Saint George and al-Khidr

The formal reason for my trip to the Middle East was that I wanted to investigate the convergence of the veneration of St. George, the fourth-century Christian soldier and martyr, and that of al-Khidr, the revered Muslim wali. That these two figures have, at certain times and places, been identified with each other, despite the traditional animosity between Christianity and Islam, is remarkable. What is really going on? What are the terms of this convergence – does it even exist?

St. George is everywhere in the Middle East. If there are Christian remains, you will find an image of St. George in them. If there is an active Christian community, there is a very good chance that one of its churches will be dedicated to St. George; whatever its dedication, there will certainly be many images of the saint, inside and outside the church building. He is not the only equestrian saint, nor the only military saint, nor even the only dragon slayer, and he was certainly not the only Christian to have been martyred under Diocletian. But somehow people love him the most. I think that one reason is because his dragon slaying is not just visually symbolic, but the illustration of a romantic story about how he rescued a damsel in distress. This sort of thing is always popular. Perhaps more importantly, he is considered a powerful intercessor and miracle worker, something always very important and useful.

Khidr is a somewhat more obscure figure. Although not mentioned by name in the Koran, he is widely identified as the righteous servant of God in Sura 18, “The Cave,” and is charged with instructing Moses. Moses promises to learn humbly and not to question Khidr, but Khidr acts most inexplicably, and Moses cannot help himself. First Khidr bores a hole in the bottom of a boat belonging to some fishermen, then he kills a young boy, and finally he fixes a wall in a town, right after its inhabitants had refused to offer hospitality to him and Moses. With each of these incidents, Moses breaks his promise and expresses disappointed surprise, but Khidr then reveals his reasons: he damaged the boat just enough to prevent it being seized by a king, the boy was evil and Khidr killed him so that Allah might give his believing parents a better son, and he repaired the wall because beneath it was buried treasure belonging to two orphans, whose deceased father had been righteous and who would be in no position to defend it should its presence be revealed. The message is that God’s wisdom is beyond human understanding.

Unlike with St. George, I never found anything devoted to Khidr: no pictures, no dedications. People did know who he was. “Khidr,” in Turkish, is rendered as “Hızır,” and I spoke with one man, a Muslim from the area around Sivas, who said that he knew an old man in his village who had met Hızır twice, and who was admired for it. The old man knew it was Hızır because of Hızır’s “bent thumb.” Other people mentioned that Hızır can help people, but it’s more a case of explaining the good luck you might receive. If you’re in trouble, and someone helps you out, you might attribute this to Hızır. (I was reminded of how Grateful Dead fans used to receive “miracles” – concert tickets that they had not made provision for acquiring.)

Since there are very few Christians left in Turkey, there is no longer any question of convergence between St. George and Hızır. The Egyptian scene is somewhat different. Some ten percent of Egyptians are Christian, and the country does not have the same tradition of compulsory secularism that Turkey does – since 1980, Sunni Islam has been the state religion. Furthermore, Egyptian Muslims, perhaps because their own language descends from that of the Koran, seem to know the Koran better than Turks do. When I asked people about Khidr, most of them were able to relate the story from Sura 18, about Khidr’s three successive and seemingly inexplicable actions. When I asked whether Khidr helps people, and whether people offer some sort of thanks to him in return, they were surprised, almost offended. “That’s polytheism!”, one man exclaimed. “We only seek help from God.” Khidr is revered as other prophets are revered, but no one I spoke with admitted to seeking or receiving aid from any of them. “Khidr may have helped people long ago, but not now,” another man explained to me. Thus, despite a list of places allegedly sacred to Khidr that I had compiled from various sources, I could not find a single one that was currently and obviously designated as such. There were no inscriptions, or any people doing things to honor him. I confess I was somewhat disappointed.

But speaking with Christians I heard a different story. In Egypt, in Old Cairo, one finds two churches to St. George – in both places, the Christians claimed that local Muslims did indeed seek help from St. George, whom they called “Khidr.” Father Mercurius of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George in Old Cairo said that Muslim women who want to become pregnant will visit the church, and that one can see little plaques in the church in Arabic left by Muslims in thanks for Khidr’s services (although I did not find these and Fr. Mercurius did not have time to show them to me). Sister Theophania of the nearby Coptic Convent of St. George said that Muslims will indeed come by – not all the Muslims in Cairo, by any means, but some of the locals from the area will pay the occasional visit to what is designated the convent’s “Chaplet of St. George.” I suppose it helps that certain actions are prescribed here: you can light a candle in front of an icon of St. George, you can touch a cloth roll containing his relics, or, most significant of all, you can be wrapped with the chains that bound him during his martyrdom. I had read about this custom, which dates back at least to the nineteenth century. Allegedly it cures madness or at least headaches, and I could not resist getting wrapped with them myself. In other words, these rituals make it easy for visitors, including any Muslims, to participate in the veneration of St. George.

A similar situation prevails in the Palestinian Territories, where most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslim, but a 1-2% minority is Christian. The town of Beit Jala, to the south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, is predominantly Christian, and to the southwest of Beit Jala, in the otherwise Muslim town of al-Khader, is a Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George, complete with a small but handsome church dedicated to the saint. This church is famous in its way: William Dalrymple describes it in From the Holy Mountain (1994), and it once merited a subsection on the entry for St. George on Wikipedia (entitled “Interfaith Shrine,” although the current subsection on “Islamic tradition” does not mention it specifically). These these writings, and others, mention that Muslims come there to pray and offer thanks to St. George, whom they call Khidr. (This would seem to be reflected in the name of the village itself.) I did not get to speak with any of the brothers of the monastery, but I was shown the church by a man in charge of it. He could not speak English very well, although he answered my questions as best he could, and said that yes, Muslims will come by. This church also featured a set of chains (he claimed these ones were the reins of St. George’s horse) in which he had me step through three times and enjoined me to kiss. Of course there were many icons of St. George throughout the church; the most important was a large one displayed behind glass. A three-inch gap existed between the icon and the glass, into which people had deposited petitions and offerings in thanks for prayers answered. Clearly St. George was popular in the area – although I did not see any direct evidence that Muslims venerated him.

