The Splendor of Karakorum, 1251

In 1251, the Mongol Empire went through an internal coup. Temujin’s son Ögedei had died in 1241, and his widow got their son Güyük installed as Great Khan. But when Güyük died and his widow tried to do as her mother in law had done, installing her son, she was thwarted by the other family branches. Batu Khan, leader of the Golden Horde in Sarai, Russia, colluded with the widow of Temujin’s youngest son Tolui. Batu’s family could not inherit the Great Khanship, but it could help select who did. Batu’s clear choice was another grandson who had ridden out with them in Russia and Poland: Möngke.

When Tolui’s widow and Batu succeeded in transferring the Great Khanship away from Ögedei’s lineage, rule passed to Tolui’s four sons, who (like Batu) were all more capable than the average Mongol grandson. Their mother Sorkhokhtani had been one of the first princesses married into the family (remember when Temujin and his men were starving in the Gobi Desert and a rebel chief’s brother rescued them? that was her Nestorian Christian Kereyit father). Her sons Möngke, Hulagu, Ariq Böke, and Kublai received much better educations than any of their father’s generation. They had tutors in reading the new Mongol script and Chinese and Persian languages, in addition to learning the traditional Mongol manly arts of archery and riding.

In the wake of Möngke’s election, some of his other cousins attempted a coup. Sorkhokhtani held a trial for Güyük’s widow, who was convicted of black magic and executed accordingly: sewn into a sack and thrown into the river. Many of the Golden Family cousins were executed, leaving open ruling positions for the families of Batu Khan and Sorkhokhtani’s younger sons. After 1252, only those two lineages ruled Mongol lands. Hulagu became a subordinate Khan, or an Il-Khan, in Iran. Kublai was given North China to rule.

Möngke Khan retrenched and reformed the central government, putting an end to the spendthrift luxury of Ögedei’s lineage. His cousin Güyük had issued paper money as IOU’s, and to everyone’s surprise, Möngke insisted on honoring and paying them off to keep Mongol credit good. He printed new paper money with a new Department of Currency and sent out officials to make a full tax census of the entire area of conquest. The poll tax he set forth was a cut for some, and increase for others, but it was predictable and universal. No clergy of any religion was taxed, nor was any church or monastery—or any medical doctor!

Louis IX sent an ambassador to Karakorum in 1254, seeking an alliance against the Muslims and to convert the Tatars and Mongols to Catholic Christianity. William was a Franciscan friar in Rubruck, Flanders. William’s party came first to the western Mongol lands of Batu Khan at Sarai. Batu Khan declined to convert, but sent him with an escort to Möngke Khan at Karakorum.

Karakorum meant Black Stones; it was the only stone city the Mongols built or maintained. Each khan had added to it, and Möngke’s addition was the stupa temple wall that now encloses the oldest monastery in Mongolia. He also commissioned a Parisian goldsmith and sculptor to make a tree of silver and gold. The tree became the central wonder of the palace, shown to visitors.

The tree was a machine that used medieval technology to make announcements and serve drinks. Its tall silver trunk supported branches and silver leaves and fruit, but four golden snakes were also wrapped around the trunk. An angel sat at the top, with a trumpet. Möngke Khan could signal for the angel’s mechanism to raise his arm and blow the trumpet. At this signal, the golden snakes poured piped-in wine into a silver basin.

Father William of Rubruck was otherwise unimpressed. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis and nothing in Karakorum could come close to its grandeur. He described a city with four gates and one large palace, of which the silver tree was really the only thing worth describing. There was a Muslim quarter and a Chinese quarter, as well as craftsmen from every part of the Mongol conquest. Every religion had a church or temple in Karakorum: Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and possibly some the priest could only identify as “pagan.”

Möngke Khan explained to the Franciscan that the Mongols believed in one God who gave different ways to men. The Mongols had shamans, the Catholics had their Bible. “To you God has given the Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them,” he added. The Khan’s interpretation of God’s will was very direct: sending an army against his rule would be rebellion against God, and he would deal with it quickly. He was doubtless disappointed that King Louis had not sent tribute.

Father William spent Christmas with Möngke and his wife, who gave out gifts after the Christmas Mass (at this time in Europe, nobody gave gifts on Christmas). Christmas dinner was mutton and carp, with copious amounts of grape wine, rice wine, and airak.

