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Zeitoun is an impoverished Egyptian town near Cairo where strange lights appeared near the Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint Mary on April 2, 1968. The lights appeared irregularly for a period of about three years. According to witnesses, the lights would last for a few minutes to a few hours. The last appearance of the lights was in 1971. Hundreds of thousands made the pilgrimage to Zeitoun to see the lights. A cathedral was built and the tourists still come, though the lights have disappeared into the dark Egyptian night.
Many of the witnesses to the lights reported with confidence that the lights were not lights but an apparition of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Reports of miraculous cures and other wonders associated with Zeitoun abound, though it is not quite in the same league as Lourdes as a destination for Marianophiles.
According to parapsychologist D. Scott Rogo, author of Miracles, a Parascientific Inquiry into Wondrous Phenomena, the reports of fanatical religious witnesses who see their favorite saints in vague and ambiguous light patterns are not examples of pareidolia, but rather "the strongest proof ever obtained demonstrating the existence of the miraculous" (p. 256) [quoted in Joe Nickell, Looking For A Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books, 1993)].
If Rogo is right and the evidence of indoctrinated eyewitnesses intoxicated by their religious yearnings and vivid imaginations is as good as it gets for proof of the miraculous, then we can safely say that there is no convincing evidence for miracles. One wonders why, as Belgian philosopher Etienne Vermeersch wondered, powerful sky beings who can appear on a whim in remote places around the world, haven't produced just one clear, unambiguous miracle like the reappearance of a bishop's severed limb. Does anyone keep track of how many people have been killed or seriously injured while traveling to places like Zeitoun?
(To be an eyewitness to the devotion that drives the perception of apparitions, watch the video below. It includes what appears to be a really fine doctored photo, but I may just be seeing things.)
One writer notes:
Some anthropologists suggest that Mary's popularity in Egypt is a vestige of the Isis cult, itself an incarnation of primeval mother goddess worship. Virgin sightings may be among paganism's contributions to monotheistic mysticism.*
But why Zeitoun? Some think it was because this is the place Joseph and Mary fled to with their baby when they heard the news that Herod had ordered what is now called the Massacre of the Innocents (Nickell 1993: p. 185). (Some tours feature a stop here to travel in the footsteps of The Holy Family.) I'm sure there are other legends that might explain this and many other peculiar behaviors by religious zealots.
Others have put the Virgin in her context. She came at a period of crisis in Egyptian history, the 1967 war having vitiated Nasser's pan- Arab appeal. Mary's coming coincided with the return of veiling, the sprouting of beards, and the other signs of the Islamist renaissance. She helped to cement the advent of spiritual over secularist politics.*
One thing she didn't do was instill in the devoted a desire to find out what caused the lights. It was assumed by the faithful that the lights were an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though the lights did not speak and did not communicate this notion in any obvious way. What the faithful saw was what they wanted to see, perception driven by beliefs learned at umma's knee. If the lights were an apparition of a being, it could just as well have been Isis or Aphrodite or Nasser's grandma.
On the other hand, maybe the lights were caused by some natural phenomenon or human intervention. One proposal that is favored by some investigators is that the lights were "earthquake lights." Luminous phenomena have been associated with tectonic strain and there was a ten-fold increase in seismic activity in the area during the period of the Zeitoun lights. (Michael Persinger is one of the foremost proponents of the "hypothesis that most anomalous (terrain-related) luminous phenomena are generated by factors associated with tectonic strain."* For more on the subject of earthquake lights see Nickell 1993, and Mysteries of the Unexplained 1993.) I don't know what caused the Zeitoun lights, but last on my list of plausible possibilities would be the hypothesis that it was the 2,000-year-old ghost of a virgin who gave birth to a god.