The next day, in Beit Jala proper, I had a revealing conversation with a local Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. The current church building dates from 1925, but the site is historic, since it contains a cave that once housed its namesake saint for four years before God called him back to Myra. In 1995, the church was proud to acquire one of the relics of St. Nicholas. Like St. George, St. Nicholas provides miracles: once an old man was commissioned to repair his icon frame, and his light stayed on even though the power had gone out in the city – and even though the light hadn’t been plugged in! “So do Muslims ever ask for miracles?” I asked. “Yes they do,” he replied, “but discreetly – for example, they might ask a Christian to light a candle for their sick son. And yes, in al-Khader, the locals protect the monastery, because they get miracles from St. George there – in fact, they see him riding around on his horse, and fear him.” “Protect?” I asked. “Yes, unfortunately, he said, without such local support, Muslim radicals would have destroyed the church long ago.” “But,” I said, “I read somewhere that Israeli oppression brings Palestinians together regardless of religion. Does this not happen here?” “It should,” he replied. “But unfortunately when people get radicalized they don’t think in terms of Israelis, but Jews, and Christians. When people get into the Bible, they withdraw from the world, but when they get into the Koran, they get more materialistic, and lust for power and control.”

So it would seem that, like in Egypt, participating in Christian ritual is something that many Muslims frown upon.

My final church of St. George contained his sarcophagus and is found in the Israeli town of Lod (a.k.a. Lydda), near Tel Aviv. This site has existed since antiquity, and it plays a role in the narrative of both the First and Third Crusades (in 1099 the crusaders returned some relics of St. George to Lydda that they had acquired in Antioch, and instituted a Latin bishopric there; in 1192 Richard the Lionhearted spent six weeks encamped outside the town and may have rebuilt its church, which had recently been destroyed by Saladin). The current building dates from the nineteenth century, and consists of a main nave with a slightly narrower nave to the left. Throughout the church are various “stations” of St. George, including: a chain to try wrap oneself in; a freestanding silver icon in an intricately carved wooden frame; a large icon on the iconostasis (that is, the screen separating the nave from the sanctuary, what in medieval England might have been called the rood screen); the actual tomb of St. George in the crypt; and, in front of the main iconostasis, a stand featuring an icon, some relics of St. George, and a wooden “chalice” holding a glass jar full of oil and a floating tea light (see the photos below). An interesting ritual took place at this stand while I was there: a group of Romanian pilgrims was visiting the church and, one by one, they approached the stand. There, a priest dipped a sort of stylus into the oil, and with it anointed the pilgrims on the forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands. Thus was the power of St. George bestowed on his votaries.

As in Beit Jala, I did manage to speak with a local Christian at this church, who claimed that Muslims have great respect for St. George and that they see him riding his horse around the neighborhood (Lod’s population is about 25% Arab, most of whom are Muslim). But the only evidence I saw here of any Muslim “participation” in the cult of St. George was a Muslim woman who entered the church, took off her shoes as though she were in a mosque, walked into the nave, looked briefly at the iconostasis, and then returned to the door, put her shoes back on, and departed. Given the multiple opportunities to honor the saint in his church in Lod, I can’t say that this seemed particularly meaningful.

So what is going on, really? And whom should one believe? One can understand why Muslims, when asked, would categorically deny that any of them would stoop so low as to participate in Christian religious practice. But one can also understand why Christians would claim that Muslims would participate. What a feather in your cap, if your religion is attractive to others! I don’t think that the Christians were lying necessarily – exaggerating, maybe, but if only a handful of Muslims venerated St. George, their statements about Muslim worship would be true. One possible explanation, according to my Coptic Christian guide at Luxor, is that you can divide people in to three categories: The first are the poorest and least educated, who will do anything they think can help them, without thinking about it too much. The second are in the middle class and educated enough to take their Islam seriously. And the third are the elites, in education and socio-economic status, who don’t take anything religious too seriously. So by this schema, people who pay homage to St. George are uneducated, marginalized, and desperate for miracles, while most other people, i.e. the ones I spoke with, are well versed enough in Islam not to go in for such alternative medicine. This sounds about right.

But are Muslims even venerating St. George? They call him Khidr, after all, a figure from their own tradition. However, they seem to be doing so only in Christian churches. (This convergence was also denied by some of my interlocutors. “Khidr and St. George are far apart,” one man told me. “Khidr is a phantom who goes around as Allah wills it, but he’s not the same as St. George,” said another.) One explanation for this convergence, at least on the West Bank, is that Christians and Muslims have been forced together by Israeli oppression, and that St. George has become a sort of resistance figure for the Palestinians. This may be true for some, although resistance to Israel seems to be more inspired by radical Islam, which has little time for such syncretism – and it doesn’t explain the convergence between Khidr and St. George that finds in Egypt. Instead, a better explanation was suggested by an Anglican priest I spoke with: we may drive intermediaries out with a pitchfork, but they keep coming back, and if absolutely deny their existence, then you’re forced to use someone else’s. In its way, this operation allows you to keep your monotheism but have your intermediaries too. I would say that such a dynamic also applies to tactile rituals like lighting candles, handling chains, or receiving holy oil: these sorts of actions help satisfy a deep-seated human need, and if they’ve been declared out of bounds in your own religion, you might, if you were so inclined, seek them elsewhere. (This would be especially true in places where Christianity is the religion of a distinct and socially powerless minority, meaning that it is not really a threat.)

If nothing else, it certainly provides contemporary evidence that St. George remains a powerful miracle worker, as he has always been.

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Rather than trying to integrate images into the text, I have placed them in an appendix. (There are 68 images in total).

1. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo.

A sculpture that greets you as you climb the stairs to enter the church, indicating its patron saint.

Inventive typography in a “Hagios Georgios” roundel.

A shrine in the church, containing an icon of St. George.

A close-up of the icon, entirely silver except for St. George’s face.

In the same church: another icon, made entirely of silver, with offerings.

2. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Convent, Old Cairo.

The courtyard of the convent, with the exterior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George on the left.