William also participated in a debate with Muslims and Buddhists, for the Khan’s appreciation and entertainment. They had to form teams—the Franciscan had to work with Armenians, Assyrians, and Byzantines!—and the Khan appointed 3 judges. Debate topics included whether reincarnation was real, how had evil come into existence if God made the world, and whether animals have souls. In keeping with the Mongol tradition of wrestling competitions, fermented mare’s milk (airak) was passed around between rounds. Gradually everyone got drunk. The Christians grew frustrated and began to sing a hymn. The Muslims felt this was very unfair because they did not use music in worship. The Buddhists just started to meditate. Finally, the judges called it a draw and passed the airak again. (with thanks to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World!)

During all these centuries, we have sometimes noted the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia made up of refugees who fled Turkish invasion of their original mountain home. By the 13th century, these Armenians were tightly tied to the Christians of both Antioch and Constantinople. In 1252, King Hethum traveled to Karakorum to offer submission of their small Armenia to the Mongols, in exchange for protection. He was graciously received by Möngke Khan, who patiently explained that the Mongols would never force their entire conquest to follow the Christian religion. However, he said, he planned a new expedition to march on Baghdad. Should the Armenians join him in victory, he would gladly give them Jerusalem. Prince Bohemund IV of Antioch and Tripoli joined the Armenian king in submitting to the Mongols.

And so the ground was laid for what we might call the Mongol Crusade, though historians never use that term. As Möngke Khan’s kingdom came into better order, he began to look about and plan the next wave of expansion.

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The Mamluk Revolution, 1250

Under the last real Ayyubid Sultan, as-Salih, the Mamluk corps was built up to unprecedented size and strength. They were a neat solution to a political problem because as slaves, they did what they were told, but as people with high social status, they were motivated to uphold the political order that privileged them. The Mongols had given some Italians slave-trading rights to Crimea during the quiet years, so a steady stream of Kipchak/Cuman Turks poured out of the Black Sea. Slavers were also selling Circassians, Slavs, Armenians, and Georgians. With supply high, prices had to be low.

Mamluks were typically boys between 8 and 10 when they were purchased, and they were carefully indoctrinated to adopt a Mamluk identity. They forgot their home languages and religions. They learned Arabic and the Koran, while they trained in elite fighting skills. They were given wives and fine homes; they had good lives and high status, just not really full freedom to stop being Mamluks. Their children did not automatically get their status unless they went through the same training, but the Mamluks themselves could rise as high in government as was possible. They were viziers, generals, governors and supervisors.

Sultan as-Salih built a fortress and palace for them on an island in the Nile. This group became known as the River Mamluks, the Bahri. From their origins as a personal bodyguard and house soldiers, they increased to a corps of 10,000, and then again to about 40,000.

Sultan as-Salih died during the Seventh Crusade. His wife Shajaret al-Durr  worked with his top Mamluks to conceal his death until his heir, Turanshah, could get there. The commander of the Bahri Mamluks raced to fetch Turanshah from Hasankeyf (Turkey) while another helped Shajaret pantomime the Sultan’s continuing life. Before he died, he had signed a number of blank papers that they could use as proof of life. They told everyone he was just too sick to come out of his tent. Meals were sent in, dirty dishes came out. Signed orders went out (written by Shajaret and another top Mamluk, Aybak).

When Turanshah arrived to lead the troops at al-Mansurah, they could let the cat out of the bag. It looked like Shajaret and the Mamluks had stage-managed a peaceful transition in time of war. But as the Crusaders negotiated for King Louis’ freedom, Turanshah began to offend the Bahri Mamluks by appointing his own commanders, demoting the Mamluks who were already filling those roles. He clashed with Shajaret by demanding that she turn over all jewels his father had given her. Within just a few months, Turanshah was thoroughly hated.

In May 1250, Turanshah gave a feast. At the end of it, the top Mamluks rushed in and murdered him. The Crusaders were very interested in these events; Jean de Joinville left a detailed account of how Turanshah fled to a tower but the Mamluks set it on fire, and so on. In the end, the widowed Queen Shajaret declared herself Sultan.

The Caliph of Baghdad could not accept this regime change, nor could the Ayyubid rulers of cities in Syria. The top Bahri Mamluk commander, Aybak, removed Shajaret from being Sultan but married her, so that she was still in the power loop. Sultan Aybak reigned for seven years.

