The Webwide Journeys of St. George

text by Paul Douglas Stamm
photographs by Juan Carlos Medina

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Enshrined in Milwaukee’s small Greek-Melkite church of St. George, there is a darkened yet revered icon of the world’s most famous dragon-slayer. Masked beneath a century of incense residue, scorched by thousands of candles, St. George appears as an innocent, a mere babe going forth on a white steed to battle evil.

An icon in the Eastern Christian tradition is more than a picture, it is a vehicle for prayer. For Milwaukee’s Greek-Melkite community this special icon of St. George represents over 100 years of hope and faith. The image, crafted of prayerfully applied layers of pigment on a wooden panel, has traveled from the Old World to the New, and now the parishioners of St. George are sending their “Glorious Martyr” into cyberspace. This 19th-century, Byzantine-style icon has gone on an electric voyage with its own site on the Internet.

In the late 1880s American agents for the World’s Columbian Exposition traveled the routes of the medieval crusaders, looking for exotic sights to reproduce on the “Midway Plaisance of Nations.”

Deep in the Bekaa Valley, in the shadow of Mount Lebanon, the American agents stumbled upon an immense wilderness of stone, wildflowers and weeds – the Greco-Roman city of Baalbek. A major trading center in ancient times, Baalbek had since declined to little more than a few hundred houses. Only 54 smashed columns remained of the Temple of Jupiter. The fourth-century Christian basilica of Theodosius had been dismantled by Ottoman authorities; its stone had been used for paving block.

Just “a cigarette’s walk from Baalbek,” as the agents described it, the Americans rested in the tiny Christian hamlet of Ain Bourdai. The village consisted of 28 mud-brick huts, a public well and a Catholic church dedicated to the “defender of the poor,” St. George. Although modest, the village was precisely the scene the exposition’s sponsors wanted to display on the midway.

The agents offered a trip to the New World and two years’ work for any villager willing to travel to Chicago, the site of the fair. To honor the American visitors and their request, the villagers held a hafli, or feast, with dancing and the exotic music of the oud and derbeke. The finest food the village had to offer was prepared and shared with the guests.

After the celebration, the parish priest called together his tiny congregation to pray for guidance. Although the elderly feared for the lives of their loved ones, a number of villagers took up the offer and soon set sail for the New World.

The Columbian Exposition was larger than anyone from Ain Bourdai could have imagined. More than 60,000 people could sit down for lunch in a single hour. Every hour 150,000 people moved about the park on electric boats, steam launches, intramural railway cars, sedan chairs and a moving sidewalk. And passengers spun 250 feet in the air on the world’s first Ferris wheel. In the shadow below, the villagers of Ain Bourdai were finding a new life.

For two years they worked the exposition, displaying Arabic horsemanship skills and demonstrating traditional Middle Eastern dances. They also crafted some of the fair’s most treasured souvenirs: necklaces of amber and wooden boxes made from the cedars of Lebanon.

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Tags: Eastern Christianity Melkite Greek Catholic Church Icons Media