El-Khader: A National Palestinian Symbol
By Dr. Ali Qleibo
Saints' shrines and holy men's memorial domes (maqam) dot the Palestinian landscape – an architectural testimony to Christian/Moslem Palestinian mysticism and its roots in Canaanite spirituality. The holy site may be a modest square room with a melancholy dome crouching in the shadow of an ancient oak tree perched on a lonely crest of a mountain (as in Anata or Atara villages), or guarding the entrance of a tiny village or city (as in Husan, Jaffa or Gaza) or tucked away in the labyrinthine alleys of Jerusalem (Al-Qirami or Sheikh Rihan). In this symbolic religious landscape, Sidna El- Khader Church/Mosque stands unique.
Both Moslems and Christians alike venerate the holy site which is believed to have curative powers related, but not exclusively, to problems produced by the evil eye. St. George, in his Moslem identity as El-Khader, literally the 'Green One,' acquires mystical symbolism and has been revered for centuries. Fr. Jean Moretain had expressed his surprise concerning Christian/Moslem common practices. Writing in 1848 during the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he describes his concern that Palestinian Christians could not be distinguished from Moslems. 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 baptized in El-Khader, because tradition maintained that a child baptized there would be strong."
El-Khader, referred to by the Crusader chroniclers as "Casal St Georgi" is known locally as "Bab Al-Khalil," the gateway to Hebron. Driving south of Bethlehem and a few kilometres from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, an impressive gateway on the right hand of the road leads to the village of El-Khader. The archway depicts the figure of St. George mounted on a horse slaying a dragon.
My childhood memories abound with family visits – mini pilgrimages – to local Palestinian saints. Their Christian, Moslem or Jewish identity was immaterial. A caravan of cars with all the family members, grandparents, uncles and aunts would head southward in an annual, unofficial pilgrimage to Hebron, Abraham's Tomb. Our first stop would be at Rachel's Tomb, Sitna Rahel (literally our grandmother Rahel). Next would be El-Khader a few kilometres south, where mother's offerings to "Sidna El-Khader" consisted of olive oil for use in lighting the church. The family's mini pilgrimage, "ziyarat," culminated in the traditional Moslem offering of a sacrificial lamb in the cave underneath Abraham's Mosque. In the late afternoon we would visit Abraham's tree which was looked after by a lonely Russian priest in the olive and fig fields outside the then sleepy town of Hebron. In my childhood memories, churches and mosques formed one continuum with the holy. In a country where the sacred space belongs to one religious community to the exclusion of the other, El-Khader remains an exception, testifying to our primordial common roots. The mosque/church dichotomy dissolves in relation to Sidna El-Khader. An example of Christian/Moslem spiritual co-existence, it also illustrates the common historical background of the Palestinians who in time embraced the Arabic language, culture and religion. In fact the most intensive islamization of Palestine took place during the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries – almost a millennia after our assimilation of Arabic culture and civilization.
St. George's history has roots going back to the Canaanite, Phoenician and Babylonian fertility gods Adonis, Baal and Tammuz. For Moslems, St. George is the human manifestation of a holy spirit known as El-Khader, who is described in the Quran as a mystical boat companion of Musa (Moses). This holy immortal spirit/person wanders the world invisible to humans. St. George in this sense is but one earthly manifestation of El-Khader. Moslem Palestinian tradition confirms the perception of El-Khader as free from the constraints of time and space. El-Khader moves freely between Mecca and Jerusalem through the mysterious water conduits. One of the water wells in the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque connects to the Zamzam water spring in Mecca, the water source that had saved the life of the infant Ishmael. Moreover, "shifa," meaning healing/curing, is a karameh (a grace/blessing) attributed to El-Khader, who is believed to have curative powers, mainly of inflictions caused by the envious, jealous evil eye. Visions of El-Khader had been reported at the well (see Aref El-Aref and Mujir El-Din) in Al-Aqsa Mosque and in Hammam El-Shifa (public bath of healing). Of special significance is the fact that a special niche for prayers is set up in veneration of El-Khader in Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the upper courtyard.
