St. George Killed the Dragon in Beirut

Bruce Condè, 1955 and 1960

Beirut's and Britain's patron saint is known the world over as the slayer of the dragon, but the traditional spot where St. George actually destroyed the monster is one of the least-known historic sites in this city.

The conventional story of St. George, ("Mar Juryus" in Arabic), who is also called "al-Khadr" by both Christians and Moslems in this part of the world, is extremely vague.

Generally he is said to have been born in Lydda, Palestine, to have risen to high rank in the Roman army, in which capacity be served in Britain, become a distingushed Christian, and to have suffered martyrdom under Diocletian, on April 23, 203 AD., still celebrated as St George's Day.

The legend of his slaying the dragon is better known Beirut being blockaded by a monster who periodically arose out of a small lake or well between the town and the river, to terrorize the inhabitants, the people begged their ruler to accede to the creature's demand for the surrender of his daughter as the price of the city's freedom.

As the weeping princess left the Bab es-Serail (east) gate of the town walls, St. George rescued her from the dragon, killing it a short distance from the well and freeing the city.

St. George is al-Khadr
Although informed authorities on Middle Eastern mythology as(sure us that St. George is a rationalized Christian perpetuation of the earlier pagan god, .Adonis, himself a derivation of Tammuz, and that early Moslems confused him with both Elias and the "servant of God" who spoke to Moses in Sura 18 of the Koran, all under the somewhat ambiguos name of al-Khadr - "the Green One", we find him already famous during the life of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in the early decades of the Fourth Century A. D.

St. Helena, the emperors mother, who died in 327, is reputed to have set up a small white marble column in the Martyr's honor in an early Byzantine chapel on the spot where he traditionally slew the dragon.

A Byzantine inscription, still extant, on the ruined church of Erza, in Syria dated 346, dedicated it to St.George, and the saint's popularity spread rapidly with the Christianization of Europe. Favored by the Crusaders, who in the 12th Century erected he present structure on the remains of the Byzantine one, the soldier-martyr became the patron saint of England by proclamation of Edward III in 1348.

An interesting old ikon, once in the St. George Crusader chapel, now in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, was expertized in great detail by the Comte du Mesnil de-Buisson in a scholarly article entitled "Le Lieu du combat de St.-Georges a Beyrouth" (Melanges de Universite St. Joseph, Vol. XIII, 1927) to show clearly that the traditional setting of the deed was in Beirut.

The conventional design, handed down since Byzantine days shows St. George (on horseback), the dragon, an angel, the weeping princess (framed in Beirut's long vanished Bab es-Serail gate), a tree (to which the hero tied his horse), and, more important, the place of the encounter. In the latter thumb-nail sketch of Byzantine Beirut we see the river bank with its Roman bridge, later restored by Fakhreddin, which, until the French mandate, spanned the river a few meters south of the present bridge. Just left of the bridge are the St. George Chapel buildings, including the crypt covering the spot of the slaying, the Byzantine church, a monastic dwelling and a domed structure, possibility over the well.

Crusader Chapel
A century ago there still remained the Crusader chapel - since 1661 a mosque - with its tower, the domed well and ruined crypt and monastery- The Comte du Mesnil found all intact, save the latter two ruins in 1927. He noted and described a highlyprized white marble cylinder 0.33 meters long and 0.11 to 0.13 in diameter (a section of the small column of Empress Helena ? ) which -superstitious people since time immemorable had rolled on parts of their bodies afflicted with rheumatism, seeking a miraculous cure.

Today the site is scarcely recognizable to those who knew it in the 1920's but its basic attractions, the building and the well, remain intact.

Geting off the Nahr tram about half way down the hill just before reaching the river, the chapel mosque site is reached after walking one block north (toward the sea). Its yellow minaret i3 occasionally visible from the tram when not obscured by buildings. Railroad tracks enclose it on the north, west and southwest. On entering the gate of the mosque area one passes the plain modern al-Khadr school and the still-domed well structure on the left before reaching the modern triple-arched portico of the mosque proper.

Restored by Es-Sulh
The northern half of the building is new, dating only from the 1934 and 1949 enlargements by Amin Kabbani and the late Riad es-Suln, respectively, and this has changed the basic shape of the structure from a rectangular one, running east and west, to a square edifice facing north. The minaret is equally modern but is seated on the base of the small yard-and-a-half square Crusader wall tower, still reached by the narrow Crusader staircase within the thick west wall, formerly the facade of the chapel.

