In the vast majority of apparitions of the Virgin Mary throughout history, Our Lady was seen and heard by only the seers present. Mostly these were young children, as at Fatima, Portugal. Yet, on October 13, 1917 more than 70,000 people saw "the miracle of the sun". There is an apparition approved by the Church where something even more extraordinary occured. Between 1968 and 1971, the Virgin Mary was seen by many more people in Zeitoun, in the northern suburbs of Cairo, Egypt. As one of the witnesses, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop Gregorius, remarked, "These events have had no equal in the past, neither in the East nor in the West."
Much of the information that follows is from an article published in MICHAEL in March, 1970, in which Louis Even summarized a brochure published in 1969, written by Father Jerome Palmer, an American Benedictine priest, titled "Our Lady Returns to Egypt".
∗ ∗ ∗
It was to Egypt that Joseph went into exile with Jesus and Mary because Herod was looking for the Child to put him to death (cf. Matthew 2:13). The Holy Family remained there six years until the death of this jealous and bloodthirsty king.
Today, Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt, but religious freedom nevertheless exists. Ninety per cent of the country's 102 million inhabitants (in 2020) are Muslims, and the remaining 10% are Christians, called Copts. The Christian minority is almost all within the Orthodox Church with Catholics numbering only a few hundred thousand.
In the Eastern Churches, Catholic as well as Orthodox, certain bishops carry the title of patriarch, either because the episcopal seat they occupy was established by one of the Apostles, or because of its considerable importance. This is the case of the Episcopal See of Alexandria, which dates back to St. Mark. So, there is an Orthodox patriarch who resides in Alexandria itself and a Catholic patriarch who resides in Cairo.
The Blessed Virgin Mother chose neither of the two cathedrals nor the Catholic Church for her appearances which began in 1968. Rather, she appeared at an Orthodox Church, named Saint Mary, located in Zeitoun, north of Cairo and close to where the Holy Family lived during their exile in Egypt.
In 1920, a wealthy Coptic landlord, Tawfiq Khalil Bey, planned to construct a building on land he owned in Zeitoun. Mary appeared to him in a dream promising that if he built a church in place of the planned project, she would honor the location in a singular way. The church was built in 1924, and named after Mary.
The church, inspired by the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, is surmounted by a central dome and four smaller domes at each of the building's four corners. It was above this church that Mary appeared, as promised.
On the evening of April 2, 1968, the attention of mechanics and drivers in the garage opposite to the church was drawn by noise and activity in the street. They saw, on the central dome of the church, a woman dressed in white clothes with her hand resting on the cross that dominated the dome. The workers, all Muslims, gave detailed accounts of what they saw.
Seeing the white form distinctly, they initially believed they were in the presence of a religious sister clad in a white habit. As she was standing on a rounded, slippery surface they yelled at her to be careful and wait. One man, fearing that a woman was contemplating suicide, alerted the police. Another knocked on the church door which was opened by the son of one of the parish priests, Father Youssef Ibrahim. The 18-year-old man saw the figure and informed his father who immediately notified the superior, Father Constantin Moussa. During this time, such a large crowd had gathered in front of the church on Tomanbay Street that traffic was stopped. The parish priest wrote an official report.
This was the first of hundreds of apparitions of Mary which were to attract hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and all religions from across Egypt and other countries, including Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants. All could see with their own eyes and cheer with enthusiasm.
For three years, the apparitions multiplied until 1971, always during the night between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am. Sometimes she appeared for only a few minutes and sometimes one, two or more hours. Her appearances were sometimes interrupted only to resume more than once in the same night.
In the first months, each appearance was longer, generally. On the night of June 8, 1968, people witnessed an apparition continue without interruption from 9:00 pm until 4:30 am.
In the early days, there were apparitions almost nightly. During the rest of the year the average frequency was three nights per week. One could not tell what night the Blessed Virgin would appear and visitors, especially those who came from far away, gathered several nights in a row in order to benefit from one or even several apparitions.
The apparition of Our Lady was usually announced by mysterious lights in various ways. Sometimes it was through a luminous globe so dazzling that it took the eye a few minutes to distinguish the figure of the Virgin which stood out from it. Other times, it was through silent lightning discharges, or even what seemed to be a falling of stars or a shower of diamonds.
