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Chinese architecture: what makes it different?

April 30, 2014 2 comments
Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

The very term Chinese religious architecture, which I’ve written about here before, and spoke about in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, is a misnomer. Pagodas are religious; imperial sacrificial altars, of which only a handful ever existed at any one time, are religious. All other building types in Han China before the C17 are barely distinguishable from each other: there is one way of doing architecture, and buildings are classified by status, not function. Exceptions are subtle: for example, Taoist temples are often on high platforms; Confucian temples sometimes have moon-shaped pools outside them; mosques of course have Arabic inscriptions and Qibla-facing prayer halls, sometimes of stone. But this kind of thing is small beer.

This is remarkable. In all the other Major Civlisations (Ancient Rome excepted) there is a country mile in terms of scale, materials and/or form between religious buildings and other types of buildings. A Hindu temple could never be mistaken for a Buddhist one; from ancient Egypt to the ancient Khmer, the only buildings to be made of permanent materials were places of worship, leaving a landscape dotted with temple ruins in which the remains of homes are barely traceable.

There are several reasons for this perfectly rational but very unusual Chinese approach to architecture. The two most pat ones both have some truth to them; firstly, this is a precociously humanistic culture, in which religious conviction is very varied and not the defining feature of society in the way it was in medieval Europe (or, traditionally, in Tibet); secondly, and in contradiction, religious ideas — spirituality, the desire to encourage efficacious and beneficient responses from a spirit-world, small daily rituals — suffuse architecture/culture of all types, so there is no reason to separate a house from a temple. This is true of many, perhaps most, traditional cultures, but in China it has had a profound impact on buildings. If the temple is a home, the home is also a temple.

Perhaps an extension of this, while the Song-era Chinese building manuals, the Yingzao Fashi, make no distinction between a temple and any other kind of building, they emphatically distinguish imperial buildings, palaces and temples alike, from others; and by the same token the oldest buildings to exhibit the key characteristics of Chinese architecture, around the start of the first millenium BCE, seem to have been at once temples and palaces.

In other words, one of the reasons for this cross-functional approach is that traditional Chinese culture placed huge store in the religious role of the emperor as the ritual glue between heaven and earth. There thus is a sense in which palace and temple are overlapping categories. One can push this too far: the notion that royal power is also divine power is the motivating force behind many great temples in many great cultures without their also literally being palaces, but nevertheless there is much in it.

Finally, there is the simple fact that China achieved an infinitely modular and flexible architectural tradition and had good reason to consider it good for any kind of building, resulting in structures grand, flexible, beautiful and practical enough to suit all needs.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

Allied to this is the most striking thing about these buildings, compared to their peers in other cultures. They are rarely enormous: in all China, as far as I can see, the Temple of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong is (as far as I can see) the only emphatically religious complex to bear comparison in terms of size with (say) the great medieval Christian buildings which are frequently seen in Europe. Perhaps, if the scale of their surviving comparitors in Japan (such as the Todaiji, Nara) is anything to go by, this was different under the Tang. We don’t know — and we don’t know because  the Chinese, very remarkably, as well as never going for the truly gargantuan and emphatically religious structures which, from Angkor to Thebes, from Baghdad to Cordoba, from Tieotihuacan to Samarra, were seen elsewhere, never developed an aspiration to permanency; that is, they never did what everyone else did, which is convert an architecture of timber to one of stone, brick or tile.

This is most remarkable. It reminds us that this step, while it occurred everywhere else, is actually rather odd. What made the ancient Americans, the Buddhists, the Greeks and the Egyptians respectively, to take four early and clear examples, decide the religious buildings, unlike any other kinds of building, should be made of permanent materials, even if the result was simply a carbon copy of an archjitecture that already existed in timber or mudbrick or bound reeds or whatever, is one of the world’s great architectural mysteries, and the answer, it seems to me, is likely to be bound up with religion itself. But in China, in spite of perfectly excellent traditions of masoncraft, and various interesting exceptions-to-the-rule, this simply never happened.

This has enormous implications. It means little in China is genuinely old. In an ancient culture — while by no means the oldest architectural tradition on earth, Chinese traditional architecture is still with us, and has arguably been around longer and with even greater continuity than the nearest (just-) surviving competitor, the architecture of Classical Europe —  it is odd to find few buildings older than 2 or 300 years. It is also hard to ‘read’ structures that will look identical if renewed yesterday or thirty years or a century ago, and whose maintenance in any case requires constant replacement of parts. It creates an enormous perception gap when people from China come to view the genuinely ancient, multi-layered structures found elsewhere on earth (especially in ancient Egyptian, Christian and Islamic cultures). It plays games with outsiders’ approach to what they are seeing, and perhaps with locals’ understanding of what is old (and whether ‘oldness’ matters), too: the whole shebang of authenticity gets mixed-up.

