Two months back, the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group published an article revealing the presence of a vast ‘sand spiral’ in the Egyptian desert. But what is it? Land art? An ET-created pattern? A computer-generated fraud? Further investigations, initiated by Swirled News, reveal a tangled web of confusion and intrigue, as MARY BENNETT, co-author of ‘Dark Moon’, reveals in PART ONE of a two-part article…
In May 2001, ‘The Spiral’ magazine (newsletter of the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group) published an aerial photo of sand, shaped into cones and wells and spiralling out from a large central well, itself containing a cone. Flying over them in a micro-light one August afternoon in the year 2000, Boris Stobe, the photographer of this particular shot, [pic.1] thought that the beautiful scene set out below him was of such precision “it seemed to be a miracle”.
It was nearly a year later that this photo was sent to The Spiral (and how ironic is it that a photo of sand spirals found its way to this particular title?) by Dr Hartmut Endlich, a friend of his father’s. And that is how this legend - that a sand formation had arrived in the Eastern Desert of Egypt - was born.
Having seen photos of this sand spiral many years earlier, I was mildly intrigued as to why this collection of sand cones and hollows was now turning up in the crop circle community. Searching through my archives I found the article that had appeared in the March 1998 edition of the magazine ‘COVER’ (now defunct). Looking at them again, I remembered the feeling I’d had the first time I saw these photos: they had taken my breath away with the beauty and sense of serenity that emanated from sculpted desert [pic.2]. In a flash I had made mental connections to the 1994 Galaxy crop formations in Wiltshire [pic.3] and to the 1996 Windmill Hill Triple Spiral [pic.4]. But the small block of accompanying text told me that it had been created by three young Greek women. Using letters from their first names, they called themselves the ‘D.A.ST. Team’.
However, there was also something about these photos that didn’t ring quite true, especially when compared with the Boris Stobe photo. Or perhaps it was the other way round. The thought that something didn’t quite fit would not go away and I went on the Net to find out more about D.A.ST. The available media coverage of this amazing artistic event was conspicuous by its absence. In May 2001 there were no web sites under either the artists’ names, nor under their D.A.ST. name, nor under the official name of this sand spiral: ‘Desert Breath’ (I shall continue to call it the ‘sand spiral’). I found three press clippings of a few lines long: one from The Middle East Times archives (undated and uninformative) and two from Greek sources. I came up with the fact that due to the very high winds experienced by that particular region of the Eastern Desert, it was only expected to last six months after its completion in March 1997. Finally, I found a one page biography for the D.A.ST. sculptor- so I emailed her. No reply.
COVER magazine credited another journal, ‘INTERIORS’, with the story, so I spoke to their editorial department and learned that they had not gone to Egypt themselves but talked to the artists and then written up their article. The photos were transparencies. I ordered a copy of their November 1997 issue and when it arrived more was revealed and more questions were raised. From this article I learned that these three Greeks (average age 29) consisted of a sculptor, an industrial designer and an architect, trained at St. Martin’s School of Art, Rhode Island School of Design and The Architectural Association respectively. I learned that computer-generated pictures of their desert dream had been created “which are astonishingly like the real thing”. They had “the luck and cleverness to find themselves an extremely generous sponsor”. The desert where they worked “was quite stony and the earth hard and compacted rather than soft and fluid like a beach”. They “built up the cones in tiers like wedding cakes”. They “took nine months to complete their project – from August 1996 through to April 1997” and “it could well last for 50 to 100 years”.
These dates of creation do not fit with those given by the artists, and this timing for dissolution doesn’t fit with that of the “six months” given by the sponsoring company – hold those thoughts!
The INTERIORS article informed us that the actual building of this project should have finished in November 1996, but only 19 days before completion there was an horrendous and completely unexpected storm over this desert art project. The D.A.ST team took another four months to get the project repaired and completed. And they finally held an inauguration ceremony in the first week of March 1997.
In the world of art, as in the world of crop, reality and unreality are two sides of the same coin, and, as it happened, the young German’s choice of word in The Spiral were particularly apt. That this sand spiral was in the sands of Egypt was apparently a miracle of engineering and art; that it is still there to this day, in complete contradiction to the published material relating to these sand spirals, is even more miraculous – isn’t it?