A closer view of the exterior entrance of the Chaplet of St. George.

A scanned postcard, showing the interior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George and its seven-meter-high wooden doors.

In the Chaplet, a Coptic icon of St. George, with velvet roll containing relics. Normally this roll is contained in the glass case beneath the icon, although it can be taken out and handled for devotional purposes, as it is here.

A painting of St. George hanging above his chains. A nearby sign reads: “The Persian King Dadynos gathered seventy rulers to put the great martyr St. George on trial. They used all sorts of torturing instruments including a chain to which he was chained. This chain is a cause of blessing because it was put on the body of the martyr and on it his blood ran. We believe that the things that touch the bodies of saints become a blessing as the bible said about Paul, “So that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried a way from his body to the sick and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them,” Acts 19:12. This chain is now found in the central compartments of the shrine through it and by faith a lot of miracles have been taking place. It also wrestles with evil spirits also unclean spirits come out of many who are possessed.”

Elsewhere in the chaplet, a mosaic of St. George.

Another mosaic of St. George, this one with a crown of martyrdom being presented by two angels.

3. Various other Coptic icons of St. George. Note how many feature the pitcher-bearing youth riding with him, and Arabic script, indicating the everyday language of the Copts.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo. I confess that I am unclear on who the stripped, bound figure near the dragon is supposed to represent.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo. I like the appearance of the banner in this one.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, Abu Serga Church, Old Cairo. I like the brutalist castle.

Postcard: “Icon of St. George, Al Muallaqah [Hanging Church], Old Cairo.”

Postcard: “The ancient icon of the great martyr St. George inside the internal chamber of the antique shrine, 17th century.”

Postcard: “1. A Coptic icon of the great martyr St. George measuring 61cm x 94cm painted on wood – 19th century A.D. 2. A chain to which St. George was tied during his tortures.”

4. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Al-Khader, Palestinian Territories.

Map showing location of St. George’s church and monastery, al-Khader, in relation to Beit Jala, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. Google Maps.

The main entrance to the monastery.

A view of the exterior of the church from the courtyard, and a minaret from the mosque across the street.

The monastery courtyard.

The church as one enters it.

A view of the church’s decoration.

The main icon, George killing the dragon, surrounded by scenes from his martyrdom. Note the lamps in front, and the prayers and offerings behind the glass.

A close-up of the bottom left of the icon above: pictures of people being prayed for.

A close-up of the bottom middle of the icon above: valuables left for St. George in gratitude for prayers answered.

A bank of St. George icons.

A Slavic icon of St. George, given in “By Yuri Father and Yuri Junior and Family in 2014.”

A twinned portrait of Saints George and Demetrius. I’m not exactly sure whom Demetrius is supposed to be killing.

Saint George the soldier-saint, with armor, lance, shield – and bow and quiverful of arrows, something I have never seen him depicted with before.

Saints Eudocimus, Sergius, Keladion, and George.

An inventive depiction of the various tortures, and martyrdom, of St. George.

Elsewhere, one final depiction of St. George and the dragon.

5. Veneration of St. George in Beit Jala and al-Khader.

An arch in al-Khader, with St. George and Palestinian flag.

Close-up of the carving on the arch.

Interior of St. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox Church, Beit Jala, Palestinian Territories.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Statue of St. George and the dragon welcoming visitors to Beit Jala.

Roundel of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Plaque of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

Icons of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

6. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Lod (Lydda), Israel.

Postcard of a watercolor painting showing the church of St. George. The monastery (obscured) is across the street. The El-Umari mosque is in the foreground on the right.

A photograph of the other side of the street, showing the monastery. Note the flags of Greece and of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (a red cross of St. George with the tau-phi device on it).

The door to the church.

Immediately to the right of the door as one enters, a bank of candles that pilgrims can light.

Behind the pilgrim in the photo, a stand containing an icon of St. George with his parents…

…and “The Holy and Miracle Working Chain of St. George,” which you can pull out and wrap yourself in.

A pilgrim tries on the chain.

Near the chain stand (you can see it on the left in this photo), a carved wooden stand for a silver icon of St. George, with suspended lamp.

A scanned postcard of the icon above.

To the right of the chain stand as you face it, the main iconostasis of the church.

A scanned postcard of the second icon from the left in the iconostasis, showing all the details of the dragon-slaying legend: Jesus is blessing St. George, while an angel crowns him, and the pitcher-bearer rides in his saddle. The princess, her parents (her father holds out the keys to the city in an act of surrendering to the saint), their castle, and other buildings of the city (bottom right) flesh out the picture. This image also shows a collection of votive offerings to St. George (these were no longer on the icon when I saw it).

Backing up from the iconostasis, and just to the right of the silver icon, we find one of the entrances to the crypt.

And in the crypt, we find the shrine of “St. George the Trophybearer.” This site has existed since antiquity although this particular shrine was sponsored by “Patriarch Cyril” – likely Cyril II of Jerusalem, reigned 1846-72. (This is not my photograph – it is a souvenir plaque given to me by Sister Theophania of St. George’s Convent, Old Cairo.)

A close-up of the mosaic in the crypt, showing St. George in his original aspect as a young, beardless soldier with armor, spear, and shield.

To return to the main nave, in front of the iconostasis, we find this stand, featuring a cabinet containing a blanket, a silver icon containing two relics on either side of a standing St. George, a color icon (reproduced below), and a chalice containing a candle and holy oil.

A scanned postcard of the icon in the stand above. The caption can be translated “Holy Monastery of Saint George in Lydda – Saint George”

A priest imposes holy oil on a pilgrim.

A picture of St. George and the dragon, framed by numerous scenes from his passion and martyrdom.

Another image of St. George and the numerous tortures he endured, scanned from a pamphlet in the church.

Four roundels painted on the ceiling, of Saints Procopius, Demetrius, Stephen, and George. The three warrior saints are dressed as soldiers.

A recently-placed mosaic of St. George, indebted to western iconography, especially with respect to the plate armor and helmet plume.

Finally, a gentle reminder of the Mandatory period.

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My thanks to Alex Nikas for his comments.

