May 052018

Today is the Feast of Saint George in Palestine. He is known as Mar Jeries or Jirjis and al-Khader, in Palestinian Arabic which indicates the deeply syncretic nature of the holiday. It is thought to have originally been a local Christian holiday, but both Palestinian Christians and Muslims participate. The main feast is held in the Palestinian town of al-Khader, just south of Bethlehem. St George can no longer be disentangled in Palestinian veneration from al-Khidr (Arabic: الخضر‎ al-Khiḍr; also transcribed as al-Khadir, Khader/Khadr, Khidr, Khizr, Khizir, Khyzer, Qeezr, Qhezr, Qhizyer, Qhezar, Khizar, Xızır, Hızır), a figure in the Quran described as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge. In various Islamic and non-Islamic traditions, Khidr is described as a messenger, prophet, wali, slave, and angel who guards the sea and teaches secret knowledge.

Palestinian folklore suggests that the feast originated during the Byzantine rule of Palestine. According to one tale,

The feast came and the young men stood together making their vows. One said, ‘I will give a goat,’ another ‘I will give a sheep.’ Then Jirjis (Jeries), the son of a widow, desired to offer something. They had but one cow. Then he said, ‘I will sacrifice a cow,’ and he went and killed the cow.

At evening time his mother called to him and said, ‘Where is the cow?’ He said, ‘I gave it to El Khader. (St. George)’ His mother said, ‘You have cut our lives. Let me not see your face again.’ That night, the young man had a vision. A white haired man appeared to him and said, ‘Fear not, I am El Khader: thou shalt go to Constantinople and to the king’s palace. Only each day thou shalt call a blessing upon me.’

In years past, the feast attracted Arabs from throughout Palestine to the Monastery of Saint George where they traded loaves of bread, made sacrifices concerning vows they wished to fulfill, and gathered for picnics under the olive trees surrounding the monastery. Some of these traditions continue today, with many Christian pilgrims coming to baptize their children, due to the abundance of stories about the healing properties of Saint George. Although the priest accepts sacrificed meat as a gift, the Christian tradition of the monastery itself does not allow the sacrifice of animals by the monks. Traditionally, Muslims guard the entrance of the church and welcome pilgrims. Like the Christians, the Muslims too sacrifice sheep during the feast and offerings are stored in a sheep pen in the garden of the monastery. In Islamic tradition, two sacrifices are offered. The first is the dhabihah, which requires that one-third of the cooked lamb be set aside for consumption by its owner, while the remaining two-thirds are for Allah and given as charity. The second offering is that of a live animal, bequeathed as a gift to Saint George. Muslim signs dot the courtyard of the monastery and traces of the sacrifices are evident in the form of the lamb hides left on the balustrades to dry.

In Sura 18, ayat (verses) 65–82 Al Kahf, Moses meets the Servant of God, referred in the Quran as “one of our slaves whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had taught knowledge from Ourselves.” Muslim scholars identify him as al-Khiḍr, although he is not explicitly named in the Quran. These associations come from later scholarship on al-Khiḍr. The Quran states that they meet at the junction of the two seas (which can be a river-tributary) and Moses asks for permission to accompany the Servant of God so Moses can learn “right knowledge of what he has been taught.” The Servant says, “Surely you [Moses] cannot have patience with me. And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?” Moses promises to be patient and obey him unquestioningly, and they set out together. After they board a ship, the Servant of God damages the vessel. Forgetting his oath, Moses says, “Have you made a hole in it to drown its inmates? Certainly you have done a grievous thing.” The Servant reminds Moses of his warning, “Did I not say that you will not be able to have patience with me?” and Moses pleads not to be rebuked.

Next, the Servant of God kills a young man. Moses again cries out in astonishment and dismay, and again the Servant reminds Moses of his warning, and Moses promises that he will not violate his oath again, and that if he does he will excuse himself from the Servant’s presence. They then proceed to a town where they are denied hospitality. This time, instead of harming anyone or anything, the Servant of God restores a decrepit wall in the village. Yet again Moses is amazed and violates his oath for the third and last time, asking why the Servant did not at least exact “some recompense for it.”