Quite frequently, the light seemed to come out of one of the domes, then it lit up the entire roof and the tops of the domes themselves. It even happened that the Virgin was seen gradually emerging from a dome, even though all the domes'windows are without hinges and cannot be opened.
The apparition resembled Mary of the Miraculous Medal, created by Saint Catherine Labouré at the request of the Virgin Mary (who appeared to her in Paris, in 1830). This image was very popular in Egypt thanks to Catholic schools and missions.
The Blessed Virgin appeared mostly in a natural size in the color white with perhaps a faint tint of blue for the eyes. The Blessed Virgin was silent; she might have been taken for a statue but by no means behaved like one. Her feet did not rest on the roof, but in the air, some five, ten or more feet above. She wore the traditional veil and long robes. Her feet could not be seen, being completely covered by her long dress. Her arms and hands, palms up, were graciously extended.
Throughout these apparitions, Mary said no words, but was not motionless. As soon as she appeared, the crowds cheered loudly. She returned the greeting, bowing from the waist in silence, blessing the assembled with both hands unless she had an olive branch in one hand or when she held the Child Jesus as sometimes happened. In those cases, she offered a blessing with her free hand. The crowd was pressed on all sides of the church and the apparition of the Virgin Mother glided from one side to the other, so as to be seen by all and to bless all. The folds of her garments floated gently to and fro as she moved.
The apparition often assumed a smile and sometimes had a sorrowful countenance but always looked very kind. A white aura around her head gave her a great majesty. In some apparitions she wore a crown, in others not. The style did not change within the same apparition but might vary from one apparition to the next, even when successive apparitions happened in the course of the same night. The same with the Child Jesus when with her. He might have been with or without a crown. She was also seen at least once with Saint Joseph and Jesus who then seemed at about the age of 12.
Another phenomenon special to these Marian manifestations was the presence of bird-like creatures, larger than pigeons yet slender like doves. There were other differences: they "flew" without flapping their wings, gliding rather than flying, but often quite rapidly. Not only were they a brilliant white, but they themselves emitted light. They were seen before, during and after the apparitions, sometimes even on nights when there were no apparitions. Whence they came and where they went, nobody could say. They appeared suddenly, and as suddenly, vanished.
They numbered sometimes only one, more often several together, then set a formation which they maintained during the entirety of their appearance. Sometimes, they formed into a triangle; other times into a cross. There were as many as 12, in two parallel lines of six each, maintaining an equal distance unchanged all through their flight.
One cannot be surprised that crowds of people gathered around St. Mary of Zeitoun during the apparitions and in anticipation of them. An average of 50,000 people were present every night in 1968, from the first nights of April to the end of the year; some nights as many as 250,000 or more gathered. The courtyard of the church was quite small and the fence surrounding it was soon brought down. The city of Cairo found it necessary to remove its garage and some houses in the vicinity, to make room for the crowds. The streets of the area were roped off against cars.
In spite of this, there were often so many people that it was very difficult to move. Father Palmer, questioning two Moslems on what they had seen, asked if on seeing Our Lady they had not felt an urge to fall on their knees. He received the answer: "Kneeling down was downright out of the question in such a dense crowd; to do it would have meant being crushed on the spot with no chance to ever stand up again".
The crowd shouted enthusiastically at every apparition of the heavenly figure. All prayed fervently. Moslems recited verses of the Koran. Copts sang hymns in Arabic. Others prayed in Greek. The priests, Orthodox and Catholics alike, and Protestant pastors also, unanimously affirmed the signs of a renewal of faith in their fold evidenced by larger attendance at church, conversions and confessions. Physical cures were also reported in great numbers.
His Holiness Kyrillos VI, Patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, appointed a committee of 12 Coptic bishops and priests who were responsible for studying the phenomena of Zeitoun. They concluded quickly and favorably:
"We have the great honor to submit to your Holiness the result of the investigations carried out on the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, which occurred in our Coptic Orthodox Church of Zeitoun, in Cairo. On April 23, 1968, after being appointed by your Holiness, we went to the place where the church stands and made contact with those who had witnessed the apparitions.
"After collecting statements from garage employees, we have come to the conclusion that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared several times on and in the domes of the church since April 2, 1968. The appearances have been for the most part observed by the workmen of the garage opposite the church. Their testimony has been confirmed, however, by the inhabitants of Zeitoun, both Moslems and Christians. Multitudes from different parts of the country have watched the apparition of the Blessed Virgin, and a great number of them have certified, with enthusiastic written messages, their testimony.