Jerusalem

President Trump has announced that that the United States will soon recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, and begin to move the US embassy there. Obviously, this is just a formality – Israelis themselves have long considered Jerusalem their eternal capital, and the Knesset has been there since 1948. This is not how it was supposed to be, of course: the original UN plan was for the city to have an international status, somewhat like Danzig between the wars. But events turned out rather differently: the city ended up divided between Israel and Jordan, and then entirely conquered by Israel in 1967. Many people hold that the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is illegal, but possession is 9/10 of the law, so here we are. What makes Trump’s move so provocative is that no other country formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, nor has its embassy there – most are in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most important city otherwise.

Personally, if I were Israeli, I would not want my capital in Jerusalem. This is largely because I don’t believe that Israel is the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy, but a nineteenth-century settler nation, and Tel Aviv is the perfect symbol for this – Jewish settlers built it themselves from scratch, and the city’s population remains predominantly Jewish. I would be very proud of this. Jerusalem, by contrast, belongs to the entire world, which you will discover if you ever get there. Certainly the Old City is only 1/4 Jewish, and East Jerusalem remains predominately Arab. Why bother trying to impose yourself on all this? An international administration would have been most appropriate for the place – too bad it didn’t come to pass. You could say that Tel Aviv is nowhere near as historic or poetic as Jerusalem, but plenty of countries locate their capitals in such functional places, viz. Ankara, Brasilia, or Ottawa.

Here are some photographs I took of Jerusalem in October.

The Damascus Gate, my first view of the Old City. A common way to get from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem is by shared taxi. You just get in the van, and it leaves when it’s full, taking each passenger to his or her destination. Since very few streets in the Old City can accommodate cars, a taxi driver will drop you off at the gate of your choice. (Actually, I had no idea what gate I wanted, so he just chose for me.) I eventually found the Ecce Homo Pilgrim Guesthouse where I had my reservation; I highly recommend this place if you’re ever visiting Jerusalem.

This is the archetypical scene – the Dome of the Rock over the Western Wall. The minaret to the left is called the Bab al-Sisila Minaret and is one of four on the Temple Mount. The elevated walkway is one of the entrances to the Temple Mount – it is only open at certain times, and you have to line up pretty early if you want to get in (I never managed to). You can just make out, beneath it, the divider between the men’s and women’s prayer sections on the Western Wall.

A close-up of some people in the men’s section. A Haredi Jew prays at the wall, while a worker cleans out the papers left between the cracks. An American fellow traveller who could read Hebrew told me that he wasn’t just throwing them in a trash can, but a genizah, that is, a vessel used to store worn-out sacred texts prior to proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.

On Friday evening, a festive mood prevails.

I saw innumerable groups of Christian pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross, from “I. Jesus is Condemned to Death” near the Lion Gate on the Via Dolorosa to “XIV. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured). Each station has at least a chapel associated with it, and often an entire church. The Holy Sepulchre actually contains the last four stations; it is also famously divided among six Christian denominations by an Ottoman firman of 1853, designated the Status Quo. Each denomination jealously guards its rights, and violence can break out over perceived threats to them; the ladder under the upper window in the photo above is known as the Immovable Ladder since “no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.”

(I feel compelled to inject my opinion here that as a historian I am interested in sacred space, but as a Christian I don’t care much for it. Christianity is wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. Christianity derives from the Bible and Church tradition, and you can have these anywhere. Whenever people designate a particular place or object as being essential to their faith, they are just asking for trouble – what happens when you lose control over it? Your entire life’s purpose then becomes getting it back, at the expense of everything else that matters.)

Some other Christian churches I saw were:

St. Helena’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, near the Holy Sepulchre. I really liked this one – it was beautifully simple, and had a great courtyard.

St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, outside Herod’s Gate to the north of the Old City. It represents is a little slice of England in the Holy Land. I assume that it was an important religious venue during the Mandatory period.

Interior of the dome of St. Stephen’s Greek Orthodox Church, commemorating the site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, just outside the Lion Gate to the east of the Old City.

The subterranean Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary, in the Kidron Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. This one is divided between the Greeks and the Armenians.

On the Mount of Olives, the Roman Catholic Dominus Flevit Church, commemorating the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, from Luke 19.

Fittingly, the window of the Dominus Flevit Church provides a great vista of Jerusalem, through Christian eyes.

The Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mount Zion to the south of the Old City. This commemorates the site of St. Peter’s denial of Christ before the cock crowed.

The Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, to the south of the Old City, commemorating the site of the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary (there is a dispute as to whether she actually “died”).

The interior of the Franciscan Monastery of San Salvadore, within the walls of the Old City near the New Gate. I found this one particularly appealing.

In the nearby village of Ein Karem, the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, commemorating John’s birthplace.

Not too far away in Ein Karem, the Church of the Visitation, commemorating the site where St. Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, while she was pregnant with St. John.

While visiting Elizabeth, Mary came out with the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior…”), recorded in Luke 1:46-55. This passage, in numerous languages, is displayed in the church’s courtyard. (The Church of St. John features the same display, but with the Benedictus, that is, the canticle sung by Zachariah on the occasion of John’s circumcision, from Luke 1:68-79 – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David,” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.)

***

A bit of trivia: the Greek Orthodox symbol for Jerusalem, I discovered, is a combination of the letters tau (T) and phi (Φ), for taphos, meaning tomb. You see it all over the city. (As it happens I’ve seen this device before in another context: a Dartmouth fraternity, Phi Tau, also uses it.)

The Kidron Valley, to the east of the Old City, is a very popular place for Jewish burials, on the principle that this is where the Messiah will return.

The Ottoman-era Tower of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate. (Alas, I never got inside.)

“Here in the Muristan was situated the first hospital of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1882, the Grand Priory in the British realm of the Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem established an ophthalmic hospital in the Holy City in emulation of the humanitarian and charitable efforts of its mediaeval predecessors.”

