At the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, wishes and prayers are made by Christians and non-Christians alike. The story of Mar Girgis, or St. George, a Roman soldier who died a martyr in around 303 AD, is an outstanding tale of self-sacrifice.
Mar Girgis was born around 280 AD in Cappacodia (in modern-day Turkey) to Christian parents of high birth. His father, Anastasius, was a senior Roman officer and his mother was from the Syrian village of Lod (in modern-day Palestine). Having studied law, Greek, and the martial arts, he followed his father’s footsteps, joining the Roman army at the age of 20. For a while, things went well for the young Mar Girgis, who quickly rose through the ranks before the persecution of Christians began in earnest and he was forced to take sides.
Much of what we know about Mar Girgis comes from Christian hagiography, not from historical records. Eusebius of Caesarea, a church historian known for his reliability, speaks of a Roman officer who was brave enough to tear down the edict by Diocletian, which kicked off the worst phase in the persecution of Christians. The officer in question is often identified as Mar Girgis, although there is no proof that the two are the same person.
According to hagiographic tales, Mar Girgis endured seven years of torture, during which he died three times, was resurrected twice, converted a queen, and inspired thousands to become Christians in the middle of the worst phases of persecution. During his years of torture, Mar Girgis met with Alexandria, the wife of Diocletian. The story of the two is one of the most breathtaking hagiographic accounts, for the empress immediately converts to Christianity and suffers torture and death as a result.
Another popular tale associated with Mar Girgis is his slaying of the dragon, a story that is supposed to have happened in Libya. In this story, depicted often in church icons, we see Mar Girgis riding in full Roman apparel and killing a crocodile-like dragon. Sometimes we have a glimpse of a damsel in the back watching the slaying. Some identify the damsel with Empress Alexandra and the dragon with Emperor Diocletian.
Mar Girgis was executed on orders of Diocletian in Nicomedia on 1 May 307 AD, a date that is still celebrated today by the Coptic Church. He is venerated not only by the Coptic Church but by Christians all over the world, and, under the name St. George, he is also the patron saint of England.
According to most accounts, Mar Girgis’ servant took his body for burial in Lod, where a church was later dedicated to his memory. Mar Girgis is a name that is Syriac in origin and means, more or less, ‘farmer’ or ‘worker of the land.’ He is also known as ‘Mar Girgis the Cappadocian,’ in reference to his birthplace; or ‘Mar Girgis the Palestinian,’ in reference to his mother’s birthplace; or ‘Mar Girgis the Roman,’ in reference to his military career; or the ‘Prince of Martyrs,’ in reference to his prolonged suffering.
In the Egyptian countryside, Mar Girgis is often called ‘Sarie Al-Nadha,’ or the ‘quick to answer.’ In the Syrian countryside, some called him ‘Al-Khedr’ in reference to a church built in his honour in the town of Sahwet Al-Khedr.
The Egyptian Coptic Church celebrates his martyrdom on several occasions every year:
- 16 November (7 Hatur), which marks the consecration of the first church bearing his name in Lod
- 10 June (3 Baouna), which marks the consecration of the first church bearing his name in Egypt (in Hesset Borma in Tanta).
- 23 July (16 Abib), which marks the transfer of his remains to his monastery in Masr Al-Qadima
- 1 May (23Barmouda), which marks the day of his martyrdom.
Among the most popular sites associated with Mar Girgis in Egypt are:
- The church in Mit Damsis in Daqahlia, where miracles of healing have been reported
- The Mar Girgis Convent in Masr Al-Qadima
- The Mar Girgis Church in Masr Al-Qadima
Celebrations at the Mar Girgis Convent were cancelled this year to be replaced by a private ceremony conducted by resident nuns.