On a Saint, a Dragon, a Church, a Bridge, a Cat, a Rat and a Statement
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
The countryside around the twin towns of Ramla and Lydda has little of distinction. The land is flat with few topographical features and none that are particularly noteworthy. The vegetation in undistinguished and the countryside is scarred with industrial complexes, unsightly roadworks, and various other modern developments of little beauty. The towns themselves, though each possessing a remarkable and unique history, are most largely composed of unattractive, unimaginative buildings. But each contains some impressive remains of their past. In Ramla, the Umayyad capital of Jund Filistin, there are the White Mosque with its stately minaret, a remarkable underground vaulted cistern, and the Crusader church, today the town's Great Mosque. Lydda, Biblical Lod and Roman Diospolis (city of Zeus) is a town oddly bereft of classical remains, but there are, incorporated within the nineteenth century Greek church of the Frankish cathedral church, notably two of the three apses, the bases of the two easternmost piers and fragments of the northern and southern side walls - not much perhaps, but enough to impress upon the observer the former beauty of this church that had been dedicated to St George of Lydda.
In the Middle Ages St George had become venerated around the world, though one can say very little about his life without preceding with such qualifications as 'supposedly', 'possibly', or the like. He was supposedly of Cappadocian Greek origins, had possibly been a member of the Praetorian Guard for the emperor Diocletian, and was perhaps decapitated before the walls of Nicomedia on 23 April 303 AD. As for the dragon (for this is of course the St George the dragon killer), it has become so entirely associated with the saint that one cannot imagine him unless he is mounted and in the act of plunging his spear into the cowering, twisted creature. But this aspect of St George's life appears to have been a late development, first recorded in a Georgian source in the eleventh century, from where it spread to the West apparently during the crusader period. Where the legend originated is as obscure as the origins of its hero. It is told that, in order to appease a rather unpleasant dragon that had been causing panic in the city of Silene, Libya, the citizens fed it daily with two sheep. At some point this no longer satisfied the creature, and they were forced to sacrifice citizens of the town. When it came the turn of the king's daughter, the timely arrival of the gallant George saved the day. He slayed the dragon and refused reward. The people of Silene were so impressed that they all became baptised as Christians.
George's connection to Lydda appears to be that he was buried here or that his relics were preserved here. This is recorded in a sixth century source, the De Situ Terrae Sanctae of Theodosius. A Byzantine church dedicate to him stood here until it was destroyed during the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim's persecutions of Christians and destruction of Christian properties in the early eleventh century.
The crusaders built their cathedral church in the twelfth century, but it was dismantled by the Ayyubids during the Third Crusade. In 1273, when the Mamluk Sultan Baibars had already advanced into much of crusader territory he constructed two bridges in this region; one just to the north of Lydda, crossing the wadi known as Wadi Rizzia, a tributary of Wadi Musrara (Nahal Ayalon) near the village of Jindas (casal Gendas), the other further south-west, over the Wadi al-Tahuna (Nahal Sorek) near the town of Yavne and the then ruined castle of Ibelin. His aim appears to have been to strengthen this area against a possible attempt by the Christians at regaining their lost territories. Two years earlier Prince Edward of England (Later Edward I) had carried out an incursion further north in the Sharon Plain near Qaqun. The threat was perhaps not great, but Baibars wanted to be certain of his control of the roads, and by the construction of these bridges, including possibly a third one, Jisr Isdud over Wadi Sukrayr (Nahal Lakhish), to keep open lines of communication between Egypt and the north. But there was also an additional aim here, one that finds expression in the manner in which he built at least two of these bridges and in particular, in the construction of Jisr Jindas. Examining the bridge in 1871, the French Orientalist and archaeologist, Charles Clermont-Ganneau noticed that it incorporated a quantity of material apparently taken from the ruined Frankish church.* About the same time it was similarly noted by the Swiss scholar Max van Berchem, that the Yavne Bridge contained Frankish masonry that may have come from the dismantled Frankish church at Yavne or alternatively from the castle.** This was not a matter of saving labour. By using Frankish spolia to construct these two bridges Baibars was making a statement, a declaration of dominance and victory, one that would be repeated by later Mamluk conquerors when in a similar fashion they transported Frankish masonry from conquered Acre all the way to Cairo for reuse in a mausoleum.
In the case of the Lydda bridge Baibars went even further in stating his supremacy. In his heraldry he had himself represented by the image of a great cat. The lion is the most frequent animal found in heraldry, but perhaps the animal he used is the panther, as, in his native Turkic the name Baibars means 'great panther'.
Peter, my late, lamented cat, lies seven years buried beneath the shattered walls of Montfort, a castle that fell to Baibars after a brief siege in the summer of 1271. Like the Mamluk general, Peter too was a 'great destroyer'. His preferred quarry was lizards, whereas Baibars, as can be seen on the blazons on either side of the Jindas bridge, had a partiality for rodents. Baibars' lion or panther can be seen with his front paw raised over a rat and we require little effort to comprehend who the rat represents.
* Clermont-Ganneau suggests that most of the building material is of Frankish origin. See Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological Researches in Palestine during the years 1873-1874, trans. John Macfarlane, vol. II, London, 1896, p. 115.
** Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, vol. II, Cambridge, 1997, p. 379.