In the north of bustling island of Manhattan, tucked away in a quiet park, overlooking the Hudson river is a small medieval wonder.
Inside the Cloisters financed by the scion of the financier John D. Rockefeller and filled with treasures of stone, glass, gold and paper lays the effigy of an unnamed knight of the family of d’Aluye.
Around 1258 in the French Loire valley, carved in limestone, he was placed in the Cistercian abbey by those he loved to rest.
The warrior is seen with a shield, chain mail shirt and strangely a sheathed sword as his fingers are locked instead in eternal prayer.
The knight belonged to three generations of d’Aluye men, who had fought to win the Holy Lands for Europeans. In the process of living, fighting and dying, he like many warriors had sought to redeem his soul.
As strange as it is to reflect on his life in a digital age (where what clicks is what counts), the Knight is a reminder of eternal principles from an ancient world.
Matters of who you are, what you lived and died for, were of such great importance that they were memorialized into stone, and immediately recognized by others who would transported the effigy across an ocean onto to a hill.
There he is tucked away in a cloister and eulogized by new generation of strangers that are reminded of the shared fate awaiting all men.
While spending the night with a prostitute in Gaza, the biblical Samson depicted above is surrounded by his enemies. Instead of waiting for them to kill him at sunrise, Samson wakes up in the middle of the night, tears down the city doors with its pillars and carries them on his shoulders up a hill.
The image above, unearthed from the Huqoq synagogue’s brightly colored mosaic floor in Israel is over 1600 years old.
It depicts a hero of the oppressed Jews dressed (strangely) in Roman soldier garb consisting of a red cloak and white tunic.
What was it that the people saw in Rome?
It was an empire like Samson that had torn down any barriers to its own desires. Rome had destroyed the Jewish Temple in AD 70, killed the last of the rebels at Masada and banished its people from the land they had returned to after the Babylonian exile in 586 BC.
More than anything Rome and its soldiers represented the power gap between the imperial ideal and the its people whose land was invaded. While refusing the accept a foreign army on their soil (see Sicarii) the Jews allowed some part of their own identity to be transformed by the culture of another.
It is easy to see how modern forces like the US after more than decade at war are influencing the culture of nations like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, not to mention changing its own soldiers.
Culture is a nebulous thing. At its core reserved and traditional but in its fringes, willing to don the garments of another if only to ensure the survival of what it holds important.
The artists of Huqoq mural understood this, learned to change and be changed in return.
Perhaps we as returning veterans can do the same.