The Bloodless Crusader
“The mediaeval way of thinking differed fundamentally from ours as solely ideas alone were real, facts and things only in so far as they participated in the reality of ideas.” – Heinz Gotze, Castel del Monte
Frederick II (1194-1250) was a king who fought his entire life against the Roman church. He was one of the last Western sovereigns who was brave enough to defy papal hegemony. Twice he was expelled from the Roman church. Frederick II was also one of the most exotic men of his time. He spoke six languages fluently – not only German, French and Italian, but Latin, Greek and Arabic. He was a poet and philosopher who studied Arabic science and culture. He understood natural science, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.
By birth Frederick was half-German and half-Norman, but brought up in his mother’s realm of Sicily with its half-Arab, half-Greek culture, and inheriting his father’s empire in Germany, he united elements of Islam and Christianity. H.G. Wells wrote that, “Frederick II came to an Islamic point of view of Christianity and to a Christian one of Islam.”
The Sicily of his childhood was stamped by influences from the entire Mediterranean area. In it met Cordoba, Rome, Byzantium, Jerusalem, Egypt. When he was four years old he became king of Sicily, at the age of eighteen he became king of Germany. In 1220 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. A contemporary illustration shows Frederick II with his sword girded on, in the right hand the royal sceptre, on the left fist a falcon, both looking up to the sun.
He avoided setting out on a Crusade either against the Muslims in Palestine or the Gnostic Cathars in southern France. As he repeatedly refused to go to war, Pope Gregory IX expelled him from the church in 1227.
Frederick II did not see much sense in fighting against the Cathars or Muslims. He was an ally of the Cathars and frequently met messengers of this Gnostic Christian community to support their revolt against the Catholic church and the French kingdom.
There was even less reason to fight against his Arab Muslim brothers. He is said to have been initiated into the Sufi mysticism of Islam. He was also in contact with the notorious Ismaili Muslim sect, commonly known in the West as the Assassins. In 1228 he sent a messenger to the Assassin’s fortress of Alamut in Syria. According to Humbert Fink:
“Frederick’s meeting with the Assassins is probably to be considered from the point of view that he was searching the acquaintance of those personalities in the Oriental world who had a position similar to the one he had in his area, sick with the eternal hostilities of the pope. There are no details concerning possible meetings between him and Hassan Sabbath. But undoubtedly there was a connection between Frederick and the Assassins. And only this circumstance is strange enough as the life of a Christian – even the life of a sovereign – was in big danger if he took the risk to come close to the Assassins. But Frederick had to fear nothing. He was respected in the Orient even by the Assassins.”
In 1228 Frederick II decided to make a Crusade to Palestine. He did it his way. It was the only historical Crusade without bloodshed. He met in Cairo with the Egyptian Sultan Malik al-Kamil. They talked about poetry and philosophy, and played chess. Frederick II gave to the Sultan one of his beloved falcons and received in exchange an elephant. They arranged an armistice and agreed that the holy sites Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth should belong to Frederick II. The treaty was signed on 18 February 1229 – a bloodless victory that accomplished more, with an excommunicate pen, than forty years of legal crusading had ever done.
When he crowned himself king of Jerusalem he was deeply fascinated by the marvellous octagonal Al Aksa mosque that united in it Christian and Islamic elements. Astonished he went through the interior and studied the mosaics. He criticised the local Muslim muezzin for failing, out of respect for the new ruler of the city, to give the customary calls to prayer: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem,” he said, “was to hear the call to prayer, and the cries of praise to God during the night.”
Inspired by the Islamic architecture of Jerusalem, Frederick II returned to Europe and ordered the construction of the Castel del Monte. Built between 1240 and 1250, the Castel del Monte is an edifice in which everything refers to the figure Eight. It is octagonal, at each corner there is an octagonal tower, in each of the two floors there are eight rooms. Also the interior court is octagonal, in its centre there is an octagonal well. Place of devotion. Place of attention. Place of Power. Frederick II used the eternally recurring figure Eight in its horizontal shape as an emblem of eternity. A symbol of balance and of justice. Castel del Monte symbolised the meeting of East and West.
“Frederick,” wrote Humbert Fink, “was the only Western sovereign and monarch who did not approach the East and the Arabs with the sword but with the art of persuasion and empathy attempted what up to now always had cost flows of blood.”