During this time, Shajaret became more jealous of power. She began taking various matters away from Aybak and quarreling about other wives. At length he married a third wife to make an alliance, and Shajaret paid servants to help murder Aybak in his bath. She claimed that he had just drowned. The other top Mamluks didn’t buy this; they tortured the servants to get confessions. Shajaret was beaten to death and thrown into a moat.

Aybak’s son was briefly made Sultan, but the kind of government that was emerging was not a father-to-son monarchy. One of Aybak’s top Mamluks took over; he may have been a displaced Khwarezmian, sold into slavery by Mongols. He ruled for a few years, then was assassinated by another Mamluk leader, Baibars.

From 1250 until the Ottoman conquest in 1517, the Sultan of Egypt was always the most powerful Mamluk. Sometimes it was a Sultan’s son, but other times, it wasn’t. In a pure monarchy, genetic descent matters most, but in a Mamluk dynasty, it didn’t matter apart from the privilege a Sultan’s son could use to build his own power base. The 10th Mamluk Sultan was actually an Oirat tribe member of the Mongol confederation, captured in a Middle Eastern battle and sold into slavery (the Oirats were the Siberian fur-hunters).

The Mamluk government became the most stable dynasty since the Ptolemies. Mamluks were promoted by merit, so the top Mamluk was always physically strong, intelligent, and socially clever.

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The Saint and the Seventh Crusade, 1248-50

Of course, the Pope called a new crusade. But Europe was in bad shape for a Crusade. In the Sixth Crusade, the King of Hungary had led, but now Hungary was in ruins. Europe’s bad boy Frederick was not only excommunicated but deposed by the Pope (not that he really lost power). The only king who was interested was Louis IX of France, who had recently vowed to go on Crusade if he survived a serious illness.

In fact, France as a state was stronger than ever, thanks to the Crusade against Cathars. The final settlement of that business left Provence and Toulouse as part of the French crown. Louis IX had recently built the Chapel of St. Denis to house the Crown of Thorns, a stolen relic he purchased from bankrupt Crusaders. (Side note: there was no stigma to stolen relics, since they presumed that the saint permitted the theft to punish the last owners.) The King was outstandingly devout and had enormous riches at his disposal.

We know a lot about the Seventh Crusade because a young knight, Jean de Joinville, traveled with the king and later published a biography of the king based on his Crusade journals. One of the surprising choices Louis made was to bring his wife Margaret.

Margaret was one of four sisters who grew up in Provence just as the Cathar Crusade was winding down. Although their father the Count of Provence was impoverished by the wars, his status was high enough that after the King of France chose the oldest daughter, Margaret, the King of England chose the second daughter, Eleanor. Then both kings’ brothers married the remaining two daughters. At one point in time, between 1257 and 1261, all four of them were crowned queens due to the Pope’s attempts to break up Frederick’s lands. One was Queen of Sicily, the other Queen of Germany. But in 1249, the younger two were just Countesses. The brother of the King of England had already been involved in the Barons’ Crusade. For this Crusade, the Count of Anjou and his wife would sail with their brother and sister of France.

Another surprising choice was to send a Papal embassy to the Mongols, trying out whether an alliance could be formed. Güyük Khan was not impressed. He invited the Europeans to submit to the Mongol yoke, instead.

Louis IX considered pleas from Latin Constantinople for help against the government-in-exile Byzantines; he also heard pleas from Templars in Syria. But by this time, the Egyptian campaign discussed in the Third Crusade and tried in the Fifth seemed the only logical way to go. France raised a large sum of money so its king could set out by ship for Damietta. The Crusade was officially launched in July 1248, sailing for Cyprus, where they wintered over and rested. In May 1259, the French flotilla set sail for Egypt.

Damietta was probably still very shaky since its Fifth Crusade starvation and ruins. But Sultan as-Salih now had ample warning of the Crusader invasion, so he had troops on shore and ships in the harbor, ready to defend. The Crusaders had to make an amphibious landing in shallow-draft longboats, in full view of the defenders. As they established beach-heads with shield walls thrust into the sand, King Louis himself came ashore. The Muslim forces began losing. As the day ended, they abandoned Damietta. The Crusaders were able to move in directly.