"We then wished to observe the apparition with our own eyes in order to have the matter cleared up plainly and evidently. We stayed opposite to the domes, watching for some nights. We saw the Blessed Virgin Mary appear inside a luminous circle. She appeared in her complete form, moving on the domes, then bowing before the cross and at the end blessing the multitudes.
"Another night we saw doves with the bright color of silver and with light radiating from them. The doves flew from the dome to the sky directly, and they did not flap their wings as birds usually do. We glorified Almighty God for allowing the inhabitants of the earth to see the glory of the inhabitants of heaven."
One of the investigators sent by the Patriarch, Bishop Athanasius, of Beni Soueiff, spent the entire night of April 29, 1968 in Zeitoun. This is how he narrated to Fr. Palmer the experience of that full night:
"The first thing we saw when we got to Zeitoun, about 11:00 pm, was something in the opening under the north-east dome. A silhouette, not very bright in color, started at the bottom of the opening and rose slowly. At first I did not see it, but many people said they saw it. I began to realize it was there. It lasted for 20 minutes and then disappeared. I told the people I could not report that if there was nothing more. There was a very large gathering of people and we stood among them until 3:45 in the morning.
"At dawn some of those who had come with me came running from the northern street along the church and said:'The Lady is over the middle dome.'I was told that some clouds covered the dome, when something like fluorescent lamps began to illuminate the sky. Suddenly there she was standing in full figure.
"The crowd was tremendous. It was too difficult to move among the people but I tried and worked my way to the front. There she was, five or six meters above the dome, high in the sky, full figure, like a phosphorous statue, but not so stiff as a statue. There was movement of her body and clothing.
"It was very difficult for me to stand all the time before the figure as human waves were pushing me from all sides. One would estimate the crowd at 100,000. In an hour or so, I think I stood before the figure eight or nine times. I began to tire and thought it was enough for me.
"After I had left the crowd, I again heard cries from the people. It seemed very unfair for me to leave while the Blessed Mother was there. The fence around the courtyard had broken down, so I returned to the little house or office building south of the church. I stood inside for one hour, from four to five o'clock, looking at the figure. It never disappeared. Our Lady looked to the north; she waved her hand; she blessed the people sometimes in the direction where we stood. Her garments swayed in the wind. She was very quiet, full of glory. It was something really supernatural; very, very heavenly.
"That continued until about ten minutes before five. The apparition then began to grow fainter, little by little. The light gave way to a cloud, bright at first, then less and less bright until it disappeared. I went there many times later, but that was the appearance that left the greatest impression upon me.
"On another night I visited the church. I took the door keys and entered, locking the doors from the inside. As I stood on the ladder that led from the second floor to the top, my eyes turned to the ceiling of the inner dome. No one could see me. I was shaking all over. I took hold of the ladder. I felt there was something unusual there. I prayed:'If you are there, Holy Mary, let me see you. I just want to give witness to you.'Then I heard the people shouting. I hurried outside and saw the Virgin standing one meter from where I had been."
The official declaration of Kyrillos VI on May 5, 1968 was published in the main Egyptian press and in the foreign press (The London Times, New York Times, etc.) describing the main phenomena and concluding:
"The Patriarchate declares with every faith, with deep joy and with overflowing thanks to the heavenly grace, that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Light, has appeared clearly and steadily on many different nights. The vision has lasted varying periods of time, sometimes lasting over two hours uninterruptedly. The appearances began on Tuesday, April 2, 1968, and are still continuing in the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Zeitoun along the Mataria route in Cairo, the route which, it is historically acknowledged, the Holy Family traversed during their stay in Egypt. May God make this a sign of peace for the world, for our dear land and our blessed people."
Around the same time, Cardinal Stephanos I. Sidarouss, Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church, in union with Rome, joined in this official recognition, stating:
"It is no doubt a real appearance confirmed by many Coptic Catholic members who are fully trustworthy. They saw the Blessed Virgin's apparition and gave me complete details and descriptions of the appearances of the blessed apparition on the dome of the Zeitoun church. Sister Paula de Mofalo, a Roman Catholic nun, well-known for her accuracy and precision, assured me of the certainty of the Virgin's appearance on the dome of the Zeitoun church. She was so excited and moved by the blessed apparition that she was shivering and trembling. She says she was not the only observer, but was among thousands of observers who all saw the apparition. This unique miracle embodies a benevolent message which will make the Zeitoun church a place of worldwide pilgrimage."
