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Illuminating Our Lady of Zeitoun

Donate This Marian apparition from Egypt has some science fiction explanations and a sound one.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion

Skeptoid Podcast #766
February 9, 2021
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Illuminating Our Lady of Zeitoun

It happened in 1968 in Zeitoun, a district of Cairo, Egypt. In the twilight of the evening of April 2, some mechanics across the street from St. Mary's Coptic Church saw what they thought was a woman atop the church about to jump and commit suicide. They made some phone calls, and soon police were there breaking up a crowd of onlookers. At some point, somebody said it looked like the Virgin Mary, and that new identification raced through the crowd. But soon she was no longer visible. A week later she appeared again, and this time the locals were ready; but again she faded before many could arrive. This same pattern was repeated at irregular intervals for three years — sometimes a few times a week, sometimes only every few weeks; and as many as 250,000 people are said to have seen her — both Christians and Muslims alike. Our Lady of Zeitoun was quickly confirmed by the Coptic Pope Cyril. And ever since, it has been an accepted fact by both Copts and Muslims that the Virgin Mary did indeed walk the rooftop of the church named for her in Zeitoun.

The fervor that swept Egypt was tremendous. Thousands crammed the streets around the church every night; and when it was rumored that another apparition had been seen at a different church in the Shubra district, a stampede of ten thousand resulted in the trampling deaths of fifteen people. Following this, the government cordoned off the church at Zeitoun and charged admission to get anywhere near it.

The following is excerpted from Pope Cyril's Patriarchate Report On the Apparition of Saint Mary
in the Zaitoun Church in Cairo, Egypt

The Holy Virgin Saint Mary sometimes appeared surrounded with a halo of shining light. She was seen in different locations such as on the windows of the domes of the church. And, she was observed walking on the roof of the church. When she knelt in reverence to the cross, the cross shone with bright light. Waving her blessed hands and nodding her head, she blessed the people who gathered to observe the miracle. She sometimes appeared in a cloud of light and sometimes as a figure of light. Her apparitions were sometimes preceded with heavenly bodies shaped like doves moving at high speeds. The apparitions continued for long periods, up to 2 hours and 15 minutes as in the dawn of Tuesday April 30, 1968, where she appeared continuously from 2:45am till 5:00am.

Thousands of people of different denominations and religions, Egyptians and foreign visitors observed the miracles. The description of each apparition as of the time, location and configuration was identically witnessed by all people, which makes this apparition unique and sublime.

When 250,000 people have all seen an amazing, incredible apparition which clearly transcends the material world and proves the existence of the paranormal, that represents an astonishing fundamental shift in our understanding of the universe. Any reasonable person would want nothing more than to have a look at the evidence. The apparitions took place from 1968 to 1971, so hopefully there is some video or 16mm film, especially given that thousands of people are said to have gathered nightly in hopes of catching a glimpse. Surprisingly, neither exists — could it be nobody thought to film such a firmament-rending event? There are, however, some photographs.

There are not very many, but there are a handful — and if you want to push "pause" right now and do a google image search for them, please go for it. What you'll immediately see is that none appear to actually be photographs; they are illustrations, in some cases composited or superimpositioned with photographs. Read about some of them and you'll discover that most are acknowledged illustrations — many of those you'll find were created at the time for sale by street vendors during the events. The most common one is a daytime photograph looking past a couple of spectators up toward the roof the church, but the top half of the photo has a painted night sky with a white halo surrounding the church and a painted white figure with a prominent halo, hands clasped in prayer, facing the spectators. This weird half-daytime, half-nighttime, half-photo, half-painting doesn't look anything like an actual photograph. For comparison purposes, look at the countless thousands of Vietnam War photographs, taken at the same time. There was no problem with night photography. There are many exquisite Vietnam War photos, both daytime and nighttime. Young military photographers could only hope to be as skilled as experienced professional photojournalists who had up to three years to prepare their shots, so we should expect the photos of Our Lady of Zeitoun to be of the highest quality. But they're not. They are horrible, obvious illustrations — and they number no more than you can count on your fingers. But let's set that aside for now, and just plant a little flag to remind us that whatever the professional reporters of the day may have been able to document does not quite measure up to what the Coptic Church officials recorded.

It's not inconsequential that in all the literature I surveyed, I found not a single mention of any sightings or photos by anyone up on the roof, which is the first place church officials would have stationed someone in their zeal to certify this as an authentic miracle.

There's one "sciencey-sounding" explanation for the Zeitoun lights that is mentioned in virtually every skeptical article on the subject: earthquake lights. This proposal was first published in 1989 by Derr and Persinger in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills. From that article's abstract:

These phenomena, viewed by thousands of onlookers, began one year before an unprecedented increase (factor of 10) in seismic activity about 400 km to the southeast. Monthly analyses also demonstrated a moderate (0.56) correlation between increases in seismicity and the occurrence of luminous phenomena during the same or previous month. These results were interpreted as further support for the hypothesis that most anomalous (terrain-related) luminous phenomena are generated by factors associated with tectonic strain.

To grasp the plausibility or implausibility of earthquake lights as an explanation for Our Lady of Zeitoun, you need only listen to my full Skeptoid episode on earthquake lights, #534. In it, you'll find that despite widespread popular belief in earthquake lights, there is neither evidence for their existence nor any plausible theory suggesting anything like them might exist. Michael Persinger, one of the authors of that paper, was a strong proponent that earthquake lights might explain many strange light-related phenomena, not just Zeitoun. However, he was a psychologist, not a geophysicist — note the paper was published in Perceptual and Motor Skills and not in a geophysical journal — and though he was doubtless well practiced in the ways the mind can fool itself, he was ill-equipped to evaluate the plausibility of earthquake lights from a geophysical perspective.

