Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marian Apparitions at El-Zeitoun and Social Psi (Part 2)

The data issue

The events that occurred in Zeitoun, Egypt, are now over 40 years old. This makes it an historical case. Although many witnesses should still be alive today, they could be quite hard to find (and it would certainly be costly to try to find them out). Furthermore, as shown by the field investigation conducted by Michel Nil [1] in 1978, only 10 years after the events, many witnesses could not remember some key details such as the dates that the anomaly occurred. Hence, conducting a field investigation, at this point in time, would be of dubious value, and so focussing on existing material remains the most sensible option.

The written data is, surprisingly, also difficult to find. Although there are many Internet sites that discuss the events, they are taking their information pretty much from the same source; an Internet site maintained by a group of believers linked to the Coptic Orthodox Church at  Like in the case of UFO websites, many unsubstantiated claims are uncritically carried from one website to the next. The case in point is the alleged visit to St. Mary’s Church in Zeitoun by the then Egyptian president Nasser [2]. According to Michel Nil, there are also few publications in Arabic about the Zeitoun events, and most of them are relatively short brochures [3]. The situation of publications in other languages is not much better [4].

In this context, the literature in English and French on the topic can be considered as a representative source of data for this study. After reviewing this literature it appears that there are only few substantive original sources that document the events: (a) the English version of the report from the Coptic Church investigation [5], (b) Jerome Palmer’s 1969 book Our Lady returns to Egypt [6], Francis Johnston’s When Millions Saw Mary [7], and (d) Pearl Zaki’s Our Lord's Mother Visits Egypt in 1968 & 1969 [8]. It is to be noted that these texts were produced by believers, and that their intent was less about providing a detailed documentation of the events, and more about “proving” that the phenomenon was indeed a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. But it is also important to note that the notion of “proof” for these believers has a somewhat different meaning that in the scientific context.

Although they documented objective aspects like the description of the events, the miraculous cures, statements from the authorities, and newspaper clippings, the focus is very much on the witnesses’ inner experience of seeing the Virgin Mary. This focus should not surprise anyone, as any religious belief is fundamentally based on mystical experience (this is quite similar to many UFO books, which are written by believers in the ETH, and have a narrative constructed to “prove” the ETH by focussing on technological aspects). Lastly, let’s underline that these publications also cover with great care the process of official acknowledgement by the Coptic religious authorities (once more, the parallel with UFO books is striking, except that the authorities in this case reject the acknowledgement of the ETH as an explanation, so the believers continue to lobby for recognition, and a spend a lot of energy trying to show that there is a significant cover-up).

Once more, given that such anomalies tend to put the mainstream press and scientific establishment in an uncomfortable position, ignoring the events is a preferred strategy for these people who have greater access to the public discursive space. This explains why only believers do care writing about such anomalies. Other texts about Zeitoun add a few more details and a few more original interviews with witnesses, but they are largely built on either one of the main sources listed above. Furthermore, the limited amount of sources about these very public events is likely due to both linguistic challenges, and Western-centric and pro-Roman Catholic attitudes.

The events occurred in an Arabic-speaking country, making the collection of data quite difficult for most researchers who are not fluent in Arabic. But more important, the events occurred in the context of Orthodox Christianity, not Roman Catholicism, and most researchers in Marian studies are either priest in the Catholic Church or at least grew-up in a Catholic environment. If one acknowledges that the Virgin was indeed paying substantive attention to the Orthodox Church, then the Roman Catholic claim of being the “only true religion” can be indirectly challenged. Furthermore, these apparitions were not “typical”, in that they were no communication between the entity and one or a few young people (usually teenage girls). In fact, there was no obvious message communicated in Zeitoun. These factors are likely to make the events “less interesting” for those who are working within the “normal” frames of reference found in Marian studies, something that Michel Nil also noted [9]. A parallel can be made with UFO research where a great deal of writing can be found on a very thin case like Roswell, while a very well documented and fascinating case like the Belgian UFO wave of 1989-1990 is essentially ignored outside the French-speaking world. Clearly, what makes an anomaly worth of interest is very much dependent on social and cultural factors rather than the intrinsic “objective” qualities of the phenomenon.

Lastly, let’s note that there is at least one advantage of doing a research on an historical case many years after the fact: there is another and much more recent case that can be used for comparison purpose. On 11 December 2009, in a neighbourhood of Giza (not far from Cairo) a similar apparition occurred and it was filmed in color. It is usually referred to as the “Lady of Warraq”, and the film is easily accessible on the Internet [10].  What is found in that film (made from a cell phone camera) matches a number of pictures taken during the Zeitoun events as well as many descriptions that were transcribed in a various written sources. More on this particular event in a later post.