It also means that in China we are seeing, still being built today (if ironically often in very permanent concrete), the equivalent of pre-Doric Greek temples, pre-Imhotep Egyptian temples, or pre-chaitya cave Buddhist prayer halls: a surviving mature architecture of impermanent materials. It is as if the architectural history current elsewhere is here being read backwards.

These major exceptions-to-the-global-architectural rule must also reflect centuries of lost conversations, in which incoming Buddhist, Islamic and Christian architectural traditions have to adapt themselves to the architecture of the far east, rather than vice versa; ie that their practitioners have to accept the local way of building over that they might have brought with them. The churches built by the Jesuits in China in the C17 are the first buildings to successfully insist that their way of doing things is superior to, or must be used for the religious buildings of, their culture rather than the Chinese alternatives. And all this is in spite of the existence around the borders and within the bounds of the empire, of the opposite, more globally normative, tradition. Architectures of stone, in which religious buildings emphatically stand out from other types of building in all kinds of ways, following south-east Asian traditions in Yunnan, central Asian traditions of Arab and Persian origin in Xinjiang, and a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Chinese and indigenous in Tibet.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

I’ve written before about the significance to all this of the imperial sacrificial altars. While always few in number, they are the only building type to be both emphatically religious and indigenously Chinese. The Temple of Heaven is by far the best surviving example of a kind of building that can only ever have existed in small numbers near to an imperial capital. Here the world famous and beautiful circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is more of a one-off and was often less important, both as an example of the type and in terms of its original ritual role, than the other main Circular Mound Altar.

The latter structure bring up a whole range of themes: firstly, this is an architecture of open-air ritual settings, a manipulation of a landscape, of a type that was commonplace at the birth of architecture — the henges of north-west Europe bear illuminating comparison — but which nowhere else was preserved into the modern world (it was last used about a century ago) and in the process became a sophisticated and complete architectural form in its own right. So once again, China is turning the global chronological picture on its head.

Secondly, it is a reminder of the significance of landscape in Chinese architecture: the setting of buildings is crucial, and charged with sacral ideas about how buildings and landscapes should interact if man is to be in harmony with the forces of the natural world. This wider sacred landscape survives in China’s network of sacred mountains, etc, and more crucially from an architectural point of view, it survives in the footprint of the capital city. In spite of its violent makeovers of the 1950s and since the 1990s (it’s still underway), the great north-south axis and nested enclosures of a carefully-laid out imperial capital, every detail of which reflects religious ideas about the architectural setting in which imperial power would be most divinely efficacious, survives: the ring roads and grids of the modern city are extending it out into the surrounding plain. Such planned ‘sacred cities’ existed in other cultures, but I don’t know of anything surviving of this scale and sophistication: it is in itself a work of global significance.

How many of those who visit the Olympic park know that its site is on the symettrical north-south axis at the core of the city’s cosmology? How many of those who go boating on the lake in Behai park, with its pretty Nepali/Tibetan dagoba, realise the protective role of the park itself in this layout, or that Qionghua island is a giant 3-d model of a Buddhist mandala?

Much more ubiquitous in the Chinese landscape than the imperial altars, however, was the other uniquely religious building type of traditional China: the pagoda. But this, the stretched-out and sinicised Buddhist stupa, is not indigenously Chinese: in function and symbolic design, at least, it is Indian, albeit given a strong East Asian twist, its tower like form combining the elaborately composed and tower-like stupas of Central Asia with indigenous watch towers or ges.

Pagodas existed in great variety, and were often of brick or stone: their rapid spread in the first millennium BCE must have had a dramatic impact on the appearance of the country, introducing permanent and distinctively religious structures for the first time.

It is not often noted, however, how they diversify, being placed in the landscape for all kinds of reasons not originally intended and not at all particularly to do with honouring the Buddha (such as to bring good feng shui), and ultimately almost disappeared, being replaced by the Buddha image as the essential feature of a temple in a manner not seen in other Buddhist architectures, where the stupa remains the defining structure of a temple.