It was easy for the French to take that city, but then THIS happened, as the click-baiters say. The Nile flooded, right on time! Who could have seen that coming? The Crusaders were perched on a safe part of the Delta with floodwaters all around them streaming into the Mediterranean Sea, and this went on for six months. Six months is plenty of time to eat up the food you brought while spending your gold on food and wages for soldiers and sailors to just stay put.

In November, Louis set out for Cairo, the target of previous Crusades. Once he held Cairo, he could use Egypt as the breadbasket while his army headed for Ascalon and Jerusalem. The Ayyubid dynasty had its power drained away by constant extended-family rebellions in Syria, and Sultan as-Salih had been gravely ill, carried about on a stretcher, for much of the last year. When he retreated to the town of al-Mansurah, the Crusaders followed him. Louis was now surrounded by three brothers, one who had just arrived with more fresh troops. They marched near the Nile with supply ships moving in parallel, as Richard Lion-Heart had done. The Crusaders camped at the same place the Fifth Crusade had camped when the floods rose, but this time it was winter, so they felt safe.

A Muslim deserter told them about a nearby ford over the Tanis River, permitting an attack. They had tried other crossing methods but nothing was working, and the Muslim defenses were ferocious enough that they should have realized something had changed. But Louis led a select force to the ford, with one of his brothers, before dawn on February 8. As the force was still straggling over the crossing, Louis’ brother started a premature attack on the Muslim camp. Emir Fakr al-Din was killed in this assault. Muslim survivors ran for the town of al-Mansurah, and Count Robert followed them, still leaving behind the main force in the crossing. They rode into the unlocked town. But in the town, the Crusaders faced the Mamluks. In house to house fighting, most of the Templars and Count Robert were killed. Then the Mamluks poured out of the town toward the remaining French troops under King Louis. There a ferocious battle took place on the Tanis riverbank. Louis and his men hung on under the assault and at nightfall, the King was still alive and they had not retreated.

Obviously, the Crusaders would have to retreat, since their losses had been so heavy. However, Louis did not want to go straight back to Damietta, squandering what little gain they had made. He fortified the camp and stayed. The Mamluks assaulted again. Again, with great losses, the Crusaders held their ground.

Louis hoped to negotiate: Damietta for Jerusalem. He sent envoys with this idea, but the political situation in Egypt was changing more rapidly than he could know (more about that soon). Now the Sultan’s death was announced, with the Sultan’s son ready to take charge, having come from Syria with reinforcements. These new forces rolled ships overland, dropping them into the Nile between Damietta and the Crusaders so that they were cut off. Supplies could not get through. The whole Frankish army began to starve and lose hope of ever returning home. Their wounds were infected, they had scurvy, and unburied corpses were spreading disease.

On April 5, Louis and his men tried to retreat at night, but the Egyptians forced battle, and on April 6, the king and his two brothers were captured, with other commanders. Thousands of French soldiers went into a POW camp while the royals were locked in a house. Then, in Muslim captivity, many of them fell ill with dysentery, including the king. It seemed likely that King Louis would never make it back to Damietta, let alone Paris. The new Sultan Turanshah set a high price for ransom of the King and his brothers: it would certainly take all the Crusade’s remaining funds to buy them back.

Queen Margaret in Damietta had to begin the process of raising ransom money, but she was in desperate straits too. On April 8 she gave birth to her sixth child, a boy named Jean Tristan (“sorrow”). The Genoese sailors who manned their ships very nearly abandoned her; she had to bring them into her bedchamber within hours of the birth and plead with them, promising them gold. The Queen could not collect a large enough sum.

News of the King’s capture reached France and caused an uproar. The King was thought of as a saint, and many common people thought the official Church (which was very wealthy) was abandoning by not rescuing or ransoming him. A new mob of common people, again led by a shepherd, converged on Paris to demand action. Queen Regent Blanche, Louis’ mother, tried to break them up. Their march turned into anti-clergy riots in Rouen, Tours, and Orleans, lasting into 1251. As they straggled farther into central France, they also began attacking Jews. The Queen Regent had to send forces to arrest them, and many were executed. We know this episode as the Shepherds’ Crusade.