Finally, and to return to more mundane concerns: the streets of the Old City are very narrow indeed, and some of them are even covered, giving the occasional impression that you’re in a large indoor mall. This is further emphasized by the what’s on sale in the stores – largely souvenirs, and in the case of this store, t-shirts with American sports team logos but with the name rendered in Hebrew script. This I thought was very clever: simultaneously a souvenir of Israel, and a means of supporting one’s favorite team at home, giving tourists extra reason to buy them.

A Christmas Post

Interesting article on Intellectual Takeout:

The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas

It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.

But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.

Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “’Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”

In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, Tighe explains, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.

Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.

It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.

I have never heard of the notion of “integral age,” and it seems a dollop of fudge to claim that it was conceptually important for someone to die on the “same day as his conception or birth.” Well, which is it? Moreover, I have never heard of the observance of the Crucifixion being fixed on March 25, or on any other date for that matter – Jesus was executed at Passover, which is a movable feast against the solar calendar. In observance of this, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has always been movable as well. Wikipedia on the Computus

Easter is the most important Christian feast, and the proper date of its celebration has been the subject of controversyas early as the meeting of Anicetus and Polycarp around 154. According to Eusebius’ Church History, quoting Polycrates of Ephesus, churches in the Roman Province of Asia “always observed the day when the people put away the leaven“, namely Passover, the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan. The rest of the Christian world at that time, according to Eusebius, held to “the view which still prevails,” of fixing Easter on Sunday. Eusebius does not say how the Sunday was decided. Other documents from the 3rd and 4th centuries reveal that the customary practice was for Christians to consult their Jewish neighbors to determine when the week of Passover would fall, and to set Easter on the Sunday that fell within that week.

At some point it became important for Christians to ensure that the celebration of Easter did not coincide with Passover – and anyone who calculated it differently, like the Irish, was committing a grievous error. But note that in either case Easter was still movable. March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, certainly, but only in relation to December 25, the (non-movable) feast of Christ’s birth.

So I can’t say that I’m convinced. Tighe’s instincts might be correct – people have accused Christianity of being a mélange of paganism ever since the Reformation, but this question is not something you can give a blanket judgment about; you have to examine Christian beliefs and practices on a case-by-case basis, and provide real evidence for pagan influence, and not simply “parallels.” But sometimes paganism really has influenced Christianity, if only through competition, and I would say that that still seems to be the case here. 

Hittites and Egyptians

History’s first peace treaty dates to c. 1259 BC, and was ratified between the Hittite state in Anatolia and New Kingdom Egypt. I had the opportunity to see remains of both civilizations on my recent trip. They’re quite different from each other.

Ancient Egypt is very well-known. Their monuments still stand after millennia, and their style is unmistakeable. The pyramids of Giza to the west of Cairo are perhaps the most famous remains, but the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BC) was ruled from Upper Egypt, specifically Thebes, now known as Luxor. By this point Egyptians were no longer building pyramids, but they certainly had not lost their taste for monumental architecture. On the east bank of the Nile, you can visit two massive temple complexes, Luxor and Karnak. These were once connected by the so-called Avenue of the Sphinxes, a 1.5 mile road lined with recumbent sphinx sculptures, part of which is still visible.

Luxor Temple consists of pylons, obelisks, hypostyle halls, massive sculptures, and incised hieroglyphics on almost every vertical surface. Of course, one could spend one’s entire career studying the history of its construction, use, excavation, and restoration, which like that of most Egyptian monuments is ongoing. The signs suggested that Luxor Temple was used for the Opet Festival when, once a year, statues of the Theban Triad of gods were brought from the Karnak Temple to the Luxor Temple, in a celebration of rebirth and renewal.

Originally there were two obelisks, but the other one is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Behind the remaining obelisk are two “pylons,” wall-like structures that mark the temple’s entrance. The vertical incisions once held flagpoles.

The Karnak Temple is within walking distance of the Luxor Temple (although not to worry, plenty of cab drivers will offer to take you in their horse-drawn carriages if you don’t want to go on foot). Between the two temples is the Luxor Museum, which is much smaller than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and displays fewer artifacts, but I think it’s a good example of the “less is more” principle – what they do have is of a pretty high quality, and the building is architecturally pleasing too. I was glad to see the mummy that Emory returned to Egypt in 2003.

The Karnak Temple is even more impressive. It is certainly more extensive. Here is a model of the whole thing as it may have looked at its height.

And here are some shots of its current condition.

Of course, the Karnak Temple, the main home for the gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, comprises an entire field of study. I enjoyed speaking with Mahmoud (referenced below) and one Ben Pennington of the University of Southampton, who was drilling core samples that would help reveal the fluvial (and settlement) history of the place going back some 7000 years.

And this is just on the East Bank! On the other side of the Nile, one finds the various mortuary temples constructed for New Kingdom pharaohs, like Hatshepsut or Ramesses III.

Then there’s the famous Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs were actually entombed. King Tut’s tomb (designated KV62), although the most famous, was actually one of the smallest. Most of the tombs go quite a long way down into the limestone cliffs – workers would start digging it at the beginning a king’s reign, and keep on going until he died. They they had seventy days to finish everything up, which is why none of them is 100% complete. Of course, thieves stole all the grave goods long ago, but the decoration remains intact. Photography was strictly prohibited, however.

As I say, all this is very impressive. The Egyptians obviously had a wealthy nation and a strong, highly centralized state that could commandeer sufficient surpluses, and redirect them to architectural projects for which they clearly had a large class of highly skilled artisans. The desert clime of Egypt has probably helped preserve these for the ages, and you can’t help but admire their work, so many thousands of years later.

The Hittite state, by contrast, has not left remains as impressive. No one even knew there were Hittites until the late nineteenth century, when archaeologists began uncovering evidence of their Bronze-Age civilization in Anatolia. That they were named “Hittites,” after the Biblical “children of Heth,” is a matter of convenience – debate continues about whether or not the identification is valid. As more and more was uncovered, two things became apparent: the Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, representing the first appearance of that particular language family in the narrative of Western Civilization, and they were pioneers in the smelting of iron, and are thus forerunners of the Iron Age, which succeeded the collapse of their state around 1180 BC.