I guess two buildings of ancient China are known across the world: the pagoda and the Great Wall. The two make an illuminating compare-and-contrast sequence, in which the Wall symbolises a closed, inward-looking, bureaucratic and autocratic picture of this society, while the pagoda, as well as providing the most concrete link between Chinese traditional architecture and the traditions that developed in the other major civilisations, embodies China’s oft-overlooked historic phases of openness, variety, experiment and spirituality.

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In search of St George

April 23, 2014 1 comment

ImageTo mark St George’s day, an unpublished essay on his cult, al-Khidr, and a trip to his shrine at Lod, written in 2006…

Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire spent most of early June 2006 preparing to party like it was 1952. Cream teas for all villagers! Bunting! Warm beer! 

During the celebrations at the village school (3 legged race, sack race, sweeties whether you win or lose) I stared down at my daughter’s face. She beamed back, but looked more like a target than a person, her mixed-race features obscured by a red cross on a backdrop of creamy white face paint.

The Cross of St George: twenty years ago, I’m not sure many people had much of an idea what it was. When did it start reappearing? It seems to me that it was around the time Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments. Did the latest antics in Westminster really have an impact on popular culture?

Whatever the cause, the cross has had something of a resurgence in the last five or ten years, an increase in popularity which came to a head over the period of the World Cup and the Royal Jubilee in June this year. It’s as if the symbol was lying dormant, waiting for the chance to reassert itself, like some relic of the True Cross.

A brief inventory of the bunting visible from my home this June: the retirement bungalows opposite had Union Jack paper plates nailed to the posts of their garden fence. The big thatched cottage next door had a full-size cotton Jack fluttering from a telegraph pole, and bunting everywhere. The thatched cottage opposite it had a flag of similar size stretched between – and nearly covering – its two dormer windows.

In all these flags, George’s Cross crowds out its Celtic co-crosses with imperial self-assertion. On the cottage just down the road it has taken over completely: an 8 foot Cross of St George, red cross on white, dancing in the sun. My journey home is like driving down the deck of the Victory: England expects….

Our babysitter comes: she wears a Cross of St George zip-up top. The bold red line of the cross is split by the zip, running either side of her neck and on to the hood. She looks like the page for some medieval knight. People are walking around with heraldry blazoned on them: the more I think about it the more medieval the whole business seems to be.

So who is this St George, anyway? And where did this simple, powerful graphic – a red cross on a white ground (officially, argent a cross gules; or – as www.streetparties.info has it – a cross of Pantone 186 on white) come from?

Googling for George turns out to be a highly appropriate way to chase this particular saint and his dragon. George is as amorphous and constantly-changing as the world wide web itself. Here, he is an honourable Palestinian of the third century AD; there, the reinvention of every hero-God of the ancient Middle East. His story and its locations moves from age to age and from location to location, fragmenting and changing shape according to local circumstance.

What is certain is that any search for the ‘real’ George is the least interesting aspect of the saint. The oldest stories of his life date to about 150 years after his death, and are more interesting as a reflection of the mythical needs of the fifth-century church than as a statement of historical truth.

These stories present him as an upstanding Christian from Turkey – Cappadocia to be precise – who lived in Palestine, probably at Diospolis, where his remains lie. The town is today known as Lod and is in Israel. George had some standing –  he was a military governor, or the son of one. Until modern scholarship rendered even this account uncertain, this was who people thought St George was, albeit with a liberal sprinkling of miraculous powers.

Interesting to reflect that our football fans are painting their faces with the badge of an honourable, intelligent and multicultured Middle-Easterner. Perhaps they should just update the story, adopt Edward Said as his modern equivalent, and run around Wembley, Shizouka or the Stadium of Light with the crest of Columbia University picked out on their faces.

While the person these early stories describe is reasonably everyday, the things he does are not. Although the names of places and characters vary from version to version, the outline of the narrative remains the same. An evil ruler – in some versions called the governor ‘Diadanus’, in others the emperor Diocletian – unleashes a furious persecution of Christians, and George objects. What follows is a game of ‘My God is Stronger than Yours’ that does little for the idea that the new faith had an abstract moral programme worth defending. 

The evil emperor tries to kill George three times before he finally succeeds. Each time, George is brought back to life, and then performs a miracle. Each miracle is more extraordinary than the last, the punishment meted out more violent. Some of these stories have a certain poetry: George visits a poor widow and provides her with free food for life by making a wooden column in her home bud, put down roots, and grow into a huge tree – the highest thing in the city – full with ripe fruit. The size of the tree draws the authorities’ attention, and soon George is on back with the evil emperor, being tortured to death once again.

