Inside the fraternity gathering hall in the Nuwaubian village of Tama-Re, the walls are inlaid with intricate stone carvings, illuminated with the light of ornate lanterns dangling from the gold-painted ceiling.
Outside the hall is a Sno Cone stand and a kiddie train that takes children on rides through the village.
Contrasts such as these are typical of the developed portion of the 473-acre plot on Shady Dale Road, where monuments and pyramids painted in many colors, form the basis of a complex spiritual and cultural system.
The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors actually encompasses a number of overlapping groups, according to Marshall Chance, a Baptist minister who is the group's spiritual leader and national spokesman.
Groups include the Holy Tabernacle Ministry, which Chance describes as a non-sectarian church, and the Ancient Mystic Order of Melchizedek, a fraternal organization.
Chance calls the Nuwaubian movement a "cultural renaissance," where people from various backgrounds are invited to bring their beliefs into an amalgam of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, ancient Egyptian religions and unique Nuwaubian ideas.
They trace their roots to Egypt and claim their descendants settled in the area now known as Putnam County before the continents drifted apart. They believe they are among the first people to live in America, and also call themselves the Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation.
"We can feel and get a sense of our own cultures here," Chance said. "We're comfortable for and with everybody."
Chance and other Nuwaubians bristle at being called a cult, explaining that they encourage and relish the diversity of beliefs in their group rather than forcing members to conform to a single set of ideas. Members are free to come and go as they please, he said.
"We are very particular about giving people their space and letting them be what they want to be," said Renee McDade, also a Nuwaubian spokeswoman.
The Nuwaubians publish a variety of books and pamphlets about their lifestyle and beliefs, including a 1,700-page sacred text called The Holy Tablets.
Chance said the belief system is built around the idea that all major religions come from the same basic stories and characters and are therefore inter-related.
More attention has been given to ideas about extra-terrestrials and the belief that 144,000 people will be taken aboard a space vessel on May 5, 2003.
Some members do believe in unconventional ideas about aliens and flying saucers, but others - who spoke on the condition their names not be used - said they joined to be part of the cultural exchange and tight community, and expect to live on the land well beyond 2003.
Chance said those aspects
of the religion have been misrepresented. They do embrace a belief that
their ancestry is from beyond Earth, but Chance said the details of those
beliefs have been confused by erroneous information presented on the unregulated
plains of the Internet.
A Time magazine article, for example, quoted a Web site in which the Nuwaubian leader Malachai Z. York claimed to be "the Supreme Being of This Day and Time, God in the Flesh."
But York, Chance said, does not have a Web site and that information did not come from the official Nuwaubian organization.
"He's like a father, mentor, counselor and guide," Chance said of York, under whom the minister studied. "He was born here and has parents here, though he may trace his culture to the stars."
York rarely appears in public, McDade said, moving around from place to place. He answered a court order to appear in Putnam Superior Court on contempt charges earlier this summer and also celebrated in Tama-Re during a festival last month.
"He's very down to earth and very much like a father," McDade said. "I don't see him as any different from any other person."
Before purchasing the Putnam County land in 1993, according to tax records for $975,000, York lived in Sullivan County, New York, and was known as Dwight York. He founded the Nuwaubian nation there as early as 1970, after serving three years in prison in the 1960s for resisting arrest, assault and possession of a dangerous weapon.
"He moved here to retire," Chance said.
York, according to Chance, earned most of the sum as a music producer, saying he produced such hits as Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," Teddy Pendergrass' "Close the Door" and The Delfonics "La La Means I Love You."
York is not listed as the producer in the credits of any of those songs.
York transferred the deed in February to Tama-Re Enterprises at no charge. It was transferred again on June 19 to a group of nine people: Nathaniel Washington, Yvonne Powell, Vincent Powell, Ethel Richardson, Anthony Evans, Donald McIntyre, Patrice Evans, Althea Shine and Michelle Mitchell.
Just as the Nuwaubians were moving to Georgia from their original home in New York in 1993, the FBI released a report that linked the group to welfare fraud and extortion. But there is no indication that any arrests were made as a result of the report.
Chance said the Putnam County group is dedicated to obeying and celebrating American laws and life.
"We're looking at the greatest country, the greatest land, the greatest place," Chance said. "America's a great country."
In taped speeches, York has said the group will form a nation on the land, passing laws, issuing passports and levying taxes.
Chance said there are no such plans, and the group looks forward to developing a theme park, recording studio, more housing and other facilities on the land. Those efforts have been stymied by a conflict with county authorities over permits and zoning.
Chance declined to speculate about how many members the Nuwaubian groups have, or about how many live in Tama-Re. McDade said the land is open daily to visitors and members host classes about Nuwaubian beliefs Sundays at 4 p.m.
"It's an opportunity to experience us," McDade said. "No one feels any obligations."
The Macon Telegraph obtained copies of the applications to both the Holy Tabernacle Ministries and the Ancient Mystic Order of Melchizedek. Both ask for an assortment of biographical information.
The application to the Mystic Order requires a $25 membership fee and includes a pledge of silence, forbidding the applicant from discussing or divulging documents from the order. Those requirements aren't much different from Masonic organizations.
The church application includes a comprehensive medical history and requires proof of a completed HIV test and copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards.
Some members move to the land, Chance said, and others only pass through for a short time. Artists and tradesmen have spent weeks in Tama-Re simply to add their talents to the monuments and buildings, and others join but continue to live in nearby towns of Eatonton and Milledgeville.
Once accepted, members are given Tama-Re passports and license plates, which grant them access to the land and passage through the armed security guards at the gate.
On weekends, Tama-Re is often bustling with members and visitors. Some dress in simple black or white robes as they seek spiritual enlightenment while reading sacred texts and walking through a stone labyrinth that encircles the black pyramid, their holy temple. Others are dressed in weekend clothing - shorts or jeans, T-shirts and sportcoats - as they sit around the elaborate fountains and chat. Salsa music blasts from a speaker affixed to a stories-high obelisk near the church while blues croon from an area near the Sphinx, and chants drone from another speaker near the labyrinth.
"We're building a place that's something better," Chance said. "People have encountered miracles here."
Children play on a trampoline just yards away from a recreation of King Solomon's Temple, which serves as the group's library.
"These are tribalistic lands," Chance said. "It's home for us."