The Great Pyramids of Giza, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, are about to be ruined and perhaps destroyed in a colossal scandal.
Or, they are about to be preserved and enhanced by an imaginative project that will benefit all of Egypt.
Those are the two sides of a furious controversy that has gripped Egypt for months.
As the argument rages, work is progressing on an enormous real estate development that will transform the barren sands near the pyramids into what one of the promoters calls a 'Palm Springs for the Arabs."
For Egypt, the stakes in this dispute are the highest possible - the preservation of its ancient heritage and the promotion of its economic future. The promoters of the "Pyramids Oasis" project say their development serves both causes. The critics - professors, journalists, politicians, historians - say it is ruinous to both.
The project, which begins a little more than a mile from the pyramids on the same sandy plateau west of Cairo, is designed to accommodate 40,000 residents on 10,000 acres of "hotels, tourist villages, villas, apartments and townhouses."
In conception, the project is similar to many instant resorts centered on golf courses that have been built with little controversy in the United States and the Caribbean, although the primary market for this one is rich Arabs, to whom golf is almost unknown.
The problem is the location, which on a clear day seems to be hardly more than a three iron from the pyramids, the tombs of the ancient Pharaohs that constitute one of the world's greatest cultural treasures and Egypt's most enduring tourist attraction.
The developers says Pyramids Oasis will have a view of the pyramids but will not be visible from them, will enhance the admittedly shabby environs, and will benefit the country through "the inflow of foreign capital and the provision of significant new employment opportunities."
Critics claim that developers of questionable reputation are using devious methods to take advantage of an unconscionable land giveaway by corrupt or naive officials to make a killing at the expense of Egypt's cultural heritage.
They say the project will not only cover over archeological treasures that may lie beneath the site, but may also damage the pyramids themselves through water leakage.
The story of the Pyramids Oasis has all the ingredients of a flashy best-seller - the pyramids themselves, high-powered entrepreneurs talking of Fiji and Hong Kong, Saudi Arabian princes, accusations of payoffs and political implications.
Among the cast of characters are Adnan Khashoggi, the preeminent Saudi middleman; President Anwar Sadat and his close personal friend, millionaire contractor Osman Ahmed Osman; golf-course architect Robert Trent Jones; Canadian businessman turned South Seas real estate entrepreneur, Peter Munk; and a previously obsecure woman professor at Cairo University whose book condemning the project touched off the furor.
The Pyramids Oasis saga starts in late 1974, when the developer and the government signed a contract. Those were the early days of President Sadat's economic "open door policy" - the first attempts to attract Western investment capital into Egypt after the Nasser years of state socialism.
The government partner in the contract was the Egyptian General Organization for Tourism and Hotels, the state-owned agency for tourist development. The outside partner was SPP Middle East Ltd., a subsidiary of Southern Pacific Properties Ltd., a Hong Kong based company that is traded on the London Stock Exchange.
Under the contract, the government put up no money. Instead, it gave Southern Pacific the right to use the land for 99 years. A government committee appraised the land and came up with a figure of $1.36 million, so the government was credited as if it had put up that amount in cash and was granted 40 percent of the shares in the operating partnership.
Critics have charged that the evaluation was absurdly low.
The overall construction plan calls for "desert villages" of villas, apartment, and hotels, none of which, the developers say, will be more than 33 feet high to ensure that the project will be a "discreet and respectful neighbor to the pyramids."
Construction was launcred last July. Osman Ahmed Osman's contractors began installing roads, a water supply and storage system, a sewage treatment plant, and started grading the site for the golf course.
The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones - whose name is cited by the developers as proof of their respectability - in the shape of an ankh, the traditional key-shaped symbol of ancient Egypt.
Some 400 lots of villas in the first section of the development have already been sold, according to the developers.
The average lot size is just over 6.000 square feet and the average price is about $5 per square foot, which means the developers are taking in $30,000 per lot even before building anything on it. Company officials say, however, that it is costing more than $3 per square foot to convert each of these lots from empty, rock-strewn sand into finished building sites, and to install utilities and roads.
According to information provived by company officials, the chairman and chief executive officer of Southern Pacific is one-time Canadian corporate whiz kid, Peter Munk, who most recently guided the development of Pacific Harbor, a resort in Fiji.
