Mantara was a small town in 1908 near Saida, Lebanon (called Sidon at the time of the apparitions). Sidon was a very ancient city and one of the great eastern Mediterranean seaports of the Phoenicians, having been established long before 1400 B.C. It is often mentioned in the Bible and was once famous for its beautiful groves of cedar trees, vigorous trade, lignite mines, oranges, purple dyes, and glassware. It is even thought that glass-blowing was invented there in pre-Roman times.
The most accurate version of the reported apparitions is probably the account of Archimandrite Nicola Halabi from Sidon. This version was taken down in German in 1911 by Baroness von Uexkull. Then a French translation eventually was prepared. The baroness’s account seems reliable with many details and the names of numerous witnesses.
Mantara was a hamlet “suburb” of Sidon on a western foothill of Mt. Lebanon. Groupings of poor huts comprised this small village. There was a Christian Coptic church with a large grotto nearby. It had long been claimed that several apparitions of St. Mary Magdalene had occurred there in the past – as well as some of the Holy Virgin. Interestingly, historical descriptions indicated that St. Mary Magdalene was not as beautiful or majestic as the Blessed Virgin. She was seen as smaller and “more blonde.”
It is said that St. Mary Magdalene requested that this grotto “be one of total silence with no one partaking of food.” This shallow cave was accepted as a place of silent prayer and was often silently visited by “expectant” pilgrims. It became known as “the Place of Deep Silent Expectancy for those of anxious heart awaiting the return of Jesus Christ.” Inside the grotto an altar and two small rooms made from stone walls became known as “the chapel.”
During the months of 1908, many began reporting that a “glow” had begun to appear at intervals in or near the Mantara grotto. Many felt that these were supernatural signs that something more was about to happen. Therefore, Archimandrite Nicola Halabi began celebrating Masses there. Despite the growing interest, nearly four years passed before anything further happened.
In the early morning of June 11, 1911, Archimandrite Halabi had conducted a morning Mass in the grotto for about 60 people. Afterwards, there was a celebration at the village church for the resident French vice-consul. Later, about 5:00 p.m., a group of about 50 church women returned to the grotto to eat supper. At about 7:00 p.m., as seven of the women approached the grotto, “they were suddenly blinded by a large burst of light that emanated from the altar (in the grotto) which stood inside the roughly constructed little stone chapel, approximately ten meters from the grotto entrance.”
At first the women thought that the burst of light might be a reflection from the setting sun in back of them. However, the intensity of the light increased and began radiating many wonderful colors. The silence was broken by the excited women’s exclamations. Soon, an estimated sixty more people crowded into the grotto. All of them were also “blinded by the light.” The light was sudden, intense, and very difficult to look at directly. In a short time, the intense light became “softer, luminous clouds” from which “radiated beautiful and glorious multicolored rays and other shining lights.” In the central portion of it all was “a woman holding the Christ Child.”
The apparition occurred in the small “altar room” in the grotto – which did not allow for very many people at one time. Soon cries were heard for others to have their turn at seeing the apparition in that small stone walled room inside the cave. They agreed to take turns until all sixty people present had witnessed the apparition. Everyone was able to see her!
Women ran down the hill from the grotto screaming out the news that an apparition of the Virgin Mary was taking place. The news was quickly broadcast to the other villages. Soon a “very large number” of people wanted to get into the grotto room to see. Among them was Archimandrite Halabi and quite likely the resident vice-consul. The apparition lasted for two to three hours. Everyone who managed to get to the grotto was able to see her. Many took a second, third and even fourth turn going back in again to see Blessed Mary holding Jesus in the glowing light.
The record given by Baroness von Uexkull gives the names of the first sixty principal witnesses. After the news reached Sidon, it is estimated that another 400 people arrived and saw the apparition also. The light emanating from the grotto extended about 500 feet out. The quality of the light was described as pink and blue, slightly undulating and “penetrated with a brilliant golden and pure-white central core.” This “central core” of white light “bathed” the forms of Blessed Mary and baby Jesus. Local newspapers carried the eyewitness accounts.
Neither figure spoke but remained silent. Yet, both clearly looked out over the assembled crowd and made eye contact. The Virgin “received all graciously” by nodding her head and “with movements of her eyes and motions of her hands reaching outward.” She had a “pleasant smile.” Only the upper half of the figures could be seen in the intense light.
For some years after 1911, large numbers of pilgrims visited the grotto annually. But the advance of the Great War and being less known due its being under the Coptic jurisdiction rather than the Roman Catholic, led to it disappearing into obscurity.