al-Khidr, the Green Man

An Ancient God in Modern Turkey:
Some Aspects of the Cult of Hizir

Khiḍr festival in Trabzon, Turkey
Khiḍr festival in Trabzon, Turkey

Journal of American Folklore 86 (1973)
By Warren S. Walker and Ahmet E. Uysal
Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas

After the Prophet Mohammed and the Caliph Ali, the most revered figure among the Turks of Turkey is a Moslem saint named Hizir. Either through personal acquaintance or through hearsay, everyone in Turkey is familiar with the visible form in which Hizir appears to human eyes, that of a frail and aged dervish with a long white beard and sometimes a large white turban. Hizir walks the earth with men more than any other Moslem immortal, and he does so in order to fulfill certain functions peculiarly his own.

Hizir is the last-minute rescuer from disaster, a deus ex machina, when all other as­sistance, natural and supernatural, has failed. Among the many rescues by Hizir that we were told about, one of the most impressive occurred during the Korean War.

When I was serving in the Turkish Brigade in Korea [our informant recalled], a Turkish soldier from my village was confronted by four Chinese soldiers who ordered him to lay down his arms or they would kill him. The young man shouted, ‘Ya Hizir!" and Hizir appeared as 100 soldiers to the eyes of the four Chinese. They were so frightened that the Turk was able to take all four of them prisoner. The Americans rewarded him for his bravery that day, and he sent home 40,000 liras to Isis village on behalf of Hizir. A large bridge was built there with this money.[1]

We thanked our informant and promised to visit his village some day to see with our own eyes the bridge financed, indirectly, by Hizir.

Hizir is also the patron saint of travelers, protecting them by his personal intervention from the hardships and hazards of the road. From the many accounts of such protection in the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University, the following report, dated 1968, may serve as a good example:

A bus full of people was going from Ankara to Samsun [on the Black Sea Coast]. I was a passenger on that bus. Near Havza, where we were passing through a heavy forest, an old man came down a footpath to the road and waved his hand at the bus. The driver stopped the bus and asked the old man what he wanted. The old man looked poor and he was dressed very shabbily. He said he had a sick child at home, in critical condition, and he wanted to take him to a doctor at Havza. The driver agreed to wait, and the old man said he would return within ten minutes, for his house was not far from the road.

The ten minutes passed, Efendi, but there was no sign of the old man and the sick child. We waited another ten minutes, but still no one came. Then several passengers said the old man would not come and urged the bus driver to move on. But the bus did not move, and the driver sat motionless. It was then discovered that he had had a heart attack and was sitting there dead at the wheel. In this way the lives of thirty-five people were saved by Hizir, who had detained the bus for ten important minutes.[2]

Once a year—May 6 on the modern Gregorian calendar but April 23 on the "Old Style" calendar—Hizir is the recipient of all requests, properly submitted, for special favors. In a silent ritual before sunrise on May 6 Turks construct, in their gardens or yards, models of the things they wish for most: a new house, an automobile, a business of one's own—or anything under the sun that one might wish for. Sometime during the following year, Hizir willing, the request may be granted; if not, one tries again the ensuing year. The founder of a well-known Turkish school credited the building of that institution to the fulfillment of a May 6 prayer to Hizir. A schoolteacher told us that she had realized a lifelong dream of visiting England as a result of a similar request.[3] We have never yet, incidentally, met a Turkish family that did not attribute at least one of its achievements or possessions to the springtime blessing of Hizir.

The prophets Elias and Khadir at the fountain of life, late 15th century.
The prophets Elias and Khadir at the fountain of life, late 15th century. Folio from a khamsa (quintet) by Nizami (d. 1209); Timurid period. Opaque watercolor and silver on paper. Herat, Afghanistan, now at The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution
Al-Khadir crosses the River of Life upon a fish
In western Asia, Moslem or Hindu symbolic art shows the Saint, Al Khizr, dressed in a green coat being carried on top of the water by a fish which conveys him over the river of life.

