The beauty and perils of swords on display in Highland Park
October 18, 2010

Text and photos by Ted Regencia

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill — For thousands of years, the sword has been the weapon of choice of hunters and warriors, from the arid, rock-strewn plains of Darfur, in western Sudan, to Persia, and the ragged mountains of Tibet.

In an show billed as the “first major edged-weapon museum exhibition in the Chicago area in over half a century,” the Highland Park Historical Society is bringing Pan-Eurasian and Pan-Historic swords and daggers spanning 3,500 years to the North Shore.

History buffs and ordinary museum-goers, however, have only two more weeks to experience the exhibit as it concludes on Oct. 31.

The exhibit features a collection of 50 swords and daggers, including a circa 1500 B.C. bronze sword from Luristan, Iran, to sickle-shaped swords from Africa, and daggers from Austria.

Sword show guide Julian Freeman said the items from established ancient civilizations were “truly in contact with one another,” through movements of people and trade, thereby influencing the design and technology of sword-making.

Freeman cited as an example fourteenth-century Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane, who brough with him Persian sword craftsmen to Samarkand, now part of modern-day Uzbekistan.

Tamerlane’s name is derived from Temur, which means iron, which was used to make swords during the 13th century.

The Persian migrants moved to Tibet and Southern China, where they influenced the sword designs of that region, Freeman explained.

“At a time when travel was by sea, foot, horseback, mule, and where there really wasn’t a common language, yet communication still occurred with amazing speed,” he said.

Further illustrating his point, Freeman showed a German sword from 1895, which was strongly influenced by 14th century Mongol and Islamic designs, when the Mongols invaded Austria and Hungary.

He also showed a Philippine kris, a beautifully-designed wavy sword made by laminating seven layers of iron and steel. Freeman said the design shows a very strong Islamic influence from Indonesia and Malaysia, which were also influenced by Turkish designs of the 14th century.

Freeman said, the swords “never would have been on display” if not for a seasonal Highland Park resident and “weapons expert” who does “very advance weapons design and military consulting for the U.S. government.” He refused to name the person who loaned the materials.

Freeman said, without the benefactor, it would have been very expensive to mount a show like Swords of the Eastern Hemisphere: 1500 B.C. – 1990 A.D.

From all indications, the museum donor had been to many places, including Bhutan and Tibet, where he collected swords from Dawo guards.

Very intricate in design, the Dawo guard sword contains Buddhist iconographic metalwork depicting the eight “auspicious” or lucky emblems. While it is from Tibet, the design is more Mongolian, according to the description.

Meanwhile, a 20th century double-edged sword from Western Sudan, now Nigeria and Chad, shows influence “probably derived from the European crusaders,” and was used by semi-nomadic Islamic known as the Taureg.

Many of the displays use methods “never before employed in museum exhibitions,” allowing the visitor to view the back and front of the weapons simultaneously “when they are not identical, and to see designs or patterns with sharp, clear visual detail.”

“It’s wonderful and I really like it so much,” said Soizick Crochet, a Highland Park transplant from France. “I would not have known that I would find swords so interesting.”

Crochet, an anthropologist who worked for a long time in Thailand and Cambodia, praised the detail that went into the exhibit.

The exhibit was also made possible through the help of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Highland Park Historical Society was formed in 1966. The Society’s mission is “to discover, preserve, provide access to and disseminate the history” of Highland Park.

Its Museum is a 12 room, two-story Italianate Victorian house donated to the Society in 1968 by Jean Butz James. It is located at 326 Central Ave., at the corner of Central and Linden in Highland Park, Illinois.

The museum is open Feb. 15 through Dec. 15: Wed-Fri. 1-4 p.m., Sundays 2-4 p.m. Closed on Holidays.

For more information, visitors can call 847-432-7090 and look for Linda Marshall, program and development director. Visitors can also check the museum’s website at

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