There are various accounts of the history of Saint George, known in Arabic as Mar Jirjis, who is held in great veneration by Copts as an efficacious intercessor. Many stories were handed down by tradition, and are popularly accepted as historical.
According to the Coptic SYNAXARION, Saint George was born in Cappadocia to Anastasius and Theopista. His father, who was a governor, died when George was twenty years of age. He, therefore, betook himself to Emperor DIOCLETIAN (284-305) to claim his father’s position. He was distressed by the emperor’s paganism and his persecution of Christians and determined to devote his life as one of Christ’s warriors. He gave his possessions to the poor and discharged his servants.
As George was incensed to see the imperial edicts against those who professed Christianity, he tore them down. He was taken to the emperor’s court, where he proclaimed that he was a Christian, crying out in anger, “When will you stop torturing innocent Christians and forcing them to recant their religion? If you do not wish to embrace their faith, at least do not persecute them.”
Magnentius, one of the emperor’s courtiers, tried to placate him, but to no avail. The emperor intervened, and reminded George of the favors he bestowed upon him, promising him more if he were to renounce his Christ. George declined the emperor’s offers with disdain, and was therefore subjected to torture that he endured without wavering.
A sorcerer named Athanasius was asked to administer him a poisoned drink on which he uttered some magical incantation. George made the sign of the cross on the cup and drank it without being harmed. Thereupon the sorcerer accepted the Christian belief, and was consequently put to death, receiving the crown of martyrdom.
The emperor was deeply infuriated and ordered George to be crushed under heavy rollers, until he gave up the ghost. He was cast outside the city. But Christ restored him to life, and he returned to the city where over 3,000 people saw him and embraced Christianity. They were all beheaded, willingly seeking the crown of martyrdom.
After further miracles accomplished by Saint George, his torture was intensified by Diocletian. Finally, the emperor tried to coax him by offering him his daughter in marriage if he would burn incense for the gods. George pretended to accept, and was allowed into the palace. While he was praying and reciting the Psalms, he was overheard by the empress who asked him to explain the meaning of his prayers. When he did, she believed in Christ, and eventually, the emperor had her beheaded.
Finally, Saint George’s head was cut off and he won the crown of martyrdom. The Coptic Synaxarion gives A.D. 307 as the year of his martyrdom.
Though not a native Egyptian, Saint George is one of the most beloved and revered saints of the Coptic church. His feast day is 23 Baramudah. The churches that have been dedicated to his name all over Egypt are too numerous to count. Besides, there is hardly a church in the country that does not contain one or more icons of this great martyr. On the anniversary of his martyrdom, and on other dates, celebrations and mulids (religious festivals) attract many thousands of pilgrims and patients from far and wide. Among the most famous churches are the two at Mit Damsis, north of Mit Ghamr, in the Delta, where celebrations are held annually between 22 and 28 August.
A particular event connected with Saint George is the commemoration on 3 Ba’unah of the consecration of the first church in Egypt to be dedicated to his name. According to the Coptic Synaxarion that church was at the town of Birma in the Bahariyyah oasis. The saint’s decapitated body was brought from Lydda in Palestine to the Bahnasa. Another church at Birma near Tanta in the Delta was also consecrated to Saint George on a similar date. The Synaxarion gives an interesting story that throws some light on the similarity of the names of the two towns.
A young man lived near a well, in the area of present-day Birma, together with a community of Christian soldiers. He had heard of the miracles wrought by God at the hands of Saint George, so he collected details of the saint’s life story, wrote them down, and found great spiritual enjoyment in reading them. On the eve of 24 Bashans, while he was praying, he saw a group of saintly men singing and praising God around the well. One of the group, in military dress, stepped forward and told him that he was George and that he was martyred by Diocletian, and commanded him to build a church on that spot.
The youth kept wondering how he could afford to do so. But Saint George appeared to him again, pointed out to him the exact spot where the church was to be built, and explained to him where he could find the necessary money. In the morning the young man went to that place, where he dug up a pot full of gold and silver coins. The church was soon built, and was consecrated by the patriarch on 3 Ba’unah. Afterward many houses were built in the vicinity of the church, which acquired the name Bir ma’ (i.e., water well), after the well near which the church was built.
The Synaxarion goes on to say that the relics of Saint George were later translated from his church at the town of Br ma in the oases to the Monastery of Anba Samu’il during the patriarchate of MATTHEW I (1378-1409). Later, during the patriarchate of GABRIEL V (1409-1427), the saint’s relics were translated, once again, to the church dedicated to his name in Old Cairo.
- Delehaye, H. Les Légendes grecques des saints militaires. New York, 1975.
- Holweck, F. G. A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints. Repr. Detroit, 1969.
- Meinardus, O. Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern. Cairo, 1965. O’Leary, De L. The Saints of Egypt. London, 1937.