Christian legend through the obvious iconography of El-Khader links the "Green One" with St. George, though the reasoning remains obscure. Born in Cappadocia, in Turkey, the omnipresent saviour travelled the earth. Local myth associates El-Khader as St. George, who had heroically saved the Libyan princess in the city of Silene. Near this city was a lake wherein there was a dragon which was poisoning all the country. To appease the dragon, the people of the city gave an offering of two sheep a day until they almost ran out of sheep. Then, through lottery, young maidens were chosen as offerings until the princess was chosen. She was left near the lake, abandoned to her fate when St. George arrived. He asked her to take off her metal belt, chain the dragon and lead it to town. The dragon obeyed her meekly and in the village, St. George killed the dragon and saved the people. Unlike regular fairy tales, he does not marry the princess, but rather moves on to Palestine. Later on, locals believe, the Crusaders took the legend of St. George to the West, where he became the patron saint of England. Once in Palestine, another legend describes him as a conscript in the Roman army during the reign of both Diocletian and Maximilian. These were ruthless emperors and under them Christians were so cruelly persecuted that within one month twenty two thousand were martyred. For this reason, some were so afraid that they denied God and sacrificed to the idols. Seeing this, St. George abandoned his knight's raiment, sold all that he had, gave it to the poor and put on the raiment of a Christian brother. He went into the midst of the pagan Romans and began to cry, "The gods of the pagans and gentiles are devils. My God made the heavens and is the only God." Thereupon the Roman soldiers arrested and executed him, but not before a court trial, along with many more who had converted to Christianity. The burial place of St. George is believed to be in Lydda, on the way to Jaffa.
El-Khader, as a symbol, synthesizes Canaanite, Christian and Moslem mystical beliefs. El-Khader is conceived of as riding the clouds that bring the rain – an image reminiscent of Baal, Adonis and Tammuz, and nowadays prayers invoking rainfall are addressed to El-Khader. Alternately, El-Khader is also believed to have curative powers. St. George's Greek icon, with special healing powers, hangs significantly on the south-eastern wall of the church in the village of El-Khader, in the direction of Mecca. Facing the icon hanging on the column is a symbolic metal chain reminiscent of the Libyan princess' belt with which she led the dragon to town. The belt is believed to have purgative powers, such that Moslems and Christians ritually lift it over their head, slip it down the body and step in and out of it seven times to purge off all evil. Moslems recite the "Fatihah," the first chapter of the Quran. Christians perform their own prayers. After the belt is taken off, candles are lit in front of the icon and another prayer is offered. Though El-Khader is a conventional Greek Orthodox Church with an impressive iconostasis on which the various icons hang, nevertheless, Moslems may comfortably perform the full Moslem prayers. Since the Church is not fully carpeted as in a mosque and since one does not take off one's shoes before entering, Moslems bring their own prayer rug. I have seen bearded religious Moslem men spread the prayer rug in the direction of Mecca, encompassing the icon as they pray. The baptism font, used by Christians and Moslems alike is equally interesting. Carved of red marble into an oval shape the size of a baby's bathtub, its broad ledge is lined with soap, sponge and a jar of olive oil. Moslems, the priest told me, still believe in the spiritual efficacy of baptism and bring their sons to be washed there.
Probably one of the few living symbols in modern Palestine, this Saint strikes deep roots in the Palestinian psyche. Situated in the Moslem village of El-Khader, south of Bethlehem, the Church serves a community which mainly consists of pilgrims – Christians but also Moslems. On the Saint's day (May 5th), many pilgrims come to give sacrifices or to baptize their children. Palestinian folklore contains a wealth of stories about the healing properties of the Saint, and, when asked, the villagers will tell you stories attributed to the Saint's intercession. The pilgrimage season is celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Church on November 16th. Noteworthy is the fact that it is one of the rare Christian rituals in which animal sacrifice is practised within the context of the church. Sheep are usually slaughtered as a sacrifice on this occasion.
Moslem signs abound in the courtyard of the Church. Traces of sacrifice are evident in the form of the skin of the lamb left on a balustrade to dry. The extremely welcoming Moslem guard showed us the special sheep pen in the garden of the Church where Moslem offerings to El-Khader are housed. In Islam there are two kinds of animal offerings. The thabeeha, according to tradition, demands that one third of the immolated lamb is for the consumption of the owner and two thirds for God, given as charity. The other offering is of the animal alive, a gift to the Holy Spirit.
At the entrance of the village is a stone relief showing the figure of St. George riding a horse and slaying the dragon, which objectifies the identification of these two figures – El-Khader and St. George – in popular belief. Throughout Palestine, and in Bethlehem in particular, many houses have a stone relief of St. George and the dragon over their doorways.
Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, writer and artist lecturing at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.