Any poetic quality the miracles may have is compensated for by the extremity of the ensuing violence: sixty nails are driven into George’s head; his body is crushed ‘like particles of dry summer dust’; his brains pour out of his nostrils like milk. That kind of thing. 

Each time George is killed the emperor tries to ensure his remains are untraceable, to avoid anyone finding them and building a shrine over them. Each time they are found and reconstituted by God, making a spectacularly cinematic appearance accompanied by various saints and angels. Each time, a few thousand more locals decide to abandon Apollo and follow George’s God, only to be slaughtered in their turn. And each time, the revivified saint goes on to perform an even more audacious miracle. He is only finally martyred after destroying all the idols in the Temple of Apollo and converting the evil emperor’s wife to Christianity, by which time 28,680 new martyrs have been created.

The quality of the story, with its one-dimensional characters, its fantastical special effects, and its X-certificate cartoon violence, is to the modern reader most reminiscent of a modern Manga cartoon or some of the more extreme games available for PlayStation 2. But however fantastical the stories, they are not unusual for their period. There is a whole crop of early saints with similar qualities: a Middle Eastern origin of uncertain historicity; dramatic miracle-making powers when pitted against the most dastardly of baddies; mass slaughters and mass conversions; a certain militarism. George originally appeared as part of a subset of these, the so-called Military Martyrs – introduced at http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/- who were especially popular in areas throughout the Middle East where Christianity had achieved some strength in a given community but was still under violent assault from the powers that be. In other words, the stories tell us more about the needs of their authors (and their audiences) than they do about any ‘real’ St George.

Googling for him, I am astonished by the range of resources available. Many are published by academic hagiographers, or Catholic organisations whose main interest is in establishing the historical ‘truth’ of a given saint’s story. There are complete translations of the earliest legends and first-rate bibliographies.  At www.newadvent.org is a good summary of the only definite conclusion all this scholarship has come to: ‘all that can safely be said is that a martyr suffered at or near Lydda [another name for Lod] before Constantine’ – that is, the stories have their roots in a real human being, name unknown, associated with Lod and killed for his Christianity sometime in the period 300-320.

Much of the study of saints seems to be driven by this interest in proving the historical truth – or otherwise – of their stories. It is hard to find anyone – in print or on the web – with much intelligent to say about these legends as literary or cultural artefacts in themselves.

The lack of similarly detailed analysis of the legends is not simply a matter of doctrinal bias. Finding something intelligent to say is not easy: myths appear and grow in ways that are as amorphous and chimeral as culture itself.

It’s astonishing, for example, to realise that the one thing everyone knows about St George- that he killed a dragon and saved a princess – doesn’t appear until nearly a thousand years after the death of the ‘real’ George. The story appears fully formed in The Golden Legend, an extraordinarily influential collection of saint’s stories compiled by Jacobus de Voraigne and published in 1275. 

Here, a terrible dragon threatens a city ‘in Libya’; his breath is venomous. To keep him at bay, the citizens send him a sheep every day. Soon, all the sheep have been eaten, and they have no choice but to select people: first men, then the young, selected by lot. When a lot falls to the king’s daughter: the king protests, sparking a popular uprising. The king relents, sadly sending his daughter to the marsh where the dragon is, dressed ‘like as she should be wedded’.

As the dragon approaches, a stranger on a white horse is passing: St George. The girl warns him to leave, but he stays with her and attacks the dragon. George quickly proves his superior strength. With the dragon cowed, he asks the princess to put her garter round its neck. Tamed by underwear, the beast submits pet-like to the will of the man and the woman. They lead it to the city, where George says he will kill the beast if the people convert to Christianity. They eagerly do so (this time just 15,000 new Christians are made, none of whom are martyred), and the dragon’s remains are scattered on the fields around the city.

Where does this story come from? There are hints of it in the original martyr’s myths: Diadanus the evil emperor, for example, is in one version also referred to as ‘the dragon’: add five hundred years of retelling, a few mistranslations, and a new cultural context and one could perhaps end up with the George and dragon story.

Whatever its origins, the story has the edge on all its predecessors in one crucial way: unlike them, it is a proper story, with dramatic tension, two or three memorable characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. The early George’s ability to call down miracles on demand is replaced by a real heroic struggle: the king refusing to sacrifice his daughter, then bowing to popular pressure; the isolated and terrified princess trying to get St George to leave before he, too, is eaten: and George himself, man against monster, unaided by deus or machina – unless you count the garter.

