Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, was the site from 1968 to 1971 of some of the most spectacular sets of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. She was seen not just by a few children as in most of the reported apparitions in the last two centuries, but by thousands of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. However, it is also the case that the sightings appeared at a Coptic church, rather than a Roman Catholic one, and that very little interest in the apparitions has been demonstrated by Catholic authorities.
The apparitions began on the evening of April 2, 1968. Two men, both Muslims, working in a garage across from the Coptic Church of St. Mary in Zeitoun, saw what they first thought was a nun standing on top of the central dome of the church's roof. Their initial thought was that she was about to commit suicide by leaping off the dome. One went to get the priest and one an emergency squad. Others began to gather, attracted by the confusion. The woman on the dome rose to her feet and was revealed as a being encompassed in brilliant light. A woman in the crowd shouted out that it was the Virgin. Several objects that appeared to be luminous birds fluttered around the lady. One of the workmen who had originally seen the figure had a wounded hand and was scheduled for surgery the next morning. When he reported to the hospital, the doctors discovered his hand had been healed.
The object on the church roof, soon believed by many to be the Virgin, faded from sight after a while. It would be another week before it reappeared. After that, the appearances varied. For periods they would occur every night. Sometimes they would be brief, and on occasion last as long as six or seven hours. Most of the time she was alone. On occasion she had a child in her arms or appeared with figures believed to be St. Joseph and Jesus as a lad of 12. As many as 250,000 people crowded the streets around the church and witnessed the Virgin's appearances. Eventually, a number of pictures of the phenomena were taken. The last apparition occurred on May 29, 1971, at which pictures were taken.
The Coptic Church has made much of the apparitions and of the many healings reported because of them. Stories of healing have continued to the present. Because of the context, no inquiry by the Roman Catholic Church of the kind that has accompanied reported apparitions in Europe has been made. However, the Coptic patriarch did order an inquiry and the general information and complaints department of the Egyptian government made an inquiry and report. During the apparitions, Fr. Jerome Palmer, an American Benedictine monk, went to Egypt and wrote one of the first accounts of the phenomena by a Westerner. They have also become the subject of ecumenical discussions between the Coptic patriarch and the pope.
To date, no critical studies of the phenomena have appeared. These sightings differ greatly from the more traditional reported encounters with the Virgin that have been limited to only a few people. They also involve the sighting of an object that had enough solidity that it could be seen and photographed. While no hint of fraud has appeared in the literature about the phenomena, one must not rule out the possibility that the sightings were staged, though the hows and whys are unknown.
Johnson, Francis. When Millions Saw Mary. Chulmleigh, Devon, UK: Augustine Publishing, 1980.
Palmer, Jerome. Our Lady Returns to Egypt. San Bernardino, Calif.: Culligan Book Co., 1969.