April 2, 2023, Updated December 28, 2023

After the cross, perhaps the most popular image among Christians around the world is the image of Saint George riding his mighty horse as he slays a menacing dragon.

This scene is very familiar in much of the West and therefore it is no coincidence that from California to Patagonia the name Jorge is one of the most common among Latin American men.

In addition, dozens of monasteries and parish churches bear the name of the illustrious fourth-century saint who was a soldier of the Roman Empire and suffered martyrdom and persecution for defending his Christian faith.

Although his popularity is very wide, there are two facts that not many of those who are devoted to this heroic figure know: that the legend originated in the Middle East among the Eastern Christians of the Holy Land and that the martyr’s tomb is in Lod, just 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv.

The famous Christian martyr buried in Lod
Exterior of the Church of Saint George in Lod. Next door, the El-Kidhr Mosque. Photo by Bukoved/Wikimedia Commons

Why is Saint George buried in Israel?

“Saint George was born here; his mother Saint Polychronia was from Lod. The monastery we are in was his house. Tradition indicates when he died, after his martyrdom, he was buried here,” Archimandrite Markelos told ISRAEL21c.

The famous Christian martyr buried in Lod
Detail of the tomb of Saint George in Lod, Israel. Photo by Marina Sorkin

The Greek Orthodox priest who is in charge of the custody of the sanctuary revealed that Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, built the first church in honor of Saint George (some original rows of that temple can be seen on the current façade) and that in the year 614 the site was destroyed by the Sasánidas.

Nevertheless, the crypt remained there.

Only between the First and Second Crusades (1095 – 1148 CE) was the church rebuilt but then was destroyed by Muslims under Saladin.

It was not until the late 19th century that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem received permission from the Ottoman authorities to build a house of prayer in the place where the previous shrines had been built in honor of the illustrious saint.

The famous Christian martyr buried in Lod
Archimandrite Markelos, the Greek Orthodox custodian of the Church of Saint George in Lod. Photo by Marina Sorkin

Attached to the church stands the 13th-century El-Khidr Mosque dedicated to El-Khadr, a Muslim holy figure often associated with Saint George.

Archimandrite Markelos revealed that Saint George is also venerated by the Catholic Church because the legend of the martyr was born before the Eastern Schism, which divided Christians between Roman Apostolics and Orthodox.

“Just as we receive groups of Orthodox from Europe and the Middle East, many Catholics from Latin America also come. They are those who also visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,” explained the clergyman.

Saint George in Latin America

After Saint George became patron saint of the Crown of Aragon in Spain in the Middle Ages, when the Conquest of America took place, the legend was spread via the ships of the first explorers who accompanied Christopher Columbus.

Many Spanish soldiers claimed that the martyr appeared to them during battles to help them defeat their opponents.

In addition, the cross of Saint George is the first emblem of the Generalitat of Catalonia and appears on the coat of arms of Barcelona.

After the independence wave that gave rise to Latin American countries – mostly between 1811 and 1828 – the figure of Saint George began to gain renown in that region.

For this reason, the saint is patron of the cavalry of the armies of Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia, not to mention the dozens of institutions that bear his name.

The famous Christian martyr buried in Lod
Detail of the image of Saint George in Lod, Israel. Photo by Marina Sorkin

In Brazil, because Portugal adopted Saint George as its patron, Afro-Brazilian cults identify Saint George with Ogum, god of war and weapons who fulfills the role of warrior and protector.

From the embrace of the Crown of Aragon to Saint George, April 23 became the official day of the blessed in Spain and Latin America. But this is not replicated in the Middle East: The day that honors the saint is, according to the old calendar, November 16.

On that date, said the cleric, thousands of pilgrims come to Lod to venerate the Christian martyr. In 2022, after two years of pandemic, the number of visitors was approximately 5,000.

Despite the impressive number, the archimandrite believes that many Latin Americans do not know that the church of Lod exists. He’d like the tomb to become a more well-known destination for the faithful.

This article was originally published on the ISRAEL21c Spanish site.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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