Holy Land Review – Greg Friedman, OFM and Daniel Koski – 28/7/17
The saint often portrayed fighting a dragon is in reality one of the most popular saints in both the East and West. He is particularly venerated by Palestinians in the Holy Land.
On May 5, 2016, I caught the Arab bus in Jerusalem, headed for the West Bank. My destination was the town of Beit Jala, where I would meet up with my friend, Dan Koski. Dan serves as communications director at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and is also involved in the Orthodox Christian community in the Holy Land. His Palestinian wife was baptized at Saint George Church in Al Khader as a baby, and has spent almost her entire life in Beit Jala. Each year they attend the feast of Saint George in Al Khader without fail.
Anyone who visits the Holy Land soon discovers that many Christian homes and businesses have stone icons of St. George over the entrance. In the Orthodox and Melkite churches, he is one of the most common saints to have a church named after him. Even the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem is named “St. George the Great Martyr.”
On this May morning, Dan had invited me to join him and his wife for the celebration. Over coffee before we headed for the town of Al Khader, Dan began to unfold the story of this popular saint.
– Father Greg Friedman, OFM
St. George’s story begins at the end of the third century, or the beginning of the fourth century. Here in the Holy Land, we believe that St. George is a Palestinian saint, in the sense that he was born in this land. Georgios in Greek means “Helper of the Land.” Here we call him George. We also call him al-Khidr, which is the Arabic word for “The Green.” Sometimes, we call him Mar Jiries as well. George (or a version of it) is one of the most common names in Bethlehem district.
His mother, Polychronia, was born in Palestine, most likely of Greek heritage. His father Gerontonios was a Cappadocian soldier from the region within present-day Turkey. It appears that St. George followed in his footsteps as a soldier. He must have been extremely well-placed because the hagiography [saintly biography] tells that he went to the Roman Emperor after he was given an edict to persecute Christians. George refused, telling the Emperor Diocletian, “I am not going to carry out your orders to persecute Christians, because I am a Christian.”
He was put through an arduous amount of torture. He was cast into a lime pit for three days, given poison and eventually, he’s put to the wheel, and finally beheaded.
All this happened right at the end of the persecution of Christians by Pagan Rome before the Edict of Milan (313). From there, St. George became one of the first saints in the life of the Christian faith. He’s venerated in both West and East.
When the Crusaders came in the 11th to 13th centuries, St. George apparently gained a spurt of popularity in the West with returning Crusaders who identified with him. He survived in the Anglican Church during the Puritan and Protestant reformations, to become the patron saint of England. He’s also venerated in Russia, where St. George can be found on the seal of the city of Moscow and is also revered in Ukraine, Georgia, Greece, Romania and the Balkans.
His relics were brought back to what is today the town of Lod here in Israel (Lydda in Byzantine Greek and Ludd in Arabic) where they are in a church which was formerly one of the major hubs of the Christian community within pre-state of Israel, Mandate Palestine.
What is the history of St. George in the Holy Land?
We say he’s the “hometown boy.” An historic road ran through here in the Roman period. St. George’s mother had property and residence here, and St. George basically grew up in this area as a child.
One of the ways Romans typically would take care of the officer class is to give them land. It is possible that St. George’s family, either because of his father or because of his mother, may have received land here to guard the road, as a gift or his compensation as an officer. The Byzantine monastery that was here in Al Khader was probably built to venerate him near where he grew up.
In Beit Jala, Dan showed me the Church of St. Nicholas, the city’s oldest church. It has a chapel dedicated to St. George.
The people of Beit Jala, along with the people of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, consider St. George one of their own. Beit Jala was identified as a place of pilgrimage on many ancient maps. Its connection to St. Nicholas of Myra dates to the early fourth century when he is believed to have stayed in a cave in the Beit Jala while on pilgrimage for quite some time. The Church of Saint Nicholas, built over that very cave, includes a lower chapel of St. George that was reconstructed around an ancient monastery dedicated to St. George that was still functioning at the start of the Ottoman era, but eventually fell into ruin.
Today there’s a neighborhood just to the north of us that we call Hosh Mar Jiries, which includes another section of the ruins of the monastery dedicated to St. George. A centuries-old tradition in which people suffering from mental illnesses were chained to a surviving wall of the ruins of the monastery on the eve of the feast of Saint George in the hopes that they would be cured is still remembered in local folklore.
On the way to Al Khader, I asked Dan to explain the connection between the town and the saint.
The village of Al Khader, as we know it, today didn’t exist until the Ottoman Era, when Palestinian Muslim families moved into the area that is today known as Al Khader from one of the villages nearby and started building their homes around the monastery. Over time, they too began to identify with the story of St. George.
In Al Khader, the streets were crowded with pilgrims. One woman, barefoot, was making her way to the monastery.
We know this woman is a Christian from Beit Jala because of the way she is dressed. There’s only one reason why she would be coming here today walking and barefoot – she’s obviously looking for some help from St. George.
Today, there are several thousand Muslim families in this village. Yesterday, you would have seen them inside the church asking for oil, lighting candles, and while not venerating in Christian style, still obviously having a strong connection, because they believe that Al Khader, in more classic Arabic, Al Khidr, George the Green, is the protector of the village.
There are no Christian families living in the city of Al Khader. The Christians that come here are mostly from the neighboring cities of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.
The caretakers of the church are a Muslim family. They were here before the present abbot of the monastery, and the family will very likely take care of it after the present abbot has moved onto another position, or has fallen asleep in the Lord.
Before we entered the church, Dan explained the iconography which I would see – including the familiar image of St. George and the dragon.
There’s a great amount of debate as to where the story of the dragon comes in. Some of it seems to be romantic.
The church will accept icons of St. George as hagiographically correct, because the dragon personifies evil. In the icon, the tail of the dragon is around one of the back legs of the horse. This personifies the beastly nature of man, i.e., the horse being conquered by the dragon, but George is always slaying the dragon, which means that George, as a man of God, conquers over evil.
The service was about to begin, with Archbishop Theodosius “Atallah Hanna,” senior and one of the very few ranking Arab Orthodox clergy in the Jerusalem Orthodox Patriarchate, presiding. In an interview some days after the feast, he summed up the significance of St. George today, declaring is that he is “a symbol of a persecuted person that tried to resist in his daily life. He’s an inspiration to many Christians in the Middle East. And today, in the period where many Christians are being persecuted, Saint George is a kind of an example of how we have to follow. They learn from him, because he teaches of a Christian that has to keep strong in his faith and not renounce it and die a martyr if God wills it.”
The service lasted for several hours, with prayer in Greek and Arabic, accompanied by almost continuous chanting, and the celebration of the Eucharist. The church was packed with people, many of whom stayed throughout, joined in prayer. It was a part of the Holy Land pilgrims do not often get to experience – but which captures a devotion which is an important part of Christian life in the land of Jesus.