I have objective proof of the superiority of the ‘new’ George story over the ‘old’ one: the three-year-old-daughter test. I showed her the early images of St George – a hieratic figure with a sword and a lance – but they were of little interest: I then showed her Uccello’s George and the Dragon, which hangs in the National Gallery. It immediately prompted an interested ‘What’s that?’. I have now been asked seven or eight times to ‘tell the story again, Daddy’.

This Very Good Story leads us into some very deep waters. Agendas seem to lurk in it that take us far beyond conventional Christian moralising: why must the princess be dressed for marriage? Why does she tame the beast with her garter? Some doctrinal symbolism may be encoded in these images, but a sexual agenda is surely part of their appeal.

The story is strikingly similar to those of several Middle Eastern pagan gods, from the Egyptian Horus to the Persian Mithras, who battle with beasts and win. One of these is even associated with a spot about 10 miles from George’s shrine at Lod: the battle of Perseus with the sea monster to save the princess Andromeda is said to have taken place at the nearby port of Jaffa.

By playing a game of ‘this story is a bit like that story’, writers from the nineteenth century on have presumed much: George as pre-Christian Levantine hero-cult, grafted onto the martyrdom of some hapless local; George as an archetypal hero, representing all our struggles with the animal within. It’s attractive stuff, but the problems are historical: the George and the dragon story doesn’t occur until centuries after the period when ‘the problem’ was Christianity versus paganism.

Writers of the tenth or eleventh century, when the story is presumed to have its origins, had little need to reinvigorate long-dead pagan cults: they were more concerned about the new monotheism in the East. Islam was young, successful and  – unlike early Christianity – very happy to establish itself through political and military struggle. The battle with Islam demanded new myths: it also led to new waves of cultural translation, as the Franks of Western Europe discovered the eastern church – where St George was already a major figure – and the Saracen world beyond.

The embattled Christian cultures went on the offensive. The Crusades they launched required a new breed of morale-boosting sacred hero. A heroic, far-travelling holy soldier fitted the bill perfectly. Indeed, a new cult of religious warfare was being born which would flower into an entire culture – chivalry – and George’s reputation snowballed as it did so.

The first signs of the rebirth of George came in a battle in 11th century Sicily, where he appeared before the Norman army which took the island from its Muslim inhabitants. He pulled off a greater and more influential version of the trick at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade in 1098, appearing before the Christian armies shortly before the city fell. The ‘appearing before the army God wants to win’ trick has been something of a Georgic staple ever since: he made miraculous appearances in Russian villages throughout Siberia prior to the 1906 Russo-Japanese war, and appeared before the English armies at Mons in 1914.

Around this time his cross appears, too. The Golden Legend describes George cutting a cross of blood on the dragon’s head; the same source tells the story of George making an appearance at the siege of Jerusalem, bearing white arms with a red cross.

It is via the crusades and chivalry that the new cult of George – and his new symbol – reached England. Although the ‘old’ George of the miracles and the evil emperor was known here from at least the eighth century, Saint George did not play a major role before the thirteenth. His reinvention as our national saint – and the adoption of the red cross as his symbol – is another example of the way St George moves from culture to culture, constantly being re-invented.

This time, the audience was the English people: the author, successive Kings and their fourteenth-century spin doctors. The academic Jonathan Bengtson has pointed out that before this time, England had no truly national saint or symbol: saints like Edward the Confessor and St Edmund were more patrons of the Royal family than of the nation; Thomas à Becket was a more populist figure, but his cult posed some thorny political problems for the Crown. The heraldic badge of the Royal family likewise symbolised ruler rather than ruled. Indeed it is doubtful if the nation in the modern sense existed at all.

The gradual creation of a semi-official cult of St George thus played a key role in the process of building an English national identity – a process which, in this instance at least, may have been quite a ‘top down’ one.

Although it was probably Richard I, returning from the Crusades, who brought the ‘new’ Saracen-swotting George to increased attention, it was Edward III – or his advisors – who realised the special potential in the story. The institutions of the feudal system had been shaken from within by the murder of Edward II by his barons; the country was also under attack from without by both Frenchman and Scot. Edward founded a new chivalrous order, the Order of the Garter. The Order bolstered the relationship between Crown and aristocracy by creating a special new group of knights. It would be headed by the King; its myths and rituals would evoke the full richness of chivalric culture. Its patron would be St George.

