The religious interaction between Christians and Muslims: St. Georges or Al-Khezr Cult, is this peculiar to Anatolia after all?

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Hidrellez to us-Turks, a memorable childhood, family, warm-hearted grandparents, and all that joy brings early Spring, wishes and hopes along: I remember us making colorful and tiny wish packages to be buried under a rose bush, that amazing and fun jumps over the bonfire and ending up with a smell of burning in our hair…

Known as the traditional early spring festival, Hidrellez is simply celebrating the awaking of the nature every year throughout Anatolia, Asia Minor where we wait Hizir comes up to help those who need and make our wishes come true.

Eastern Orthodox depictions of St. George slaying a dragon legend was brought to Europe with the Crusaders. The earliest known depiction of the legend is from early 11th-century Cappadocia.
Eastern Orthodox depictions of St. George slaying a dragon legend was brought to Europe with the Crusaders. The earliest known depiction of the legend is from early 11th-century Cappadocia.

Beyond all that fun and joy, there is a deep rooted cultural and religious fact along with Pagan customs of the Eastern Mediterranean and many pre-Islamic traditions of Central Asia and Mesopotamia lived on in Asia Minor, Hidrellez festival is perfect sample to religious interaction between Christian and Muslim interaction in Anatolia for hundreds of years. If we go back to medieval times of Anatolia, we see two facts: Christianity was settled in Anatolia long before Turks entered the region after “their victory against Byzantine Empire”, in the 11th century. Considering Turks converted to Islam in 10th century-quite new in the  Islamic disciplines-they also brought their traditions and shamanism roots along.

Hizir (Khezr) is the Green Man,representing freshness of spirit and knowledge: “drawn out of the living sources of life”. Quite similar to early Shaman-Turk believes, one can say that interaction somehow was fast and effective in practical way: Decorative and religious arts. It is not surprising that native Christian community and Muslim Turks were in the process of getting know each other, and St. Georges cult was one of the most significant examples of mutual religious interactions between two cultures.

Bronze candlestick inlaid with silver, Anatolia, 13th century, Khezr- Nuhad Es-Said Collection of Islamic Metalwork, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.
Bronze candlestick inlaid with silver, Anatolia, 13th century, Khezr- Nuhad Es-Said Collection of Islamic Metalwork, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

St. George is the figure corresponding to Hizir in Christianity. Besides being associated with St. George, Hizir is also identified with Ilyas Horasani and St. Theodore and St. Sarkis (Surp Sarkis) in Armenian Church tradition. Needless to say, St. George is important to a lot of churches, but in the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, he is huge!

Hidrellez, also known as St. Georges’ Day (Aya Yorgi) is such perfect sample to emphasize our point: In Anatolia (Hidir) Khezr and St. George are two personages identified with each other with respect to both their characteristic features and their functions. It is easier to understand how a local saints’ (born in either Cappadocia or Palestine) later affiliation with a Muslim holy figure: Whereas St. George was a legendary and historical figure, Hizir is more spiritual in nature-In a way, we can say that this is Anatolian combination of the years and common traditions as well as the story telling culture.

Importance of St. George can be clearly understood of the Martyrdom case during Early Christianity, times of the Roman Empire. Among the military saints, Theodore and George were most widely associated with the miracle of dragon slaying. One may say that this legend strongly related to Hizir-however, earliest surviving text connecting St. Theodore killing dragon may be dated to the 8th century, where the earliest depiction of St. George killing the dragon dates back to 11th century. History tells us Eastern Christian legends and cults brought to Europe by the Crusaders. From this stand point, it was quite expected for a European traveler /merchant would have easily recognized the earlier depictions during their visits to Asia Minor in 16th-17th centuries. Here the interesting thing is, these depictions were actually Islamic ones and can be none other than Hizir-Ilyas, a savior saint of compound identity who had special place in the popular belief systems of the Turks in Anatolia. So they actually did during their travels to Asia Minor and quite surprised upon seeing how St. George replaced with Hizir (Khezr) cult in terms of cultural and religious interaction.

On the other hand, we cannot just put things in a time order which make sense and forget the beginning: In Islamic tradition al-Khidr is widely known as the spiritual guide of Moses and Alexander the Great, a saint, a prophet and one of four immortals along with Enoch (Idris), Jesus, and Elijah. A question, is this the beginning? Same old cliché, many Anatolian cultures and civilizations melted in the same pot as nature of social Anthropology- In this case, we are discussing same “person” of the different centuries starting from early Hebrew traditions to today’s Turkey with surviving Hidrellez fest. The Judeo-Christian-Islam religions were founded in a region of the world where savior religions strongly existed for thousands of years. Today, what we have as festival and practices related to beliefs and religion can also be traced to earlier myths of the Middle East.

Footnote:

Recently,  Hidrellez has been submitted as a candidate for UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage “status, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has announced. 

References

  • Assoc. prof. Dr Hüseyin Turk, “The religious interaction between Christians and Muslims”
  • Oya Pancaroglu, The Oriental Institute University of Oxford, “ The Itinerant Dragon-Slayer: Forging Paths of Image and Identity in Mediveal Anatolia”
  • Angeliki Laiou, “ Byzantium and the Other: Relations and Exchanges”

 

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