GIZA, Egypt — The Great Pyramid of Giza was one of the ancient wonders of the world, and even most travelers today would not consider a trip to Egypt complete without seeing the pyramids.
But for some tourists, the pyramids and other sites are much more than stops on a sightseeing itinerary. These visitors view Egypt as an ancient sacred homeland, and they come hoping for a spiritual transformation.
Numerous specialized tours cater to these seekers. June Schatilly, 82, of Saginaw, Mich., signed up for a spiritual tour earlier this year despite the discouragement of her family. She was drawn to Egypt, she said, after having several visions of herself in a past life there. After a two-week excursion, Schatilly said she feels renewed.
"I'm 82, but I'm a kid again," Schatilly said. "Everything might be the same thing, but I'm going to be experiencing it in a different manner."
Schatilly took her trip through Heartlights Sacred Journeys, a company that combines Egyptology and metaphysics with visits to sacred sites. The trip starts with visits to the Pyramids of Giza and the mysterious Sphinx. Visitors explore the subterranean chamber or otherwise known as the pit, the queen's chamber and the king's chamber. Group members are also encouraged to participate in meditations and chants.
Then the group travels to the grand-step pyramid of Saqqara, one of the oldest of Egypt's more than 100 pyramids. From there, they hop on an overnight train to the southern city of Luxor in Upper Egypt.
Waking up in an archeologists' treasure trove, spiritual seekers say they are overwhelmed with the mystery and magic that surrounds each site, especially at the Temple of Karnak, which was used in ancient times for major religious ceremonies. The temple is known for its massive towers, some of them 70 feet tall.
The quest continues with a Nile cruise to the city of Aswan, with stops along the way at temples and tombs. Then, the journey ends full circle at the Pyramids of Giza where they perform an initiation ceremony at dawn.
The group forms a circle while holding hands and chants in rhythmic tones. Before they enter the Great Pyramid, they shake rattles over themselves in order, they say, to align their energies.
In complete darkness, they crouch to reach the pit of the pyramid where they comfort themselves with the meditations. Then, they climb their way up to the queen's chamber, and finally reach the highest chamber, the king's chamber.
Each participant takes turns lying in the empty sarcophagus of King Khufu, also known as Cheops, who reigned some 4,500 years ago. Tour groups are allowed to engage in activities like this during private time in the pyramids, when they're not open to other tourists. The participants are also invited to do or say whatever comes to them in that moment. Some shout out words: "Powerful!" "Woman!" The group responds to the calls and repeats them with enthusiasm. The reverberating sound fills the dark room and leaves people shaking even after they've exited the pyramid.
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Nancy Joy Hefron, 61, head facilitator of Heartlights Sacred Journeys, has been taking spiritual groups to Egypt for the past decade. Hefron considers herself a professional emotional healer. She says the trips awaken personal growth in every group she's led.
"I have seen it over and over again. From the minute someone chooses to take a journey of initiation to Egypt, Egypt begins to affect them," said Hefron.
Spiritual tours often draw attention from onlookers with their sometime unorthodox methods. Sometimes members break out into dance, which can invite stares from other tourists and locals. But Star Charney, an American on the Heartlights tour, welcomes the questions of non-believers.
"The skeptics are the best. It's when you try too hard, you're not going to feel things," Charney said.
She collects heart-shaped rocks on the Giza plateau, in an attempt, she says, to hold onto the energy of the Pyramids of Giza and bring it back home with her. "My luggage is going to weigh a ton," she said with a beaming smile.
In this predominantly Muslim country, Egyptologist and spiritual tour guide Amro Mounir, 34, said he encounters many Egyptians who criticize his tours for practicing a form of paganism.
But Mounir says the tours are about tapping into the energy of the earth and helping people find the truth.
"They are trying to get wisdom. They are looking for the truth and wisdom of the earth. Africa holds the wisdom of the earth," Mounir said.
While not all visitors to Egypt come seeking spiritual inspiration, "you can't help but be in awe of places such as the Giza Pyramids," said Anuja Madar, editor of Frommer's travel guide to Egypt. "Visiting these places is a surreal experience in a way, because you have to remind yourself that this isn't some Disneyland-esque attraction, it's a real piece of history."
Diane Winkey, 61, who describes herself as 27 at heart, has traveled to Egypt eight times. She keeps returning because she says the ancient sites awaken a dormant part of herself.
She describes a moment entering the Temple of Karnak in Luxor and feeling as if Isis, ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood, was sending her a message. Tears started rolling down her face, and she says was taken back by her strong emotions.
She offers a piece of advice to those who are interested in spiritual tours but unsure.
"You just have to follow your heart. Take the step and leap forward," said Winkey. "Once you go through the door, you realize that there are some any like-minded people in the world."
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