Egypt's 1960s Remarkable Virgin Mary Sightings
By Amargi Hillier
(Cairo) While all in America were watching the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention, or viewing live war zone broadcasts from Vietnam or were being mesmerized by the Watergate hearings on television, the Mother of Jesus was appearing for tens of thousands to see in the land of the pyramids at a Coptic church constructed to commemorate the area in Egypt where she had come with Joseph and Jesus when they all fled from Herod. Starting in April, 1968, her apparitions of light changed the lives of thousands. Her appearances at Zeitun were astounding. She was seen by more than a million people. The apparitions were broadcast by Egyptian TV, photographed by hundreds of professional photographers and personally witnessed by Egyptian President Abdul Nasser. The apparitions lasted for three years with numerous unaccountable healings recorded by various medical professionals. The local police, who initially thought the apparitions were an elaborate hoax, searched a 15-mile radius surrounding the site to uncover any type of device that could be used to project such images. They were completely unsuccessful.
Today the cathedral of Zeitoun, a massive concrete bunker-like basilica, overflows with the faithful. Inside, priests in dark robes and boys in white gowns and scarlet sashes walk towards the hazy golden altar, bearing billowing incense and chanting the Coptic liturgy. The whole massive edifice was built to commemorate the fact that 25 years ago, the Holy Mother herself honored this spot with her presence. To some it was a blinding light, unlike anything on earth. To others she was unmistakable, the Virgin Mary, walking as if in the flesh, on the roof of the small chapel across from where the basilica now stands, looking like the paintings and icons they revered.
Her first visit was on the night of April 2, 1968. Two Muslim watchmen at a garage saw a woman walking the roof of the church across the street. Afraid she was going to jump, they ran out shouting at her not to take her life, summoning a crowd below. The priest of the chapel was the first to believe it was an apparition. The longest single appearance was on April 30, 1968, when the vision remained from 2:45 a.m. until 5 a.m. The nightly apparition attracted vast crowds of both Copts and Muslims, and was declared a genuine miracle by the Coptic Church. During the year when apparitions visited the small church on Tamambay Street in Zeitoun, thousands came, saw and believed, from the humble to the highest bishops of the Coptic church. They describe in detail what they saw 25 years ago. Father Butros Cayid, brother of Pope Shenouda, presides over the cathedral of Zeitoun. "I saw her with my own eyes. The apparition appeared four hours continually, and all the people were shouting, 'San Maria, San Maria! Our Holy Mother, our Holy Mother!'. Father Butros has described her many times, to the believers and the curious.
"In a blue dress, glittering," adds Hermina Amin, deacon of the church. "Sometimes you could see every part of the body. Sometimes she appeared at the window, sometimes the whole figure." Others remember her as a light. "She came only at night," said La'ami Tawfia, volunteer director of church projects. "I saw her once. A light, that was weak. After a while, it grew brighter. She was completely white, her face, her robes, everything" Saraim Wasily was one of the thousands of people who came during the year that the Virgin appeared. Unlike most, who were kept away from the site by police, he was able to watch from his brother's apartment a few dozen meters from the church. "I saw her twice.
She was very tall, and she did not stand on the ground. I watched her for more than two hours. She shone more than the moon, all completely white, sometimes with her arms together and sometimes with her arms outstretched. Every night there were doves, and doves, you know, do not fly at night." Despite the police, the street was packed with the faithful and curiosity seekers. "If you wanted to go from this house to the church [across the street], you would take 20 minutes ... There were Muslims and Christians, and everyone was as one, one religion together." His wife interjects with a chuckle, "He was so scared, his hair stood on end." "Not from fear," Wasily responds, finger upraised, "from piety!" Word spread and the faithful came. Foreign visitors and high church officials visited the site and left believing they had seen the Virgin Mary.
For a year, the apparition appeared sporadically, never at the same time, accompanied by lights, doves, and stars. Miracles were reported. The Coptic Pope sent an official delegation of bishops to observe the appearances. After seeing the vision walk the rooftops, they solemnly certified that the apparition was genuine. But after two years the visits became almost routine. Distinguished visitors could apply for permission with the patriarch to "Virgin-watch". As winter came, the crowds dwindled, the police re-opened the street, the appearances decreased to an odd star or pigeon, and soon they stopped completely. "She came to remind us that God is with us forever," said Father Butros, "and as a sign of peace, because she was bearing an olive branch. She told us that all the Egyptians will be safe and blessed forever." Others have put the Virgin in her context. She came at a period of crisis in Egyptian history, the 1967 war having vitiated Nasser's pan- Arab appeal. Mary's coming coincided with the return of veiling, the sprouting of beards, and the other signs of the Islamist renaissance.
She helped to cement the advent of spiritual over secularist politics. Some anthropologists suggest that Mary's popularity in Egypt is a vestige of the Isis cult, itself an incarnation of primeval mother - goddess worship. Virgin sightings may be among paganism's contributions to monotheistic mysticism. But to Father Butros and his flock, the appearance of the Mother of Jesus in their humble church in Zeitoun, dressed like an icon so that there would be no mistake as to her identity, was heaven's endorsement of all they believed. Archives
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Last Updated: June 13th, 2011
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