Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Sultan and the Saint (Unity Productions Foundation/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a show I’d seen listed on the KPBS Web site that turned out to be surprisingly interesting: it was called The Sultan and the Saint and dealt with the curious encounter between Sultan Al-Kamil (Zack Beyer), the Muslim ruler of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, and Francis of Asissi (Alexander McPherson). Al-Kamil was the nephew of Saladin (Salah al-Din in Arabic), the Kurdish ruler who had finally driven the Crusaders out of Jerusalem after they had conquered it in the First Crusade, and when he was confronted with a new Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Innocent III (a spectacularly inappropriate name!) and led by Papal legate Cardinal Pelagius (Eric Kramer). Apparently the pope and his legate regarded the Crusade as not only a way to grab the Holy Land away from the Muslims but also a way to conquer what was left of the Byzantine Empire and convert it from Orthodox Christianity to Roman Catholicism — so the pope told Pelagius his troops would have full rein to loot Constantinople and grab its treasures because, even though the Byzantines were Christians, they were the “wrong sort” of Christians. Generally — and this story is no exception — in the literature on the Crusades the Muslims come off quite a bit better than the Christians, since the Muslims were willing to grant religious tolerance to both Christians and Jews while the Christians regarded both Muslims and Jews as “infidels” — indeed, Innocent III began his papacy with a heavy-duty anti-Jewish campaign denouncing them as the “killers of Christ” (not that again!). St. Francis went along with the Crusader army — in the modern parlance he “embedded” in it — not to support the war effort but, quite the contrary, to subvert it from within and see if he could cut a separate deal with the Sultan for peace. It all came to a head at Damietta, a port city at the mouth of the Nile, which the Crusaders besieged because it was crucial to Egypt’s defenses and if they could take it, they could presumably take all Egypt and then have an easy road to Jerusalem.

The Crusaders eventually took Damietta, but it was a long battle with heavy casualties on both sides — one of the few genuinely moving shots in Alexander Kronemer’s mostly pedestrian direction is a point-of-view scene showing the huge numbers of dead bodies the Christian army encountered when they finally opened the gates to Damietta — and then went on to Cairo, bivouacked outside the city and were ready to assault it when Fate, God, Allah or whom/whatever intervened: the Nile River chose that moment to make its annual flood and the Crusaders, who had encamped in a flood plain, were wiped out. Al-Kamil was humanitarian enough — and enough influenced by St. Francis, whom he’d already met with in an attempt to get him to “sell” the Crusaders on his peace proposal, which included unfettered access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims — to respond by sending bread and grain to the Christian soldiers. The show was one of those unwieldy mixtures of narration (driven in full-out Shakespearean style by Jeremy Irons), documentary footage, talking-head experts and rather tacky dramatizations that abound in PBS’s current schedule, but it also told a fascinating story (even though some of the talking heads tried to explain the events in psychological terms, which just got silly), a little-known slice of history, and it made the argument that his brush with Islam influenced St. Francis and made him more ecumenical. One of the experts argued that there’s a similarity between Francis’s list of God’s positive attributes (though things like “compassion” and “mercy” are not very credible as concepts of God, especially as described in the Old Testament in which he’s constantly urging the Israelites to commit genocide!) and the 99 Names of God in Muslim ritual. It’s a provocative idea and one which makes Francis a sort of Karen Armstrong of his time, arguing for the similarities between the three great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) at a time when other Christian leaders were telling their flocks to regard Judaism and Islam as tools of the devil, and believers in those creeds as fair game for slaughter and looting.