The Friar and the Sultan: Francis of Assisi’s Mission to Egypt



 
 The Friar and the Sultan: Francis of Assisi’s Mission to Egypt

By John Tolan

European Review, Vol. 16 (2008)

Abstract: In September, 1219, Francis of Assisi went to Egypt to preach to Sultan al-Malik al-Kâmil. Although we in fact know very little about this event, writers from the 13th century to the 20th have portrayed Francis alternatively as a new apostle preaching to the infidels, a scholastic theologian proving the truth of Christianity, a champion of the crusading ideal, a naive and quixotic wanderer, a crazed religious fanatic, or a medieval Gandhi preaching peace, love and understanding. This study of the varying depictions of this lapidary encounter throws into relief the changing fears and hopes that Muslim–Christian encounters have inspired in European writers over eight centuries.




Introduction: September, 1219: as the armies of the fifth crusade besieged the Egyptian city of Damietta, Francis of Assisi and friar Illuminatus crossed over to the Egyptian camp to preach to the Sultan al-Malik al-Kâmil. After a number of days, the two friars returned to the crusader camp, having apparently spoken with the Sultan, though we know very little about what was said. This has not prevented writers from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, unencumbered by mere facts, from portraying Francis alternatively as a new apostle preaching to the infidels, a scholastic theologian proving the truth of Christianity, a champion of the crusading ideal, a naive and quixotic wanderer, a crazed religious fanatic, or a medieval Gandhi preaching peace, love and understanding. As for al-Kâmil, he is variously presented as an enlightened pagan monarch hungry for evangelical teaching, a cruel oriental despot, or a worldly libertine.

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