A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Speaking of St. Francis: The Saint Meets the Sultan

Since the new Pope has taken the name Francis, there has been a fair amount of discussion of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis himself (and the Franciscan Order to this day) had strong Middle Eastern connections. Those who have visited Christian sites in the Holy Land may be aware that in most cases the Catholic sections of the Holy Sites are under the control of the Franciscans, through the Custodiae Terrae Sanctae, .the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Fra Angelico
The origins of the Custody of the Holy Land date from the time of Saint Francis himself, in the midst of the Crusades; by the 14th century, after the end of the Crusader states in 1291, the Franciscans persuaded local Muslim rulers to grant them rights to the Christian Holy Places, and this arrangement has persisted, with various ups and downs, through Mamluk, Ottoman, British Mandate, and Israeli rule in Jerusalem and other holy sites. But the origins of the tale belong to the time of Saint Francis himself, and the curious circumstances of his meeting with the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, fourth Ayyubid Sultan and a nephew of Salah al-Din (Saladin). During the fifth Crusade, during the siege of Damietta in Egypt in September of 1219, Saint Francis, a pacifist, crossed the lines and reportedly met with the Sultan. There is no clearly reliable account of what was said; Francis was apparently seeking a truce, and according to some Christian accounts, sought to convert the Sultan to Christianity.
Gustave Doré
That did not occur, of course. Later Franciscan hagiography added a story that Saint Francis offered to undergo a trial by fire to prove the truth of Christianity, and survived it. That story, and the mere fact of the meeting between the saint and the Sultan, have fascinated artists from Giotto and Fra Angelico down to Gustave Doré.

Though we know little about the actual encounter, so encrusted with legend today, this has not deterred a considerable literature on the theme, including academic studies and even lengthy accounts.:  I refer you to these for a full discussion, and provide some of the artistic interpretations through the centuries..

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