The inexplicable, indefinable nature of “miracles” has piqued human curiosity for millennia. Trees that “bleed”, paintings that weep, seas that part – what else could explain this other than divine intervention? And while these nebulous events may seem confined to dusty scriptures, in modern-day Egypt they appear to happen on the streets, in homes, in nature; they are part of everyday life.
American photographer David Degner has been documenting “modern miracles” in Egypt for seven years. What caught—and has held—his interest is the apparent regularity of these unexplained occurrences, which are not only talked about among friends but often reported on by the national press.
“Egyptians have a completely different understanding of miracles than what I grew up with,” Degner says. “I'm from Georgia. I went to a Christian school and was raised around Christians. Miracles always seemed like an abstract historical thing that happened on the other side of the world rather than something that happened every day.”
Religion is deeply embedded in Egyptian culture and almost everyone is identified by Christian or Muslim belief. With that in mind, “miraculous” events are rooted in superstition, firmly held beliefs, or improbable folklore, depending on who is being asked about them.
“I have a very smart anthropologist friend who doesn't believe in any particular god but carries around a lucky stone,” says Degner. “Another friend of mine [Nour al-Dein Zaki] is a well educated geologist. He knows how rocks are made yet he still thinks that it's God's work in these stones. The stones, which have rare, seemingly inexplicable formations on them, are referred to by Zaki as “ayats”, meaning ‘a sign from God’.
Degner, who has a background in photojournalism, is used to digging deep to find the truth of a story. His journey from the first whisper of a story about a miracle to its manifestation led him from tiny villages to labyrinthian cities, barren deserts to rocky mountains. He diligently investigated every clue he came across, often arriving at a dead end.
Some miracles Degner found had complete visual narratives; the tree that seeps “blood” on Fridays and Mondays, camels that have the sign of God imprinted on their ribs or footprints said to be from Prophet Muhammed, were easily shown.
Others, like the supernatural beings from Arab folklore and Islamic teachings known as djinn, were more of a challenge. Some liken these childlike sprites to fire— they can be destructive but also used positively if contained—so Degner illustrated their disruptive nature by photographing a burning field.
What he really wished to capture – and knew he would be unable to– was the space in which the material and immaterial worlds touched. This “third dimension”, a nexus of spiritual and physical particles colliding and causing havoc, lies beyond what is visible to the naked eye. But it is that intoxicating mystery that causes humans to keep on believing.