It was certainly confusing to see that Stobe photo of something that shouldn’t, according to the record, exist. That, together with the acknowledgement that computer-generated images had been used, made me wonder if there was anything in the desert at all. It made me wonder if the whole installation INCLUDING all the media releases - whether in the press or on video were not themselves an integral part of this project? After all, apart from tourists going on diving holidays from the Red Sea resorts, not many people were going to get to see this great oeuvre. So, were the observer’s reaction to the press equally a part of this project? From an artistic point of view, nothing wrong with that of course, and so far the prose style and the imagery didn’t encourage the idea that this sand spiral really existed in three-dimensional reality. Others had also commented on the artificiality of the images taken of this sand spiral. My phone bill had a mild heart attack as I started on a round of enquiries.
I contacted the Egyptian tourist office in London. They had never heard of any such sand spiral formation, asked me to let THEM know what I found out (!) and recommended I try Hurghada Tourist information. At some 13 miles away from El Gouna, it was the nearest official tourist information outlet on the Red Sea Coast. I did. They had never heard of it either. I got onto the web site for El Gouna – which turned out to be a dynamic purpose-built holiday resort. The first hotel had been there since 1990 and it was certainly not “a small village inhabited by the local population” as inferred by Boris in The Spiral magazine. Anyway, guess what? No mention of this art project as being worthy of a visit at all, although it did figure on one of their cartoon maps of the resort. ‘Contact us’, it said on their web site, so I did - and no reply. I was getting into the swing of things by now. My phone bill was admitted to hospital while I went back to the web site and telephoned the Cairo number also featured on the El Gouna web site. Several times.
Eventually, Egyptian English and English English made an agreement to understand each other and I found myself talking to a marketing executive of Orascom Hotel Holdings, owners of El Gouna (along with Orascom Project and Tourist Development, the group which originally sponsored the D.A.ST team. By 2001 they had amalgamated). The Orascom executive I spoke to was most charming and helpful – except that she didn’t know anything about the sand spiral. This was puzzling as she had already told me that she went to El Gouna very often. She went to make enquiries and days later she e-mailed me - according to her colleagues it existed, and she promised to send me some ‘real-time’ photos on her next visit to El Gouna that weekend. Nothing happened. Then I had a series of e-mails explaining the absence of photos: she had to put her visit off twice, then her colleagues would not take any photos of this installation – because it wasn’t their job – so they would want to be paid for doing that. Here, let’s remember, we are talking about a company-sponsored project of nearly the biggest modern land art installation on the planet - situated just over six miles from the company resort and not quite a mile away from one of their tourist excursion sites – The Oasis. Head office asks them to do something and the company men can’t/won’t. Perhaps I’m using too much of an English perspective on this – even this answer spoke volumes.
However, the oddities that I was collecting were telling me that something about this whole project was wrong. The main Egyptian sponsors of this art project ORASCOM P.T.D. are a part of one of the most important (if not THE most important) private companies in Egypt. ORASCOM belongs to the Sawiris family who are Egypt’s industrial real-estate tycoons. They are the backbone of Egyptian private enterprise and have interests in everything of importance to their country, from cement to cellular phones.
So, this company is no Mickey Mouse outfit - even if some critics have labelled their desert holiday resort of El Gouna ‘Disney-like’, thanks partly to its reconstruction of traditional Egyptian architectural styles developed on a series of lagoons. One hour from Cairo by plane, it is the preferred place for sophisticated and well-off Cairenes to relax. Tourists from Germany and Switzerland also prefer to take their diving holidays there. According to my Orascom contact, they had spent ‘a small fortune’ on this sand spiral project. So why hadn’t they used it? Why no publicity? Why were they so shy about its presence? I asked all these questions and got the reply that they must be bad at marketing. Given their high rating in Forbes Magazine, and their enthusiastic write-ups in the world’s financial press, including one on the quality of Orascom’s staff, I found this reply less than adequate. To spend ‘a small fortune’ on a unique work of art and then totally ignore its potential as a marketing tool in a growing and highly competitive tourist industry didn’t make sense. Yet.
I was beginning to get an idea that would explain this blip on the part of these sponsors – I went off to research this ‘idea’ and, reasonably satisfied with the results, returned to nag Orascom. I told them of my difficulty in believing in the existence of something that some four years earlier their own company considered would last only six months. She told me on the phone that this spiral was still standing because they had used cement. Several e-mails later, she told me that wasn’t correct, but that they had used “some kind of glow”. I think she meant “glue”. Later, I would find out that although ignoring most of the questions in my e-mails - including a request for information as to how to contact the D.A.ST. team - she was actually talking to the Sculptor all the time, which is, no doubt, how she got this ‘glow’ information. Much later, I spotted another company mentioned in the credits for this project which made marine coatings and paints. She might have meant ‘varnish’.
