The Shrine of Saint George – Beit Jala, West Bank - Atlas Obscura
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Beit Jala, West Bank

The Shrine of Saint George

Ancient chapel with an insane history. 

Just outside of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, in the town of Beit Jala, the Chapel of St. George is not much to look at from the outside—and since it’s only open on Sunday, you’ll have to find a tour guide or someone who can call around and get it open especially for you.

Inside, however, the chapel is dominated by wall-to-wall, luxurious and surprisingly vivid frescos, including images of the eponymous saint defeating the dragon, as well as a host of other great Byzantine imagery.

The church’s claim to fame, though, is really its long and odd history—for years the Chapel of St. George was used as a makeshift insane asylum. According J. E. Hannauer’s Folklore of the Holy Land: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, published in 1907, George’s shrine is described as a “sort of madhouse. Deranged persons of all three faiths are taken thither and chained in the court of the chapel, where they are kept for forty days on bread and water, the Greek priest at the head of the establishment now and then reading the Gospel over them, or administering a whipping as the case demands.” Although this practice has been discontinued in the hundred years since, one can still speak of someone going mad as “going to St. George’s.”

Visiting the shrine in the late 1990s, the writer William Dalyrymple found that while Jews had largely stopped using the place, Muslims still came regularly to this Christian shrine, leaving prayer mats and other offerings for the saint whom they call Khadr, “the Green One.” While no one is chained to the floor anymore, modern visitors can still undergo a vestige of the original treatment: a shackle is placed around your neck three successive times, before it’s opened and you’re instructed to step through it, thus “curing” yourself of any madness.