Investigating the Marian apparition at Zeitoun

[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.[1] 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.


  1. rsm says

    Thank you for the interesting article. Not exactly what I expected though as my first thought when reading the title was: “Who the hell sees apparitions of old dead Roman generals”

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome to the blog. I have no reason to doubt that you were there and that you saw something you believe to be an apparition of Mary. Unfortunately it’s embarrassingly easy to get people to believe they’re seeing more than is really there. Penn and Teller are just two of many stage magicians who have successful careers from creating convincing illusions. Yet when we look at photographs of the supposed apparition, we see all kinds of examples of human art, including unrealistic, stylized birds and the pagan symbology of the sun god’s disk behind the heads of the gods (or saints). There’s even an infant Jesus–not even grown up yet, let alone crucified and resurrected. I’m sure your experience greatly strengthened your faith and is very dear to you, but we can’t and shouldn’t overlook all the evidence that points to this “apparition” as being a work of human art.

    • William Assad says

      I was one of the witnesses to the great apparition of the Virgin Mary.

      It never happened in the history of the church that Mary appeared to that multitude of people in a Muslim Country.

      Mary never spoke to any one.

      Look at the history of Egypt after the apparition.

      Egypt was Blessed by God in the Bible.

      God Bless you.


      • Deacon Duncan says

        I notice that Egypt is still a mostly Muslim nation. Mary could surely turn that around by coming down from the high, unreachable roof of the cathedral, and preaching the Gospel to Egyptian Muslims. If she can appear rarely at night, then she can appear as often as she likes, even during the day, and each appearance would bring blessings and salvation to souls beloved by God. A hoax, on the other hand, must be kept rare and inaccessible, both to preserve the shock value of the presentation and to reduce the chances that the hoax will be discovered. It is very significant that the Zeitoun apparitions fit the hoax pattern better than they do the blessing.

  2. Yellow Thursday says

    Speaking of moving goalposts, this reminds me of a conversation I had on another forum. One of the posters asked me, “How do you explain this?” And relayed a “miracle” that the Catholic Church had accepted in elevating some cardinal toward sainthood. A quick Google search revealed this story: Woman has a buildup of fluid in her shoulder. She goes to the hospital. While her doctors are deciding whether to operate, she has her family and friends pray to this dead cardinal. Within 3 days, the fluid subsides (reabsorbed into her body, I surmise), and her doctors decide an operation is not needed.

    When I pointed out the problems with the miracle claim, the poster asked me to pick a miracle to explain. I said, “no, you must have thought it was convincing when you picked it.” But I gave him a second chance. “Give me your best miracle, that you think will convince me.” He didn’t have another one.

  3. HP says

    Not only did the technology to produce this illusion exist in 1967, it has existed since Classical Antiquity. Hero of Alexandria used to rig up stuff like this all the time for pagan temples.

    The simplest way to do this would be using a camera obscura. Seal off a chamber in the church, and make a pinhole in the roof. Get some very bright lights. Wait for a dark night, light a censer on the roof so you have some smoke, and turn on the lights in the sealed chamber, in which you have pictures or sculptures of Mary and some doves.

    You could also rig up a Pepper’s Ghost illusion fairly simply. That’s a bit more complicated, and runs a higher risk of discovery, but the illusion is pretty fantastic. And again, this technology has been around for centuries.

  4. billydee says

    Mary must have a lousy agent. She only gets bookings in backwater places like Fatima, Lourdes, Zeitoun.
    It’s time she gets to perform in New York or Los Angeles.

    • William Assad says

      Bible was man made but inspired by God.

      It is different from the Quran that was rhymed in pieces during 23 years. It doesn’t guarantee your
      entrance to heaven,

      I was skeptic myself until I saw the Virgin Mother apparition at Zietun.

      Many Jews rejected Jesus in spite hearing his words and saw Him opening the eye of a blind.

      They had excuses as “Saturday”. You do the same by claiming the Bible is man made.

      God bless you.