Hittite artifacts may be viewed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, but to view an actual archaeological site, you have to travel to Boğazkale, in Çorum Province. There you can walk around Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire. It takes the form of a circular wall, enclosing an area several acres in size, with numerous settlements within it. A model greets you as you enter.

But most of what you’ll see comprises nothing more than building foundations.

The Hittites eventually adopted cuneiform writing, which is how we know their language was Indo-European. Prior to that time, they employed a script known as Hittite hieroglyphics; these may be seen inscribed on this rock…

…and in this chamber.

On the exterior wall around Hattusa, we find the famous lion gate.

But on the whole, this picture conveys the sense I got when I visited: the Hittites adapted themselves to their environment, rather than trying to master it. The mountain forms a natural defense that they incorporated into their city.

By this criterion, the Egyptians were far more “civilized” than the Hittites. You wonder how there could ever have been any agreement between them based on the notion of equality.

But I couldn’t help but wonder whether living in ancient Egypt wasn’t like living in North Korea, with the only difference being that people had more to eat. Here we have an entire state set up to satisfy the whim of a single individual. (It’s true that the Luxor and Karnak Temples were ostensibly for the gods, but it was clear that each pharaoh took pleasure in adding something to them, and thereby glorifying himself.) The only art allowed was propaganda that honored the gods/the pharaoh, and in the approved style (did it not get boring after a while?!). All the building remains that I saw around Luxor were ceremonial in some way. Constructing it provided employment for people, and demonstrated the strength of the state, but does it not simply represent massive wealth destruction?* Hattusa, by contrast, was an actual city, with a wall, and functional buildings within it like houses and administrative space, in addition to temples, which were much more modest in scale. Obviously, the Egyptians would have had these too, but they were completely overshadowed by their massive temples. My guide suggested that the Egyptian penchant for construction bestowed meaning and dignity on everyone – building and decorating were meritorious in the eyes of the gods, and constituted a form of prayer. But I can’t help but think that a better way of arranging a society would be to allow greater material advantages to accrue to its populace. If nothing else it shows that you don’t need an elaborate material culture to hold your own in the fields of warfare and diplomacy.

* Cf. George Orwell, 1984:

Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built.

Troy and Gallipoli

Wikipedia.

The Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles, leads from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and thence, through the Bosporus, to the Black Sea. These Turkish Straits are the only maritime route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Our notions of geography lead us to designate one side of this route as as “European” and the other as “Asian,” but of course, since both sides are nowadays ruled by Turkey, there is culturally nothing distinguishing one side from the other. The passages themselves remain of vital strategic interest. Maritime transit through them is governed by the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936), which gives Turkey ultimate control but guarantees free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. Warships are another matter, and post-WWII Soviet obstreperousness on the issue was one of the reasons why Turkey joined NATO in 1952. (With Turkey threatening to leave this alliance, will the Russians finally realize their dream of controlling the route?)

Google maps.

The shortest distance across the Hellespont appears to be from the vibrant city of Çanakkale on the Asian side to a small town called Kilitbahir on the European.

Kilitbahir from Çanakkale harbor.

I had fun imagining that this is where Xerxes built his pontoon bridge (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7), although it was probably built elsewhere, and regular ferry service now obviates the need for such an expedience.

In the late Bronze Age, of course, entrance to the Hellespont was guarded by the city of Troy, on the Asian side (the “Troad”). One iteration of Troy was besieged and ultimately destroyed by Mycenaean Greeks around 1250 BC, although the city was soon rebuilt. The story of this Trojan War is one of the great themes of Western literature, and Troy itself became one of the great sites of nineteenth-century archaeology.

Walls of Troy VII (late Bronze Age), commonly seen as the Troy of the Trojan War.

I enjoyed walking around the site, which was more extensive than I was expecting, although it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. Troy kept getting destroyed and rebuilt from the early Bronze Age until the Byzantine era, when any status it had as the guardian of the Straits was superseded by Constantinople (and enervated by a retreating coastline). This means that there are any number of layers to the site, but they are all mixed together – or at least that is how they now appear after a century and a half of archaeology, and you really have to use your imagination to perceive how each successive settlement may have appeared in its day. But I would say this activity is preferable to getting your photo taken at the reconstructed Trojan Horse near the entrance.

As my friend Mark Skoczylas pointed out, “You’d think the stairway would have tipped them off.”

Actual artifacts from the site (i.e., what Schliemann allowed the Turks to keep) are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (You’ll have to go to Moscow to see the rest of this horde.)

On the other side of the Hellespont is the Gallipoli Peninsula, a name that has become synonymous with a military campaign that took place there over three thousand years later. During the First World War, the Ottomans had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Britain, and Russia. Britain (specifically, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty) thought it would be a good idea to land troops at Gallipoli, march on Constantinople, and secure the Bosphorus for Russia. We’re used to thinking of the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe, but they were competent enough in 1915 to repel the allies’ naval attack, and pin their troops on the beach for ten months, despite repeated attempts at breaking through. The whole thing has gone down as another futile campaign in a futile war.

Diorama, Gallipoli Battle Museum, Eceabat.

However, even the futility has become meaningful. The sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand (“Anzac”) troops at Gallipoli are solemnly commemorated in those countries every April 25, the day when Anzac troops first landed. The location of the battle, and its ineffective progress, have also drawn specific comparisons to the Iliad, the chief literary representation of the Trojan War, which does not dwell on the ultimate Greek victory but the endless and apparently pointless killing that had to transpire first. The ostensible reenactment of this at Gallipoli “served as a military origin myth” for Australia, and could “contextualize the nation and its people within the continuous mythical and historical narrative of Western Civilization.”

A silver lining of sorts.

Ari Burnu Cemetery, Anzac Cove, Eceabat.

On the Turkish side, of course this campaign launched the career of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a great morale boost during the war, and set the stage for the Turkish War of Independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if it also contributed to the contemporaneous Armenian Genocide, although the Turks would never admit to that. (Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey on account of the article on the Armenian Genocide, which has been protected from Turkey’s manic insistence that the atrocity never happened, or that it wasn’t as great a crime as claimed, or that it was never their intention to kill so many people, etc., etc. Why the Turks feel they have to do this has always baffled me. Quite apart from the blatant pigheadedness of denying reality, why bother, when it was the Ottomans who carried it out, not the Nationalists?)

