Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Jerusalem: The Heart of the Crusader Kingdom

Church of the Holy Sepulcher as it is Today*

Jerusalem had been the goal of the first crusade, and Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom named after it. Understanding of Balian's world, therefore, cannot be complete without understanding what Jerusalem was like during his lifetime. Jerusalem is also the scene of many episodes in the first two books of the Balian d'Ibelin series.  What follows is a description of Jerusalem as it would have been just before it was captured by Saladin.

The Countryside to the East of Jerusalem Today

The Holy City of Jerusalem crowns a hill in semi-arid, hilly countryside and was in crusader times encircled by tall, white-stone walls punctuated with square towers, seven gates and at least three, possibly more, posterns.  To the east, south and west, the land sloped away sharply, but to the north the land was fairly level. There were olive orchards dating back to the time of Christ to the East, and in the crusader period the city was probably surrounded by other kinds of orchards as well. Common at this time were citrus orchards, but figs, dates, and almonds were also cultivated to serve the urban population. Almost certainly, there were also vineyards surrounding Jerusalem during the Christian period as wine was an important product of the kingdom, necessary for the liturgy and consumed in large quantities locally.

Picture of Jerusalem’s Walls

Life within crusader Jerusalem would have been exceptionally pleasant for the period. When the first crusaders took the city by storm in 1099 they carried out a massacre of the garrison and population that — while not as apocalyptic as often portrayed — left the city largely depopulated. The policy of not allowing any Muslims or Jews to live in the Holy City further reduced the population. The early kings of Jerusalem were compelled to invite Christian settlers not just from the West but from Syria as well.  Still the population never fully recovered and is estimated to have been no more than ca. 20,000 people in the second half of the 12th century. In consequence, Jerusalem was not densely populated and there were gardens and open spaces inside the walled city.

A Roof-top Garden in Jerusalem Today

Starting with life at the top, the religious and secular authorities both maintained palaces in Jerusalem. The patriarch’s palace was located beside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and unfortunately nothing is now left of it.  The royal family initially occupied the powerful citadel, whose oldest tower allegedly dated back to the reign of the biblical King David. However, they began construction of a “modern” palace in the first quarter of the 12th century. Although this too has been lost to us, contemporary accounts mention that the royal palace had extensive gardens. Since it was started by King Fulk of Anjou, it was probably inspired by similar to the palaces he was familiar with in France in this period — think of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s magnificent residence in Poitiers, for example, but it would have had “Eastern” elements of design and landscaping as well.

Citadel of David — the “Old Palace”

The gardens, for example, would have included palms, citrus fruits, pomegranates and other distinctive Mediterranean vegetation, such as oleander and hibiscus. More important, this palace (like the Patriarch's) was not fortress intended for defense (as castles in Western Europe), but rather had a purely residential and representational character. There was no need for narrow, “arrow-slit” windows or massive walls. On the contrary, the crusader states had major glass-making centers, notably at Beirut and Tyre, and glazed windows were quite common, certainly among the upper classes. So the royal and patriarchal palaces would not have been dark, dingy and smoky, as in the castles depicted in Hollywood, but rather sunny, well-lit and designed with cross-ventilation for cooling in the summers. The use of mosaic and tile floors would, furthermore, have been inherited from their predecessors (and most of the houses in Jerusalem were taken over in-tact after the Christians seized control), as was the use of slender columns, often dating from the Roman period.  A description of John d’Ibein’s palace in Beirut dating from 1212, for example, mentions mosaic floors so lifelike the observer was afraid of leaving his foot-print in the “sand” and polychrome marble walls as well as fountains and gardens. It offered splendid views of the sea as well — so large windows.  While John’s residence was built half a century later, it was also the home of a mere nobleman rather than a king. I think we can assume the royal palace of the Jerusalem and also the Patriarch’s palace were both very luxurious indeed.

Tiles Walls Today

Besides these two main palaces, Jerusalem housed the headquarters of the Knights Templar on the Temple Mount and the headquarters of the Knight’s Hospitaller, a huge establishment that took up a large city block and enclosed four churches, wards for over two thousand patients, a hospice for pilgrims, administrative buildings, barracks, kitchens etc. These complexes were large, multi-story stone buildings, again with glazed windows, courtyards, and sanitation. The accommodation for the Master and senior officers of these powerful orders would hardly have been less luxurious than for the king and patriarch.

