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The Story of Saint Barbara

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.08.2006:

With the destruction of the remains of the shrine of Saint Barbara in Aboud, the last vestiges of this legendary figure in the Holy Land have been destroyed. But many people in Palestine do not know the feast known as Eid El-Burbara, celebrated on December 16th every year, is actually the feast of Saint Barbara.

Traditionally, a sweet pudding-like dish known as burbara is prepared by women all over the country. The pudding consists of shelled and cooked kernels of wheat seasoned to taste with sugar, cinnamon, fennel and anis and decorated with dried, seedless raisins.

The legend of Saint Barbara is, perhaps not surprisingly, related to martyrdom. Known as a virgin martyr, Barbara’s name does not appear in St. Jerome’s (AD 340-420) martyrology. However, the Orthodox tradition has her down as martyr since the sixth century, when the Byzantine Church of Saint Barbara is believed to have been built in Aboud. It was during the 9th century that stories of legendary acts ascribed to Saint Barbara were included in the collection of Symeon Metaphrastes. According to both local folklore in Aboud and the written narratives by church historians, Barbara was the daughter of a wealthy Roman named Dioscorus. Local Aboud lore has it that she fell in love with an early Christian and converted in secrecy. Her father, a pagan, the story goes, had her put to death when she refused to recant. In the more westernised version of this story, her father first has her shut up in a tower with only two windows, which she secretly converted to three as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Her father has her dragged before the courts after she confessed to her conversion and had her tortured in prison. Her father, or so the story goes, was killed by lightening after beheading his daughter. Barbara was allegedly executed along with her friend and fellow Christian Juliana, who also joined the ranks of martyrs. The sick and weak came to their graves in search of comfort and healing. There is a controversy as to where Barbara’s martyrdom took place. According to one legend it is in Heliopolis in Egypt while others cite Nicomedia, near Izmit, in modern Turkey.

While the facts concerning Saint Barbara are often disputed, it is quite certain that she was venerated in both the East and West as early as the seventh century. As a result of her father’s death by lightening, she has often been associated with protection from the dangers of thunderstorms and fire, sudden death and later by analogy, as the protector of artillerymen and miners. When gunpowder was introduced in the Western world, Saint Barbara was invoked as a protector from accidents resulting from explosions. In those early days artillery pieces often blew up instead of firing their projectile.

In the United States military, the Order of Saint Barbara is one of high honour. Both U.S. marine and army field artillery, along with their military and civilian supporters, are eligible for membership in the Order of Saint Barbara. The ancient Order of Saint Barbara and those who are selected for this honour have achieved long-term, exceptional service to field artillery. Ordnancemen of all races and nationalities have claimed Barbara as their patron saint. To this day the powder storage rooms of warships in France are called Sainte-Barbe.

Mariam Shahin


This Week in Palestine

December 2002

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