The Servant of God replies, “This shall be separation between me and you; now I will inform you of the significance of that with which you could not have patience. Many acts which seem to be evil, malicious or somber, actually are merciful. The boat was damaged to prevent its owners from falling into the hands of a king who seized every boat by force. And as for the boy, his parents were believers and we feared lest he should cause disobedience and ingratitude to come upon them from him. God will replace the child with one better in purity, affection and obedience. As for the restored wall, the Servant explained that underneath the wall was a treasure belonging to two helpless orphans whose father was a righteous man. As God’s envoy, the Servant restored the wall, showing God’s kindness by rewarding the piety of the orphans’ father, and so that when the wall becomes weak again and collapses, the orphans will be older and stronger and will take the treasure that belongs to them.” I can think of many more stories in the Buddhist tradition that are clearer than this one, although I get the point that a person’s motive is always key in understanding an act, not the surface appearance of the act.

There are two reports about the life of al-Khiḍr: one narrated by Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Al-Zuhd in which Muhammad is said to have stated that Elijah and al-Khiḍr meet every year and spend the month of Ramadan in Jerusalem; and the other narrated by Ya’qub ibn Sufyan from Umar II in which a man he was seen walking with was actually al-Khiḍr. Ibn Hajar declared both claims to be legitimate in Fath al-Bari. He goes on to cite another supposedly reliable report narrated by Ibn ‘Asakir from Abu Zur’a al-Razi whereby the latter met al-Khiḍr twice, once in his youth, the other in old age, but al-Khiḍr himself had not changed. Islamic scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi also contends that Khidr is alive, but that there are five degrees of life. Khidr is at the second degree of life, thus some religious scholars have been doubtful about his existence.

Khidr and Ilyas (May God grant them peace), are free to an extent. That is to say, they can be present in numerous places at the same time. They are not permanently restricted by the requirements of humanity like us. They can eat and drink like us when they want to, but are not compelled to be like we are. The saints are those who uncover and witness the realities of creation, and the reports of their adventures with Khidr are unanimous and elucidate and point to this level of life.

In Arabic-Christian tradition there is one degree of sainthood which is called ‘the degree of Khidr.’ A saint who reaches this degree receives instruction from Khidr and meets with him. Sometimes, it is said, a person who reaches that degree is mistaken to be Khidr himself.

al-Khiḍr is believed to be a man who has the appearance of a young adult but with a long, white beard. According to some authors, such as Abdul Haq Vidhyarthi, al-Khiḍr is Xerxes (a 6th-century Sasanian prince, not to be confused with Xerxes I), who disappeared after being in the lake regions of Sistan that comprise the wetlands of the Iran-Afghan border today, and after finding the fountain of life, sought to live his entire remaining life in service of God and to help those in their path to Him.

Muhammad al-Bukhari reports that al-Khiḍr got his name after he walked over the surface of some ground that became green as a result of his presence there. Because of the linguistic similarities and shared etymology between the name “al-Khiḍr” and the Arabic word for green (“al-akhḍar” or “al-khaḍra” as in Gubbat al-khaḍra or the Green Dome), and the fact that the name “al-Khiḍr” shares exactly the same triliteral root as the word “al-khaḍra” – a root found in multiple Semitic languages meaning “green” or “verdant,” the meaning of the name has traditionally usually been taken colloquially and academically to be “the Green One” or “the Verdant One.” This is probably folk etymology, but it is a common belief.

There are reports from al-Bayhaqi that al-Khiḍr was present at the funeral of Muhammad and was recognized only by Ali from amongst the rest of the companions, and where he came to show his grief and sadness at the death of Muhammad. Al-Khiḍr’s appearance at Muhammad’s funeral is related as follows:

A powerful-looking, fine-featured, handsome man with a white beard came leaping over the backs of the people till he reached where the sacred body lay. Weeping bitterly, he turned toward the Companions and paid his condolences. Ali said that he was Khiḍr.

In another tale, al-Khiḍr met with Ali by the Kaaba and instructed him about a supplication that is very meritorious when recited after the obligatory prayers. It is reported by Imam Muslim that during the time when the false Messiah appears and as he approaches at the outskirts of the city of Medina, a believer would challenge him, whom the false Messiah will slice into two piece and rejoin, making it appear that he caused him to die and be resurrected, to which this man would proclaim the falsehood of the Dajjal who would try again to kill him (or make show of it) but would fail and thus his weakness and inability will be revealed. According to commentators the person who will challenge the Antichrist and humiliate him will be al-Khiḍr.

Palestinian lamb is the obvious dish of choice for today. Here is Mansaf (Lamb in Yogurt Sauce).



