Eight hundred years before Pope Francis arrived on his historic visit to the region, a Franciscan monk created history at a time of great discord by crossing over to the other side to meet the sultan of Egypt, in an attempt at interfaith dialogue. The encounter between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Al Kamil Mohammad Al Ayoubi happened in the midst of some of the bloodiest days of the Fifth Crusade, which lasted from 1217–1221.
The idea of the Europeans was to ‘take back’ Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land by defeating mighty Ayoubid Egypt. However, that particular crusade came to a decisive end when a stealthy raid by Sultan Al Kamil inflicted heavy losses on the other side, and resulted in their eventual surrender. What followed was eight years of peace between the sultan’s kingdom, and the major European powers.
The meeting became the subject of a famous fresco in Assisi, Italy. And, recently, was also turned into a PBS documentary titled ‘The Sultan and the Saint’.
St Francis’ meeting with the sultan would have been a major political development even in that era. The two men bemoaned the conflict between Islam and Christianity at the time, and the resultant wars and sieges. Their aim was to find avenues for peaceful coexistence.
Reliable accounts are few, but according to one version of events, described by Henri d’Avranches, who in 1230s had received a commission to write a book on the life of St Francis, the sultan gave the monk a “great reception and offered him precious gifts”.
D’Avranches notes: “He [St Francis], content with what he has, declines the king’s [sultan’s]/ Offer, and asks for that gift of gifts, to be given a hearing/ So as to hear him, the king himself bids the crowd be silent/ And orders every noise to cease, while to his attendants.”
Little wonder, then, that Pope Francis adopted his name from St Francis of Assisi.