Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Aftermath of Magic Part II: The Cave of Iniquity - Egypt 1967

This second entry in our series on the latent effects of Magical activity concerns a site in Eastern Egypt, which has come to be known as The Cave of Iniquity. The events for which it is famous took place between 1967 and 1969, official records drawing to a close shortly thereafter. Yet it has enjoyed a curious afterlife among devotees of the paranormal, and within the academic circles of Egypt's Ministry for Antiquities


The site in question appears in the dossier of an Egyptian Intelligence task force, operating along the Egyptian border with Palestine in the wake of the 1967 war with Israel. It is held in secret in the vaults of General Intelligence Directorate [GID] in Cairo, with little to suggest any hope of declassification in the near future. Most extant details of the dossier have come second hand via a veteran of the mission, known only by his code name, Duamutef. Now in retreat in the Eastern Block, his report makes for curious reading.

Their objective was the seizure of American-Israeli operatives, purported to be active in the area. They were unsuccessful in their hunt, and many doubt that the sightings were ever anything more than paranoid extrapolation of locals, sparked by fears of an Israeli land grab in the post-Six Day War chaos. Yet witness accounts give descriptions of equipment and uniform details with which rural Egyptians were unlikely to have been familiar at the time. Duamutef's account, however, hints at both a greater mystery, and a possible explanation for the disappearance of the enemy agents.

Strange occurrences began with the apparition in the GID camp of what was described, in Duamutef's account as 'a small figure, the height of a child of perhaps four.' He continues, 'I was with […] and […], who both saw the apparition. They reported things somewhat differently, […] stating that the apparition bore a mouth and the suggestion of eyes, and resembled an adult in both proportions and manner. I saw a figure roughly the size they describe, but aside from the most basic humanoid features (limbs and a head), it was utterly featureless. It was black, but not merely black in colour, but black in the sense of an absence of light. The lights in our camp did not reflect on it. It was as if it had no fixed place in the material universe. The only way I can describe it was as if I were looking at a photograph of the scene, upon which someone had drawn the outline of a man in marker pen. It appeared to point at us with its 'arm' and disappear.

Word of the encounter was suppressed, and those who witnessed it kept the information to themselves for fear of undermining the focus of the team. Thus, it was with some trepidation that they began their investigation of a cave network a mile north of the camp, where the last known sightings of the enemy agents were made. An agent, whom Duamutef names as simply 'M.' in his account, was the only one of the three previous witnesses to accompany the party into the cave system. He describes how radios were ineffective within several metres of entering the cave, but a wire connection was extended at intervals, so that communication could be maintained. Duamutef was assigned to the radio team, tracking their progress. Few have since been able to account for the ensuing events.

Agent 'M.' reported that equipment was found in the cave, of apparent American manufacture. This, however, was never verified by those on the surface on account of what happened next. Duamutef describes 'screaming, hideous screaming in utter abandon, some in rage, some in abject sorrow, some in pure fear, and others still in emotions it troubles me to relate […] different voices were heard, some I swear were speaking English. The only voices seemingly still possessed of articulate speech were screeching entreaties to God, chanting over and over with unusual intonation, as if the words themselves held little meaning.' No instruction was given to the remainder of the party to go and lend assistance, and entreaties to the contrary were sternly refused by those in command. No shots were heard, or any mention of enemy activity, giving rise to the suspicion of some kind of nerve agent, or chemical weapon. The party could only listen and wait, as the ordeal taking place beneath their feet came to its hideous conclusion, and the connection fell dead.

Of the eight agents sent in, five returned, only two of whom were coherent and capable of coordinated movement, the remaining three almost wholly insensible, and had to be dragged back by their equipment harnesses. Those who survived were immediately transported back to a psychiatric wing of the Cairo Military Hospital, where they were held in seclusion. Though Duamutef himself was absent from the horrors of the incident, his involvement in the 'stick-man' report the previous night was nonetheless divulged by Agent M. in the immediate wake of the event, and he was ordered to accompany the afflicted agents in their treatment.

Collectively, the statements of the agents give a strange picture. Duamutef, being present at the individual examinations, identifies a strange distinction between those worst affected, and those seemingly coherent following the events. The two who remained relatively unscathed, among them M. himself, were noted for their piety, whilst the other, considerably younger members of the team, were of a notably more secular bent.

