Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
Shari Billger, left, leads a tour group in a meditation session at a sacred site at Giza, Egypt.
Touring the Spirit World
By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
NO sound was heard in the burial chamber of the Great Pyramid as a tall, slender woman lay down in the pharaoh’s pitted granite sarcophagus, her flowing silver hair spreading beneath her. Her dozen or so companions in the dank room lifted their arms, palms upward, eyes closed in meditation.
As was prescribed in the training of priests in pharaonic Egypt, the woman had said, each member of the group had taken a turn in the sarcophagus; now she, their spiritual leader, occupied the space. Suddenly, her lips quivered, and a guttural moan escaped them, bouncing off the smooth stone walls and ceiling like an angry pinball. She climbed out of the sarcophagus, her face creased with determination, and formed the group into a circle, sitting cross-legged. In a deep voice, she read from the Emerald Tablets of Thoth, which she believes were translated from the ancient tongue of Atlantis.
The leader’s name is Shari Billger, and her home is near Colorado Springs. But on this January day, she was leading a group of Americans and Japanese who had come to the pyramids to connect with the unique spiritual energy that many Western visitors to Egypt believe they will find there.
Earlier, Ms. Billger had explained the group’s mission this way: When the advanced civilization of Atlantis fell more than 30,000 years ago, the accumulated knowledge of the ancients — sort of a spiritual Library of Congress — was placed on the site of the Great Pyramid. These modern travelers were there to make that wisdom accessible to all mankind. But to harness the energies required for this task, their spirits would temporarily have to leave their bodies.
Ms. Billger had everyone lie down. “When ye have released the self from the body, rise to the outermost bounds of your earth-plane,” she intoned, “and speak ye the word Dor-E-Lil-La.”
“Dor-E-Lil-La,” the bodies replied.
This was not a cult; the participants had met only two days before. They were in Egypt on a package tour.
New Age-style sacred travel, or metaphysical touring, is a growing branch of tourism, particularly in countries like Egypt with strong ancient-civilization pedigrees. Tourists with an adventuresome spiritual focus — predominantly middle-aged, upper middle class and female — come together to improve themselves and the world, as Ms. Billger’s group intended. Their ideas are best understood as an extreme on the continuum that includes yoga, tarot and astrology, and the rituals they perform at sites deemed sacred can vary widely.
“Other groups will be in there with bells and candles, jumping up and down like somebody’s going through their bodies,” Wael Khattab, this group’s Egyptian guide, commented as he observed their ritual from close by. “This is actually quite tame.”
More than a mere sales gimmick, spirituality tours are taken very seriously by their participants, who are commonly pantheistic, choosing to believe in truths of every religion rather than just one. They also invoke the whole panoply of New Age beliefs, finding power in crystals, aromatherapy and, of course, pyramids. They are home inspectors, copywriters and managers, but also mediums, psychics and shamans. Ms. Billger, who is 62, worked in sales for companies like Xerox and Honeywell before becoming a spiritual teacher and healer.
In Egypt, metaphysical tours are a thriving business, bringing in about 5,000 visitors a year, according to Mohammed Fayed, whose company, Guardian Travel, organized Ms. Billger’s tour. The price, usually a few thousand dollars per person, includes the expense of securing private time at the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx — sometimes thousands of dollars a group for an hour. Mr. Fayed’s business grew 45 percent from 2005 to 2006, and he expects another double-digit increase this year.
Even as Ms. Billger’s group had climbed the stairs to enter the Great Pyramid for their ceremony, the most important of their tour, they had passed two women not of their group standing at the base, eyes closed in meditation.
Other popular destinations also tend to be places of mystery. Sites built by ancient civilizations whose construction techniques are not settled fact — like Stonehenge and the perfectly fitting but mortarless walls of the Inca at Machu Picchu, as well as the pyramids — are embraced as evidence that those civilizations had mystical powers. Places with a Christian focus but an overlay of competing spiritual and religious claims — like the sites of the so-called Black Madonnas of France and Italy or the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, which took on mystical meaning in “The Da Vinci Code” — are also attractive to spiritual tourists.
“They know that whoever built them, built them on places that were already places of power on the earth — the acupuncture points on the earth’s body that hold powerful energies,” said Andrea Mikana-Pinkham, who lives in Sedona, Ariz., a place known for its own energy hot spots, and has led over 50 metaphysical tours since 1993. Body Mind Spirit Journeys, a company that she runs with her husband, Mark Amaru Pinkham, organizes about 25 tours a year to sites around the world. The couple are also the North American grand prior and prioress of the International Order of Gnostic Templars, a group that claims connection to the medieval Knights Templar.