The Order was founded in 1348; by 1388 St George’s red cross had become a kind of corporate heraldic logo for the English army: known as ‘the George Jacque’, it was compulsory wear for every soldier. By 1416 this spiritual migrant had been fully assimilated into the national culture: the Archbishop of Canterbury officially confirmed his role as ‘special protector and patron of the English nation’.

The Fifteenth century was the overripe peak of popular ritual in pre-Reformation England, and St George appeared as the patron of guilds and the hero of mumming plays across the country. By the next century, George had merged so deeply with popular culture – and our own native stories of dragons and other beasts – that it was possible for popular tradition to have replaced Silene, Libya with Uffington, Oxfordshire as the site of the dragon battle; and for St George to turn up as a native of Coventry in Richard Johnson’s 1608 The Most Famous History of The Seven Champions of Christendom.

England is not the only culture to have adopted this saint – with his good story and simple, graphic symbol – as a special patron. Genoa, Moscow and Georgia are just a few other places who have done so: indeed, his cult travelled east as effectively as it did west. He is claimed, for example, as a special protector by the Christians of Kerala, who see him as a protector in spite of having colonised twice by George-loving nations – first Portugal, then England.

I can understand how George has taken such a deep hold in so many imaginations. Simply while researching the saint, the over-familiar story of his encounter with the princess and the dragon has become something rather compelling. I can see now how myths mutate from ‘story’ to ‘belief’; I start to wonder if woolly words like ‘archetype’ are the only way my rationality can tame this particular beast.

But perhaps it is not the story’s ‘universality’ that gives it power, so much as its openness, its mutability. Once a legend has been reduced to such basic components – a man, a woman, an animal, a struggle – you can graft just about any cultural associations onto it.

I have started to crave some fixity as I watch George shape-shifting between cultures, in libraries and art galleries, and on the internet. A couple of years ago, as part of a visit to Israel, I took the opportunity to visit the only place on earth unquestionably associated with the ‘real’ St George: the town of Lod, which lies on the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It was not a great time to visit the country. Four weeks into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, many of the key sites of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were closed, and tension was everywhere. One day, we went to the beach: we were the only people there, apart from a lonely-looking Arab man who whose very presence made my liberal Israeli hosts so nervous we departed almost soon as we arrived.

The journey to Lod revealed an Israel far from both headlines and tourist trails; an Israel that was on the surface a beguiling mixture of first- and developing worlds. Markets heaved with Arab Israelis; newly arrived – and highly secularised – Jews from the former Soviet Union; black Jews from the Horn of Africa. Pale Orthodox Ashkenazi herded on and off buses, switching from Yiddish to Bronx English when necessary. Young Sephardim supped coffees in shades and designer jeans, the guns of military service slung over their shoulders. Music that combined Middle Eastern rhythms with the latest dance beats thundered from open car windows.

I watched this world as my bus circled the concrete estates of Lod. The town seemed to consist of endless housing blocks, indistinguishable from the 1950s estates of Brooklyn, Hackney or Vladivostock.

Soon we doubled back on ourselves. I began to think how foolish it was to expect to stumble on St George’s shrine by peering out of a public bus. Then an unmistakable landmark slipped into view: the familiar red and white flag of St George flapping in the hot air, a church tower next to it, just like home.

I left the bus, and walked across a large and rather neglected square surrounded on all sides by housing blocks. It was if some planner wanted to make a central urban space here, but the money ran out. The square was overgrown with dry yellow grasses. Hulks of ruined and ancient looking structures stood by the cracked tarmac of a playing field.

As the flag drew nearer, I saw it was flying from the roof of a house. Next to the house was a handsome church of white Jerusalem limestone, but the tower next to it was not a bell tower at all: it was a minaret. The church and the mosque shared a wall, as if trying to occupy the same piece of land.

An efficiently friendly woman from the house with the flag – an Orthodox Christian institution  – let me into the church. The interior was well-tended but a little soulless, the icons and candelabra of Orthodoxy dark beneath the crisp Byzantine-styled domes and arches. There have been several churches on this site: this one dates only to 1875. 

A whole group of early legends tell the story not of the saint’s life, but of the importance of this place. They focus brazenly on a very limited series of messages: give to the church of St George at Lod, or found a church of St George yourself, and God will repay you with a miracle or two. Jews, Saracens and pagans will come to Lod to mock the cult, but will leave both punished and converted.

The relics of St George on display here included a stone column, used in his torture. Blood was said to flow from the column for three hours each year, on the anniversary of his death; it had a gap in it which functioned as a kind of supernatural lie detector, only letting people through it if they spoke the truth.