King Louis IX was ransomed and allowed to leave on May 8, 1250, long before the shepherds had spent their fury. He was not sent back to Damietta, but to Acre. What about the other prisoners? By then, many of lower rank had been executed. From the original 20,000, only about 12,000 still lived. Louis was able to ransom most of them, and this effort became his main project in Acre.

The royal family stayed in Acre for a few years. It wasn’t clear to them if they could perhaps restart their Crusade, although Louis had vowed not to return to Egypt. Would Frederick commit any troops to retaking Jerusalem? Would any other kings find resources to join? The Damietta baby, Jean Tristan, was joined in Acre by babies Pierre in 1252 and Blanche in 1253. The king acted as head of state and strengthened fortresses.

In 1254, the family sailed home. In France, King Louis IX became austere as penance for his failures. He wore a hair shirt and ate only a fast-day diet. This is when the really became “Saint Louis” to the common people, although of course it was not until after his death that the Pope made him an official saint. He ruled his kingdom as his mother died and his family increased. He never gave up the hope of going on Crusade again, and before his death, he did. We’ll get there.

Queen Margaret de Provence


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Sack of Jerusalem, 1244

When the Mongols invaded the land of Khwarezmia, south of the Aral Sea, they sent a wave of ferocious refugees who had been the toughest kids on the block until the Mongols showed them up. Bands of Khwarezmian fighters went to northern Mesopotamia, to the slice of land between the rivers that the Arabs called Jazirah. In another storyline, they might have settled down to be farmers, but not in this story.

Sultan al-Kamil left his kingdom to his son al-Adil when he died in 1238, but a more aggressive and troublesome son, al-Salih, soon seized power. This son had been Emir in the Jazirah region, and he had made an alliance with the leaders of the Khwarezmian fighters. He now wanted to use his power base in Cairo to take over Syria, too, from his uncles.

Al-Salih increased the Mamluk army quickly by buying Kipchak Turks from Italians who’d been given slaving rights to Crimea by the Mongols. But he wanted even more Turkish mercenaries, so he sent a message back to the Jazirah region and invited a Khwarezmian army to make its way through Syria. Any damage they could do there would help weaken Al-Salih’s uncles and cousins in Damascus and Homs.

In July 1244, the Khwarezmian band came to Jerusalem. It was governed by Frederick II’s officials at that time, and had been spared from war damage by several cycles of negotiated truces. However, its local military alliance was with Damascus, so the Khwarezmians considered it fair game. Much of the population fled as refugees, but only 300 arrived alive in Jaffa. When the Khwarezmians broke down the city gates, they vandalized and looted at churches and tombs. They gruesomely executed priests and others in the churches. The city was left a ruin, barely fit to live in.

Al-Salih’s uncles reached out to all of the local powers to form a joint defensive army. The Emirs of Damascus, Homs and Kerak (Jordan) joined all of the Christian military orders: Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonics, and the smaller order of St. Lazarus. The current Kingdom of Jerusalem officials joined: the Count of Jaffa, the Constable of Jerusalem, and the Lord of Cyprus. The Crusaders amassed their largest field force since the Third Crusade, perhaps about 7000 men, while the Muslims contributed about 4500.

The Khwarezmians were roving into Gaza, where they joined Egyptian forces under the Mamluk officer Baibars. The Egyptian forces were professional and disciplined, but the Khwarezmians were comparatively barbaric and riotous. In the Crusader/Syrian camp, the Emir of Homs suggested that the best strategy against them was to set up a fortified camp and wait. He thought there was a very good chance that the Khwarezmians would quarrel with the Mamluks or just veer off on their own, looking for more loot. Once they were gone, the Mamluks could more easily be attacked. He believed they could defeat either the Mamluks or the Khwarezmians, but probably not both.

But that’s not the sort of advice that French knights wanted to heed. The Count of Jaffa had been elected commander, and he saw only that the local alliance had more men in the field. And so they launched an assault at the Gazan town of Hiribya, known to the French as La Forbie.

The battle lasted two days, in October 1244. Baibars kept the Khwarezmians out on the first day, so the battle was more evenly matched. But the second day, the Khwarezmians charged wildly at the Franks and Syrians and broke their battle line. After that, it was a rout. From over 400 Teutonic Knights, only 3 survived. The army of Homs brought home only about 300 men. Most of the leaders were killed or captured, though the Emir of Homs survived.