The foregoing accounts of Hizir typify those one might elicit from literate, urban Turks in Istanbul, in Ankara, or in Izmir. Move out to the villages, however, and etlcour­age the peasants to talk about Htzsr, and you begits to hear some strange undertones. Visit wral l-isztr shrines, often difficult to locate and identify because they are tiot approved of by the Moslem Establishment, and you become aware of a very definite Hizir cult. Thcts listen to peasant folktales, in wisich vestiges of primitive myth often survive into lhe present, and you begin to sense tile great antiquity of certain aspects of this Hizir cult.

Hizir may well be one of the oldest gods of the Middle East—pre-Moslem, pre­-Christian, pre-Roman, pre-Greek — a vegetation god and a water deity. The Turkish name Hizir is transliterated from the Arabic Al-Kidr, an epithet that means, literally, ‘The Green One' or "The Green Man.' (Because of the flexibility of implicit vowels in Arabic, the name appears as Al-Kadr, Al-Kedr, or Al-Kidr. The Jews call him Hudr; the Persians, Kisir; and the Turks, Hizir.) His identity has become obscured by time and by that curious syncretism through which Islam has always appropriated and transmuted elements of surrounding cultures. But in certain contexts, always involving water, the god still puts forth his features sharply and unmistakably.

His presence is most visibly objectified in the long line of shrines that stretches along the Mediterranean coast from Antalya, Turkey, through Syria to the environs of Beirut, Lebanon. Whitewashed stone structures, the larger ones domed and encircled with high steel fencing, they stand at intervals along the shoreline like a system of miniature lighthouses. There is a steady flow of pilgrims to these shrines throughout the year, with the heaviest attendance on July 1, the day on which farmers bring their flocks to be baptized in the sea.

At Arsuz (between Antioch and Iskenderun) 20,000 to 30,000 people participate in this daylong ceremony that climaxes when the salt water turns fresh and everyone wades into the sea, leading approximately a quarter of a million head of livestock. It is an annual fertility rite enacted in high religious fervor. One of our informants who had attended this ceremony at Arsuz testified with solemn oath to the miracle that occurred that day: "By Allah, out there I drank the sea water, and it was as sweet as sherbet." (By way of parenthesis, it may be observed here that collecting information about rites of this type is usually difficult and often dangerous. Orthodox Islam is strongly opposed to the elevation of Hizir from the role of a saint to that of a god, and thus much of the ritual of the cult has been driven underground, open only to the initiate. Furthermore, many of the larger shrines are controlled by communities of the minority Shi'ite or Alevi sect, which is fiercely pro­tective of the secrecy of all its forms of worship. On July 1, armed guards are posted for miles along the shore to prevent other Moslems and Christian infidels from witnessing the fertility ceremony.)

Our own quest for Hizir has been made entirely through the medium of the current oral tradition in Turkey, and the hypotheses we have advanced have been based on data collected during field trips in recent years. There is also evidence in the written tradition, however, that sheds additional light on this elusive figure, evidence collected and ana­lyzed by Israel Friedlander, Ernest Budge, and other scholars.[4] Although Hizir is not named its the Koran, he is universally acknowledged to be the Servant of Allah whose activities are described its Chapter XVIII of that holy book. In the Koran Hizir is shown teaching divine truths to Moses, and he is associated, in what is said by then to be already an old tradition, with the Abu-Hayat, or the Water of Life. His immortality, in fact, is time result of his having drunk of the Water of Life. The Koranic account, dating from time seventh century, draws upon two, and perhaps all three, of the earlier versions of this Middle Eastern myth about the Water of Life: (1) the Greek "Alexander Romance" of the fourth century; (2) the Jewish Talmudic legend of Rabbi ben Levi from the third century; and (3) the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic that reaches back to the third millennium B.C. Whether cause or effect (perhaps some of both) of this ancient literary tradition, there is a high correlation in Middle Eastern folktales between time occurrence of the Water of Life motif and the presence of Hizir.

