- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland — Long before the “X-Files” craze and common talk of alien abductions, when man was still preparing his first trip to the moon, a Swiss hotel manager came up with a theory that civilization on Earth began with extraterrestrial visits thousands of years ago.

Ridicule from scientists notwithstanding, Erich von Daeniken sold 60 million books in 32 languages and made “Chariots of the Gods” part of the ufologist’s lexicon.

Thirty-five years on, the fascination endures. There are plans for a 22-part television series called “Chariots of the Gods — The Mysteries Continue.” And Mr. von Daeniken’s ancient astronauts are set to make a permanent landing in a scenic Alpine valley this weekend with the May 24 opening of the world’s only theme park devoted to historic wonders, such the Egyptian pyramids, as well as future unknowns, such as the conquest of Mars.

“Imagine you are back in ancient Egypt,” Mr. von Daeniken declared during a tour of the disused airfield in Interlaken where he has built the park.

The great pyramid of Giza was larger than the cathedrals of Milan, Rome and Florence put together, he mused. Why and how were 2.5 million stone blocks piled up, the biggest weighing 400 tons? Who built the pyramids, apart from Pharaoh Cheops, who only reigned for 20 years and whose mummy has not been found?

“There are lots of questions, but you won’t get any answers out of us,” concluded Mr. von Daeniken, short, stocky and suntanned, in winding up a well-practiced routine.

The 68-year-old grandfather, who enjoys cooking and French wine in his home in the Alpine village of Beatenberg, said he got the idea for his Mystery Park 20 years ago.

He says he wants visitors to experience firsthand the sense of “wonder and astonishment” that inspired him to write “Chariots of the Gods” in 1966 while managing a luxury hotel.

“I claim that our forefathers received visits from the universe in the remote past … that these ‘strangers’ annihilated part of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first, Homo sapiens,” he wrote in the foreword to the book.

Mr. von Daeniken, who skipped college and served a couple of short stints in prison for fraud, backed up his ideas with detailed scientific “facts” and archaeological theories based on his study of pyramids, ancient ruins and lost cities.

The book was published in 1968, and caused a sensation — “a work of monumental importance … which has withstood the test of time,” says Amazon.com.

His theories about the origin of modern man brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and his argument, in general, was derided by scientists. But readers — especially in the United States and Germany — loved them. Book followed book, allowing him to proclaim himself the best-selling nonfiction writer of all time.

His most recent title, “The Gods Were Astronauts,” published in 2001, explores the great world religions, their myths and belief structures in an attempt to discover who or which were the gods described in ancient stories. His conclusion is that they were extraterrestrials who left traces of their presence everywhere on Earth.

Mr. von Daeniken says the planned TV series combines “the suspenseful investigative techniques of ‘CSI,’ melds it with the exotic adventures of ‘Alias,’ and then throws in a dash of ‘Tomb Raider’ for good measure.”

Despite the huge public success, critics continue to pan his theories.

“These mythologizations are so silly; they are easily disproved and rather embarrassing,” declared David Brin, an astronomer and science-fiction writer who writes about the possibility of life elsewhere.

“These people hate the open scientific discourse that has developed with the vast spread of education. They want secrets, ancient or modern, that only they know,” Mr. Brin added.

Mr. von Daeniken dismisses such criticism as jealousy. He cites a string of honorary doctorates and other awards from around the world as proof that he is taken seriously. He also trumpets his archaeology and astronautics research association, which publishes “Legendary Times,” a newsletter devoted to his ancient-astronaut theory.

He shows no sign of slowing down, saying his lecture appearances and research take him an estimated 100,000 miles a year.

He retains an adoring following.

“You helped me so much, to open my eyes to all the truth forgotten in time, all the truth about our past,” Diana Al Hazard from Paris wrote in one of dozens of Happy 68th Birthday messages posted on Mr. von Daeniken’s Web site (www.daeniken.com). “I thank you so much for everything. You really fulfilled your mission on this planet.”

Other readers, however, said they enjoyed the books but took the theories with a grain of salt.

“I’ve been interested in such ‘blue sky’ stories for decades but never fell for the extrapolations of old Erich,” said Jack Greenfield, also 68, a public relations consultant in New York. “He made a lot of money, and I suppose gave many of us a good deal of exciting reading pleasure and food for thought.

“Trouble is, nothing he said, as far as I can tell, was ever even distantly related to truth.”

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