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.

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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.

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!

Icons

The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:

George1

The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.

George2

St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

Christianity

Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.

St. Olaf

The relics of Norway’s patron saint seem to have been found:

Norway’s Saint Olaf Uncovered: Archaeologists Believe They have Discovered the Shrine of the Lost Viking King

A team of Norwegian archaeologists believes they have discovered the remains of a 1,000-year-old church that once served as the final resting place for one of Norway’s great Viking kings, and its patron saint.

Olaf II Haraldson reigned in the eleventh century, from 1015 until 1028 AD, and today is largely credited for spreading the Christian religion throughout Norway. Olaf was driven into exile by the Danish King Canute and was slain in battle upon his return to Norway, just north of the city of Trondheim, where his forces fell to the enemy Danes and a rebellious group of Norwegian nobles.

Olaf was proclaimed a saint and was buried in St. Clement’s Church in Trondheim, but as his cult grew larger and larger, his body was eventually moved to the Trondheim cathedral. Some time after, historians believe that St. Clement’s church was destroyed, its location lost – until now.

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) may have discovered the original foundations of St. Clement’s Church, and even believe that they have identified the lost shrine of the martyred King. They uncovered a stone slab which they claim had been the foundation of the altar where the King’s coffin once rested. Researchers have also found skeletons at the site, believed to be the remains of the church graveyard, but they were likely buried many years after Saint Olaf.

More at the link.

More St. Georges

In honor of this festive season, a St. George-themed Christmas ornament, a souvenir of Westminster Abbey, courtesy of Ron and Sandra Good.

ornament

And from Facebook, a St. George-Alien mashup:

15392793_10154830261431474_5531659675637842114_o

Merry Christmas!

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”