The events of Zeitoun – the quantitative view

Among the surprises I had researching this case is that there is no complete list of apparitions. The Coptic Church investigation identified 27 apparitions during the period of 2 April 1968 to 4 May 1968, with a number of nights having more than one apparition occurring [11]. Other sources noted that there was a decline in the number of apparitions throughout 1968 to one or two a week [12].  The frequency went down to once a month by early 1970, according to Johnston [13]. However, based on Zaki’s research, between 21 August 1969 and 11 June 1971 there were 17 apparitions [14]. According to Johnston, the last apparition occurred on 29 May 1971 [15].

In light of this rather sketchy data, if one makes a count there should have been over 90 apparitions, although the period going from mid-1968 to mid 1969 had to be extrapolated based on qualitative comments [16].

The Count:

2 April - 4 May 1968: 27
5 May - Mid-1969: 50 (?)
Mid-1969-mid 1971: 17

Approximate total:  94 apparitions

I had to build from scratch a list of apparitions using information found in the various documents consulted. I have only 34 apparitions that I can link to a specific source, roughly 36% of the estimated total. They are:

2 April 1968
Many (Among others, Zaki pp. 4-5)
3 April 1968
Brune, p. 7
6-7 April 1968
Kamell et al., p. 56; Nil, p. 117
8-9 April 1968
Palmer, p. 15, Kamell et al., p. 60; Nil, p. 114
10 April 1968
Bayless, p. 7, Kamell et al. P. 66; Nil, p. 115
11 April 1968
Brune, p. 8; Nil, p. 115
12 April 1968
Nelson, p. 6; Nil, p. 115
13 April 1968
Johnston, p. 6; Nil, p. 44
19 April 1968
Bayless, p. 25
27 April 1968
Johnston, p. 7
29-30 April 1968
Palmer, p. 21; Johnston, p. 19; Bayless, p. 9; Nil, p. 115
4-5 May 1968
Johnston, p. 5; Bayless, p. 10; Kamell et al. P. 71
6-7 May 1968
Palmer, p. 32
9 May 1968
Palmer, p. 35
13 May 1968
Johnston, p. 29
15 May 1968
Johnston, p. 7
28 May 1968
Palmer, p. 50
30 May 1968
Johnston, p. 28
31 May 1968
Bayless, p. 24
1 June 1968 (2 app)
Palmer, p. 48; Johnston, p. 8; Bayless, p. 10
4 June 1968
Nil, p. 98
8-9 June 1968
Johnston, p. 5; Bayless, p. 9
13 August 1968
Zaki, p. 7
15 August 1968
Nil, p. 80
11 September 1968
Nil, p. 80
6 October 1968
Nil, p. 120
5 January 1969
Palmer, p. 32
4 April 1969
Egyptian Gazette
6 January 1970
Johnston, p. 25
14 February 1970
Johnston, p. 25
6 March 1970
Johnston, p. 25
12 September 1970
Johnston, p. 25
29 May 1971
Johnston, p. 25

Another issue about this count is what is actually meant by “apparition”. The phenomenon was not consistent in its visible characteristics. It ranged from the “full-blow” apparition to only a subset of it. For instance, Johnston states that the phenomenon was:

"generally preceded by mysterious lights, flashing and scintillating silently over the church like a canopy of shooting stars. One witness described them as a 'shower of diamonds made of light'. [...] Minutes later, formations of luminous doves would appear and fly around the floodlit church. Eyewitnesses described them as 'strange bird-like creatures made of light' which flew with astonishing swiftness without moving their wings. They always maintained a definite formation and disappeared suddenly like melted snowflakes. Shortly after, a blinding explosion of light would engulf the church roof. As it dwindled, it shaped itself into the brilliant form of Our Lady. Invariably, she would be seen in a long white robe and veil of bluish-white light [17].

Zaki met a nun who counted 17 “apparitions” for the period between mid-1969 to mid-1971, while she also counted luminous birds on 24 nights, and lights, stars and other luminous phenomena on 85 nights for that same period [18].This illustrates quite well that the count is very much dependent on how the various witnesses defined the notion of “apparition”. Hence, the above count should be taken as an illustration more than as a reliable count.

