At the church of St. George in Al-Khader, both Muslims kneel on their prayer rugs and Christians bend their heads in devotion. This 100-year-old Greek Orthodox church, covered from floor to ceiling with a dizzying array of richly colored icons, serves as a popular pilgrimage site for both faiths.
The legend of St. George can be traced to a number of sources, though little is known about the historical St. George. According to legend, he was born in Turkey to Christian parents. When his father died, his mother took him back with her to her native country of Palestine. He was conscripted into the Roman army and was beheaded for openly declaring his Christian beliefs. Some believe he was held in the town of Al-Khader before being executed, and the chains that held him are still kept in the church as religious relics.
But there is much more to the story than that. The Arabic name for St. George is Al-Khader, meaning evergreen, because Muslims believe he is immortal. He is regarded the human manifestation of a holy spirit that is described in the Quran as a companion of Musa (Moses). St. George has deep roots in the Christian tradition as well. Many believe he saved a Libyan princess from a dragon, and his story has symbolic resonance in many countries. St. George is the patron saint of Georgia, England, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia,Greece, India, Iraq, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, the Ukraine, and Russia.
Palestinian anthropologist Dr. Ali Qleibo attributes the story to an even older tradition. He writes, “(St. George’s) legendary encounter with the dragon, the saving of the young virgin, his consequent martyrdom, and his miraculous death and resurrection are thematic variations of the eternal struggle of (the Canaanite god) Baal against Yam.”
Whatever the truth behind the stories of St. George/Al-Khader, his symbol remains very much alive today in many countries including Palestine. George remains one of the most common names among Palestinian Christians, and it is common to see a stone with St. George slaying the dragon engraved on the outside of Christian homes. Palestinian Muslims and Christians alike make pilgrimages to visit the church in Al-Khader, and it was once common for Muslims to baptize their babies at the church because local tradition holds that a baby washed in the water there would be strong. Visitors can take part in this living tradition at the feast of St. George held in the village of Al-Khader every spring.