Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.

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One thought on “Tracking St George

  1. Pingback: Sharing sacred spaces | The gypsy plays & the kurd dances

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