It is also interesting to note, even if one should not be surprised by it, that the number of witnesses followed the general pattern of the apparitions. There were only a few witnesses the first day, as it was a completely unexpected event. It eventually grew to a very large gathering. Nil interviewed a witness stating that there were about 100 people on the night of 13 April 1968 [19]. Nelson estimated that there was between 1,000 and 1,500 people on 15 April 1968 [20]. After that the phenomenon was discussed for the first time in the mainstream press, through the 23 April 1968 article in the Arabic-language newspaper Watani , the crowd grew significantly. The Bishop Athanasius estimated that there were 100,000 people on the night of 29/30 April [21]. It finally reached an estimated 250,000 nightly onlookers after a few weeks, according to Johnston [22]. By the end of 1968, it was estimated that the crowed was down to 10,000 people nightly [23]. By June 1971, there were only a handful of people according to Zaki [24]. It should be noted that it is notoriously difficult to estimate properly the size of a crowd, especially at night, and the higher figure might have been over-estimated. However, this provides a good illustration that not only the phenomenon was a very public event, but also the interest in the phenomenon can be correlated directly with its intensity. Graphically, with the limited information available, the apparitions and crowd pattern for the entire 3-year period would have approximately the following shape:

Note that the crowd numbers are in increments of 10,000 people, and the time line in 3-months increment starting in February 1968 and ending in August 1971. Also, the apparent crowd decline preceding the apparition decline is only a product of the limited information available, and it should not be inferred from this graph.

From a quantitative view of the Zeitoun events, there are two additional observations that can be made with a fair degree certainty. First, the events seemed to have been very intense at the beginning (during April and May 1968), but started to decline sometime after the official investigation ended and the phenomenon was declared authentic by the Coptic Church on 5 May 1968. Second, the phenomenon was resilient enough to last for 3 years, with a declining cycle of occurrences and intensity.

References for Part 2

[1] Nil, Michel. (1979). L'apparition miraculeuse de la Saint Vierge à Zeitoun, 1968-1969. Paris, Éditions Tequi.
[2] I could find only one source on this point, and it is an undated interview with an unnamed witness by Father François Brune about two undated visits by Nasser to Zeitoun. He apparently signed the Church’s Visitors book, but this book is now missing. From Brune, François. (2004). La Vierge de l'Égypte. Paris: Le jardin des livres, p. 21. Given the rather imprecise nature of this information, it is almost impossible to corroborate it.

[3] Nil, p. 113-114.

[4] DeVincenzo, Victor. (1988). "The apparitions at Zeitoun, Egypt (1968): an historical overview". Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 11(January): 3-14, p. 4.

[5] Gregorius, Bishop Anba. (1969). St. Mary's transfigurations at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Zeitun, Cairo. Cairo: al-Mahabba Bookshop.

[6] Palmer, J. (1969): Our Lady returns to Egypt. San Bernardino, CA: Culligan Publ.

[7] Johnston, Francis. (1980). Zeitoun (1968-1971): When Millions Saw Mary. Chulmleigh, England: Augustine Pub,

[8] Zaki, Pearl. (1977). Our Lord's Mother Visits Egypt in 1968 & 1969. Cairo, Egypt: Dar El Alam El Arabi.

[9] Nil, pp. 152-154.

[10] For internet links and references, see

[11] Anonymous. (1977). « Apparition miraculeuse de la Sainte Vierge à Zeitoun ». Le Monde copte, no. 1 [online at, consulted 2 September 2011]; Bayless, Raymond. (1981). "Marian Apparitions at Zeitun, Cairo," Journal of the Southern California Society for Psychical Research 2: 6-34, p. 8.

[12] Johnston, p. 19.

[13] Johnston, p. 25.

[14] Quoted in Bayless, p. 21.

[15] Johnston, p. 25.

[16] Based on the assumption of a gradual decline from twice a week to once a month, and calculated as twice a week for the first 3 months (26 occurrences), once a week for the next 3 months (13 occurrences), once every other week for another 3 months (about 7 occurrences), and once a month for the last 3 months (3 occurrences), an approximate total of 50 occurrences can be proposed for the period  ranging from mid-1968 to mid-1969.

[17] Johnston, p. 4.

[18] Quoted in Bayless, p. 21.

[19] Nil, p. 44.

[20] Nelson, Cynthia. (1973). "The Virgin of Zeitoun". Worldview 16(9): 5-11, p. 5.

[21] Bayless, p. 16.

[22] Johnston, p. 5.

[23] Johnston, p. 19.

[24] Quoted in Bayless, p. 22.


Ed Kelly said...

Who is the writer of this blog?

Eric Ouellet said...

I am the author. You can reach me at