1 ½ lb lamb, cut in large cubes
salt and pepper
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
4 cups whole plain yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed and ground
lamb broth


¼  cup pine nuts, toasted
fresh parsley


Mix the cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl, and toss the lamb in the mix to coat thoroughly.  Heat the ghee over high heat in a heavy skillet, and brown the lamb on all sides.

Pour a cup of lamb broth over the lamb. Add the bay leaves. Simmer gently, covered, until the lamb is tender.

Meanwhile, prepare the yogurt sauce.  Break down your yogurt by running it in a blender or a food processor for two or three minutes.   In a saucepan over medium-high heat, melt three tablespoons of butter, and stir in three tablespoons of flour, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes.  Slowly add the beaten yogurt, adding in a little and stirring, and letting the mixture come to a boil, and then adding a little more yogurt.  Continue to do this until you have added all of the yogurt. Stir constantly and adjust the heat as needed to avoid burning.  Bring to a quick boil and let the sauce boil for one minute, stirring constantly.  Turn the heat down to low, add the garlic paste and let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes.

Take the lamb from the heat.  Arrange sufficient rice on a serving platter. This can be saffron rice, turmeric rice, or plain boiled rice.  Place the cooked lamb on top and pour the yogurt sauce over it. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and fresh parsley. Serve with flatbread. Guests help themselves from the common dish.

Aug 162013


Today is the birthday (1888) of Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO, known professionally as T. E. Lawrence, and popularly as Lawrence of Arabia. He was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916–18. The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame. He was featured in the 1962 epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, which captured some of the mood of Lawrence’s campaigns in Arabia, but was riddled with historical inaccuracies, and completely missed the mark with regards to Lawrence’s personal character. Unfortunately the film has left a lasting impression in the popular mind.

Lawrence was born in Tremadog in Wales as the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman left his wife and first family in Ireland to live with Sarah Junner, where they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence. In the summer of 1896 the “Lawrence” family moved to Oxford. At the age of 15, T.E. Lawrence and his school friend Cyril Beeson bicycled around Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire, visiting almost every village’s parish church, studying their monuments and antiquities, and making rubbings of their monumental brasses. Lawrence and Beeson monitored building sites in Oxford and presented their finds to the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean’s Annual Report for 1906 said that the two teenage boys “by incessant watchfulness secured everything of antiquarian value which has been found.”

In the summers of 1906 and 1907 Lawrence and Beeson toured France by bicycle, collecting photographs, drawings, and measurements of medieval castles.  In 1907 Lawrence entered Jesus College at Oxford University to read history. In the summer of 1909 Lawrence set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, travelling 1,000 mi (1,600 km) on foot. He took a First Class Honours B.A. in 1910 and submitted a thesis entitled “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the end of the 12th Century” based on his field research with Beeson in France, notably in Châlus, and his solo research in the Middle East.

In December 1910 he sailed for Beirut, and on arrival went to Jbail (Byblos), where he studied Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish, near Jerablus in northern Syria, where he worked under D. G. Hogarth and R. Campbell Thompson of the British Museum, and with Sir Leonard Woolley (one of the most influential figures in the development of modern archeology). As the site lay near an important crossing on the Baghdad Railway, knowledge gathered there turned out to be of considerable importance to the military. Lawrence continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of the First World War. In January 1914, Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Negev Desert. They were funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund to search for an area referred to in the Bible as the “Wilderness of Zin.” Along the way, they undertook an archaeological survey of the Negev Desert. The Negev was of strategic importance, as it would have to be crossed by any Ottoman army attacking Egypt in the event of war. Woolley and Lawrence subsequently published a report of the expedition’s archaeological findings, but also updated mapping of the area, with special attention to features of military relevance such as water sources. From March to May 1914, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Lawrence did not immediately enlist in the British Army. He held back until October, when he was commissioned on the General List; and immediately posted to the intelligence staff in Cairo because of his extensive knowledge of the Middle East.

Woolley (L) and Lawrence

Woolley (L) and Lawrence

The Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office conceived a campaign of internal insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The Arab Bureau had long felt it likely that a campaign instigated and financed by outside powers, supporting the breakaway-minded Arab factions and regional challengers to the Turkish government’s centralized rule of their empire, would pay great dividends in the diversion of effort that would be needed to meet such a challenge. The Arab Bureau had recognized the strategic value of what is today called the “asymmetry” of such conflict. The Ottoman authorities would have to devote from a hundred to a thousand times the resources to contain the threat of such an internal rebellion compared to the Allies’ cost of sponsoring it.

