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Baal, al-Khader, and the Apotheosis of Saint George

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.10.2011:

By Ali Qleibo

TWIP, November 2011

To Him who rides upon the highest heavens, which are from ancient times; Behold, He speaks forth with His voice, a mighty voice.

-Psalm 68

Oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray us

In deepest consequence.

-From Macbeth by William Shakespeare

“Watch out! The entire threshold is flooded with fresh blood!” warned Aida who had run ahead of me as she lead the way into the remains of the Byzantine Church of Saint George in Taybeh, southwest of Jericho. Aida and I were exploring the various High Places, which were the favoured sites for Canaanite sanctuaries and were referred to as Jurun (جرن مفرد جرونه). The panorama the church commands is spectacular. The site overlooks the Jordan Valley and the mountains of Jerusalem. I trudged behind Aida inspecting the fresh blood smudges on the wall forming the shape of the cross. On the left side of the entrance, the butcher’s block for chopping al-thabihah (the sacrificial lamb) had just been cleaned. Careful to avoid the puddles of blood, I ducked under the dangling iron chain from which the lamb was recently hung so that its blood would drain over the threshold of the church, a ritual libation. Once inside the church, statues of the Virgin were strewn around and flames of candles were flickering inside a special candle and incense votive stand, the anagignoskomena.

Whenever I travel in Palestinian villages, new horizons of knowledge are constantly revealed. Traces of biblical significance, details of ethnographic interest, and vestiges of historical value keep prodding me into further research and providing insights that reveal the ancient Semitic foundations that underlie the rich tapestry into which Palestinian culture has woven its unique identity. Palestinian mountaintops are dotted with sanctuaries, or domed rooms nestled amidst oak groves or under huge carob trees. These remote holy sanctuaries, albeit under a Muslim mystic Sufi veneer, attest to the pervasive intimations of the Canaanite Elohim, gods who were believed to reside in high places. Innumerable bimot (Canaanite high sacred places) have been integrated within the Palestinian Christian and Muslim traditions and have become part of the Palestinian national cult of Saint George known alternately as Mar Jiries in the Greek Orthodox tradition, or al-Khader in the Muslim narrative. The significance of al-thabihah, the blood sacrifice in the ancient Canaanite religion and the survival of its numerous pagan forms until the turn of the nineteenth century in the various Palestinian churches associated with Saint George, attests to the Semitic roots of Palestinian Christianity which first the Greek church sought to cover up, then the Latin church.

For millennia, different forms of blood sacrifice, libations, and vegetable and cereal oblations conditioned, mediated, and guided the relationship of the Canaanites with their gods, amongst whom Baal reigned supreme. The canonisation of Saint George, the valiant Roman soldier and his consequent apotheosis (the idea that an individual has been raised to a godlike stature) were measures through which the Orthodox Church sought to harness the rituals and myths associated with Baal. The legendary encounter with the dragon, the saving of the young virgin, his consequent martyrdom, and his miraculous deaths and resurrections are thematic variations of the eternal struggle of Baal against the Canaanite god Yam who assumes the symbolic form of Lotan, the sea dragon known in the bible as the Leviathan. Baal and Anat, his consort, ally, sister, and wife are bound in the same primordial holy couple relationship as that of Osiris to Isis in Egypt and of Ashtar to Tammuz in Babylonia. Following his apotheosis, Saint George assumed the iconic image of the valiant cross-bearing Roman soldier astride a white horse, spearing the dragon, and saving the virgin.

The introduction of the concept of a historic God is central in the classical Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition and presents a major rupture with the non-historical mythological pagan gods. Divine intervention in human history through various emissaries, messengers, and prophets represents a turning point from the pagan gods who were closely associated with the seasonal agricultural cycle and dissociated from man. In face of the unswerving Palestinian peasant devotion to the mythological god, Baal, the challenge was surmounted by the Greek Church through the canonising of a third century Christian martyr as a saint. In the fourth century, during the reign of Constantine, the first Saint George Church honouring the historical martyr, who through the theological Greek concept of apotheosis had acquired his sainthood, was established in Lod. The city is also known as Lydda and Diospolis. Before the close of the fourth century, Saint George churches had proliferated in Palestine and spread out into Greater Syria and Egypt. The apotheosis of this Christian martyr marked the interpolation and projection of acts of legendary courage, piety, and faith onto the life and martyrdom of the Christian-Palestinian hero from Lod and ushered in the beginning of a new discourse. The Greeks coined the appropriate name Geōrgios, which translates as the land worker and means “peasant.” In Palestine, Saint George is the archetypal patron of the peasant. For Muslims, Saint George is the human manifestation of a holy man known as al-Khader. He is described in the Quran as the mystical boat companion of Musa (Moses). This holy immortal spirit/person wanders the world invisible to humans. Saint George, in this sense, is but one earthly manifestation of al-Khader, the immortal green one.

