But there is this tendency to tromp around the monuments in an irresponsible manner, which is a problem.... The monuments have stood for 5,000 years. We want them to stand for another 5,000."