Slouching Toward Jerusalem


I’ve been fascinated by the Crusades for several years now.  Not surprising, I suppose, given my basic interest in the times and places where two cultures touch (or in the case of the Crusades, whack at) each other and change.   I’ve read accounts of what the Crusades looked like from the Muslim perspective. (Barbarian invaders who didn’t take enough baths).  I’ve been fascinated by the changes in Europe that made the Crusades possible. (Do not underestimate the impact of the steel-tipped heavy plow and the horse yoke.)  I’ve spent a lot of time on the innovations the Crusaders brought to Europe.  (Don’t get me started.)  I even toured a Crusader castle in Turkey with My Own True Love, who’s pretty fascinated by the Crusades himself.

But until recently I hadn’t given much though to the place that stands at the very heart of the Crusades:  Jerusalem.  I “knew”, in a fuzzy general knowledge sort of way, that Jerusalem was a sacred city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  That was enough.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

When a recent assignment forced me to think about Jerusalem in a more detailed way, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to start with Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths or Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem, the Biography.  I choose history over theology pretty much every time.  But Montefiore’s book, which traces the history of Jerusalem from the time of David through the Six-Day War, looked like a dense concrete block.

I flipped a coin.  History prevailed. (Here’s where I need to say something like “don’t judge a book by its cover”, or at least not by how many pages it has.)

Jerusalem, the Biography may be long, but it’s also fast-paced and smart. Montefiore’s stated goal is “to show that Jerusalem was a city of continuity and coexistence, a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow categorizations that belong in the separate religious legends and nationalist narratives of later times.”  He more than succeeds.  Montefiore weaves together stories I thought I knew into a larger framework that illuminates them in ways I didn’t expect. Over and over I enjoyed a flutter of recognition, followed by “wow, I didn’t know that”. The book is full of vivid characters: familiar, unfamiliar, and unexpected. (I had no clue that Cleopatra had anything to do with Jerusalem.  Did you?)

(Montefiore is also is a master of the miscellaneous tidbit.  For example:  the emperor Vespasian introduced public lavatories to Rome.  Today, public lavatories are still known as vespasianos. i don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff irresistible.)

Between big revelations and fascination tidbits, my library copy was stuffed with Post-it notes by the time I reached the end of the book.

Plenty of intellectual roads lead to Jerusalem. If you’re slouching, marching or just moseying along on any of them, Jerusalem, the Biography would make a good travel guide.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re going to want your own copy–or a lot of Post-its.

Road Trip Through History: Daniel Boone Home and Boonesfield Village

Over the 4th of July weekend, My Own True Love and I headed toward southwest Missouri and the Toler family reunion.

A family reunion is a worthy goal in itself.  Especially when it includes homemade ice cream and Grandma Toler’s Chocolate Cake.    But as far as we’re concerned, a road trip isn’t a road trip without a historical site, a museum, or at the very least a historical marker or three.  (Have I mentioned how much we like historical markers?)   So we planned a detour.  Then we took a detour from our detour.

Our original goal, in addition to the reunion, was the murals at the state capital in Jefferson City.  We got there.  We saw them.  They are fabulous.  (See them here and here.  Better yet, go visit.)  But what kept us talking on the drive from Jeff City to Springfield was our stop at the Daniel Boone home outside Defiance, Missouri.

The house is not quite what you picture when you think Daniel Boone.  In fact, it turns out Daniel Boone wasn’t quite what you picture when you think Daniel Boone either.  (Forget the coonskin cap.  His trademark was a wide brimmed Quaker-style hat.)

Boone was 65 when he moved with his wife and several of his children to what was then the Upper Louisiana Territory in 1799.  At that point, Upper Louisiana was a Spanish possession.  (You thought it belonged to France, didn’t you?  France ceded the territory to Spain at the end of the French and Indian War.  Napoleon Bonaparte took it back in 1800. France sold the territory to the United States three years later.  )

Even though the house was built on the edge of the wilderness, it was no log cabin.  It took Boone and his son Nathan seven years to build a four-story house out of blue limestone and black walnut.  Boone carved the fireplace mantel himself.  The house is a beautiful Georgian -style manor, with a twist: the Boones built gunports into the 2-½ foot thick walls.  Close the shutters and pull out the rifles and the manor becomes a wilderness fortress.

Today the Boone home is part of a historic interpretation site owned by Lindenwood University.  In addition to tours, they run history day camps in the summer. I don’t know know about you, but I’d have signed up in a heartbeat. The day we visited, the campers learned about muzzle-loading rifles and made wax candles. Sure beats making potholders and singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.







Word with a Past: Assassin

The original Assassins were members of a revolutionary Shiite splinter group founded in eleventh century Persia by Hassan Sabbah.

Like many schismatic religious groups, the Assassins believed that Muslims, including mainstream Shiites, had taken a wrong turn.  Islam needed to go back to its foundations.  As far as other Muslims were concerned, Sabbah’s beliefs were heresy.  Among other things, he taught that Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, and the Shiite imams who succeeded him were incarnations of Allah.

Like anarchists in the early twentieth century, the Assassins had neither money nor political power so they turned to the public murder of important figures as a way of exercising influence over society.  (Anarchists called this “propaganda of the deed”.)  The cult was organized as a secret society.  The goal was not the removal of specific political leaders, but making people believe that the Assassins could kill anyone at any time.

The sect was destroyed in 1256 when the Assassins made the mistake of trying to kill Hulagu, the grandson of the Genghis Khan and leader of the Mongol hordes.  (If you want to assassinate a Chinggisid prince, you need to get it right the first time.)


Assassin n.  One who undertakes to put another to death by treacherous violence. The term retains so much of its original application as to be used chiefly of the murderer of a public personage, who is generally hired or devoted to the deed, and aims purely at the death of his victim.