The small number of survivors fled to Acre. They were in shock, stunned at the amount of death they had just witnessed. They sent warnings to the Latin governments of Cyprus and Antioch. To the Pope and the kings in Europe, they sent desperate pleas for help. Not only was their range reduced again to Third Crusade size, but the ferocious Khwarezmians and ambitious Egyptians were likely to come back and wipe them out completely. And worst of all, Jerusalem had been destroyed again.



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Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, 1244

Jalal ad-Din Mohammed Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan in 1207. There’s some unpacking to be done here: I think Mohammed would have been his father’s personal name, and Jalal his own. Ad-Din, of course, was a chosen or consensus-given nickname meaning The Righteous. What about Rumi? That’s part of the story.

Balkh was one of the cities in Genghis Khan’s early sweep of eastern Islam. When Jalal was born, the Mongols were mopping up the eastern Silk Road cities of the Xia dynasty. When he was about four, the Mongols conquered the Kara Khitan and in 1218 (he was 11) they sent their ill-fated trade embassy to the Shah of Khwarizmia. By 1220, they were steamrolling across the cities of eastern Islam, including Balkh. Some time in 1219 or 1220, Jalal’s family packed up and left. They stood high enough in the city’s social class structure that they had no chance of surviving the Mongols, who executed the ruling class.

The family moved west to Baghdad and Mecca, and then west again into Turkey. They settled in the town of Konya, again as part of the elite social class due to their Persian education. Jalal grew up to be a wealthy, well-respected teacher. His family’s regional tag was Balkhi, the folks from Balkh.

Jalal took the big step toward becoming a poet when he took in a wandering, destitute, wild, dirty holy man in 1244. The man’s name was Shams. He was a mystic of no particular school of thought; we think of Muslim mysticism as Sufism, but apparently that’s not accurate. Shams fascinated Jalal, who had been pretty conventional until then. They sat up late talking, with Jalal mostly listening. Shams disgusted the family by cursing angrily and generally being vulgar, and the other citizens of Konya couldn’t stand him either. Shams finally had to leave when he got death threats. But without Shams, Jalal was miserable.

Jalal had to get Shams back, and permanently. So he had an idea: he offered Shams to marry his 12 year old step-daughter Keemia (“Chemistry”). Shams was at least 60. Naturally he said yes, and Keemia had no choice. Now Shams was family! Jalal and his “son in law” could sit up late talking about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul. But his life with Shams was limited to about two years, because Keemia died and her older brother blamed Shams. He killed the old mystic. Jalal plunged into deep grief.

Jalal began writing poetry in Persian that channeled his conversations with Shams. He wrote about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul; he had always been an orthodox Sunni, but now he dared to write that God was within his soul, not in a remote heaven. He wrote love poems to God, as well as to women. It’s hard to tell who he’s talking to, sometimes, and where we might assume a woman, he’s actually talking to God. His works were published in two books; the first was called “Poems of Shams of Tabriz” and the second “Masnavi,” or “couplets.” He also wrote a Rubaiyat, that is, a series of quatrains.

When his poetry became known internationally, he was called Rumi, the guy from Rome. Rum is what Turks called the region formerly ruled by Constantinople; it was their westernmost settlement. Since Rumi wrote in Persian, his works were most read to the east, so he was re-tagged the Westerner: Rumi.

Rumi’s work has become very popular in English translation in the last 50 years. But it was popular enough in his lifetime that when he died in 1273, his son Sultan Walad wanted to create a memorial for him. Instead of a building, his son founded a new form of mystical dance worship: whirling. Rumi himself was no whirling dervish, and apparently Shams didn’t whirl either (or perhaps only a bit). Rumi translator (and dervish) Shahram Shiva explains, “In his design he placed a figure to represent Rumi in the center of the room and had the whirling students turn around him, like planets orbiting a sun.” Here’s CNN showing us some dervishes in Rumi’s hometown, Konya. (Although CNN calls them Sufis, Shahram Shiva is insistent that Sufism is about signing on as the disciple to a master, but other forms are just mysticism.)

You can enjoy Shahram Shiva’s translations of Rumi’s mystical spiritual poems at  I found another cool site with Rumi translation at Some translations look and feel like modern free verse (here and here), while others feel more traditional (here). One page even offers you Persian originals written in Latin letters, with vocabulary key! If that appeals to you, well, you know who you are.