      • Deacon Duncan says

        Men claim that the bible is inspired by God, so the claim of inspiration is just as man-made as the Bible itself. Other men claim that the Quran was not just inspired but actually dictated by God. Yet both books are the works of men, written by the hands of men. Even the stories about the Jews rejecting Jesus are stories out of books written by the hands of men. Yet if there were a God who really loved us enough to dwell among us, walk among us, and even die and rise again for us, then we would have no need of books written by men. God himself would be here dwelling among us, walking among us, and showing us the wounds in his hands and feet, which he received when he died for us. The reason he is not here, is because all that is just a story written by men. We are all eyewitnesses, every day, of God’s absence, and thus we can testify with assurance that these stories about God walking among us are just what they look like: mere stories of men.

  5. says

    So, first you say that if someone tells you to look at the evidence, then they are at fault. Ok. Because to you, you have to recieve the evidence first hand, and a little bit under 2 million ppl saying they saw her is NOT evidence. I get it.

    Then you present the hypothesis of a hoax and move from there, which is not very cientific, but ok. “There are a few things that would be consistent with a hoax” is not a real cientific statement, isn’t it?

    Next you talk about how Jesus should not be a baby. Are we supposed to extrapolate that into sating that then this is a hoax? This is not “cientific” either, but I guess you must be also a Theology expert.

    I’m not going to even comment on the “space helmet” theory. Besides, you don’t even make a point.

    Next. Noone said they were pigeons, they said they were doves and glowed in the night. Doves don’t flight at night and they don’t glow in the dark. Well, pingeons don’t do that either. More important than the photos, which are very blurry, are the descriptions ppl mave and which you don’t even consider. You really expect someone to have a videocamera in 1968? Search the web for B/W pictures taken at night so you are informed of how they look.

    So, in 1968 someone had the technology to project a 2d image that moved from place to place over the roof. I really don’t believe that.

    About the reason for the appearance. Do a little bit of research, PLEASE. Even the muslims know it. Really man, if you want to attack this thing, there has to be a better way.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Manuel, thanks for stopping by.

      So, first you say that if someone tells you to look at the evidence, then they are at fault.

      No, I say the exact opposite, and in fact this whole post is dedicated to looking very closely at the evidence.

      Because to you, you have to recieve the evidence first hand, and a little bit under 2 million ppl saying they saw her is NOT evidence.

      Of course it’s evidence, and that’s why I’m looking at it. The question we need to ask, though, is “Evidence of what, exactly?”

      Then you present the hypothesis of a hoax and move from there, which is not very cientific, but ok. “There are a few things that would be consistent with a hoax” is not a real cientific statement, isn’t it?

      Of course it’s scientific. That’s how science works: you survey the data, then form a hypothesis, then work out what consequences ought to result if the hypothesis is true, then compare the real-world evidence to the expected results to see if they match. Ideally, you want to do this with two or more competing hypotheses to see which one(s) imply consequences that are closest to the real-world evidence.

      Next you talk about how Jesus should not be a baby. Are we supposed to extrapolate that into sating that then this is a hoax? This is not “cientific” either, but I guess you must be also a Theology expert.

      The Bible says that Jesus grew up. It doesn’t take a ThD to understand that this means he would not be a baby any more. We have many pictures of Mary holding Jesus as a baby, but those paintings are meant to be scenes from before Jesus grew up. To have Jesus “appear” and still be a baby would be a contradiction of numerous Biblical stories that say he grew up. A hoaxter, on the other hand, would be forced to use the paintings of Mary as his/her/their source material, and since there are more paintings of Mary with a baby than there are of her with an adult son, a hoax would be much more likely to include a baby as the image of Jesus, despite the contradiction.

      I’m not going to even comment on the “space helmet” theory. Besides, you don’t even make a point.

