Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Deus vult

Hani Mustafa previews The Sultan and the Saint

The end of the 11th century was rife with religious conflict. On the one hand there were internecine battles within Islam, associated with the fall of the Ismaili Fatimid Empire and the rise of the Sunni Ayyubids in Egypt and Greater Syria, but on the other there were the Crusaders who, for some two centuries, used Christianity as a pretext to usurp control of Jerusalem and the surrounding region. The Crusades have given rise to endless stories of war and violence, but they were also an occasion for stories of tolerance and dialogue that went beyond doctrinal or ideological differences. One of these is the meeting of a monk and an Ayyubid sultan in the course of the Fifth Crusade.

In collaboration with the Cairo-Baltimore chapter of the Sister City International, Al-Ahram Weekly is today screening The Sultan and the Saint, a docudrama produced by Unity Productions Foundation that won 18 prizes in US festivals. The Weekly hopes to start a conversation that will help build bridges with cultural institutions in the West.

The film depicts the meeting of Sultan Al-Kamil Mohamed and Saint Francis of Assisi during the siege of Damietta in 1220. Filmmaker Alexander Kronemer tries to establish the central idea by returning to the origins of the religious conflict at the end of the 11th century. The script moves from dramatised scenes to interviews with Islamic and Christian studies scholars and historians and back again, tracing this idea in the history of the Middle East and Europe. The opening scenes show how peasants in Europe were recruited and mobilised in defence of religious ideas and on the basis of demonising the other whether Muslim or Jewish, both of whom were infidels by definition, and the film goes on to show how religious bigotry reached an apex under Pope Urban II. The dramatic scenes rely on precisely chosen costumes and sets, as if they transported the viewer from the abstract conversation to historical reality. 

The film also depicts the rise to power of Sultan Al-Kamil, the nephew of Salaheddin who founded the Ayyubid dynasty and unified Syria, Egypt and the Hijaz. In so doing it shows how Al-Kamil was brought up on the values of tolerance within Islam though by the time he took the throne 20 years later the signs of fanaticism had begun to appear on the horizon. In one scene a mob of Muslims are calling for rebuilding a mosque in place of an existing and valuable church when Al-Kamil explains to them there had never been a mosque in the area and that the lie was spread in order to generate conflict. Though someone pelts him with a stone, he manages to control the crowd and has the Muslims return to their homes. 

Also told is the story of how Francis, an ordinary upper class Italian citizen, the son of a silk merchant who aspired to being a knight and lived a life of luxury and pleasure, turned into a friar, a monk and a missionary. This happens when, during his first experience of a minor battle at home, he is shocked by the violence and sobered when he is abducted and released for a ransom. By then Pope Innocent III has called for pooling efforts to organise the Fifth Crusade, led by the papal legate Pelagius, using the same racist and inciteful discourse. Francis joined the crusade in the hope of doing missionary work and calling for peace. 

Deus vult

The crusade lay siege of Damietta and hundreds of soldiers were killed in the attempt to repel it. Only then did Sultan Al-Kamil decide to negotiate, especially since internal affairs made resuming war impractical. When Pelagius refused Al-Kamil’s initial ceasefire conditions Francis volunteered to visit the Muslim camp to see what he could do. 

Both lines of the film thus build up to the moment the saint and the sultan meet, and it turns out that both believe in humanity and tolerance and are willing to see their Abrahamic common ground and need not result in bloodshed. This is the film’s focus, which it serves admirably, telling a human and historical story regardless of its long-term effect on the course of history. For even though this meeting did result in a peace treaty between the two camps, racism and hate speech were far from over — and even now whether among adherents of the Abrahamic religions or others, such conflicts persist. Yet the example of the sultan and the saint affords a possibility and a hope.

Al-Ahram Weekly is today screening The Sultan and the Saint at the Naguib Mahfouz Hall, 7pm.

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