Akbaş Şehitliği (Akbaş Martyr’s Memorial), Eceabat.

The Coptic Church

Coptic Cross, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Some background: the Fourth Ecumenical Council was held at Chalcedon, now a part of the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, in AD 451. It is famous for ruling that Jesus had two natures – he was both fully God and fully man – against a contrary position that held that Jesus had one nature, in which the divine and the human were inseparably united. Detractors called this position “monophysitism,” while its adherents preferred “miaphysitism.” Chalcedon led to a schism that has never been completely healed. Of the five great Christian patriarchates of the time (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome), Alexandria and Antioch refused to accept the judgment of the Council, and retained a belief in miaphysitism. These patriarchates are now designated the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, respectively, and along with the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Malankaran (Indian) Orthodox Churches, comprise a group known as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches, all of which reject the view that Jesus, while on Earth, had separate natures.*

(Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, recognizes the Council of Chalcedon, and comprises a somewhat larger communion. Although most Christians under the rule of the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Antioch became members of the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches, there are Chalcedonian (“Greek”) Orthodox patriarchates for these cities too, and there remain Chalcedonian patriarchates for Jerusalem and Constantinople – four of the original five members of the pentarchy. These are all liturgically Greek, and together with the actual Church of Greece comprise Greek Orthodoxy. These churches are in communion with other “autocephalous” Eastern Orthodox churches, including churches for Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. One must also keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church has actively missionized to the Orthodox, whether Eastern or Oriental, and so there is now Armenian Catholic Church, a Syriac Catholic Church, a Coptic Catholic Church, a Greek Catholic Church, and so on – collectively these are the Eastern Catholic Churches.**)

Door, Coptic Cairo.

Approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, the vast majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox. (According to Wikipedia, the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt number about twelve million souls, with the Greek Orthodox in second place at 300,000, and the Coptic Catholics in third at 200,000). Probably the best place to explore Christian Cairo is around the Mar Girgis (“St. George”) metro station, where one can find numerous Christian monasteries, cemeteries, and churches. The largest and most obvious is actually Greek Orthodox, but the rest are Coptic, and quite historic. 

Pulpit and screen, Church of St. Barbara, Old Cairo.

Nave, Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (the “Hanging Church”), Old Cairo.

Nave, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church (“Abu Serga”), Old Cairo.

As you can see, in Coptic churches the sanctuary is closed off from the nave by a screen, which in these three cases consists of intricately carved and inlaid woodwork. Other features include a marble pulpit on the left side of the nave, pillars (often different in style from each other, representing the different apostles, according to my guide), and a wooden ceiling representing Noah’s Ark. Abu Serga Church takes great pride in its status as place of refuge for Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus from the persecution of Herod the Great in Judaea. The church has numerous icons of the Flight into Egypt, and in the crypt, one finds a well from which they drank.

Actually, Abu Serga is not the only place they stayed. Tradition holds that the Holy Family did a grand tour of Egypt during their sojourn there, bestowing bragging rights on many places.

Around the walls of the nave in the average Coptic church, one tends to find banks of icons, sometimes with glass cases beneath them, containing cloth “rolls” which, I was told, hold relics. One can deposit petitions or offerings in the glass case. This set of icons can be seen in St. Shenouda’s Church, slightly to the north of the three mentioned above.

Icons, St. Shenouda Church, Old Cairo.

And these two are in the nearby Antique Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as “El Damshiria.” Note all the petitions to the saint on the right.

Icons, Church of El Damshiria, Old Cairo.

Some of the more popular saints include:

Saint Menas, the fourth-century soldier, ascetic, and martyr, usually shown between the two camels that brought his body back to Egypt from Phrygia.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a pair of Roman soldiers executed in Syria under Emperor Galerius.

Saint Anthony the Great, founder of Egyptian monasticism, and Saint Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit.

Saint Mercurius, a third-century soldier and martyr under Emperor Decius. The image of him riding a horse and brandishing two swords over his head (and spearing a prostate man with a lance) is very common and represents a posthumous miracle. During the reign of the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-63), Saint Basil prayed before an icon of Saint Mercurius and asked him not to let Julian return from his campaign against the Persians. The image then disappeared, only to reappear later with a bloodied spear. Soon afterwards, news arrived of the death of Julian, killed in battle by an unknown soldier.

Saint George. Note the appearance of the miniature pitcher-bearer riding with him.

Veneration continues for more recent deaths: the image of Mother Irini (1936-2006), visionary, miracle-worker, and abbess of the Abu Sefein Convent in Old Cairo, was common….

… and votaries pray at her shrine at Abu Sefein.

Sister Theophania of St. George’s convent also gave me a little book on the life of Father Yostos (1910-76), a monk at the monastery of St. Anthony and a miracle-worker.

In Old Cairo one may also visit the newly-restored Coptic Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from Coptic history. My thanks to my guide Yasir Magdi for showing me around.

Beyond Old Cairo, one can find Coptic Churches here and there throughout the city. The most important is St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District, which took me a while to find. It is also, as you can see, under restoration.

Although the Coptic Orthodox Church is officially the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark reputedly founded it, the seat of the patriarch has been in Cairo since the eleventh century, and in this church building from 1968. Since 2012, when Shenouda III died, the office has been held by Tawadros II, whose name was selected from a shortlist of three candidates by a blindfolded boy, believed to be guided by the hand of God. The Coptic patriarch uses the title “Pope,” the only other one besides the Bishop of Rome to do so.

The word “Copt” derives ultimately from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning “Egypt,” and Copts are quite proud of their status as the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. St. Mark’s efforts in Alexandria won a great number of converts who were native Egyptians (i.e. neither Greek nor Jewish, as were most of the original Christians), and the Coptic language is a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian of the Roman Era. (You can see examples of its script in some of the photos above – it is essentially the Greek alphabet, with seven extra characters.) Alas, it is purely a liturgical language nowadays – most Copts speak (and worship in) the same Arabic language as their neighbors. If anything sets them apart, it is a discreet tattoo that many of them will get on their inner wrists, as a memento of their faith. I must record that all the Egyptian Muslims I spoke with insisted that the Copts were their brothers and fellow Egyptians – although the level of security around Coptic churches (a necessary precaution following some recent unfortunate incidents) would suggest that not everyone shares this opinion. 

