The evening of April 2, 1968 began just like any other in Zeitoun, the sprawling suburb of Cairo. The hot, dusty streets were alive with the cacophony of horns, carts, and street peddlers making their way home through the dusky haze.
Farouk Atwa—a 31 year-old construction worker—had just completed his shift in a parking garage across from St. Mary’s Coptic Church, when he saw the woman in white robes perched on the basilica’s main dome. “Don’t do it, lady!” he shouted, summoning curious onlookers, “Don’t jump!” The woman, who did not hear him, appeared to glide effortlessly over the smooth, sloping roof toward the church’s cross, with her head bowed and hands folded in prayer.
A large crowd formed in the streets below, gaping at the luminous woman in disbelief. Suddenly, what appeared to be a small flock of sparkling doves appeared, flittering around her head like a revolving crown. Many noticed the thick aroma of incense. As the local paper, Watani, later reported, several onlookers began shouting “Setana Mariam”, meaning, “Our Lady, Mary.” Word spread, and hundreds poured into the streets below, scrambling to catch a glimpse of the Virgin atop the church that bore her namesake. Many were praying the rosary. After nearly an hour, the apparition disappeared.
The next day, Atwa went to the doctor for a scheduled operation to amputate his finger due to gangrene. Both he and his surgeon were shocked to discover his finger was inexplicably healed.
St. Mary’s Church in Zeitoun has a long history of devotion to the Mother of Jesus.
According to Coptic tradition, the site is one of the locations where the holy family stayed during their flight into Egypt. In 1918, it is alleged that Mary appeared in a
dream to Khalil Ibrahim, who owned several plots of land in the region, and told him to build a church in her honor at that location. St. Mary’s was completed in 1924 and has served as a shrine to the Holy Family ever since.
Incredibly, the apparition on St. Mary’s roof returned the following week, and continued intermittently through the summer months of 1968; returning several times a week, sometimes for hours at a time, other times for only a brief moment.
La’ami Tawfia remembers her experience at Zeitoun, “I saw her once. A light, that was weak. After a while, it grew brighter. She was completely white, her face, her robes, everything.” Though Mary never spoke to those below, witnesses recounted how she always appeared to be praying, or bowing her head toward the cross, and on many occasions posed similarly to the Miraculous Medal, with her arms open and palms outward. Some occasions she remained stationary, while other instances, she glided across the church roof.
Word quickly spread that something incredible was occurring at St. Mary’s, and the crowds multiplied by the thousands to see the Virgin and pray with her. At one apparition, the crowd swelled to nearly 250,000, containing onlookers of many faiths: Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. There are several accounts of skeptics who came to witness for themselves, converting upon witnessing Our Lady.
Government authorities, concerned with the growing crowds, sent investigators to determine the source of sensation, convinced it was an elaborate hoax. After an extensive search—including the church’s rooftop—turned up no sign of a projector device, many of the investigators joined the crowd, convinced they too were indeed seeing the Virgin Mary. Even Egypt’s former president Abdul Nasser witnessed an apparition, admitting that he was indeed seeing the Virgin Mary.
Pearl Zaki was visiting Cairo from Minnesota in the summer of 1968, and described her encounter with Mary at Zeitoun, “How the light came, I can’t explain it. It was like space opened up, and she was there, on top of the big dome. She looked like a full-figured person in the light. When she moved, you could see the back of her head.”[i]
The extraordinary events received coverage in the Egyptian press, yet went virtually unnoticed in the Western media, receiving minor blurbs in the papers, at a time when the Vietnam conflict, campus demonstrations, and the Cold War dominated the public’s attention.
While the majority of apparitions occurred in 1968, they continued intermittently over the following two years, and gradually tapered off until the last recorded vision in 1971.
Later that year, a papal envoy from Rome who witnessed the apparitions sent a detailed report to Pope Paul VI attesting to their authenticity. Since there was no specific “message,” and the apparitions occurred in the jurisdiction of the Coptic Church, the Vatican has taken no official position on Zeitoun, although it is widely reported that Pope Paul VI and John Paul II spoke favorably of the apparitions.
In 1968, the Coptic Patriarch Kyrollis VI assembled an investigative committee, consisting of several high-ranking Coptic clergy, who formally concluded that the apparitions were genuine.
Bishop Anthanasius of Beni Souieff, one of the committee members who witnessed several of the apparitions, described the visions: “Clouds covered the dome,” he later recounted, “Something like fluorescent lamps began to illuminate the sky. Suddenly, there she was.”
Unable to provide any rational explanation, Egypt’s state-run General Information and Complaints Department issued the following statement: “The official investigations have been carried out with the result that it has been considered an undeniable fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing on Zeitoun Church in a clear and luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, whether Christian or Moslem.”
Although Islam has a robust devotion to Mary—viewing her as the mother of a holy figure—several Muslims converted after witnessing her devotion to the cross, especially after one instance where she was reportedly holding the infant Jesus.
In Arabic, “Zeitoun” translates to “olive,” a fact not lost on the onlookers, who witnessed Mary holding an olive branch on many occasions. At a time when Coptic/Muslim relations were tense, and Egypt was reeling from defeat in the 6-Day War, it was the only time anyone could recount people of diverse faiths, Copts, Catholics, and Muslims, honoring the Mother of God in such a fashion.
Today, when Christians—Coptic and Catholic alike—are subject to persecution and martyrdom from radical Islam, many look to the unity Our Lady inspired at Zeitoun, and pray to Mary’s intercession that someday, peace will return to the Holy Family’s place of refuge.
[i] Michael H. Brown, The Final Hour, Faith Publishing Co. 1992, 168