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St George – The Iranian – Arab who became the Patron Saint of England

 The figure of St George is wrapped in mystery. For centuries historians have tried to establish who he really was, and when and where he lived. The little information we have about him have come via literary works such as the “Passio Georgii” and the “Dectretum Gelasianum” from the year 496 C.E. From the “Passio”, originally written in Greek and later translated into Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Arabic, we understand that George was born in Cappadocia (present day Turkey). His father, Gerontius, possibly of Persian origins, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia and his mother was from Palestine. They were both Christians from noble families. As a child George was raised with Christian beliefs. His parents called him Georgius (Latin) or Geõrgios (Greek), meaning “worker of the land”. At the age of 14, George lost his father. A few years later, George’s mother, Polychronia, also died. As an adult George also joined the Roman army possibly under the rule of Dacian (known as the King of Persia), a co-emperor appointed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (243- 313) to rule over the conquered Persian territories. Dacian is reported to have been a strong pagan and disliked the “new faith” (Christianity). According to the limited sources we have, George became a high ranking officer in the army and distinguished himself for his fighting skills. His Christian faith became an impediment when the Emperor begun the persecution of all Christians in 303 A.D. This was precipitated by an alleged plot to assassinate the Emperor which was attributed to a number of Christian army officers. George was offered the choice to renounce his Christian faith and save his life which he refused to do, and in an act of defiance, he publicly tore up the edict of the Emperor and denounced him for his killing of Christians. Anticipating trouble, he gave his property to the poor and freed his slaves. He was eventually imprisoned, tortured, and finally beheaded at Nicomedia, on April 23, 303 A.D. The cult of this Christian martyr started almost immediately, as is demonstrated by a basilica erected soon after his death on the site where it happened, in Lydda, in present day Occupied Palestine. Stories of St George’s courage soon spread and his reputation grew very quickly. He became known in Russia and the Ukraine as the “Trophy Bearer” and his cult spread to most of Europe. It is said that his head was carried to Rome, where it was preserved in the Church that is also dedicated to him. The episode of the dragon, which is always present in any depiction of St George, was only emphasised and brought to light in the Middle Ages when Jacopo da Varagine (d. 1293), an Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa, turned St George into an heroic knight. The designation would inspire generations of artists. The story goes that in the city of Silene in Libya, a dragon dwelt, keeping the population in terror. To satiate him the population offered up their animals one by one until they had no more. They would then provide human sacrifices and in ultimate desperation, a young princess was selected – the king’s daughter named Cleo Linda. The story then relates how St George rode up on his white charger, dismounted and fought the monster on foot until it eventually succumbed. He then dragged the dying monster into the city, using the girdle of the Princess, and slew the dragon in front of the people. St George was greeted as their saviour and the King offered him a bag of gold as a reward for saving his daughter. This he refused and asked that it be given to the poor. Regardless of the authenticity of the story, the heroic martyr of Cappadocia became the symbol of Christ that defeats evil (represented by the dragon), and By Yasser Ahmed 41 posterity has remembered him for this story even though the original dragon against whom he fought was the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperor Dacian, nicknamed “the dragon” for his “draconian law” which he imposed on the early Christians. Undoubtedly the presence of his grave in the “Holy Land” earned him the attention of the Crusaders’ armies which begun to venerate him as the Martyr Holy Warrior a few centuries later, equating the symbolism of the dragon with the fight against Muslims and Islam. By the time Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) appeared on the scene, St George had become the official protector of the Crusaders. According to folk stories George was adopted by Richard the Lionheart as his personal saint in the Crusades. But there is another spin to the story of St George. In the village of El-Khadr near Bethlehem a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church was erected in his honour. In fact St George is also considered the patron of Palestine where he is respected by both Christians and Muslims. Christians regarded it as the birthplace of St George, Jews as the burial place of the Prophet Elias, and local Muslims as the home of the legendary saint el-Khidr. Christians, Jews and Muslims can be observed going to this mausoleum to ask its resident to intercede to God on their behalf for the cure of serious illnesses. Although St George is England’s patron saint, he never set foot here. The earliest known reference to him in Britain was in an account by the Irish Abbot St Adamnan in the 7th century. But the earliest reported appearance of the Cross of St George was at the siege of Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland in 1300. Edward I and Edward II both flew the St George banner in their wars against Scotland, but it was King Edward III who made him the patron saint of England and dedicated the Order of the Garter to him. Recently British politicians have shown concern that St George has been adopted by right wing extremists in the UK as a symbol of “Britishness” who is ready to slay the “foreign invaders”. But how can it be? You need to employ a good deal of imagination to do this. I wonder how St George would really feel about the manipulation of his character considering that he possessed all the right credentials to be a symbol of multi-ethnicity.
By Yasser Ahmed

Originally published by islam today   April 2013 – Issue 6

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