Temple Mount Today: 
The hexagonal building on the left was a Baptistry from Crusader Times. On the right: The "Dome of the Rock" which in Crusader Jerusalem was converted into a church and known as the Temple of Gold

There were also lesser palaces for nobles and wealthy merchants.  The foundations of these houses in some cases dated back to the Roman period, and many were Byzantine or Fatimid since the capture of Jerusalem had not entailed whole scale destruction of the architectural substance. Arab sources stress that even when they re-took Jerusalem in 1187 (after a siege that did entail the use of stone throwers and mining), they still found many beautiful residences with “superb columns of marble and slabs of marble and mosaics in large quantities.” (Ibn al-Athir) Much of this ornamentation would have pre-dated the Christian period, but not all of it. Certainly, many churches were built and/or re-decorated in the crusader period and many of the craftsmen came from or were trained in Constantinople or by Byzantine masters. Undoubtedly some of these craftsmen also found employment on secular as well as sacred building projects.

   Houses with Medieval Features in Jerusalem Today

Life in any medieval Christian city was, of course, characterized by the pervasive presence of the Church and nowhere — except possibly in Rome — was the Church more important than in Jerusalem. There was not just the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Calvary Chapel, but dozens of churches catering to different Christian communities, Syrian and Armenian, Greek and Maronite, as well as the Latins. There were also the two great mosques on the Temple Mount which had been converted into churches, as well as the austere but lovely Church of St. Anne and many more. 

As for the bulk of the population, while accommodation would have ranged from the comfortable to the squalid as in any city in the world, nevertheless, this being an ancient, eastern city, it was well supplied with public cisterns, reservoirs, and baths. Indeed, most of the buildings in Jerusalem at this time had rain-fed cisterns to supplement the municipal water supply.  There was also network of open and covered markets. The covered markets are particularly intriguing and parts are still standing today. They were like tunnels, often running almost the entire width of the city, with vaulted ceilings and flanked by shop after shop. The paved walkway between the shops had steps to accommodate the slope and were not suitable for horses.

Covered Market in Jerusalem

Due to the annual pilgrim traffic, Jerusalem was also a city with many hostels and taverns, and the shops of the city would have catered to pilgrims by selling all the "exotic" things pilgrims sought from relics to silk and Turkish carpets. They would have sold all the necessities for everyday living  as well: shoes, textiles, candles and soap, for example. The city had separate markets for grain, pigs, poultry, fish, herbs and spices. It had quarters for the jewelers, gold and silver smiths, for textile goods, leather goods, glass, and weapons. My favorite is the “street of bad cooking,” which was apparently a medieval precursor of “food courts” for “fast food.”

Another Street Scene in Modern Jerusalem

Last but not least, the streets must have been a veritable “tower of Babel” with the native population speaking Arabic, Greek, Armenian and French, while pilgrims came from the far corners of the earth speaking Norse, English, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, German and more.

* All photos in this entry were taken by the author in 2014.

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Urban Difference: The Rising Middle Class in the Crusader Kingdoms

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Balian was a "poulain" -- a native of the crusader kingdoms, born and raised in "Outremer." Although his personal wealth was rural (as for feudal lords in the West), he lived in a society that was exceptionally urban for its time.

In fact, it has been estimated that roughly 50% of the Frankish population in the crusader kingdoms was urban. That represents a much higher proportion than in Western Europe at this time, and by the post-Hattin era, even the majority of noblemen were dependent on non-agricultural income for their wealth. In short, the degree of urbanization in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, particularly the 13th century Kingdom, resembled the Italian city states more than the large western kingdoms such as England and France. To understand the crusader kingdoms, therefore, it is important to understand the urban economy.

The Medieval cities of the Holy Land had many covered markets similiar to these in 
Acre (left) and Jerusalem (right).

The most obvious source of wealth was the control of the key ports along the coast of the Levant which meant the points at which the “riches of the Orient” were transshipped for export to the increasingly prosperous population of the West. It was in Beirut and Tyre, Acre and Caesarea, Jaffa and Ascalon that Damascus steel and Indian spices, Ethiopian incense and Nubian gold, Persian carpets and Chinese silk, African ivory and Egyptian papyrus were exported to the hungry markets of Italy, and from there onward to the Holy Roman Empire, France, Iberia and far off England and Scandinavia.