Saint George/al-Khader strikes deep roots in the Palestinian psyche, testifying to our common primordial Canaanite roots. The churches in the town of al-Khader, south of Bethlehem, and in Lod attract Muslim and Christian supplicants alike. In a country where often the sacred spaces belong to one religious community to the exclusion of the other, the Saint George churches remain an exception because of his exalted position to both groups. Neither the Christian nor the Muslim narratives succeeded in eradicating the native Palestinian psycho-religious attachment and devotional rituals to the Canaanite rider of the clouds, the god of thunder, rain, and fertility. The different forms of ancient Semitic blood sacrifices survived until modernity as acts of devotion to al-Khader/Saint George. Ironically, while al-Khader is revered by Muslims as a holy man (ولي), the Christians see him as a saint. Whereas, in the Ottoman period, a separate mosque was annexed to his tomb in Lod, Muslim supplicants perceive the Greek Church in the town of al-Khader as a maqam, a Muslim sanctuary.

The primordial Semitic perception of Palestine’s frail rain-dependant ecosystem, which is vulnerable to dramatic climatic changes, played a major role in determining the Canaanite relationship to their Elohim. The position of Palestine on the Earth’s meridian allows for a dramatic spring equinoctial change that lengthens the sunlight considerably in the spring and that shortens the days following the autumn solstice. This striking seasonal change in daylight is accompanied by a rough division of the year into scorching hot and extremely cold weather, and into very dry and extremely wet periods. Each month was allotted its special offerings and rituals to celebrate the new fruit, wine, vegetable, or cereal of the season. To their gods, they entrusted the power of fertility and their own survival. High places were privileged dwelling places for their deities; chief among them was‘Elyõn, which, in English, may be rendered as “God Most High” and Baal.

Baal Hadad, the great Canaanite epic, encapsulates in symbolic imagery the various festivities and fertility rites that were used to celebrate the turn of the season and punctuate the Palestinian agricultural cycle. Blood and vegetable sacrifices and sacred sex rites marked the change of seasons with religious myths and ritual that included both human and non-human sacrifices. Canaanites turned to Baal, the god of thunder and rain, to ensure fertility. Even now, land dependent on rainfall for irrigation is known as Baal land (ard ba’liyyeh). Through the Muslim concept of barakeh, blessing, Sufi Islam empowered these high places associated with Canaanite Jurun (sanctuaries) to become the popular sanctuaries that dot the landscape astride mountaintops and are known by the generic name of maqam.

Innumerable bimot and jurun (Canaanite sanctuaries located at high altitudes, which contain a threshing floor) have survived within the Palestinian Christian-Muslim tradition and have become part of the Palestinian national cult of Saint George. There are different Greek icons of Saint George, but the locally popular icon is the one in which Mar Elias, the biblical Elijah, is portrayed seated diminutively on the horse behind Saint George. In this icon, Elijah, as the rain harbinger, carries a bucketful of water that he pours on the thirsty land below. In folk belief, throughout Greater Syria, lightning, thunder, and rain are attributed to the Baalic figures, Saint George/al-Khader and Elijah. The folk Palestinian song says:

Oh master Khader, the green one

Water our green plants

Oh master Elias

Water our drying plants

يا سيدي الخضر يا أخضر

اسقي زرعنا الاخضر

يا سيدي يا مار الياس

اسقي زرعنا اليباس

The two churches associated with Saint George in al-Khader and Lod hold two celebrations to which pilgrims from all over Palestine flock. Whereas the first celebration takes place in the place of his birth and burial in Lod on 12 November, the second celebration takes place in the third week of April in al-Khader. Significantly, Palestinians begin disseminating the seeds for wheat after the feast of Lod in November. In the third week of April, al-Khader celebrates the harvest of the grain. In both celebrations, both Muslims and Christians offer blood sacrifices, oblations, and libations to the ever-protective saint. In al-Khader, the grain harvest is celebrated with special bread stamped with the icon of Saint George.

The various blood sacrifices, libations, and oblations (الرفيعة) offered to Saint George, described by my Ta’mari Bedouin friend, Khalil, reveal the survival of Canaanite religious rituals under the veneer of Christian iconography and the guise of populist Palestinian Sufi Islam. The burnt offerings, (المحرقات) whereby the entire blood sacrifice would be burnt or abandoned to be eaten by wolves, hyenas, and birds of prey closely resemble the ancient Semitic offerings described in the Old Testament. According to local accounts, vegetable oblations composed of wheat, lentils, chickpeas, or flour, or libations such as oil, goat’s milk, and its products survive as common gifts to Saint George.

The church in al-Khader was the favoured site for baptisms and circumcisions by Christians and Muslims alike. Father Maritain, writing in 1848, following the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, describes his concern that Palestinian Christians could not be distinguished from Muslims. A Christian was “distinguished only by the fact that he belonged to a particular clan. If a certain tribe was Christian, then an individual would be Christian, but without knowledge of what distinguished his faith from that of a Muslim.” He was further confused by the observation that “Many Muslims had their children baptised at al-Khader because tradition maintained that a child baptised there would be strong.”