It was certainly getting sticky, and operating from this position of doubt over this sand spiral’s existence made me wonder even more about the reasons for sending a photo to The Spiral. I contacted Dr. Endlich. During our conversation, I asked him why he thought that this sand formation was akin to crop glyphs, and he replied that people wouldn’t know how to do the geometry inherent in this formation. It had a purity about it. I said that trained artists, sculptors and architects would know how do it, but I don’t know if I convinced him, even when I mentioned the D.A.ST team. I then asked him who, in his opinion, made the crop glyphs? “A form of consciousness” he said, but added that the idea that they were made by “little green men” was “frankly ludicrous”. As ET hadn’t been on the agenda, this outburst was surprising. We agreed to disagree about ET intelligence and its ramifications for humanity. I’ve met many scientists who are happy to talk about consciousness – as long as it emanates from human beings on this planet. I added the fact that those who were publicising this formation in 2001 were all medical doctors into my oddities bag and pressed on. Now that I had Boris Stobes’s phone number I set off to damage my phone bill even further. At this rate I would soon be visiting it in the intensive care ward.
Dr. Stobes’s son used a single reflex camera and 200 ISO film and took two photos between 3pm and 4pm on an August 2000 afternoon. As this is what the shadows in his pic were telling me, I was quite happy with that – but less happy with the fact that there were no shadows on the floor of the desert from the body of the standing cones, and, given the angle of the sun, there should have been, I thought. Could he explain that? No, he didn’t know why that should be.
These standing cones [pic.1] go from the tallest at 3.75 meters on the outside edges, down to the very small at the centre. All the wells and cones are positive-negative versions of each other, matching in height and depth and circumference. I can see no reason that at mid-afternoon the body shadows from the standing/positive cones should be missing - but I am not looking at the original print. Boris also told me that from the height he was flying (he thought it was around 300 feet up) the whole thing looked absolutely perfect.
Then another thing dropped into my oddities bag: when I asked him if he had subsequently visited this formation from the ground, he said “No”. Astonished, I pursued the point. He just hadn’t. He didn’t know why. I found it difficult to match his tone of voice and lack of interest to the person who had written:
“When I saw the formation from the air, it made a deep impression in me – it was of such precision, it seems a miracle” (sic).
I could hardly believe I was talking to someone who apparently had asked everyone around as to how it had got there – but it was consistent with someone who HADN’T had the curiosity to take a five to ten minute ride from El Gouna and walk freely amongst the cones and wells to experience his ‘perfect miracle’ from the ground.
I went back to the Net - surprise! Five weeks after my first enquiries, with barely any reference on the Net, we now had a smartly designed web site up and running for one of the artists, and within which was a different biography sheet and a different e-mail address. I fired off an e-mail – and a few days later I got an answer - to my original e-mail – we arranged to speak and finally my phone bill was put onto a life-support system.
Our conversation was most interesting and added two or three things to my oddity bag: When I asked how it was that something so expensive was totally ignored by Orascom, I was told “it didn’t cost a lot, we were given old people and children to work with”. This turned out to be inaccurate, as you will read in the next episode. When I asked why the dates of dissolution were of six months for a work that was still apparently in existence, I was told that “the Orascom people must be muddling up the time it took to make the spirals”. And that was certainly not correct - in every PR clip on this work, the time-span was quoted as being nine months for the physical construction. Nowhere in any of the timing for this piece can we extract the figure of six months. As far as I can see right now, the only reason that it could have changed to the “50 to 100 years” quoted in the INTERIORS article is if, after the storm flooded out the project in November 1996, the construction methods changed during the last four months of construction, thus rendering the cones and wells more stable, but then losing the natural erosion time of six months calculated at least by the engineers and surveyors of Orascom, if not the artists.
Is this where that ‘glow’ fits in? Why should the long-lasting qualities of this project suddenly take over from the artistic imperative of documenting the natural evolution of matter through time as wished for by the artists? Our conversation had certainly given me food for thought and I mulled these questions over as I waited for the sculptor to send me video of her work, in which there was a segment on the construction of the ‘Desert Breath’ sand spiral. At the end of these five weeks, and having spoken to the sculptor, I was pretty much convinced that they had indeed piled up the sand and dug out the wells out in the desert by El Gouna, but my bag of oddities had grown much heavier. Too many questions still went without answers - and my ‘idea’ was taking shape. While I waited for the postman bearing gifts from Greeks, I went to collect my phone bill from hospital – it was in remission.
Copyright © Mary D.M.Bennett July 2001
TO BE CONTINUED…
Pic.1. Courtesy Boris Stobe
Pic.2. Courtesy Orascom Hotel Holdings
Pic.3. Courtesy Steve Alexander
Pic.4. Courtesy Steve Alexander