      The point is that the glowing disk behind the head was a graphical symbol (borrowed from pagan hagiography) intended to express the idea that the person depicted was either a god or closely associated with a god. It was never intended to represent a literal glowing disk that would have been seen by those present. To have such an artistic convention show up as an actual visual artifact is like having Mary appear with the words “Printed In China” floating at ankle-level just to her right. It’s a dead giveaway that someone is borrowing manufactured 2D images of Mary for their “apparitions.”

      Next. Noone said they were pigeons, they said they were doves and glowed in the night. Doves don’t flight at night and they don’t glow in the dark. Well, pingeons don’t do that either.

      I did not call them pigeons, I called them doves. The official account from, which I linked to in the original article, is where I copied the quote that used the word “pigeon.”

      You really expect someone to have a videocamera in 1968?

      It wouldn’t be too surprising, though I think it would be more likely people would have the kind of 8mm home movie camera I had in the 1960’s.

      Search the web for B/W pictures taken at night so you are informed of how they look.

      And then compare them to some of the images above, which are clearly faked in a darkroom and not actual nighttime photography at all.

      So, in 1968 someone had the technology to project a 2d image that moved from place to place over the roof. I really don’t believe that.

      Then you are unaware that Magic Lantern technology has been around since the 17th century. That, plus a source of smoke (many witnesses reported a strong odor of incense during these apparitions) would be all the technology required to produce the fuzzy blobs we see on those photos that are not obvious double exposures.

      About the reason for the appearance. Do a little bit of research, PLEASE. Even the muslims know it.

      I bet they do. A few flickering lights, a few double-exposed negatives, and within a few years a poverty-stricken, forgotten parish is able to afford a construction project that cost a full two million pounds. And by odd coincidence, once the church had all that money, plus a continuing revenue stream from credulous pilgrims, the “apparitions” stopped. Why risk having someone find out how you did it, when the money continues just fine without Mary?

  6. Virag Padalkar says

    A well written communique. Critical thinking like this is the need of the hour.

    A face on the surface of Mars, the virgin Mary on top of a church . . . examples of mass-pareidolia abound in history. In this instance, only the source of the pareidolia (a rock formation in the Mars example) remains to be clarified. The rest is easily explained.

  7. Faith7 says

    The Blessed Mother has been saying since 1981, that I’m aware of, that even if signs appeared from Heaven there would be those that don’t beleive. That are critical and self assured of their decision that the message is man made. Well… this blog clearly shows this. There will be many going to hell. If you are laughing at what I’ve posted, take a look at what happened to the Israelites while fleeing from Egypt. They had to pay for their lack of faith by wondering in the desert for many years. Until the generations of nonbeleivers were dead. Look at what has happened in Japan. Look at what happened in India and look at what is happening today in the world and what we are being told about the world economies and Obamacare…. I don’t think that these apparitions should be dismissed as hoaxes but rather take a good hard look at your lives and be certain that you are ready to meet your maker… We are at a crossroads… have you chosen wisely?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I’ve heard this story before. It’s called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Somehow skeptics lack the believer’s mystical virtue that allows them to see glorious truths that are invisible to the sad, stupid unbeliever. Pay no attention to the fact that the end result is that believers end up believing whatever they’re told, even when the real-world evidence is absent or contrary to the stories being told by men. Just take pride in how righteous and insightful and above all humble believers are, to continue ignoring reality in favor of the traditions of men.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I’m sorry, re-reading this, I see I’m being both rude and harsh. The tales you tell may deserve contempt, but I’m sure you did not invent them, and are only sharing them out of a sincere conviction. I must warn you, however, that you are being deceived by people who do not have your best interests at heart. Take care, and be sure to test all things against the infallible standard of real world truth, and not just by the popular panderings of politicians and priests.

  8. Sophiessss says

    My mother and her 2 sisters were there at the time and she and 1 other sister claimed to have just seen a bright light, whereas the third (who was the oldest and most religious) claimed it wasn’t a light but Mary. Mother says this proves she has to strengthen her faith. To me, it shows that the highly religious will see what they want to see. If you put that light in a Hindu country, they would probably acknowledge it as the works of one of their gods.

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