[Originally published Feb. 9, 2009]
[A commenter named] Jayman brings up a fascinating subject in a comment on my post about the frequency of divine intervention.
Starting in 1968, and continuing over a 2-3 year period, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared over the Coptic Church of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt. It was witnessed by millions of people of different religious beliefs, it was photographed and videotaped. Miraculous cures were also experienced. Investigations into the matter found no natural explanation. Time to start moving the goal posts?
Zeitoun is a great example to use as a typical “miraculous” apparition, but before we get to that, I’d like to say a little something about goal posts. There’s a psychological trick that apologists sometimes use in connection with claims of the miraculous, if the skeptic says there ought to be evidence of God showing up in real life. The trick is to show the skeptic some questionable evidence, and then insist that he believe, based on that evidence. If the skeptic admits that the evidence is genuine, then he must either admit that God showed up in real life, or he must admit that he is unwilling to look at the evidence. If he questions the quality and validity of the evidence, though, he gets accused of moving the goal posts. “Oh, you said you wanted evidence, but now that we’ve shown you evidence, you want something more. I seeeeee…”
We’re not really asking for anything more. When we ask for evidence, what we mean is we want genuine evidence of God genuinely showing up in real life. It has to be good evidence, valid evidence, evidence that can withstand cross-examination. That’s not asking for too much, surely? Once we have verified that we are indeed dealing with genuine facts and not misperceptions or intentional hoaxes, then we can move on to the question of what the evidence means. We haven’t moved any goal posts until we at least arrive at where the first set of posts stood. And that means having genuine evidence of a genuine appearance.
So, what evidence do we have from Zeitoun? Wikipedia (of all places) has a summary that seems pretty friendly towards the idea that it was a genuine apparition.
According to eye witnesses, the Virgin Mary appeared in different forms over the Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint Mary at Zeitoun for a period of 2-3 years beginning on April 2, 1968. The apparitions lasted from a few minutes up to several hours and were sometimes accompanied by dove-shaped luminous bodies. They were seen by millions of Egyptians and foreigners, including Copts, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and people of no particular faith. The sick and blind are said to have been cured, and many people converted to Christianity as a result…
The apparitions were also witnessed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and captured by newspaper photographers and Egyptian television. Investigations performed by the police could find no explanation for the phenomenon. No device was found within a radius of fifteen miles (24 km) capable of projecting the image, while the number of photographs from independent sources suggests that no photographic manipulation was involved. A New York Times article dated from May 1968 by Thomas Brady notes that some Arabs believed that the apparition of St. Mary was a sign that God had witnessed the Israeli occupation of the Holy Land.
Oddly, though the Wikipedia entry claims that these apparitions were seen by skeptical observers (including President Nasser), I have not been able to find any first hand reports from these sources. The web sites referring to Zeitoun all seem to be from supporters/advocates, encouraging uncritical acceptance of the claim that this was a real appearance of Mary. There’s an indirect indication, however, in the fact that the police are said to have investigated the apparitions by looking for a projector of some sort. Apparently there was something about these phenomena that suggested a projected image rather than a tangible, physical manifestation. Additionally there was some suspicion that the photographs might have been faked or tampered with in some way.
Looking at the first indicator, there are a few things which would be consistent with a hoax based on projecting an image of Mary. First of all, the apparitions would be most visible after dark. Depending on whether the projected image was a movie or a simple slide, there might or might not be movement, though a projected slide would of course be fixed (i.e. you could move the whole image around, but individual elements within the image would remain in the same position relative to one another). And you’d need something to project the image onto: a screen, or a sheet of acetate, or a fine nylon or silk mesh, or a mist, or some kind of smoke: anything that could reflect and/or scatter light enough to hold an image.
I would doubt that a screen or acetate would work, both due to the size and due to the difficulty in concealing the edges, reflections, etc. Something solid like that would show up outside the boundaries of the image being projected, and would give away the game. That leaves the lightweight materials: a fine gauze, a curtain of mist, or a cloud of fine smoke (which would also benefit from the added concealment of night. If such materials were used, they would tend to billow, thus making the image appear to move, and also blurring any long-exposure nighttime photographs. There would also be nights when the weather was unsuitable (e.g. too windy) and borderline conditions where the cloud would be too hard to control, resulting in fading and/or indistinct shapes and blurs. And even on good nights, there might be variations in size, depending on how far the reflective medium was from the projector.