Without exception, every time the source of a so-called "earthquake light" caught on video has been conclusively identified, it's been either lightning from a distant storm unrelated to the earthquake; the explosion of an electrical transformer directly related to the earthquake; or a cloud illuminated by the sun that should never have been called an earthquake light in the first place. There has never been any need to go in search of an exotic explanation for a mysterious phenomenon that we have no reason to believe exists. Using earthquake lights as an explanation for any phenomenon is a textbook example of the fundamentally fallacious practice of using one unknown to explain another unknown.

But using them to explain Our Lady of Zeitoun stretches this to an even further level of absurdity. Derr and Persinger, the original authors, correlated her appearance to seismic activity 400 km to the southeast. They were suggesting that these earthquakes caused lights that manifested neither as great flashes in the sky nor as sparks along the ground, but as a fully formed and recognizable human figure standing still or walking slowly on the rooftop of one particular church 400 km to the northwest, for quiet hours at a time, over a period of three years. No other such apparitions were reported in this alleged 400km radius at all over that same period of time. Why not? Because it's a terrible, terrible explanation, and it is wrong.

A much more useful insight into Our Lady of Zeitoun comes from the cultural context in which it happened. Crucially, this entire event took place shortly after Egypt's defeat in the Six Day War, which resulted in great public despair and anxiety, and just a few days after President Nasser's March 30 Manifesto which outlined his plan for Egypt to recover. As author Michael Carroll wrote in his 1986 book The Cult of the Virgin Mary:

It seems reasonable to suggest that the apparition at Zeitoun was — like the government actions just mentioned — a response to the anxiety generated by the 1967 defeat. The people of Egypt, in other words, were susceptible to any suggestion which indicated that God was on their side, as such a suggestion would reduce their anxiety over the future. The idea that God might send the Virgin Mary as a sign that he was indeed on their side is consistent with the Koran's view of Mary, and so the people of Egypt would have been very receptive to the possibility that an apparition of the virgin Mary was in progress at Zeitoun.

This was the setting when Cynthia Nelson, then a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo, heard about the apparition from her students and spent the next five months studying the phenomenon. She spoke with many spectators on the scene, collecting their stories and forming a picture of what the apparition meant to Egyptians — Copts and Muslims alike. Nelson spent may evenings there herself, and on several occasions she saw what appeared to be flashes of light on the church's domes, which to her looked similar to headlights. Every time the slightest reflection would appear, the crowd would swell in cheers and gasps of awe, for there was no doubt in their minds that they were seeing the Virgin Mary.

I immediately "explained" this perceptual experience as an illusion caused by reflected light. But the source of the light was a mystery, for the streetlights had been disconnected all around the church for several days. And within another week all the trees around the church would be cut. The woman beside me was convinced it was the Virgin, which reveals once again that what the eye sees is the consequence not so much of psychological processes but of intellectual, emotional and ideational concerns.

Nelson's 1973 paper on her experience, "The Virgin of Zeitoun", remains the most authoritative and is generally the primary source for most other material written by Western scientists on the phenomenon. In it, she noted several old local prophecies that the Virgin Mary would one day appear in Zeitoun, and another local legend asserts that when the Holy Family was escaping from Herod, Mary spent several days resting at a tree just outside of town. So in the minds of many Egyptians, the apparition had always been expected. She wrote:

How people cope with the stress of national disaster tells us much about what is essential to their identity, their cultural premises as to what is real; what their specific modes of interpreting events in history are; what sorts of societal tensions are intensified under threat of disaster. The Six-Day War did not create these reactions; it was a catalyst which exposed the pulsing nature of the society itself... The appearance of the Virgin symbolizes the disillusionment with secular political explanations and a turning toward the religious — to a deeper level of existence in terms of which it all makes sense.

We need no earthquake lights, no miracles, and no papal declarations to explain Our Lady of Zeitoun. We need only a great collective desire and belief by a passionate populace — triggered by some unknown, inconsequential, various light sources that could have been anything.

By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Illuminating Our Lady of Zeitoun." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 9 Feb 2021. Web. 28 May 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Carroll, M. The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. 211-216.

Derr, J., Persinger, M. "Geophysical Variables and Behavior: LIV. Zeitoun (Egypt) Apparitions of the Virgin Mary as Tectonic Strain-Induced Luminosities." Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1 Feb. 1989, Volume 68, Number 1: 123-128.

Musso, V. "Marian apparitions in cultural contexts: applying Jungian depth psychological principles to mass visions of the Virgin Mary at Zeitoun." International Journal of Jungian Studies. 14 Feb. 2017, Volume 9, Issue 3: 183-196.

Nelson, C. "The Virgin of Zeitoun." Worldview. 1 Sep. 1973, Volume 16, Number 9: 5-11.

Nickell, J. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping icons, relics, stigmata, visions & healing cures. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993. 185-187.

Westbrook, D. "Our Lady of Zeitoun (1968-1971): Egyptian Mariophanies in Historical, Interfaith, and Ecumenical Context." Nova Religio. 1 Nov. 2017, Volume 2, Issue 2: 85-99.


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