The port of Acre was the most important in the crusader states.

In addition to these transshipped items, the crusader kingdoms themselves had a number of export goods that were highly lucrative. While sugar was probably the most important bulk commodity, the export of Holy Relics and souvenirs should not be under-estimated. By some estimates, the population of Jerusalem doubled during the summer pilgrimage (tourist) season, and all of those pilgrims wanted to take some mementos home with them as well as gifts for family and friends, just like modern tourists today.

All those pilgrims also needed a place to stay and food to eat — and not just in Jerusalem. The pilgrimage sites included not just obvious sites such as Bethlehem and Nazareth, but also the site of every moment in Christ’s life as recorded in the Gospels, and places associated with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other saints. There was hardly a place in the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem that could not lay claim to some biblical event of importance, and devout pilgrims, who ventured so far at such cost and risk, generally stayed until the fall sailing season, which meant spending roughly six months in the Holy Land. In short, the pilgrimage “service industry” was, in proportion to the population of the time, at least as important as tourism is to Israel today.

The Knights Hospitaller provided hostles, hospices and hospitals for the pilgrims. Above the Hospitaller compound in Acre.

Last but not least, a large proportion of the Latin settlers were skilled craftsmen. Serfs could not legally leave their villages and lands (and most probably didn’t want to), so the pilgrims, whether armed and unarmed, were predominantly men of higher status: craftsmen, guildsmen, or merchants. They brought their skills with them, and established themselves in the cities and towns of the crusader kingdoms, where they worked side-by-side with native craftsmen. Here some of the most productive if most prosaic of inter-cultural exchanges took place in the development of dying and cloth-making, leather-working, gold and silver smithing, pottery, carpentry, masonry, glass-working, and all the countless other skills essential to survival and a high contemporary standard of living.

An example of crusader pottery.
Based on the names of the streets alone, it is clear, for example, that Jerusalem had a high concentration of furriers and tanners, but also gold and silver smiths. Pottery from the region, glazed on the inside, is known to have been a particularly popular practical ware, (an early version of Teflon), and that glass-makers and glass-blowers were renowned. The massive construction projects undertaken primarily in the mid-12th century, ensured work for carpenters, masons and sculptors, and the remaining fragments of their work are testimony to the high quality of their workmanship.

At the high-end, Jerusalem also exported illustrated manuscripts from a scriptorium established by the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher. Books produced in such a sacred place had an added value beyond the high quality of the work, and undoubtedly represented one of the luxury goods with the highest margins exported from the crusader kingdoms — albeit, as with all truly valuable, custom made objects, only in very small quantities. 

The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, far from being a wasteland inhabited by barbarians, was a highly cultured, economically dynamic powerhouse.

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas in the Land of Balthazar


 Welcome today's entry for the  

indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop:

Christmas in the Land of Balthasar

Morning Prayers at the "New Jerusalem:" Lalibela

This year I have the privilege of celebrating Christmas in one of the oldest Christian countries on earth: Ethiopia.

Many of you will know that it was in Ethiopia that “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of a female human ancestor, was discovered in 1974. It is less commonly known that not only did Christianity become the state religion of Ethiopia before it was adopted by Constantine for Rome, it was also the home of Balthazar — at least according to Ethiopian legend.

Ethiopia is a country rich in legend, history and culture. The Ethiopian royal family (not deposed until the last quarter of the 20th century) claimed its direct decent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. “Sheba?” you ask, “but wasn’t that was in Yemen.” Not according to the Ethiopians—and there is substantial archaeological evidence to support them! Modern research suggests that the culture that flourished on both sides of the Red Sea and led to the establishment of the ancient cities in Yemen originated — like mankind itself — in Ethiopia.

The Queen of Sheba by Edward Poynter, 1890

Ethiopia was also home to a people that practiced a form of Judaism so ancient it was alien to the modern Jewish rituals and their right to immigrate to Israel was disputed. Furthermore, the Ethiopians claim to possess the original Ark of the Covenant, i.e. the wooden chest in which the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments was stored and for which Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that according to the Bible Moses’ wife was “Ethiopian.” (And for those of you who want to read more, Graham Hancock has written a book called The Sign and the Seal.)