Unfortunately, anthropologists arrive too late to the scene. Father Maritain’s main concern, namely to save souls, precluded ethnographic research. What, how, and with which words did the Muslims baptise and the Christians circumcise at al-Khader are questions that remain veiled in mystery. The thick description of their worldview did not interest the father, but was viewed with a sense of alarm. A century and a half later, the information can partially be recovered through the recollections of the grandchildren through individually conducted interviews. Since then, both the church and Muslim orthodoxy have penetrated the countryside. Nowadays a Muslim sacrifice to Saint George is considered shirk (شرك) a form of idolatry. The different forms of pagan rituals of blood sacrifice, such as burning the blood sacrifice, are now abandoned. Only one kind of Christian thabihah has survived wherein the entire sacrificial lamb is donated to an orphanage or a home for the aged. The blood of the sacrifice is considered blessed and both Christians and Muslims dab their palms in the blood to bless the entrance of a house with their handprint, using the talismanic number five to ward off evil. A few of my Muslim friends confided that it is still common to drink a sip of the blood because the consecrated blood sacrifice acquires divine blessing (بركة).

Consequent to the theological changes in Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple and in the wake of Christianity and Islam, animal sacrifice (الذبيحة) has sustained radical theological revision. Whereas blood sacrifice has stopped in Judaism, it has survived in the form of Udhieh (أضحية) in Islam. The thabihah as Udhieh is a centrally Muslim concept and forms the climactic moment in al-Hajj when, in imitation of Abraham, an Udhieh (a blood sacrifice) is incumbent upon the wealthy Muslim. Hence the name of the big holiday, Eid el Adha, the holiday of the sacrifice, in which a thabihah is mandatory.

In Christianity, the concept of thabihah survives in the Arabic appellation of the altar, al-mathbah (المذبح). In Orthodox theology, the blood sacrifice, the thabihah, is that offered by God to man in the person of Jesus, which the masses celebrate. Al-mathbah, may be literally translated as the ritual place of slaughter of the thabihah and alludes to the actual sacrifice of the blood and flesh of Jesus, who is viewed as the redeemer. The faith in the mystery of transubstantiation, the metamorphosis of the wine and bread into the blood and flesh of Jesus is a cornerstone of Orthodox Christian faith In continuity with the ancient Semitic concept of blood sacrifices, Palestinian Christian supplicants do not direct their requests to Jesus who is the redeemer, but to saints who are in his company and whose mediation can be sought. From the Christian perspective, the thabihah rituals are referred to as fidyeh (فدية). Unlike the Muslim dedication of the sanctioned thabihah to Allah, the fidyeh is offered as a token of gratitude or in fulfilment of a vow exclusively to Saint George.

Whereas the two major churches of Saint George in Lod and al-Khader attract seasonal pilgrims and supplicants, Saint George of al-Taybeh is venerated exclusively by local supplicants and the sacrifices fulfil individual needs and do not follow any specific rhythm, although, “Saturday is the preferable date,” Ustath Nabil, my school teacher who is from Taybeh, told me.

The fidyeh may be slaughtered in Saint George Church or in the garden, but preferably at the entrance of the house. Ruth from Beit Sahour explained, “The prayer, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,’ is followed by a declaratory statement; ‘I offer this fidyeh to Saint George on behalf of my family and my children.’” After the lamb is slaughtered, the meat is given as an offering to the church, a monastery, a house for the aged, or an orphanage. Ruth added, “The family must not partake in the meat.”

The Palestinian martyr, Saint George, has come to symbolise the victory of good over evil. The religious spiritual context of the “prince of all martyrs” launched a legendary discourse, so that within a century of the dedication of his church in Lod, his popularity had expanded beyond Palestine, Greater Syria, and Egypt to the further reaches of the Eastern Roman Empire, as far as Georgia. Following the crusades, he became a symbol of the Church of England. Saint George’s Cross, a white flag with a red cross, is associated with the Republic of Genoa, Liguria, Georgia, Catalonia, Aragon, etc. Millions of supplicants turn for his assistance and mediation throughout the Christian world.

North of the Mediterranean is where Greek philosophy was founded. On the southern shore, Saint George, the Palestinian martyr, stands in a long line of Palestinian prophets, evangelists, and saints. Through the Nakba, the forced massive deportation of the Palestinian population, the heirs to the Canaanite civilisation and to the early forms of Semitic Christianity have been forced into exile. Their mythos of the land is quickly fading from their memories. The possibility of knowing, feeling, and grasping the ethnic diversity amidst the Canaanite peoples, within whose ethnological context the Old Testament was written and Christianity was born, is, sadly, diminished.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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