Major shareholders of Southern Pacific include Khashoggi's Triad Corp., P and O Shipping Lines and Trust Houses Forte, described as "the largest hotel and catering company in the world" - a roster that company officials cite to show that they are not the fly-by-nighters described in the Cairo press.
A 35 percent share of Southern Pacific's subsidiary for the pyramids project, SPP Middle East, has been sold to 2 princes of the Saudi royal family, including Prince Nawaf, a brother of the king, according to Parker.
Even if the critics were satisfied with the financial arrangements and convinced that the allegations of bribery in the press were unfounded , however, they say they would still press their case against the project on esthetic and cultural grounds.
"If it were three miles farther away, nobody would have noticed," one Egyptian journalist said. "But it will go down in history as a black mark against Sadat if he lets it go ahead where it is.
The opponents of the project say it may irretrievably cover undiscovered antiquities, will be an eyesore for tourists visiting the pyramids, and add that leakage from the golf course lake may actually undermine the stability of the great stone monuments.
Company officials deny each charge. They say the lake will be sealed with a plastic liner, and in any case is far enough from the pyramids that any leaking water would just seep into the sand.
Expert opinion, they say, holds that there are no artifacts or antiquities beneath the construction site. None have ever been found, they say, and according to the "fact book" that the developers had printed after criticism began, intensive archeological tests of the site came up with only "one decayed donkey and some honey-pot shards."
Their literature further argues that the building site is higher than the pyramids, and since nothing was built in antiquty on a higher level than the tombs of the Pharaohs, there cannot be any artifacts there.
This arguments, however, seems hard to reconcile with the developers' assertion that the project will not be visible from the pyramids.
In fairness to the developers, it must be admitted that the area around the pyramids now is depressingly shabby. A site os what should be unequaled majesty is marred by abandoned British army barracks, squatters' cabins, night clubs and vendors' kiosks.
All are listed on the developers' maps of the area as squalor to be cleared." They cite as one of the benefits of their project "the halting of the hap-hazard encroachment and pollution of the pyramids, returning them to their original splendor."
But much of this "squalor," the developers acknowledge, is not actually inside the land area for which they are responsible, and it is not part of their job to clear it out. That is up to the government, which allowed the tents and huts to be put up in the first place. And operators of the night clubs in the area are said to be among the most determined opponents of the new development.
Though work on the project is continuing, the fight is far from over. Parker acknowledged in an interview that financing for the proposed hotels in the Pyramids Oasis - including one to be called the George V after its model in Paris - has not been forthcoming because of the uncertainty over the development's future.
The developers have sought to offset criticism by launching a slick publicity campaign of the kind that is almost unknown in Egypt. This may only have aroused further suspicion.
A typical item in the glossy Pyramids Oasis News contained the following report visit by British actor David Niven.
Standing on the site of the George V Hotel with its breathtaking views to the Pyramids and the Nile valley, he said, 'I shall be back.' To the Press, he added 'This is where I should like to have a villa. This setting is unique. I could fine peace here. Something about this place is irresistible.'"
The whole project is viewed in somewhat less idyllic terms by its opponents. IN an editorial that first alerted Cairo's foreign community to the development, the Enlish-language Egyptian Gazette called it "the most colossal rip-off of the 20th century. It dwarfs every vile enterprise impose on Egypt by adventurers and racketeers over the last 200 years."
Prof. Nehmet Fouad, who wrote a book attacking the project after she failed to halt it through legal action and appeals to the prime ministers, says the venture is "worse than the defeat of 1967" for this country.
Momtaz Nassar, a well-known member of Parliament said in a typical comment that "the government has sold the dignity of Egypt for a small sum of money."
It may eventually fall to Sadat himself to decide which group will prevail.
While one committee of the Parliament approved the Pyramids Oasis, a second that is to report im mid-May could conceivably still derail it.
But Sadat, whose supporters control the Parliament, may have given a preview of the outcome.
Asked about the Pyramids Oasis in a recent magazine interview, he did not endorse it, nor did he condemn it. What mattered, he said, was to act in accordance with the law, and it was "a real mistake" to resubmit the issue to the parliament since it had already been approved once.
Criticism of the project, he said, was " a link in the chain that creates a very bad atmosphere" for foreign investment and the liberalization of Egypt's economy, and since the Assembly [Parliament] has already approved it, everything is finished."