During religious processions, people dance in the streets, often behind a replica of the Ark.
But all that pre-dates the legend of Balthazar.

According to Christian tradition, three wise-men (also called magi or kings) came “from the East” following a bright star in search of the King of the Jews. 

"The Three Wise Men" by James Tissot
That star came to a halt over the stables in which Mary had given birth to Christ. The three wise men entered and knelt before the infant Jesus, presenting gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.  With time the three magi were given names: Melchior, Casper and Balthazar.  They were also given characteristics: Casper was old and bearded, Melchior middle-aged, and Balthazar--at least since the 12th Century--was increasingly depicted as a young black man. It is perhaps not coincidental that the 12th Century was the period in which Christians controlled Jerusalem and in which an Ethiopian prince lived there in exile. (This prince, incidentally, was to build a complex of churches hewn out of bedrock after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, allegedly in an effort to construct a New Jerusalem. But that is another story....)

The Ethiopians claim the black magi, Balthazar, as one of their own—and they have some justification. First, Ethiopia was at the time of Christ a powerful and wealthy empire. It had an advanced, sophisticated and hierarchical culture with royal palaces, massive temples, and a written language. Ethiopia’s trading ties stretched up the Red Sea to Egypt, the Levant and Greece, and also across the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to India. The products they sold included not just ivory but gold, incense and myrrh.

The "Adoration of the Magi" by Martin Schongauer
According to the Bible, the three magi returned to their own countries. The Ethiopians believe that Balthazar returned to Ethiopia and began spreading Christianity at once. Thus, they argue, there were already many Christian communities in Ethiopia even before their King converted and made it the state religion of his empire in AD 345 — before Constantine made it the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Christianity has been the primary religion of Ethiopia ever since, although nowadays roughly one third of the population is Muslim. The language of the Ethiopian Church is still the ancient Semitic language of Ge’ez, spoken in AD 345, and the liturgy most closely resembles Syrian Orthodox traditions. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church shares the adoration of Mary, the Holy Trinity and many saints with other Christian churches, notably the Apostles and St. George, but they also have their own Ethiopian saints.  One of my favorites is St. Yared, who is credited with developing Ethiopian Church music.

St. Yared in a Ethiopian Church Painting

Daily life in Ethiopia is dominated by the Church to this day. Before dawn the first service is sung — and broadcast via loud speakers to the surrounding community. Services are sung again around dusk. Services last up to three hours and never less than 90 minutes. Each church is dedicated to a different saint and on that saint’s day there are special services. Every day of the year, people congregate in the yard and spill out into the street at one or more churchs, with the largest crowds at the church whose saint's day it is. 

Driving to work means passing crowds of men and women, both wearing white cotton shawls over their heads and shoulders, gathered before one or more of the four churches I pass in my 15 minute drive.  Drivers often bow their heads and cross themselves as they pass. People sell candles, crosses and other religious trinkets before the churches. Beggars, particularly handicapped beggars, congregate there as well.

Ethiopians also take fasting very seriously. In fact, they fast — meaning they eat no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products — roughly 150 days out of the year. They fast for forty days before Christmas, just as they fast before Easter.

Christmas itself is celebrated on January 8. It is celebrated with mass and feasting and gift-giving to commemorate the gifts brought to the Christ child by the magi. The Church services have special Christmas music, but unlike our carols they are not song sung by the congregation and certainly not broadcast over the radio. A special bread is baked in an outside clay oven and served with a meal of raw, ground beef — for those who can afford it. Others slaughter a sheep or a lamb. 

Hearing Mass Outside - Lalibela
There are no special decorations associated with Christmas. No Christmas Trees or colored lights. No Santa Claus. And no shopping madness. Stores are not decorated, and there are no reminders of the number of “shopping days” until Christmas. To an outsider, Christmas is not very different from another other day. The more important holidays in the Ethiopian Church calendar are Timkat (commemorating the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River) and Meskel (commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena.)  

Timkat in Addis Ababa 2014

Tomorrow, December 15, indieBRAGChristmas Blog Hop continues with an entry from