The two coherent accounts give very similar details, describing how an intense heat was felt in the darkness of the passage, as if a hot wind was blasting forth from somewhere up ahead. This was in marked contrast to the stones, which remained cold to the touch. There then followed a sequence of strange coloured lights, giving an indistinct phosphorescent effect 'like when pressure is applied to a closed eye'. The lights then began to take more distinct shapes. Due to the wild inconsistencies in their descriptions, critics have often asserted that these could only be subconscious projections on the part of the men themselves. Perhaps the most vivid account describes 'apparitions in the shape of men, but with the features of a multitude of animals. Here, the claw of a lion would answer for an arm, legs bent backwards, or splayed like a chicken, crocodile skin, coiled tails, the stench of camel breath and rotten bull hides.' These were accompanied by aural phenomena: hissing, chittering, snuffling and bestial groans. No such sounds were registered by the radio team, giving rise to the suspicion that the whole affair was a collective hallucination, triggered by the conditions of the cave. An enemy nerve agent had also not been discounted as a possibility.

When it came to the remaining three, no such coherence could be found. All three were insensible at the time of their admission to the military hospital, but after a few days, one began to speak. Yet their concerns seemed, at first, utterly unrelated to the events at the cave. Their statements began as a rambling confession of a crime, a petty assault, for which they had gotten away without arrest some years earlier. Just after that, and gaining greater vehemence, they confessed to a major theft, a fraud, a murder, and a sex attack. The psychiatrists treating him assumed this was some kind of invocation of penance, having interpreted the cave attack as a proof of divine retribution. But the confessions continued, becoming increasingly elaborate, until it was understood that no one man could have performed a fraction of the crimes listed within the parameters of time, and the law. Eventually, the confessions degenerated into unconnected, and mangled descriptions of disgusting and inhumane acts, as if his mind was simply purging itself of every evil notion it could imagine or comprehend. After two days of this, the other two witnesses would join in, and the three had to be separated, for fear that they would encourage one another to further morbid frenzies.

These apparent psychological effects were not the only problems suffered by those present. All five men who had entered the cave were beginning to experience the gradual onset of physical ailments. After a month, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the symptoms were on a scale of severity far greater than that of stress related illness. Their subsequent quarantine effectively ended their recorded existence.

The operation itself ended on an inauspicious note, with only the recovery of some foreign-made radio equipment and a handgun (seized from some Bedouin tribesmen several days later), as its only material outcome. The tribesmen reported having shot a lone man, whom they had caught attempting to attack their camels with a knife, apparently in some sort of trance. Yet the story was not fated to end there. In the absence of physical evidence, further research into the 1967 cave incident was cut short. But where the official agencies drew things to a close, sections of the Ministry for Antiquities began to take an active interest.

The most prominent advocate of this renewed interest was Dr Abdul Makalani, an eminent expert on Hellenic-era Egyptian history, with an interest in the early Christian church. By now it was 1982, and while the identities of many of those involved with the ill-fated investigation had been buried within the back rooms of GID bureaucracy, enough leaked evidence and rumour had accumulated to paint an intriguing (if incomplete), picture of events.

The Clock Tower at the University of Cairo, where Dr.
Makalani taught between 1965 and 1986.
His interest stemmed from similarities between the events described in the accounts of the GID operation, and the legend of St Anthony of Alexandria. St Anthony was one of the early desert fathers, and embodied the ascetic lifestyle which became the benchmark of medieval monastic life. Yet perhaps the most famous events of his life, according to legend, are his numerous encounters with daemons. These daemons took a variety of forms, including nightmarish chimaera beasts, tiny men purporting to be the spirit of fornication, and even a gargantuan apparition of the devil with his head touching the sky, catching the unworthy souls in their upward flight to paradise and wrenching them back to the ground.

Beyond the legends, Anthony was a real, and well documented historical figure, and an influential exponent of the early church. His remains still survive, having been relocated to the La-Motte-Saint-Didier (Now Saint Antoine L'Abbaye) after their acquisition by the French Count Jocelyn in the 11th Century. Nevertheless, many of the more notable details of St Anthony's legend originate from the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria. In one section he describes how St Anthony 'went into a hole or cave to hide him, and anon he found there a great multitude of devils, that so much beat him that his servant bare him upon his shoulders in to his house as he had been dead.' His description of the daemons is chilling in its similarities with the account of the two coherent witnesses: Then they appeared in the form of diverse wild beasts, and with their teeth, horns, and claws, mutilating him once more.

