Feast of St. George May 5, 2000; Arab Educational Institute/Artas Folklore Center Discover Palestine Trip
Contributed by Leyla Zuaiter on 14.05.2006:
St. George, also known as “Al Khader” or “the Green One,” which is also the name of the village in which his church is located, has a very prominent place in Palestinian tradition. What is extremely interesting is that he is associated with the Jewish Elija,/Elias, the Christian Saint George, and the Muslim “Al Khider,” who was a kind of Sufi guide to Musa, or Moses in the Koran. Many of the peasant rituals, such as the Rain Procession, in which they ask for the intercession of St. George–his appellation of the Green one referring in part to fertility– derive from Canaanite practices.
He shares in common with Elija the belief of people that he never died; to this day the Jews set a place for him at the table during the Passover Seder. For the Arabs, he is believed to move around them in their daily lives: the sound of thunder is St.George’s horse galloping in the sky, when bread falls from the table; St. George is sharing a meal with them. When people build a new house, whereas Muslims put up a stone over the doorway with an inscription in Arabic including the date, perhaps with a picture of the Ka’ba in Mecca, Christians have a stone carved with St. George slaying the Dragon, for of all the stories of St. George, this is the most famous: a dragon was terrorizing the countryside, appeased only by a daily sacrifice of sheep. When all the sheep ran out, the inhabitants of the village established a lottery to offer a human to the dragon. When the king’s daughter picked the losing ticket, St George appeared on his white stallion and saved her, converting the village to Christianity. A story with a less legendary aspect says that St. George was imprisoned by the Romans for his faith in this village of St. Khader.
As for the Muslims, here is what the Bethlehem Community Book says about the Koranic passage, which is the basis for many similar tales:
“Al Khidr is Musa’s guide on the way to acquiring knowledge and wisdom….
He asks Musa not to question him, and Musa promises to do so. However, Musa cannot restrain his surprise when Al-Khidr bores a hole in the bottom of the ship in which they sail. For one time, Al-Khidr bears Musa’s impatience although he does not answer his questions. When they journey on, Al-Khidr slays an innocent man. Musa rebukes him, and again Al-Khidr keeps patient. They travel on. When they ask some people to provide food, it is refused. Al-Khidr then helps to restore a wall of the house that belongs to the very same inhospitable people. Again Musa protests, and asks why Al-Khidr did not*ask for payment. After this renewed show of impatience, Al-Khidr says it is time for him to depart. He explains his deeds, saying that the ship belonged to poor fishermen who were followed by a King who wanted to rob them of their possessions. By damaging the ship, he helped them to escape. As for the youth, Al-Khidr says, his parents were true believers and, since the youth would corrupt them, Al-Khidr slew him. The Lord would grant them another child in his place, a son more righteous. As for the wall: it belonged to two orphan boys who had their treasure buried beneath it. They would be able to dig up their treasure when growing up to manhood”. While Sufism,, associated with Al-Khider, used to be quite accepted and even mainstream in Islam, it has recently fallen out of favor, as Sufis do not follow all the pillars of Islam.
It is also interesting that St. George is the Patron Saint of England, his cult having grown up during the Crusades, when many people claimed to have seen visions of the saint urging them on to battle.
We started our trip near the ruins of the Turkish castle overlooking Solomon’s pools, near the village of Artas. Across the road is the ornamental arch at the entrance of the village of al Khader whose keystone is inscribed with the image of St. George.
The schoolgirls on the trip donned their traditional Palestinian embroidered costumes, and some students held a poster of St. George. We then wound our way through the entirely Muslim village, until we reached the church, which houses the sole Christian inhabitant of the village: the Greek Orthodox priest, Father Methodios. Although there was not much activity in the village as we passed through it, other than curious onlookers,–we had not arrived at the peak time–at the entrance to the church were all manner of vendors whose stands were shaded by umbrellas. These included cotton candy, huge vats of boiling corn, and toys. A few boy scouts, who are invariably a part of religious activities here, were in evidence as well.
Inside the church itself, whose walls were covered with frescos and paintings, Christians prayed towards one of the walls, while the Moslems prayed at the Qibla wall, which faces Mecca. There are several churches in which Muslims seek the intercession of St. George, and both the Mosque of Omar and the Aqsa mosque
have areas dedicated to him.
The most interesting sight, however, was that of visitors ranging from women in full Islamic dress, to the those wearing the latest fashions, passing a chain over their own necks or those of their children three times, kissing it each time, before stepping out of it. The chain is said to be either the bridle of St. George’s horse, or the chain with which he was restrained while in prison. For among St. George’s many attributes, he is said to help those with mental problems. The chain provides a direct link with him. What boggles the modern mind, however, is the extent to which this belief affected activities in previous centuries. Unfortunate people with mental problems of all religious persuasions were chained in the church itself or in the courtyard, and given almost nothing to eat or drink, inadequate protection from the elements, and no opportunity to go to a bathroom. So they lived in their filth. The reason is that they were believed to be possessed by demons who favored fat people and who were exorcised by prayers, fasting and beatings. Finally, in the nineteenth century, a mental hospital was built next to the church, a chain being stretched between church and hospital, to ensure the connection of the patient with St. George. The hospital is no longer in use.
Also fascinating is the custom of vow-making which until recently, also was engaged in by Muslims as well as Christians and which involved various rituals. If a saint would grant a wish, the person vowed to undertake a course of action. Often Muslim women would vow that if they were granted a child, they would give the child a Christian name, such as Elias or George, or even baptize them, though this did not necessarily mean they had to become Christian.
And that is just a few of the tantalizing morsels of my trip to St. George.
The above is an adaptation of a journal entry written after my first trip to El Khader in 2000 on the Feast of St. George, in the company of a large group of Palestinian students. The trip was part of the Discover Palestine program under the joint auspices of the Arab Educational Institute and the Artas Folklore Center. Note how many facets of Palestinian culture and heritage were touched on in one trip.
For a Photo-Essay of the Feast of El Khader (May 5, 2006) see entries on Palestine-family.net beginning at: : http://www.wordpress-230236-736489.cloudwaysapps.com/index.php?nav=91-103&cid=138&did=581&pageflip=1
For a fascinating article about El Khader/St. George which combines treatment of the many traditions associated with St. George as well as childhood memories of visits to El Khader see El-Khader: A National Palestinian Symbol by Palestinian Anthropologist Dr. Ali Qleibo at: http://www.wordpress-230236-736489.cloudwaysapps.com/index.php?nav=6-22&did=174-1&searchResult=searchResult
or in its original context at: http://thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=1519&ed=109
For some of the Myths and Legends associated with him see:Al Khader Tales http://www.wordpress-230236-736489.cloudwaysapps.com/index.php?nav=5-12&cid=23-255&did=361&pageflip=1
The Bethlehem Community Book is available at the Arab Educational Institute, The Bethlehem Peace Center, and The Educational Bookshop (Jerusalem)