by Elena Tafone
For centuries, the divine has communicated with human beings through visions. One of the most prominent figures in these miraculous sightings is Mary, the mother of Jesus. When she does appear, it’s usually to one person, like in Guadalupe, or just a few, like the children who saw her in Lourdes. Those instances are easily dismissed by skeptics as mere hallucination, mass hysteria or schemes for attention. But what happens when hundreds of people see the same vision? Thousands? A million? That’s what happened in Cairo, Egypt, some 50 years ago…
April 2, 1968. Zeitoun, Egypt, a suburb outside Cairo. The country was in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the heels of the Six-Day War. Tensions ran high in the predominantly Muslim country, home to a minority of Christians. At the center of it all, on Tumanbay Street, sat St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. It was built in 1923 because of a vision. One night, landowner Tawfik Khalil Ibrahim had a dream. The Virgin Mary told him to build her a church in Zeitoun. The very place the Holy Family was said to have passed on their flight to Egypt. If Tawfik did as she asked, Mary promised to appear at the church in 40 years’ time. Forty years passed. Nothing happened. Until the evening of April 2…
Just past 8:30 p.m. A typical Tuesday evening for Farouk Mohamed Atwa. The 31-year-old Muslim mechanic had just finished his shift. He had severe gangrene on an injured finger – the amputation was scheduled for the next day. On his way out of the garage, Farouk glanced up at the cathedral across the street. He couldn’t believe what he saw. A woman in white standing at the highest point of the church’s dome. He called out to her, begging her not to jump.
All the commotion drew a crowd. Then, as bystanders watched, the woman was bathed in a bright light. She rose in the air, hovering above the cathedral roof and blessing the people below. Doves appeared out of nowhere. And then, just like that, she disappeared. The next morning, Farouk arrived at the hospital. The doctors sent him home. When they pulled back the bandage on his finger, they found it had completely and mysteriously healed.
A week later, on April 9, Mary appeared again, this time for several minutes. Convinced it was an elaborate hoax, police conducted an extensive search of the 15-mile radius around the church. They were sure they’d find a source for the apparitions – some projector of sorts. They found nothing. The Coptic Orthodox Church conducted its own investigations. On May 5, 1968, the pope of Alexandria – Kyrillos VI – issued a statement deeming the sightings authentic. So did the Vatican.
Over the next three years, Mary is said to have appeared above the cathedral again and again, sometimes multiple times a week. Always silent, always at night. Often accompanied by what witnesses described as “birds of light” or a “shower of diamonds” that seemed to form a cross. One witness, an American named Pearl Zaki, traveled to Cairo when she heard of the apparitions. “I could see in faint outline the erect white, statue-like figure,” she writes in Before Our Eyes: The Virgin Mary of Zeitoun, Egypt. “Her arms were at her side. Then they moved slowly upward into the position of hands folded in prayer.”
Many people claimed to be miraculously healed after seeing the apparition. In her book, Pearl Zaki interviewed Dr. William Nashed Zaki, the ex-director of the Masarra Unit for Medical Treatment in Cairo. He’d been suffering from a hernia for 13 years. Desperate for relief, he visited the church in Zeitoun on May 30, 1968. “Just before dawn, I saw the Blessed Virgin,” he recalled. “I prayed for a miraculous cure through her intercession. When I reached home, no pain of any sort was bothering me. The hernia had been absolutely cured.”
The purported miracles weren’t limited to Zeitoun. Many reported unusual encounters with a woman dressed in white during the time of the apparitions. Like the pair of doctors traveling to Cairo through the Wadi-al-Naturn Valley. They spotted a young woman in white, walking alongside the road. Assuming she was a nun from a nearby monastery, they offered her a ride. She was headed to Zeitoun. When they arrived in Cairo, they opened the car door for her. A white dove flew out. And the woman? She was gone.
From 1968 to 1971, it’s estimated that one million people claimed to see Mary in Zeitoun. Sometimes for mere minutes, sometimes for hours. TV crews descended on the small town. People of all faiths traveled far and wide, hoping to catch a glimpse. Biblical researcher Rebecca Jackson, co-author of A Lady of Light Appears in Egypt, conducted numerous interviews with the eyewitnesses. “What sticks out is that everyone agrees on what they saw, regardless of their faith,” she says. “They were convinced that what they saw in Zeitoun was for real.”
Mary’s last recorded appearance at the church took place on May 29, 1971. She was said to be seen holding an olive branch. A symbol of peace. In fact, “Zeitoun” comes from the Arabic word for olives. “I believe Mary’s appearance in Zeitoun was a call for peace and healing in the area, and it was a promise fulfilled,” Jackson says. “She came back to Egypt. Just like she said she would.”
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