The Capella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily, twelfth century

Why did the muezzins not give the call to prayer in the normal way last night? … My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the muezzins, and their cries of praise to God during the night …

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Barbarossa complaining to the chief qadi of Jerusalem at his decision to stop the muezzins calling prayer for fearing of ruining the Emperor’s sleep.

The Capella Palatina was not Frederick’s creation, but he was the perfect man to inherit it, created as it was from a blending of three traditions with a muqarnas or wooden stalactite Fatimid-style ceiling, Byzantine mosaics in the upper parts of its walls, and magnificent Norman doors.

Frederick, like the chapel, was a curious amalgam of the three cultures, and though the popular claim that he spoke six languages is a little dubious, he was certainly one of the most cosmopolitan rulers of the Middle Ages. He had a vision of the world that excelled almost any other politician in Europe at the time, and his Crusade of 1228 to the Holy Land turned out to be very different in nature to any other. His character was as complex as the little political world of Outremer that he entered after he obtained the throne of Jerusalem in 1225 through marriage to Isabella II, the daughter of John of Brienne, who had himself taken the throne only after marriage to Maria, the posthumous daughter of King Henry.


Such was al-Kamil’s concern over Frederick coming to power in Acre, and the fact that the emperor also had the impressive fleet of Sicily to back any threat he made against Muslim possessions, that in 1226 he sent an embassy offering the return of all the territories taken by Saladin. By this act al-Kamil hoped to prevent the launching of another Crusade against Egypt, and he was in fact not giving away anything he owned, these lands were his brother al-Muazzam’s, with whom he was at loggerheads.

Then Fredrick, amongst much wrangling with the pope over funds and lands, was excommunicated. In fact in 1227 Frederick had been building up forces in Brindisi to take on the Holy War and had even funded the venture with 100,000 ounces of gold, and employed 1,000 knights, though it seems to have taken some arm-twisting by Pope Honorius III to make the emperor bear the costs of the venture. However, a plague decimated his force before it could depart.


Frederick’s excommunication by the pope and papal threats against Sicily made the danger of an armed Crusade unlikely. Yet, when Frederick arrived in the Levant in 1229 without an army, he was still courted by al-Kamil. Al-Kamil was now in control of Jerusalem and, in the treaty of Jaffa, he gave it to Frederick, along with Bethlehem. He retained the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque as a Muslim enclave. The two men seem to have got along extremely well; they were much of a kind, Machiavellian before the word had even been coined, and far-sighted politically.

Contemporary Muslims were appalled by the treaty and Christians were equally disgusted, but al-Kamil knew that Jerusalem was the draw for the Crusades that had, and could continue to, assail his lands. Dispensing with it allowed him to look to other distant, but far larger concerns. The armies of the Mongol Khans were already marching west, and if they came to the Levant, peace with the Franks might just be the first step to an alliance against this far more deadly foe.

*Al-Adil’s given name was Saif al-Din, or Sword of the Faith. Saladin was Salah al-Din, or the Goodness of the Faith. His full name was Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, his family would have called him Yusuf.

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