Lydda was home to one of the earliest communities of Jesus followers in Judea. It was an ancient city known as Lod in the Old Testament, built by the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. The city was deserted during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, but reestablished during the 5th century BC after the Judeans returned from exile. Lydda is now a modern city of about 70,000 people, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Instead of the Greek name Lydda, the city still bears the ancient Hebrew name of Lod.
According to tradition, Saint George was born in Lydda, his mother’s hometown, in around 280 AD. He eventually joined the Roman military and worked his way up to a commander of many troops. He was considered a war hero and was widely known for his courage. George was also a follower of Jesus.
In 303 AD, he learned that the Roman Emperor Diocletian was preparing a persecution of Christians. George presented himself before the Emperor and publicly denounced his plan. The Emperor ordered that George recant his position, but George stood firm in his convictions, even to the point of horrendous torture. It is said that George was chained and tortured for at least a month.
In the end, his bravery was strengthened by his faith, and many witnesses became followers of Jesus as a result, including Queen Alexandra, the wife of Diocletian. George was finally beheaded on April 23, 303, as a martyr for the Gospel.
Tradition tells us that George’s remains were later returned here to Lydda, and a church was built in his name over the new tomb in the 4th century. Construction of this present Church of Saint George was started in 1870 over the ruins of various other churches that have been here since the Byzantine era. The current church shares a common wall with a Muslim mosque. Interestingly, Muslims also revere George as a heroic figure in history.
An underground chapel preserves the tomb of Saint George. The stone sarcophagus of Saint George was restored to its current state in 1871. The chapel also houses some relics that tradition attributes to George’s martyrdom.