A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Just in Time for Christmas: Marian Apparitions in Egypt

I was going to post (still am in fact) some time over the coming three Christmases about the rich Coptic traditions of the "Flight into Egypt" and the many Egyptian towns and villages, churches, monasteries (and mosques) associated with the presence of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Until I get around to that I thought I should note that, as Christmas approaches, there has been a new wave of appearances said to be of the Virgin Mary in the Cairo area.

I have to tread carefully here because one does not wish to express skepticism or cynicism on the eve of Christmas, and because I have no desire to tread on anyone's toes. Since 1968, Cairo has had several waves of reported apparations of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or to use the more eastern term, the Theotokos). The latest round has been building recently. And these apparitions always draw not just Copts but Muslims too. The first round back in 1968 was marked by the fact that a great many of the witnesses were Muslim. (Remember that Islam considers Jesus Son of Mary — ‘Isa bin Maryam — a Prophet in both the nabi and rasul sense of the term, who brought the revelation known as the injil, the Gospel or evangel, and even calls him Al-Masih, the Messiah; Mary is so venerated that one of the 114 Suras of the Qur'an, the 19th, is named Maryam.)

The earliest wave, in 1968, got a lot of attention because of the number of Muslim witnesses. The church at which the supposed apparition took place, Al-Sayyida al-‘Udhra' Maryam (The Lady Virgin Mary) in the Cairo suburb of Zaytoun, has a website with photos of the apparitions, and several languages available (including Russian; link is to the English site).

In 2000 there were claims of an apparition of Mary at Asyut in Upper Egypt. There's a video of it, which doesn't allow embedding, and this one I think is Saint Elmo's Fire, unless it's fake. Unlike the newer ones, it acts like Saint Elmo's fire on the church cross. You'd need to know the weather conditions to be sure.

That brings us to the latest outbreak of Marian sightings, at Warraq on the Nile in Giza Governorate. Here's the LA Times. Here's an American religious account. Here's a video, and while I must admit I see nothing I can't explain by light reflection or lens flare, and bad cell phone video (and some others have suggested Saint Elmo's Fire here, though unlike the Asyut video linked above, it doesn't seem to act like it): at best there's a slightly human looking shape in light. It could be anything from lens flare, to a fake, to some electrical discharge. But I wasn't there, though, so judge for yourself:

Some other YouTube videos of the Warraq apparition:

That one is stranger than the first, but it's still, essentially, light. And clearly, the crosses are lit electrically. Some kind of arcing effect?

But it's Christmas. Perhaps I shouldn't be so skeptical: it's making Egyptian Christians appreciate the season. And people are seeing something, since they're photographing it. How they interpret what they see is a subjective matter. Like UFOs, lights in the night sky are hard to interpret. There is, of course, already a Facebook group following the story.

And if it really is a miracle, the matter is above my pay grade.

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