In a small room beneath the church, I came upon supposed tomb of St George: a dark space, occupied only by a small icon, a burning candle, and some empty censers. Some legends say this spot marks the site of his home, that his body was brought here at death and successively greater churches built around it.

Standing in his presumed burial place I was struck by the impact this man, obscure in life, had in death. If only by providing a moral uplift and a dose of faith at key moments, he has had an impact on history: giving courage to an embattled early church; supporting Crusaders in their fight against the Saracen; helping build nations; and spreading images, stories and ideas from culture to culture.

There was one fringe benefit to visiting during a new Intifada: I could experience for myself just how alive many of these issues still were. Diadanus, like the modern Israeli right, wanted to stamp out the enemy in his midst; in doing so he merely created new martyrs. If St George is any example, it is perfectly possible for a martyr to be more effective in death than in life. 

A crowd was emerging from the mosque as I left the church. Mid-afternoon prayers had just finished. I approached the Imam to ask if I could go in: he looked me up and down with the gaze of one who cared little for unbelievers, then assented.

Inside, one of the worshippers was curious about my interest in the building. He was welcoming in a gentlemanly, almost graceful way; I warmed to him. We walked around the mosque together: it was a plain structure, one that had seen better days. Two large and ancient-looking Byzantine pillars frame the qibla niche that marks the direction of Mecca. I noticed that both were painted green. There was a small dome over the prayer hall and a large entrance door with an Arabic inscription on it: these, too were painted green.

I asked him if there was a reason the mosque shared a site with the church. In reply he talked of both buildings under one name. I found hard to enunciate this name correctly, so eventually he wrote it down for me, first in Arabic and then in Roman script: al-Khadir.

He said that the mosque was dedicated to this figure, and that local Arabs – Muslim and Christian alike – refer to St George by the same name too. I was fascinated: are they the same person? Does St George play a role in Islam? I sensed that these questions tested the limits of his English, and perhaps of his knowledge; but it was clear that the connection between the two figures was a deep one, and that this al-Khadir was more than an incidental figure.

Outside, I tried approaching the Imam for more information, but he was surrounded by people. I quickly started to feel like an irritant. Eventually his attention turned to me: ‘I am extremely busy’, he said, ‘Please come back at some future point.’ 

I headed off towards the bus station, feeling like a frustrated, disorientated outsider. I came to Lod hoping to pin St George down: what I found was that that somehow, he extended into another culture. A whole new world of stories and histories to grapple with. Perhaps Google was the best place to hunt for him after all. 

Back in Ogbourne St George, I learn more about Lod, and begin to understand why it looks like more like Crawley than Jericho, and perhaps why its Imams are more interested in the concerns of local Muslims than of an ignorant traveller.

At www.palestineremembered.com I find eyewitness accounts of one of the most ignoble episodes of the 1948 Israel/Palestine war: the evacuation of Lod. The Israeli army found themselves with the armed inhabitants of the town to their rear; with the authority of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, then a Lieutenant Colonel, gave a clear order: ‘the residents of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without attention to age’. Sources say between 250 to 426 people were killed, scores of them while taking refuge in a mosque. The Chicago Sun Times spoke of ‘Blitz tactics’, and of many more deaths among the thousands of refugees. [I have checked this account against several more impartial histories of the period].

The pre-1948 Lod looked utterly different to that of today, with palm trees scattered between a maze of low, traditional houses; its souk and its mosques, and its 18,000 residents, all Arabs. By 1950 the town was in the process of being ‘modernised’: of a population of 10,450, only 1,050 were Arab. My little complex of church, church house and mosque is an island of ‘heritage’ in a town that has been ‘cleansed’ both ethnically and culturally. 

It’s not the first time, either. The Jewish town of Lod was razed by the Romans in AD66; Caliph Abdel Malik had the (then largely Christian) town destroyed in 870. Or the last: some Muslims believe the end of the world will be marked by a battle between Jesus and Satan at the gates of Lod.

 Sobered, I point Google at al-Khadir. As with St George, the resources are considerable: al-Khadir, it turns out, is both mysterious and important. A children’s book tells his story, available from islamicbookstore.com; meanwhile, an Islamic scholar gives his opinion on the subject at http://www.sunnah.org. From English versions of the Qu’ran and other core texts, to mystical commentaries by Naqshbandi sufis, there is much available. 

