On November 16 of every year, the church of St. George in Lod fills with hundreds of worshippers who arrive for the Feast of St. George/Khidr, the day commemorating the translation of his relics to the church at the heart of Lod. Pilgrims travel from Nazareth and Bethlehem and as far away as Jordan to receive the blessing of the saint, who is the patron saint of Palestine, and to ask for healing or the gift of childbirth. Muslims come to honor al-Khidr, or “the green one,” a Quranic figure. They light candles together in what is one of the last truly shared feasts between Muslims and Christians in the region.
In attending the feast for the last two years, I have been struck by how much it is a feast of memory, of holding onto traditions that have long died out in much of the region. It also marks the end of the olive harvest, and central to the feast day is a ritual in which pilgrims descend to the tomb beneath the church and pour olive oil on the tomb of St. George, in thanks for a bountiful harvest. They retrieve the olive oil in small containers to distribute to those who need blessing.
Though much of the life of St. George is disputed, popular stories about him circulate widely throughout the Middle East and in Palestine in particular, where he is the most widely venerated saint. In private homes, families often display icons, pictures, and even embroidered images of him in his soldier’s outfit, slaying the dragon. Tradition holds that St. George was born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor during the Roman Empire and became a soldier under the Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to cooperate with the persecution of Christians and publicly declared his Christian faith, he was ordered to be put to death. Stories holds that the emperor tried various ways of torturing and killing him, including binding him to a wheel, giving him poison to drink, and tearing at his body with hooks, all to no avail. Each time George miraculously survived. While he was in prison, he was reported to heal many who asked for his help. Eventually he was beheaded with a sword in or near the city of Lydda (now Lod). In the immediate centuries that followed, a devotion to the tomb holding his relics began and a church was built during the Byzantine period. During the Crusader period the Crusaders, who related to St. George as a valiant soldier and believed that he urged them on in the battle to take Jerusalem, built a cathedral there. Devotion to the relics at the tomb continues to this day.
The name George comes from the word “farmer” in Greek and he has a deep love from farmers, still seen by the farmers who visit the tomb at the end of the olive harvest to offer a portion of the season’s oil in thanks. George and Jeries, another form of his name, are two of the most common names for Palestinian Christians, and additional shrines and feasts to the saint exist throughout the country, markedly in al-Khader, outside of Bethlehem, which is named after him.
Al-Khidr, or the green one, refers to a character in Surah al-Kahf in the Quran who is famous for initiating the Prophet Moses into the mysteries of God. According to Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel, tradition among some Muslims holds that al-Khidr has reappeared to devout Muslims throughout history, sometimes saving their lives in times of danger, other times initiating them into a deeper knowledge of God.
In the Middle East, the shrines of St. George and St. Elijah are often associated with al-Khidr by local Muslims, and not only Muslims but often Christians refer to St. George as “al-Khidr.” In Lod, the church of St. George shares a wall with the neighboring mosque, cementing them as a shared site between Christians and Muslims. Muslims at the feast told me that they had come to the church in order to descend to the tomb of al-Khidr. They also light candles alongside Christian pilgrims, and some offer oil, though they perform their prayers in the neighboring mosque.
Asmahan Abu Arqeq, an older woman from Lod, comes every year. Last year she told me: “I came here every year in my childhood, and then I brought my children, and now their children. We believe in al-Khidr, may peace be upon him.”
This year, when I saw her again, she exclaimed: “I told you that I come every year! This is where the tayabeen, the good people come.”
A Greek Orthodox mass takes place in the center of the church, but at the same time the area around it is buzzing with activity: pilgrims lighting candles, taking photos, and carrying bottles of olive oil down to the tomb to be blessed. As the morning goes on, the rails along the staircase down to the tomb become increasingly slippery with olive oil, and the crypt becomes so full of oil that cardboard needs to be placed on the floor to prevent pilgrims from slipping.
As pilgrims pour oil over the tomb, others call out prayers and the names of those who need to be healed. A mother leads her sick boy to the tomb to touch it. Upstairs, at a small desk, pilgrims write down the names of those who need help on small pieces of paper. Others put chains around their necks, a remembrance of St. George’s time in captivity, and also believed to have healing powers.
One of the most surprising details of the Feast of St. George is the sight of parents arriving with their small children and bright, colorful costumes of St. George. They approach a priest who is in the corner of the church, who is tasked with clothing the children in the St. George costume and then blessing him or her with a cross.
In many cases, these children were born because of what their parents believe was a miracle. A mother unable to have a child prayed to St. George for intercession, promising that if a child was born she would bring him or her to the tomb every year on the feast day, dressed in the saint’s clothes. Suheil Armali told me last year: “Four years ago, the doctor told me that it was almost impossible for me to have a baby. I prayed very much. I prayed: please, let me have a boy. And if I do I will bring him on this day and dress him in these clothes. He is now three and a half years old.”
In the past, many of the shrines in Palestine, Syria and Jordan were shared by Christians and Muslims. These were particularly true of shrines to Elijah, St. George, and Mary. Part of what makes the feast of St. George in Lod so touching is that it still carries the memory of those shared traditions, which have increasingly disappeared throughout the region. It is also important because it still contains an agricultural component of the feast, much as the feast of the cross coincides with pomegranate season.
Yet those who know recent history know that it is incredible that the feast exists at all. In 1948, the native Palestinian population of Lod was almost completely expelled by Israeli forces, the city being at a strategic location at the intersection of the country’s railroad lines, near the airport, and near an important water source. Ari Shavit, an Israeli author who recently wrote about the expulsion, puts the number of Palestinians displaced at 35,000. Walid Khalidi, a Palestinian historian, puts the number at 49,000 of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants. Spiro Munayyer, an inhabitant of the city who managed to stay behind, describes how the Christian and Muslim inhabitants were rounded up into the church of St. George and mosque of al-Khidr before being forced to march into exile.
One would expect that this might have marked the end of the local festival. Today, the name Lod is often associated with crime and civil unrest. Yet the festival survived, with Palestinians still traveling from throughout the country to visit the tomb, from Jerusalem and Nazareth and Qafr Kana, and seamstresses in Nazareth and Beit Sahur still tasked with sewing St. George costumes for small children. Increasingly, Ethiopian pilgrims also come to the feast, as St. George is deeply revered there as well. In fact what is marked about the feast is the presence of multiple generations, from elderly farmers to infants dressed as St. George. The festivities conclude with a parade of scouts, both Christian and Muslim, playing drums and blowing horns down the main street of Lod, this feast day still the city’s holiday more than 1500 years after devotion to the tomb began.
It is only fitting for a feast based on the story of a man who miraculously survives.