Within the ancient south half of the mosque all is Crusader work, with a single vaulted nave ending in a semi circular apse at the east end (in which a modern window has been cut), with the mihrab niche to the right (south ) oriented toward Mecca and a handsome i white marble mimbar or pulpit whose posts recall the now-missing marble column of Empress Helena. The arched Crusader front door still remains at the west end, beneath the long Turkish inscription of 1070. A. H. ( 1661 A.D. ) - one of Beirut's most important historical source materials of the 17th century, which recounts the many vissicitudes of the building's frequent transfers from church to mosque, mosque to church and back again in that turbulent era. Except for a north ( side ) door in the Crusader structure (now an interior passageway) there are no signs of any other openings whatsoever in the 12th Century chapel, which measures only seven by twelve yards in size.

1827 Drawing
The well structure has not changed appreciably in general aspect since an 1827 sketch by the traveller Laborde in "Voyage de la Syrie" but the well shaft which leads down to the body of water from which the dragon traditionally emerged is not generally visible due to a temporary sealing of its mouth with two heavy stone slabs.

Both Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Khalidy, in whose charge the famous mosque remains today and as-Sayed Mustafa al-Khadr, head of the family which has served the mosque in uniterrupted succession since 1661, are extremely courteous, hospitable and obliging to visitors who apply for permission to visit and photograph the site and its buildings, while occasional English speaking teachers in the al-Khadr Mosque School are occasionaLly free between classes to interpret for groups of visitors who do not speak Arabic.

Genial Sheikh Mohammed tells of a very old man who asked for shelter at the mosque many years ago, stayed ten days, and, on leaving, disclosed a remarkable knowledge of the ancient pre-Islamic and later history of the site including a detailed description of the manner in which Ali Pasha el-Daftardar of Sidon arranged for its final reconversion to a mosque.

Ali Pasha's Plaque
Ali Pasha's famous grey marble plaque, in 14 lines or cartouches of Turkish written in Arabic script, over the west portal, is now painted over in green but still legible. Briefly, it tells how the family of Fakhreddin the Great had returned the place to Christian worship (inferring that the Mamluks had made it a mosque after 1291) until the Captain-Pasha (Jafar, of the 40 galley Turkish-fleet which captured Beirut from Fakhreddin in 1634) reconverted the chapel to Islamic use in the latter year. It goes on to accuse the Druze Prince of favoring modern innovations not in accord with the state religion and says his successor, the Emir Melhem II, in A.H. 1066 (1655 A.D.) gave it back to the monks, but that six years Later Ali Pasha, after taking testimony of the notables and nobles of Beirut at a board of inquiry finally restored al-Khadr to Moslem hands, removing all evidences of non-Islamic usage.

During the recent renovations, Sheik Mohammed, who takes a dim view of superstitious practices not in accordance with the precepts of Islam, finally got rid of the white marble cylinder, although the Wakfs administration, in consideration of the object's possible historical interest as the alleged gift of Empress Helena some thousand-and-a-half years ago, is said to have taken it into custody as an interesting antiquity.

The Dragon's Cave
Only one other site connected with the St. George legend remains identifiable in Beirut today - the so-called "Seven Mouthed Grotto of the Dragon".

On the way back from al-Khadr shortly after a turn to the southwest the tramline passes one block south of the Maronita Church, cemetery and school of St. Michel. On the south side of the tramline at this point a small paved road leads up the hillside behind a pink garage, turning eastwards in front of a green shuttered house where the key to the grotto is kept. Where the road turns south again not far beyond this house a flight of modern steps between cream and white cement retaining walls leads down to the grotto, now closed with an iron grilled gate. As early as 1549 a foreign traveller records this cave being pointed out to him as the "Seven Mouthed Cavern of the Dragon" a sort of supplemen-tary abode of the monster killed by St. George at al-Khadr.

Now Shrine
Actually it is an ancient sepulchral cave with square recesses cut into the walls for sarcophagi; thus giving rise to the "seven mouths" (there are eleven, but some may have been covered in 1549). For some unknown reason it has become a shrine of the Virgin, visited by nursing mothers during the past few centuries. It is unusually attractive, neat, clean and impressive, with unique decorations which make it well worth a visit in addition to its archaeological and legendary interest.

Due to Beirut's unique status under the patronage of St. George as the site where he is pictured slaying the dragon, the major cathedrals of both Maronite and Orthodox sects have taken that name, with al-Khadr referred to in Orthodox Church archives at "St. George's Outside the Walls". Needless to say, the St. George Hotel. and the bay of that name, further perpetuate the tradition of Beirut's own saint and most widely-known hero of the dim mists of antiquity.

From See Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960



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