Pope Paul VI also sent two observers to the site and the Catholic pro-nuncio, Msgr. Lino Zanini, declared that the Holy See respected the authority of the local Church in this matter and relied on its judgment.
The Reverend Dr. Ibrahim Said, head of the Evangelical Church and Speaker on behalf of all the Protestant Churches of Egypt, also came out in favor of the authenticity of the apparitions of Zeitoun, as did various personalities of the Greek-Catholic and Greek-Orthodox Churches.
As early as 1969, the Coptic Orthodox Church included in its liturgical calendar the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Virgin Mary at Zeitoun, celebrated each year on April 2.
The Director of the General Information and Complaints Department submitted to the Minister, Mr. Hafez Ghanem, a detailed report confirming the testimony of garage workers and attesting to 27 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin from April 2, 1968 to that date, adding that any possibility of fraud had been ruled out following scrupulous investigations.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser, head of state of Egypt from 1958 until his death in 1970, also witnessed the apparitions, and could not explain their origin. The police examined the Church of the Apparitions and its surroundings within a radius of 15 miles, and could not find any apparatus or other means that could have projected the images of the Virgin on the domes of the church. The city even cut the electricity in the area for a while at night to check if an electrical source was not the origin of the apparitions but the Virgin continued to appear despite everything.
With time, the 250 square meter St. Mary's church of Zeitoun could no longer accommodate the growing congregation and the huge number of pilgrims who flocked to the site. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to move the bus park opposite the church elsewhere, and allocate its land to the Coptic Church to build a cathedral. The foundation stone for the new cathedral was placed by Pope Shenouda III on 25 March 1976. It is now the second largest in the Middle East and is known as the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin of Zeitoun; the original church is known as the Church of the Holy Virgin of Zeitoun, or simply the Church of the Manifestation.
Zeitoun means "olives" in Arabic, and the olive tree, a branch of which was held by the Virgin during some of her apparitions, is a welcome symbol of peace at a time when the Coptic minority was threatened with strong oppression by Anouar-El Sadat, President of Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981.
It was also after the Six-Day War in 1967. Following the capture of Jerusalem by Israel, it became practically impossible for the Copts to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Places, and Jehan Sadat, widow of the assassinated President, impressed by this great sign from Heaven, wrote thus in the name of Mary, in her biography titled "A Woman of Egypt": "People of Egypt, I know that you will no longer be able to come to see me in Jerusalem; so it was I who came to see you in Cairo".
Never has any other religion made known a comparable supernatural manifestation, and such extraordinary news which brings proofs of the truth of the Christian faith should obviously have gone around the world, provoked many conversions, and been ceaselessly known and repeated if hearts were not closed by so much prejudice and if the media covered Christianity fairly. The supernatural manifestations of Zeitoun have no equivalent in any other religion.
In his article on the Zeitoun apparitions, Louis Even concluded:
"As Mary did not speak a word no one can affirm the specific purpose of the apparitions at Zeitoun. But one thing is certain is that she came, as in all her visits to the earth, as Mother of Graces, to do good. The multitudes who saw her agreed in the kindness she expressed, whether her countenance was smiling or grave, she welcomed us with the palms of her hands turned toward the crowds. She was saluting and blessed those present; many healings have been reported and conversions are even more numerous.
"If Mary did not, as in most of her contemporary appearances, ask us to pray and do penance, it is no less true that she came as a missionary. Like her Son Jesus, she is concerned that souls turn away from evil, become sanctified and obtain salvation. The fact that nine-tenths of those favored by these apparitions were Muslims may come as a surprise but we must not forget that Mary is the Mother of all men. She wants all under her Mother's mantle and everyone to be saved.
"One cannot conceive Mary as being indifferent to a country in which she lived the days of exile with Joseph and her Divine Son Jesus, days in which Egypt afforded more security for the Child than did their own country. Can Mary be indifferent also to the prayers which may arise in Heaven from the multitude of saints produced by centuries of the Christian Church in Egypt?
"However all that may be, one thing is certain. In Cairo, as in all countries where she appears, Mary came with a most lovely and apostolic design. Laudate, laudate, laudate Mariam!"
(source: source: https://en.wataninet.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Holy-Virgin-Zeitoun.jpg