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 commandeered 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.” A priest 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 the priest did not have time to show them to me). A sister 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 minority of 1-2% 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 do indeed 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.” Obviously a certain sectarian bias might be at work here, but 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 as noted above resistance to Israel is also 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 your religion absolutely denies 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.

********

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.

***

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.

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.

Money

One of the delights of traveling is seeing what foreign countries put on their currency (it’s even better when the exchange rate works in your favor). For no real reason, here are some shots of the leftover bills in my possession.

• It goes without saying that Kemal Atatürk should appear on the obverse of all Turkish bills (he’s on all the coins too).

Other people only appear on the back, like Aydın Sayılı, historian of science.

It’s nice how they vary the portraits of Atatürk, and how many of them have him smiling (unlike, say, those of Mussolini or Lenin).

On the reverse of the twenty lira note, a portrait of Ahmet Kemalettin, designated Mimar Kemalettin (“Kemalettin the Architect”), who was active in the late Ottoman and early Republican periods.

• Egyptian bills have two sides, which I would designate “tourist” and “local.” The tourist side features motifs from ancient Egypt, English writing, and western numerals.

The local side features Arabic writing, real Arabic numerals, and Muslim architecture, in this case the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo (which I saw; it is beautiful and actually houses the tomb of the last Shah of Iran).

The fifty pound note follows the same pattern: the tourist side has the Temple of Edfu…

…the local side has the Abu Huraiba Mosque (according to Wikipedia, anyway – I did not get to see it).

By the way, here is a clock face from the Cairo metro, showing the full range of Eastern Arabic numerals. Prior to this trip I had no idea there were such things, but they are widely used in Egypt, including on automobile license plates. Interestingly, you read them left to right, even though Arabic script itself goes right to left.

• I think Israel has the best designed bills. The most recent fifty New Shekel note features Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

It is nice of them to include Arabic and English on the reverse. (Actually, this trip revealed to me just how lucky we Anglophones are, that our language is the world’s lingua franca – perhaps I should say lingua anglica? An Egyptian man marries a Japanese woman, and they communicate in English. A Palestinian shopkeeper speaks to a Turkish customer – in English. An Egyptian tour guide leads a group including Chinese, Indonesians, Argentinians, and Brazilians – English is the language everyone knows. There was a time when French held this position, and indeed I got to speak some French with an Egyptian nun who had been educated in that language. On account of the American Empire, however, practically everyone is now obliged to learn this originally obscure German-French hybrid with three present tenses and a really bizarre spelling system. USA! USA! USA!)

• Finally, just for fun: I met a German couple in Istanbul who gave me this note. It is a real note, with a serial number and all the security features, it’s just worth zero Euros. Apparently the EU will allow the printing of them from time to time as souvenirs, to commemorate various things – in this case, the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The caption, “God’s mercy is free,” goes very well with the fact that the bill itself is “free.” Thank you, Bertold and Anne Stegemann!

The reverse includes the usual EU hodgepodge. I see Germany (Brandenburg Gate), Italy (the Coliseum), France (Eiffel Tower), Spain (Sagrada Família) and Belgium (Mannikin Pis) represented. I don’t know who belongs to the tower on the left.

Otto Skorzeny

From Haaretz:

The Strange Case of a Nazi Who Became an Israeli Hitman

Otto Skorzeny, one of the Mossad’s most valuable assets, was a former lieutenant colonel in Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS and one of Adolf Hitler’s favorites.

On September 11, 1962, a German scientist vanished. The basic facts were simple:

Heinz Krug had been at his office, and he never came home.

The only other salient detail known to police in Munich was that Krug commuted to Cairo frequently. He was one of dozens of Nazi rocket experts who had been hired by Egypt to develop advanced weapons for that country.

HaBoker, a now defunct Israeli newspaper, surprisingly claimed to have the explanation: The Egyptians kidnapped Krug to prevent him from doing business with Israel.

But that somewhat clumsy leak was an attempt by Israel to divert investigators from digging too deeply into the case — not that they ever would have found the 49-year-old scientist.

We can now report — based on interviews with former Mossad officers and with Israelis who have access to the Mossad’s archived secrets from half a century ago — that Krug was murdered as part of an Israeli espionage plot to intimidate the German scientists working for Egypt.

Moreover, the most astounding revelation is the Mossad agent who fired the fatal gunshots: Otto Skorzeny, one of the Israeli spy agency’s most valuable assets, was a former lieutenant colonel in Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS and one of Adolf Hitler’s personal favorites among the party’s commando leaders. The Führer, in fact, awarded Skorzeny the army’s most prestigious medal, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, for leading the rescue operation that plucked his friend Benito Mussolini out from the hands of his captors.

A fascinating story (if true!) – read the whole thing.

A colleague lent me Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Crusade once. One anecdote that stayed with me: after D-Day, Skorzeny was tasked with training “Skorzeny’s men,” young Nazis recruited to mimic American soldiers and sow as much havoc as possible behind American lines. Eventually the Americans caught on, and would ask unfamiliar people trivia questions that only Americans would be likely to know, such as “Where does ‘Lil Abner’ live?” or “What’s the name of the Brooklyn baseball team?” (according to the Wikipedia article on Operation Greif, the American brigadier general Bruce Clarke was held at gunpoint for five hours after he said the Chicago Cubs were in the American League). Fussell goes on to say that:

there were more telling ways to catch Skorzeny’s men than facetious questioning. Every American soldier carried, in addition to the metal identity tags around his neck, a laminated card with his photo. These cards had one curious feature: an uncorrected typographical error. The top of the card read NOT A PASS. FOR INDENTIFICATION PURPOSES ONLY. Someone preparing the disguises of the Skorzeny spies couldn’t resist – some will say “in a German manner” – of pedantically correcting the spelling on the false cards issued to those masquerading as American officers.