Of course, nothing says you have to use the same materials and methods all the time. Varying your tools and techniques would help promote the hoax (if hoax it was), and would give you an argument to discredit skeptics (“You think it was X, but here’s a case where the phenomenon was Y.”) So that’s a few of the things we could be looking for if we want to know whether Zeitoun is more consistent with what we would expect from a miracle, or with what we would expect from a hoax. On to the apparition itself.
One fairly obvious question one could ask, of course, is how do we know this was Mary? We have no photographs from the first century, and the paintings of Mary tend to portray whatever the artist imagined her to look like. So how do we know this was really Mary and not, say, the ghost of a murdered Egyptian girl come back to haunt the site of her demise? The answer lies in iconography.
Icons were the ancient solution to the problem of how to write down important ideas for people who couldn’t read. A casual visitor to a modern Orthodox church, for instance, might find the icons fairly primitive in artistic style, but that’s a misunderstanding of the purpose and significance of icons. They aren’t meant to be photographic representations of how things actually appear, but rather, are collections of symbols that convey key points without requiring any phonetic literacy on the part of the worshipper. The halo, for example, represents divinity (an idea borrowed from contemporary pagan art), and thus by association someone who either is divine or has some sort of special relationship with the divine. It wasn’t that the person actually had a glowing bubble around their head like some kind of space helmet (Erich von Däniken, are you listening?), it’s that the sun disk symbol became the symbol for all divine beings, and eventually of the servants of God as well.
Mary has an extensive iconography, and is identified by a number of symbols: the halo of divinity/divine favor, the sky-blue robe, the inclined head, signifying submission and humility, often a crown or a “Sacred Heart,” and of course, the unmistakable symbol: cradling the baby Jesus in her arms. The facial features are unimportant, as is any mere textual label: the symbols alone are enough to identify an icon as being the icon of Mary. Here’s an example:
According to the caption, this is a “Photo of the apparition of the Virgin with the Infant Jesus Christ in Her arms over St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, in Zeitoun, Egypt.” But wait just a minute. I was talking about icons, not about the real life Mary, or how she would appear if she showed up in real life. Yet here she (allegedly) is, manifesting above the church in Zeitoun, holding the baby Jesus in her arms. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Jesus supposed to have grown up before he died? Yet here he is, back in infancy again, just like in the icons.
Well, I suppose if Jesus is God, he can take whatever form he likes, right? But the fascinating thing about this particular “manifestation” is that it’s part of a web site about Mary appearing in Egypt. Even the caption puts Mary first; Jesus happens to be just tagging along, helplessly, like any infant controlled and carried around by its mommy. We don’t call it “an apparition of Jesus with his mother,” it’s an apparition of Mary. Oh, and Jesus too. But isn’t Jesus supposed to take priority over mere mortals like Mary? She is not God (or at least, not yet—there is a movement among certain Catholics to have her declared co-redemptrix along with Jesus, and maybe even a fourth member of the Trinity).
But there are more interesting features about these apparitions.
Check it out: Mary has her space helmet on. The halo that was a symbolic, non-representational embellishment in iconography has been taken literally, and added to the image of what Mary would supposedly appear like in real life. Oops. But don’t worry, the church has come up with an explanation that covers that little gaffe: “heavenly apparitions may take forms known to us, so that we can understand them.” Either that, or somebody slipped up while attempting to create an image that would be unmistakable as the person in the icons.
The other interesting thing about the halo is that in the icons, the halo is a glowing disk behind the head, but in the apparitions, it seems to surround her head like a bubble. Here’s a view from a different angle (or maybe it was just a different image):
As in traditional icons, the disk is behind the head, even when the head is in profile. But in order to appear as a disk from all angles, it would have to be a sphere, like a space helmet. Icons, however, consistently portray the halo as a disk behind the head. So much for “forms known to us!” Somebody just slipped up. The images being projected are not just like the icons, they are the icons.