Earlier in the same account, the desert saint is also troubled by the apparition of what he describes as a devil of fornication. In its English translation, the passage appears thus: Then on a time when he had overcome the spirit of fornication which tempted him therein by the virtue of his faith, the devil came to him in the form of a little child all black, and fell down at his feet and confessed that he was the devil of fornication, which Saint Anthony had desired and prayed to see him, for to know him that so tempted young people.

Saint Antoine L'Abbaye: current resting place for the
remains of  St Anthony of Alexandria
Anthony's victory over the devil may have been an embellishment, but aside from that, the encounter bears close resemblance to that described by Duamutef on the night prior to the incident. Later accounts have described the child as an Aethiopian, but this is thought to be more the product of medieval ethnography than any accurate data. The absence of any such description in the Athanasius's accounts indicate a closeness to the source, suggesting that it represented an unusual optical phenomenon for which Athanasius had not yet the vocabulary to describe.

Another key factor in Dr Makalani's research was the theme of Temptation in St Anthony's legend. Although the numerous temptations to sin actually took place outside of the daemonic attack episode, the two are nonetheless linked. Numerous scholars have since identified the daemons as physical embodiments of the sin and wordly temptations, which Anthony was at pains to resist his whole life, and which he overcame with the strength granted to him by God. In light of the hideous and inexplicable outbursts on the part of the three most affected men, Dr Makalani could do little to resist making improbable comparison between these two factors.

With no other details of the actual events forthcoming, the historian was stalled in his investigations. When he came to write upon it, his emphasis had shifted from analysis of the events themselves, to a greater scrutiny of his textual sources. It was popularly believed that the tales in Athanasius's account did not originally pertain to Anthony, but were travellers tales collected and recalled by Anthony himself, later to be conflated with his own legend. His investigation extended to a possible anti-Khemetic interpretation of the daemons, speculating as to whether their description as quasi-animal humanoids was presenting a parody of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. This could then have been intended to symbolise a victory over their polytheistic religion and a Moses-like condemnation of Egyptian sorcery, and the moral licentiousness which gave rise to its practice. This, in turn, became a central focus, as his studies turned to legends of Egyptian magic, many arising from Greek and Persian sources, plumbing the sources for any mention of caves, and subterranean witchcraft.

It was less than a month before he was due to publish his findings, when a letter arrived from an individual alleging to be Duamutef. The outcome of this encounter would forestall publication indefinitely. For in the wake of this meeting the doctor had, apparently, become wholly disinclined to court the kind of attention such researches were destined to gain.

In 1985, Dr Makalani met with agent Duamutef, who had by this time left the country, and was residing in the Eastern Block. He describes him as being still thoroughly uncomfortable with the nature of the events, but not overly reluctant to disclose hitherto unknown details of the mission and its aftermath. Much of what he recalled amounted to no more than grisly extrapolations on facts already known, but a handful of final details piqued the researcher's interest. This was that all five men were found to be carrying unsafe amounts of radiation, and this was the probable cause of their declining health.

St Anthony Tormented by Daemons,
Martin Schongauer, c.1470
It was also understood that one of the men had died early in the quarantine period, but was thought to have succumbed head wounds sustained in his exit from the cave. An autopsy revealed a mysterious degenerative condition affecting his bones, effectively dissolving certain sections of the skeleton, while creating large deposits of new, osseous growth around the joints, impairing movement. X-Rays were performed, revealing that all five were experiencing similar symptoms to varying degrees, with the two most coherent witnesses holding out the longest.

Athanasius ends his legend thus: At the last Saint Anthony assembled the hermits and gave to them the peace, and died and departed out of this world holily when he was of the age of an hundred and five years. Pray we to him that he pray for us.

 Aside from his remarkable longevity, there is no indication that he was particularly troubled with mysterious rheumatic conditions before his death. Perversely, as was demonstrated in the 1967 incident, whatever effects the cave had on its victims, they could be forestalled by varying extremes of piety, which Anthony's legend does little if not support. Yet this is perhaps the one key which may serve as a concrete link between the incident and the legend. To this day, Dr Makalani is still petitioning the Episcopacy in France for permission to perform an investigative exhumation on the body of St Anthony, in order to discover any evidence of bone breakage, or unusually high levels of radiation.

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