Al-Khadir is held by many to be one of the prophets, yet he only crops up in passing in the Qu’ran. Just about everything else about him is the subject of debate: as the Islamic scholar Ibn Katheer puts it, ‘the real name, lineage and status of al-Khadir are controversial.’ I’m reminded of Pope Gelasius who, as early as 495 claimed that the legends of St George where so historically unreliable that his ‘actions are only known to God.’

In Sura 18 of the Qu’ran, The Cave, ‘Musa’ – probably Moses – makes a journey to the ‘land where two seas meet’. Here he encounters a being endowed with special wisdom by God. This figure, unnamed in the Sura itself, is Al-Khadir.

Al-Khadir leads Moses on a further journey, during which he carries out three baffling acts: he scuttles the boat in which they both are travelling; kills a young man without provocation; and rebuilds a fallen wall, in spite of having been made unwelcome by the locals.

Moses cannot understand these actions: al-Khadir explains the reason in each case. This story, presenting Khadir as a mysterious traveller who can discern the inner meaning of events, one who can advise one of the greatest of prophets, has made him particularly important in Islamic mysticism.

Beyond the Qu’ran, the tradition of al-Khadir expands as giddily as George’s did. Many believe he still exists, and from time to time – like St George – manifests himself. He buried Adam when he died; travelled with Alexander the Great on a quest to find the spring of eternal life; and meets Elijah in Mecca every year. He is said to have saved Palestine from floods at the turn of the century; a mosque dedicated to him in Baghdad was mysteriously protected, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, from the ravages of Desert Storm.

Al-Khadir is said to turn land green when he prays, or to appear dressed in green, or to make fruitful any patch of earth he passes. One of the most widely-accepted statements about him is attributed to Mohammed himself: he said that al-Khadir ‘sat on a barren white land and turned it green’.

Images like this give him things in common with St George: some scholars – not all – translate al-Khadir as ‘the green one’; some scholars – not all – claim ‘George’ means ‘tiller of the earth’. It is often said that churches of St George and mosques al-Khadir are located in similar kinds of places: promontories, hilltops, islands. These apparent similarities are both fascinating and tantalising, begging as many questions as they answer. Only one thing is definite: all over the Middle East, the figures of St George, Al-Khadir and the prophet Elijah elide with one another. Shrines to one are often shrines to the others; stories and popular rituals concerning them are shared. These three figures bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together.

In trying to find a clear explanation for all this I come up against the limits of the sources: most comparative study of al-Khadir is driven by a religious imperative to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Qu’ran – ‘the uncreated word of God’ – rather than its cultural interconnectedness. I am reminded how my reading about St George was similarly limited, with much scholarship focused on a Christian interest in establishing which elements of his legend were historically true. Hardly anyone seemed interested in the significance of those parts that were legend.

As I write this, extracts from The Dignity of Difference, by the [British] Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, are being published in the Guardian and the New York Times. A passage jumps out at me: ‘I believe that globalisation is summoning the world’s faiths to a supreme challenge, one that we can no longer avoid. Can we find, in the human other, a trace of the Divine Other?… there are times when God meets us in the face of a stranger’. George/al-Khadir/Elijah, a wise traveller moving between the three Abrahamic religions, doesn’t always make life easy; he veers between inclusiveness and militarism.  But perhaps there’s life in the old martyr yet.

It’s the evening of 2 June, and a Jubilee bonfire is burning on the Down above Ogbourne St George. My daughter runs with the other village children in the dusk; we parents queue for overcooked sausages. Similar beacons jump hotly on the horizon. Suddenly, a group of locals push through the crowd carrying an effigy: the atmosphere shifts subtly from community bunfest to The Wicker Man.

The mask on the effigy is oddly familiar: a big wide grin between big wide ears. Are they really burning Prince Charles? Does the issue of the Royal succession matter so much to the farmers and retired bankers of the M4 corridor? No – they’re burning the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

I know Foot-and-Mouth didn’t go too well around here, but I didn’t expect this. I wait for something to happen.  There’s a bustle in the hedgerow: is Al-Khadir coming? Perhaps he will tell us why, during a once-in-a-generation celebration of national unity, it is proper to burn your elected leader. The flames crackle: is that Elijah, come to lecture us on our Glorious Constitution? Something moves up the Aldbourne road: is that St George, horseshoes striking sparks on tarmac, come to rescue the poor PM?

But no miracle occurs. This home-grown act of symbolic terrorism goes unremarked, and the flames jump around poor Tony. Our children watch, red crosses painted on their faces.