Ms. Mikana-Pinkham, who is also friendly with many of the smaller tour operators — who like Ms. Billger run only a few trips a year — traces the birth of sacred travel as a business to the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, a widely publicized New Age event that supposedly corresponded with a great shift in the earth’s energy from warlike to peaceful. Many in the metaphysical community traveled to sacred sites around the world then for prayer, meditation and ceremonies.
Ms. Mikana-Pinkham herself attended only a meditation session near her home, but it led to “one of the peak spiritual experiences of my life,” she said. The theories behind the Harmonic Convergence state that in 2012 the world will make another great shift, and sacred travel has taken hold in the 25-year period between the two dates — a kind of global awakening, in her view.
To an outsider, spiritual tourists look like any others. They carry cameras, wear comfortable clothes and athletic shoes, travel in private buses and purchase souvenirs. Over time, though, the distinctions manifest themselves.
On Ms. Billger’s tour, Sandra Zimmer, 43, remarked how much she had enjoyed herself the last time she was in Egypt. But Ms. Zimmer had never been to Egypt before, at least not in her current body; she was referring to a memory from a past life.
As the group moved through its tour, the mundane often became magical. During the ritual in the Great Pyramid, a draft was occasionally felt, and the voices of the participants echoed and rebounded in every direction. Ms. Billger took a number of photos to commemorate the experience. Later, the group interpreted the breezes to be the presence of spirits, the multiple echoes the product of disembodied voices. And Ms. Billger’s pictures were full of bright circles of light, possibly lens flares or the refraction of her flash off the dust in the air, but she proudly displayed them to everyone as proof that “orb beings” had been present for their ceremony, inspiring and guiding them.
Some of the beliefs of spirituality tourists will strike nonbelievers as pseudo-science, like Ms. Billger’s claim that the cinnamon leaf oil sniffed by her group before entering the pyramid would make viruses and bacteria “completely unable to live in your bodies.” Others will sound more like mythology or the stuff of fantasy novels.
MR. KHATTAB, the guide, was apparently not exaggerating when he called Ms. Billger’s tour tame. He recalled a Dutch group — touring in the early ’90s, he said — whose members each incarnated as a different Egyptian deity each day. This extended to sleeping arrangements, so if one tourist was possessed by the god Osiris, and another by the goddess Isis, Osiris’s wife, those two tourists would spend the night together. The only problems Mr. Khattab had with this were logistical. “You had bills signed with ‘Seth’ and ‘Osiris’ and ‘Horus,’ ” he said. “You had to sort out which person was who on which day. It was a hassle.”
Still, Mr. Fayed, the Egyptian organizer of the tour, invites those who might be judgmental to take a longer view. “Look at the world nowadays, look at the number of wars in the world, look at the number of people who are being killed every single day,” he said. His tourists, he noted, are different: “They are trying to spread peace and love throughout the world.”
Because their beliefs and practices differ so from those of the average tourist, tour organizers are careful to keep the metaphysical tourists, who call themselves “awake,” separate from the regular tourists, whom they refer to as “asleep.” Ms. Billger requires prospective clients to fill out an application in which they agree to support “the group energy for the greatest good of all.”
Samone Myers, an event coordinator for Luminati Egyptian Travel, another sacred travel operator that runs tours to Egypt, knows firsthand the friction that arises when the two categories of tourist mix.
On a trip to Hawaii to swim with dolphins, which are a powerful draw for metaphysical tourists, the captain combined the “awake” tour group with an “asleep” group, she said. Each time they got in the water, the two groups would segregate themselves, choosing to swim on opposite sides of the boat. The dolphins, which she described as “in tune,” swam only near her group, Ms. Myers said. The other group was angry, but she and her friends found it amusing. “It was a great demonstration of how out of touch unconscious people are with themselves, others, animals,” she said.
Ms. Billger, who also organizes swimming-with-dolphins excursions in addition to Egypt trips, has been leading spirituality tours for eight years and spiritual workshops for 12. Living near Colorado Springs, she is based in a center of New Age culture. She wears clothing she knits herself, like her amazing technicolor sweater coat. She owns a llama named Hopi, whose wool she shears, spins and dyes for her knitting. When she first meets people she hugs them; she does not flinch when flies land on her; and staring in her eyes too long is apt to make her cry “from sheer beauty.”