An equally ancient tradition that associates Hizir with water is his identification with the biblical prophet Elijah. In the Old Testament book of I Kings, as in later Talmudic literature, Elijah is pictured primarily as a rainmaker, and to this day hundreds of Elijah shrines in the Middle East and in Greece testify to his continuing effectiveness in this capacity.[5]  Hizir is the Moslem equivalent of Elijah, but, curiously enough, the Turkish folk mind, influenced here as much by the Jewish as by the Arabic tradition, has refused to allow the image of Elijah to be completely assimilated by that of Hizir. Instead, the two exist side by side as doubles, a situation most noticeable in the naming of the Hizir celebration on May 6. It is always called Hizir-Ilyas Day —the Turks usually shorten this name to Hidrellez—the Ilyas being the Turkish form of the word Elijah. Since Hizir and Ilyas are the same, and since both serve the same functions in their respective cultures, the folk imagination must have been at first hard pressed to explain what they were doing together. Several centuries ago—and it is impossible to be more specific than that—it was agreed that Hizir and Elijah met each Hizir-Ilyas Day to reaffirm their agreement about the parts of the world in which each would serve as last-minute rescuer and patron of travelers. Elijah is sometimes said to be the protector of travelers by sea and Hizir of those by land, though the folk are not consistent on this point. They are quite consistent about time location of the meeting place—always on the seashore between dry land and water. (It is often thought to be along the Shatul Arap, that stretch of water between the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the open sea.) Having concluded their annual formalities, Hizir and Elijah then proceed, like devout Moslems, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca together.

Still another tradition that both draws upon and contributes to Hizir lore is the 'Green George' festival in Greece and other Balkan states. In the rites of spring, the vegetation god 'Green George' is represented by a young man clad from head to toe in green leaves. After performing a long series of ritual gestures that symbolize planting, harvesting, and procreation, this surrogate for the god is thrown into the water. Identified at a very early date with Saint George, the pagan 'Green George' still survives in countless Christian communities. The 'Green George' festival and the Feast of Saint George are celebrated on the same day, and it is no accident that that day is April 23, time day sacred to Hizir on the older calendar.[6]

No one has yet undertaken a thorough study of Hizir in Turkey—or, more accurately, in Asia Minor, for Hizir preceded the Turks in that part of the world by at least 3,000 years.[7] Our exploratory probings have revealed that there is a tremendous body of Hizir lore and legend and that much of it has deep religious significance for the rural Turks who constitute 75 percent of the country's population. As we have indicated, Hizir seems to us to be associated in the folk mind with fertility, with the annual renewal of vegetation, and with the seasonal life cycle—all of which are dependent on water, more obviously amid more dramatically so in an arid land. But what are the various forms of sacrifice and ritual practiced by devotees of Hizir? How consciously do modern Turks think of Hizir as the latter-day water god he so clearly is? How do devout Moslems—and most rural Turks are very devout Moslems—rationalize adherence to so primitive a nature cult? These are among the many questions that cannot be answered until considerably more research on the subject has been completed.

End Notes

[1] Collected at Arsuz, Province of Hatay, in June 1968.

[2] Collected by a student assistant, Yüksel Uslu, in March 1969. The incident occurred in 1968, according to the informant, Ahmet Karasulu (aged 29), a civil engineer, resident of Samsun.

[3] Further identification of these two informants is purposely withheld.

[4] See Ernest A. W. Budge, ed. and trans., The History of Alexander the Great, Being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo Callisthenes (Cambridge, 1889); Firdausi, The Epic of the Kings…trans. Reuben Levi (Chicago, 1967), 245—246; Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Turkish Letters [1555- 1562), trans. Edward S. Foresee (Oxford, 1927), 54-56; Israel Friedlander, "Khiḍr," in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 7, ed. James Hall (New York, 1951), 693-695 [a summary of his monumental work, Die Chadirlegende and der Alexanderroman (Berlin, 1913)]; Sir James Fraser, The Golden Bough, abridged edition (New York, 1922), 125-129.

[5] For a brief but useful bibliography on the subject, see F. W. Hasluck, Christianity and Islam under the Sultans, vol. 2 (London, 1929), 329n.

[6] See Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (New Hyde Pack, New York, 1967), 276-277; this work was first published, serially, 1866-1868. See also Frazer, 126-130; Hasluck, 321-322, 334-355.

[7] A valuable introduction to the subject is Pertev Naili Boratav's ‘‘Hizir in Turkey," in the Turkish edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 5 (Istanbul, 1950), 462-471. Additional material can be found in Warren S. Walker and Ahmet E. Uysal, Tales Alive in Turkey (Cambridge, 1966), 264—265.