Deepening the history of the dialogue between St. Francis and the Sultan, to rediscover it today
On the occasion of the eighth centenary of the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt Al-Malik Al Kamil which took place in Damietta in 1219, the Custody of the Holy Land together with the Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Sciences in collaboration with the Pontificals From March to November 2019, Antonianum University wanted to organize a series of lectures, conferences, study days, pilgrimages and round tables to start a collective reflection on the historical significance of the meeting between Francis and the Sultan and to reflect on today’s aspects in view of an interreligious dialogue between different cultures.
After the days held in Murcia (Spain), Venice and Rome, 15 May was Jerusalem’s turn. The Custody of the Holy Land hosted the conference at the hall of the Immaculate Convent of San Salvatore inviting all the participants to deepen the historicity of the dialogue thanks to the interventions of scholars close to the Franciscan environment. The moderator of the day Friar Narcyz Klimas, professor of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and vice custodian archivist, before leaving the word of the Custos Friar Francesco Patton and to the President of the Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Sciences Br. Rosario Pierri, said that the conference is only a part of a more celebratory program that will culminate in Jerusalem in October.
The first of the day’s speakers, Giuseppe Mandalà, of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, proposed a synoptic reading of the extraordinary, but not unique in its kind, cultural conversation between the Saint and the Sultan, placing historical parallels with other episodes such as the one between Frederick II and Sultan Al-Kamil himself. Christian Grasso, a member of the Italian Historical Institute for the Middle Ages, focused his report on “Crusading propaganda in the time of Francis of Assisi”. Both presentations of the morning, although not directly concerned with the moment of the meeting, provided a more complete picture and added some important elements in the reconstruction of the climate in which the Poverello of Assisi was operating.
The famous meeting took place in Damietta (Arabic: دمياط, Dumyāṭ), a port city of Egypt overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, on the eastern side of the Nile delta. Its strategic position for water control will push the king of Jerusalem Giovanni da Brienne and the Crusader troops to besiege the city to obtain from the Sultan a retraction on the territorial dominion of the Holy Land, after the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Saladin in 1187. Damietta becomes the theater of the Fifth Crusade, which Christian Grasso defines as “one of the most complex expeditions among those promoted in the Middle Ages and also one of the longest in terms of time”. Called by Pope Innocent III in 1213, the crusade was carried out under the papacy of Honorius III and lasted about nine years; in this time span is the journey of Francis who left from Ancora in the month of May 1219 and remained in Damietta on a “mission” from 29 August, immediately after the heavy defeat suffered by the crusaders, until September 26th, the end date of the truce between the two armies.
In the afternoon report the scholar Luca Demontis, of the Pontifical University Antonianum, describes very clearly all the sources that report this meeting. Dante, in the eleventh song of Paradise, dedicates two triplets to the Saint’s journey using as a source the biography of Legenda Maior composed by Bonaventura da Bagnoregio on San Francesco.
As can be seen from the words of the great Florentine poet, the thrust of Francis is initially the thirst for martyrdom and the desire for conversion of the Muslim Sultan. In the Legenda Maior Francis is well received by the sultan who wants to fill him with gifts, but Francesco refuses. Between the two there is a dialogue on the Christian faith, and discussions with other Muslim philosophers and scholars. Francis proposes the ordeal as a tangible proof of faith but, according to the hagiographer, God does not grant him martyrdom in view of a greater glory (from Christ he took the last seal, / that his members two years brings him), or the stigmata (Dante, Paradiso: XI, 107-108).
In addition to the work of Bonaventura and other hagiographic texts, there are attestations of the Crusader environment: for Giovanni da Vitry, bishop of San Giovanni d’Acri, the Sultan is a “cruel beast”, an enemy of Christianity, while in The Chronicle of Ernoul appears to be an example of knightly courtesy.