The British government in Egypt sent Lawrence to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916. During the war, Lawrence fought with Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire.  He was a major player in the Arab revolt against the Turks ultimately leading to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and, eventually, to the creation of Arab states in the Middle East.


I won’t go in to a lot of detail. For one thing, I don’t like war, and, for another, the actions of both the British and the Arabs during the war were not of the highest moral standards. After gaining the trust of Arab leaders Lawrence co-ordinated Arab activities of a guerrilla nature, such as blowing up rail lines and disrupting supply lines and communications. He was also responsible for organizing Arab irregular troops leading to the fall of the strategic towns of Aqaba and Tafileh. After leading forces against Tafileh Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He was 30.


During the closing years of the war he sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain contradicted the promises of independence he had made to the Arabs, and left him deeply disillusioned. After the war Lawrence was involved for a time in peace negotiations, and then retired to All Souls College, Oxford, where he held a 7 year fellowship for the purpose of writing a history of the Arab campaign.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom was one of the products of these years, written from start to finish afresh three separate times, the first time because he left the entire manuscript (250,000 words) in a satchel on a platform at Reading train station while changing trains.


After this stint in Oxford he dropped out of sight and his actions have left historians puzzled. In August 1922, Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman under the name John Hume Ross. At the RAF recruiting center in Covent Garden in London he was interviewed by a recruiting officer – Flying Officer W. E. Johns, later to be well known as the author of the Biggles novels concerning a WW I flying ace (read them all as a boy). Johns rejected Lawrence’s application as he correctly believed “Ross” was a false name. Lawrence admitted this was so and that the documents he provided were falsified. But he returned some time later with an RAF messenger, carrying a written order for Johns to accept Lawrence.

However, Lawrence was forced out of the RAF in February 1923 after being exposed. He changed his name to T. E. Shaw and joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally readmitted him in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity after the publication of a 2nd edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom resulted in his assignment to a remote base in British India in late 1926, where he remained until the end of 1928. At that time he was forced to return to Britain after rumors began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities. He continued serving in the RAF based at Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, specializing in high-speed boats and professing happiness. It was with considerable regret that he left the service at the end of his enlistment in March 1935.

At the age of 46, two months after leaving military service, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control, and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later on 19 May 1935. The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road.


One of the doctors attending him was the neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who consequently began a long study of what he saw as the unnecessary loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries. His research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists.

In his (unpublished) field journal for May 1917 Lawrence describes a Bedu (Bedouin) feast he attended that consisted of boiled lamb and rice.

“. . . then two men came in carrying a copper butt, sixty inches across and perhaps five inches deep brimful of white rice topped with legs of sheep and ribs within the middle the boiled head, afterward the neck buried in the rice to the ears, which stuck up like withered leaves.”

This dish is known as mansaf and is nowadays much more kitchen friendly than it was in Lawrence’s Bedu encampment. It is the national dish of Jordan. Lawrence says that the rice was cooked in yoghurt but I suspect he misunderstood that the yoghurt flavor of the rice comes from the sauce that the lamb is cooked in.  Jameed is dried, fermented yoghurt that you can find online. If not just increase the amount of plain yoghurt. I give you here the simple version as served to Lawrence, but if you like you can spike the yoghurt sauce with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Personally I prefer it with saffron only.




2 lbs (1 kilo) lean lamb cut in large pieces
1 cup jameed
2 cups plain yoghurt
2 cups long grain rice or basmati rice
4 tbsps ghee or clarified butter
1 tsp saffron
1 cup whole blanched almonds


Put the jameed in a bowl with a cup of water and let it soak overnight.

Melt 2 tablespoons of ghee in a heavy pot.  Add the lamb and sauté for 2 minutes. It should not brown.

Add 2 cups of water, bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for an hour or until the meat is tender.

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with warm water.  Let it soak for at least 10 minutes, up to 1 hour.

Blend the jameed and soaking water in a food processor or blender until smooth.  Set aside. Blend the yoghurt with 1 cup of water, and add it to the blended jameed.  Stir well, and add to the simmering lamb. Add the saffron. Continue to simmer.

Drain the rice and rinse well in a sieve under running water.  Place the rice in a pot with 2 ½ cups of water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Sauté the almonds in the remaining ghee until they take on a little color.

To serve, spread the rice on a large platter.  Put the cooked lamb on top, and sprinkle the almonds over the lamb. Pour the yoghurt sauce over the dish to moisten. Serve as a communal dish in the center of the table with flatbread.

Serves 4