She left her business career after having a conversation at a party 12 years ago with a man involved in spiritual practices. She hadn’t wanted to attend that party, she said; her guides, other-dimensional beings without physical bodies, had had to prod her. (A specific person’s guides depend on what dimension they belong to, Ms. Billger said, and hers are from the 17th dimension. “They call themselves the Choir, and they swirl in circles of color,” she said. “They can do amazing things.”)
But she does not regret the time she spent in the corporate world. “I’m not airy-fairy,” she said. “In the business world, I can talk that lingo, too. I feel that I have a really good balance of left brain and right brain.”
Traveling with her group in Egypt, I concluded that spirituality tourists feel more in control of the normal hassles of traveling than other tourists. When hawkers at the pyramids bothered Claudia Plattner, 60, a bank operations supervisor and psychic channel with spiky blonde hair and large glasses, she gave them mixed-berry granola bars, which confused them enough so that they left her alone. When I complained of back pain, Ms. Billger, who also practices spiritual healing, meditated over the injury to realign my energy (alas, no luck).
Even with Cairo’s throw-up-your-hands traffic jams the day before the pyramids ritual, they took a proactive approach.
Their bus was halted for 20 minutes, mere blocks from the hotel where they were headed, next to a wrought-iron gate overhung with blood-red bougainvillea. All around, the idling vehicles choked the air with exhaust, and a fusillade of frustrated beeps and honks pelted the bus from every direction. But inside, in comfortable seats and behind shaded windows, the group was blissfully unaware, discussing the day to come.
They finally noticed their predicament. At Ms. Billger’s suggestion, they began to direct their energy to clear a path in the traffic — some meditating with eyes closed, others staring intently ahead. After three or four minutes of quiet focus, the traffic began to move. Ms. Billger looked up triumphantly. “Let’s just give it a little extra oomph here,” she called out, eyeing their approaching hotel. She giggled, a high-pitched tinkle that belied her years. “You guys are good!”
In the pyramid the next day, after returning to their bodies and completing the ritual in the burial chamber, they had gone down to the lower chambers to anchor the released energy, so that their work would not be wasted. The trip down was arduous: they first had to walk with bent backs through a crawl space, then carefully made their way down a set of steel stairs through a tall chamber with a peaked roof like converging staircases. Then came the hard part: backs and knees bent, hands on smooth wooden banisters, they stepped backward 200 feet down a steeply inclined passageway no more than four feet high and wide, stopping frequently to catch their breath.
When they reached the bottom, they met with a pleasant surprise: they would be allowed into the unfinished burial chamber, the lowest accessible point in the pyramid, which the pharaoh had abandoned in favor of the upper chamber. This was significant. In the ceremonies Ms. Billger had performed on two earlier trips to the Great Pyramid, she had never gotten so far down, and the closer they could bring the energy to the spiritual treasures below, the more accessible the wisdom of Atlantis would become to the rest of the world.
But the extra climb would be almost the length of a football field, in a corridor as steep and tight as the one they just emerged from, concluding with a stomach crawl for the last few feet. Ms. Zimmer, the woman who had been in Egypt in a previous life, is a larger person and her brow shone with the perspiration of the last climb. She craned her neck to see down the passageway, which had no discernible end.
“I’m just going to stay,” she announced as the others stooped to enter the corridor, “and anchor the energy from here.”
Here are some tour agencies that specialize in New Age-style spirituality tours and some of the tours planned for this season.
Body Mind Spirit Journeys (www.bodymindspiritjourneys.com; 800-231-9811):
In England, a Holy Grail Pilgrimage and Conference in Mystical Avalon, July 6 to 13; $3,220 a person double occupancy, not including airfare.
In Peru, an Incan Shamanic Journey, June 14 to 19; $2,999 a person double occupancy, not including airfare, with an extension from June 19 to 22 to Lake Titicaca to celebrate the solstice for an additional $699.
Luminati Travel (www.luminati.net, 888-488-1151) is trying to gather hundreds of travelers to circle the Great Pyramid “with unconditional love in their hearts” on Sept. 9 as part of the Circle the Pyramid Event and Global Peace Conference, Sept. 5 to 11; $1,800 a person for the tour, not including airfare or most meals.
Guardian Travel, with offices in Virginia Beach and Cairo (www.guardiantravel.net; 757-422-5568), is helping organize these tours:
Ancient Egypt, Awakening the Initiate Within, Oct. 28 to Nov. 10; $4,795 a person, all inclusive. Conducted with A.R.E. Travel, www.edgarcayce.org/tours.
Grand Sextile Tour, Return to the Nile, Oct. 21 to Nov. 2; $4,440 a person, all inclusive. Conducted with Queen of Cups Inc., www.queenofcups.com.