St. George: The Palestinian/Turkish Dragon Slayer
Maybe the dragon of arrogance, ignorance and prejudice can be slayed under the banner of St George with his impeccable monotheistic credentials
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 24 Apr 2018 - Ghassan Matar
As England celebrates the day of its patron saint, many Palestinians are gearing up for their own forthcoming celebrations of the figure they also regard as a hero.
A familiar flag flaps in the wind above a Palestinian church in the West Bank village of al-Khadr. The red cross on a white background has been associated with Saint George since the time of the Crusades.
St. George can be looked to as an example of religious and racial pluralism. With his mixed ethnicity and his multiple identities, he encompasses many of today’s battle lines. Maybe the dragon of arrogance, ignorance and prejudice can be slayed under the banner of St George and with his impeccable monotheistic credentials.
It is the national flag of England and is also used as an emblem by other countries and cities that have adopted him as their own patron saint.
It is one of those strange ironies that the patron Saint of England is half Turkish and half Palestinian.That he has become an emblem of the English nation despite his “foreign blood” is deeply symbolic given current debates on belonging.
St George was born in Cappadocia, in modern day Turkey to an army soldier and a mother from Lydda, now known as Lod in Palestine. After his father’s death, George’s mother took her infant son back to her home town of Lydda where he grew up to serve as an officer in the Roman army, like his father before him.
When ordered by a pagan ruler, the Emperor Diocletian, to pay tribute to Roman gods, he refused and faced prolonged periods of torture – in some stories as long as seven years, ending with a gruesome death: sliced in half and beheaded.
From this rather grisly end he has become a hero and a national icon for many. From Canada to Moscow, Boy Scouts to saddle makers, Palestine to England, he is celebrated the world over. In England, he is celebrated on 23rd April. A day, like the man himself, borrowed from the East. In Turkey, 23rd April is called the Feast of Lydda, observed throughout Turkey as the beginning of spring.
George’s death occurred around the fourth century AD, some 300 years before the last prophet of Islam completed the Message of God to His creation with the Qur’an. Thus as a true follower of monotheism Muslims regard him as dying in a state of submission to the One Creator. Or in Arabic – of dying in a state of Islam.
As such, George has acquired status as a Muslim martyr. Muslims across the Middle East have traditionally associated George with Al Khidr, literally ‘the Green One’, signifying wisdom that is ever fresh and imperishable. Al Khidr is described in the Qur’an as a mystical boat companion of Moses, and even though Moses’ time was centuries earlier, the linking of George to this Qur’anic personality has held the imagination, and the similarity of title has meant the two figures have become entwined.
According to tradition, George often prayed near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where an elongated mosque named Qubbat Al-Khidr is dedicated to him. Located within the terraced site of the Dome of the Rock, George’s shrine in Palestine came to be a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims seeking out its special healing powers.
Women visited the site in hope of conceiving, while those with health complaints would go there for miraculous cures. Many other sites throughout the Islamic world resound with Al-Khidr, one of the most notable being the great Beirut mosque of Al-Khidr that lies close to where George legendarily slayed the dragon, saved a princess and caused the whole city to convert to Christianity.
The spread of St George’s cult around the world in places such as Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Istanbul, Greece, Germany and Portugal to name a few, accounts for the ‘universality of the cult’.
Thousands of narratives and images of St George have circulated throughout history and many lands, with references in Ibn Battuta’s travel journal and even modern day allusions such as William Dalrymple’s, From the Holy Mountain.The cult of St George journeyed from the East to English shores before the 11th century, spreading from other European countries.
It was strengthened in the 14th century when Edward III established a fraternity, choosing George as the patron saint of his ‘Order of the Garter’ as a spiritual focus for military endeavors during the 100 Years War against France.
George was also a great favorite with Henry VIII who issued a coin depicting George slaying the dragon, in the 16th century. The patronage of St George has not however always been used for such celebratory purposes.
Armies in the Crusades killed tens of thousands under his banner.In fact a Church in Devon has an image of him spearing Saracens and in 1975, the League of St George was founded, an organization hostile to immigrants and one that warned of the ‘threat’ posed to Britain’s national identity from immigration. The BNP use the flag of St George to champion their call for an England for the “English”. Little could be more ironic.
Given the shared heritage that we all cherish and derive strength and pride, maybe the fine values of St George are what can bring all the warring parties together. Certainly, as a saint connected with healing, he can be taken as a symbol to heal the divide amongst communities.
Surely, St. George can be looked to as an example of religious and racial pluralism. With his mixed ethnicity and his multiple identities, he encompasses many of today’s battle lines. Maybe the dragon of arrogance, ignorance and prejudice can be slayed under the banner of St George and with his impeccable monotheistic credentials.
Maybe we can follow in his example instead of butchering people in his name.