* Voltaire: “Assuredly, I understand nothing of this; no one has ever understood any of it, and that is why we have slaughtered one another.” Actually, I think that other concerns usually hang on such abstruse questions. In the case of Chalcedon, I would not be surprised if the much older Patriarchate of Alexandria resented the growing influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

** There is also the Church of the East, the result of the earlier Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorius, who had emphasized the distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures. Those Christians living in the Persian Empire refused to accept this condemnation, and were consequently known as Nestorian Christians. The Assyrian Church of the East continues this theological tradition

Postscript: Prior to this trip, it never occurred to me where Antioch is currently located. It is in Turkey, specifically in Hatay Province, and is known as Antakya. Hatay Province is the little bit of Turkey that sticks down along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Google maps.

Hatay was at one point controversial – and in some ways still is. As a result of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) the area, designated the “Sanjak of Alexandretta,” was assigned to the French Mandate of Syria. It contained a significant Turkish population, however, which inspired (and probably directed) by Atatürk, started instituting reforms similar to his, and agitating for closer ties to Turkey. Upon the expiration of the French Mandate in 1935, these Turks managed to elect two “independentist” MPs for Alexandretta, who succeeded in getting the French to endorse its independence as the State of Hatay (Atatürk’s name for the place, after the word for “Hittite”). So from September 1938 until June 1939, Hatay was an independent country, with its own flag, looking suspiciously like Turkey’s.

Wikipedia.

A referendum in Hatay approved of Anchluss with Turkey; that Turkey trucked in tens of thousands of its citizens for the vote certainly helped achieve this result. Syria protested, but to no avail – the French were hoping to prevent Turkey from going over to the Germans, as it had in the First World War, and so allowed the merger to go forward. Upon annexation by Turkey many of the Arabs and Armenians of Hatay decamped for Syria, fearful that they would not be welcome in the Turkish ethnostate; certainly the Patriarchates of Antioch, whether Syriac or Greek, are now headquartered in Damascus.

Saint George

The formal reason for my trip to the Middle East was that I wanted to investigate the convergence between the Christian St. George, the subject of my doctoral dissertation, and al-Khidr, a revered Muslim wali usually identified as the righteous guide of Moses in Sura 18 of the Koran. I do have some things to say about this convergence although I am still preparing my thoughts. In the meantime, allow me to share some St. George discoveries.

• Yesterday, a package arrived from Turkey that I had sent to myself. It looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to the box, but the contents were surprisingly undamaged. Among them was a postcard from Cappadocia, and a guidebook for the Göreme Open Air Museum. It seems that in Cappadocia, St. George was frequently twinned with St. Theodore, his fellow warrior saint and equestrian dragon slayer. The way to tell them apart is that St. George rides a white horse, while St. Theodore’s is red.

Postcard: “Cappadocia, Gülşehir, Karşı Church, Hagios Georgios and Hagios Theodoros fighting with the dragon on their horses.”

In the image below George is on the left, and Theodore on the right, but both saints kill the same dragon, which is a nice instance of teamwork. On account of the dragon, the church where the painting appears is named Yılanlı Kilise (“Snake Church”) – although its original dedication was to St. Onuphrius.

From Murat E. Gülyaz, Göreme Open Air Museum (Istanbul: Secil Ofset, n.d.), 49.

A simple and handsome portrait of a single St. George, in the Chapel of St. Basil. I like how his horse gets a halo too.

From Murat E. Gülyaz, Göreme Open Air Museum (Istanbul: Secil Ofset, n.d.), 40.

• I have seen a lot of icons of St. George, but before this trip I had never seen one of St. George, riding his horse, slaying a dragon, watched by the princess… and with a little man riding on his horse with him.

What is going on here? According to a discussion on Monachos.net, it represents a posthumous miracle of St. George:

During their invasion of Paphlagonia the Agarenes (Moslems) took many people into captivity, among them a young boy who was a servant in the church of St. George in Phatris. Some of the prisoners were killed, the rest turned into slaves. The boy was of such beauty that he was chosen as a servant for the Arabian ruler. As he rejected the offer to become a Muslim, he was sent to work in the kitchen. In his misfortune the poor boy prayed to Saint George. Once at evening, when he was lying in bed, he heard a voice coming from the yard and calling his name. The boy opened the door and saw a rider who caught him and placed behind himself on the horse. Then the steed rushed forward and started to gallop. The rider brought the boy to a certain building, and then disappeared. The exhausted youth fell asleep and next morning was awakened by the people, who were dismayed because his Arabian clothes suggested the presence of enemies. The boy recognised those people as monks. As it transpired, he had been brought to Monastery of St. George. All of them went to a church to offer a thanksgiving prayer to God for saving the youth.

Interesting, but I prefer the explanation of Hosam Naoum, Dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem, with whom I was privileged to speak. Note that the figure takes the form of a man, not a boy, and note what he is holding. The motif derives from Luke 22, when Jesus tells Peter and John (emphasis added):

Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make readyAnd they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover.

In other words, a man bearing a pitcher will lead the way to the site of a miracle – in the Gospels the Last Supper, in the icons the destruction of evil, represented by the dragon.

• Finally, another novel image for me: St. George seated between his parents, St. Gerontios and St. Polychronia.

You know that a saint is important when he starts to be supplied with relatives – who are themselves saints by association. Their names, respectively meaning “Old Man” and “Woman of Many Years,” suggest that they were later inventions. The fact that his father was from Cappadocia, and his mother from Lydda, may also be seen as an attempt at explaining one of George’s place-designators, and the location of his principal shrine.

More on St. George to come!

Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

Israel

Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.

But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed. 

Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)

But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.

But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.

How can you argue with people who think like this?

My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.

Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.

* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.

** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)

*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.

I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.

I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.