Another feature of these manifestations are the glowing, giant doves that appear, and move quickly, in rigid formation, without flapping their wings, and then disappear again. In classic Christian theology, doves don’t go to heaven when they die, so the church identifies these birds as “angelic beings in the form of doves.” But have a look at these “doves”! Not only do they appear in shapes that owe more to the non-representational symbols found in icons, but they’re all cookie-cutter copies of the other doves in the same image!
According to the official account, these birds “differ from the normal pigeons in that they are able to fly at night; they are also bigger in size and different in shape. They appear from nowhere, do not flap their wings as they fly and disappear as they came.” Kind of like what you would see if you put a picture of stylized doves on a slide, and swung the projector around to move the image, right? But look at those images again. Notice anything unusual? They’re nighttime photos (though the one on the bottom looks like a videotape capture), and the longer exposure times might account for the blurring of the dove shapes. Yet there’s none of the streaking or motion-blurring that we ought to see if several bright objects were moving “at high speed” against a darkened nightscape. Hmmm.
Here’s another dove, hovering over the head of Mary, as photographed by two different people:
Look closely: the second photo is a bit more over-exposed, but the dove appears exactly the same, both in its wing positions and in its location relative to Mary’s head. This is exactly what we would expect to find in a projected 2-dimensional image, like an icon: you don’t have the perspective effects of one 3-dimensional body passing in front of another, so the objects in the image maintain their relative positions no matter what angle you view them from.
There remains the question of what the images could have been projected onto, and for the answer to this we can turn to the eyewitness testimony of those who were there:
Unusual phenomena taking place at the time of the apparitions:
5. The Incense: It used to permeate the place with its strong pleasing smell and white colour.
6. The Clouds: Used to appear over the domes, sometimes taking the form of the Virgin. (See Exodus 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10-11, Isaiah 19:1, Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:34-35)
Fascinating, isn’t it? A projected (hoaxed) image would need something like smoke or clouds to project onto, and that’s just what we have at Zeitoun! (Insert the bad “smoking gun” joke of your choice here.)
Jayman raises an objection in the church’s defense.
The light trick would have to create multiple moving figures (Mary, birds, mist, stars) that could change shapes and that would appear and disappear. The lights would still have to work even after the power was cut to the area in an attempt to catch a hoax. The illusion would have to work at different angles. Does such technology exist today? Did it exist then?
Any decent light show can do as much, and we’ve had non-electrical light sources for a lot longer than we’ve had electricity (ever hear of limelight, or flares?). Some kind of burning material could serve as a source for both the smoke and the light, and if any kind of chemicals were involved, incense would hide the tell-tale odors (at least from those who didn’t want to find them).
Let’s not forget what a tremendous financial windfall this “apparition” has been for both the struggling 3rd-world church and the immediate neighborhood in which it is found. “Zeitoun was more of a Cairo suburb than a district in it; now it has become one of the thickly populated districts in Cairo. Tumanbay Street, where the Coptic church lies, is a main street at Zeitoun. Opposite to the church there used to be a big garage for the buses of the Public Transport Authority,” says the late Rev. Father Boutros Gayed. And the resulting pilgrimages have made the church so popular that it was both necessary and possible to undertake a substantial renovation of the property, resulting in a new cathedral that cost more than two million pounds (pdf. report available here).
I’ve left out some other really fascinating stuff, like the mysterious absence of any audible component to this “apparition,” or the fact that the image tended to be weaker on some nights than others, or the fact (and related photos) of Mary sometimes appearing only from the waist up (insert bad joke about this miracle being “a bust”). And I’m way over my usual budget for blog posts, so I won’t go into the other elements of this complex tale, like the alleged healings.
I have to say, though, that Zeitoun has all the hallmarks of a hoax perpetrated for the financial gain of a rather superstitious and credulous parish. I can’t absolutely prove it; after all, it’s possible that God would, for some reason, want to create an unmistakably supernatural and divine manifestation, and then take the trouble to ensure it would possess a complete list of all the ingredients necessary for a naive and rather obvious hoax. What the purpose would be, other than to discourage critical thinking and the habit of discerning between the real truth and the deceits of men, I can’t imagine. But God works in mysterious ways, eh? Or at least someone does. And maybe we’ll catch him/her/them some day.