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The Battle on the Ice: 1242

The Mongols had not touched the city-state of Novgorod, as it was just out of range to north and west. In this period, the region is known as the Novgorod Republic. Novgorod was ruled by a Prince who was appointed or elected by a strong city council, rather than inheriting the role automatically at birth. The Republic was a stable medieval state with trade contacts all through Europe (the archbishop asked church fees to be paid in bolts of wool cloth from Flanders!). Traders on the Volga and Dniepr rivers passed through Novgorod, whose rulers had also intermarried with Swedish kings in the past. (Imagine if the Novgorod Republic, not Moscow of the Tsars, had become the core of future Russia. History would be quite different.)

In the 12th century just past, Sweden and Novgorod had many frontier battles over ports and trading posts on the Baltic and around Finland. The German-based Hanseatic League wanted complete domination over the Baltic’s ports, and it saw Novgorod as a trade rival. Further, Sweden no longer looked on the Russian city as Christian, as its ties to Rome grew stronger. In fact, its sorties into pagan Finland began to be styled as Crusades.

Novgorod chose to become a tribute-paying vassal of the Mongols in Sarai; it had become plain that not paying tribute was a very poor choice. All of the cities in its Russian neighbor-network had been burnt and depopulated. The region was as weak as it had been in a long time, so…enter the Teutonic Knights, the northern Crusaders that I have trouble speaking well of. They occupied several Novgorodian cities along Lake Peipus, the large lake along the border of Estonia. Novgorod had to act, so the Republic called back its strongest leader from exile.

Aleksandr Nevsky was the grandson of a Rus prince with strong Byzantine ties, representing both Kyiv and Vladimir, the strongest princedom of the region. Their family brought some of the grandeur of Constantinople into the Russian forests, building wooden onion-dome churches. Aleksandr had served as the Prince of Novgorod already (and been banished) by the time he was 20. In 1241, the city decided they needed him to defend against the Teutonic knights.

Nevsky chose to fight on the frozen lake itself, in April. In April, the lake was still frozen so solid that it could support thousands of men fighting on its surface! That’s a cold climate! During the battle, the Teutonic knights (with Estonians they had pressed into service) fought for two hours but began to find the surface too slick. Nevsky chose to bring a reserve force onto the lake at that time. Some legends say that the ice broke up and the Teutonic knights fell into the water, but this may have been Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematographic invention in 1938. (Personally I have a hard time believing that ice in April, even in the frozen Baltic North, could stand up under Daenarys Targaryen’s dragon-fire attack, especially after the third dragon crashed into the lake.) In any case, Nevsky won and the Teutonic knight did not choose to try Novgorod’s territory again.

Nevsky’s attitude toward the Mongols was that they were the best choice of masters on offer. He became their regional tax-enforcer, not just unwillingly an ally but openly a friend and supporter. The Mongol Khan supported him in becoming Grand Prince of both Kyiv and Vladimir, and he actively helped defend their rule against invaders. He saw Rome and its allies as a greater threat to his land than the Mongols, who merely wanted tribute. So in one of the weirder twists of this period, Christian Novgorod was saved from Christian Germans so that it could serve the Mongols.

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The Barons’ Crusade, 1239-1241

Historians who later numbered the Crusades did something very odd at this point. Emperor Frederick II’s peaceful negotiation for a ten-year control of Jerusalem was the Sixth Crusade, but when that time ran out and a new army came to actually do some serious fighting, it was not the Seventh Crusade. It was merely the Barons’ Crusade, or the Crusade of 1239. It was actually the most successful militarily in years, but it merited no number. It’s obvious that it should have been the Sixth Crusade, with Frederick as a footnote. But no. Go figure.

The Count of Champagne/King of Navarre started the Crusade off. His grandmother was Marie of Champagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s French daughter who was also close friends with Richard Lion-Heart. Like his elders, young Theobald IV was a troubadour, that is, a singer-songwriter. He was the heir for his uncle the King of Navarre, whose sister had been for a short time Richard Lion-Heart’s queen (another sister was Queen of Poland). The King of Navarre (same one that helped defeat the Almohads) had become too ill to rule, so a third sister, married off to the Count of Champagne, came home to be Regent. Her son Theobald was visiting her in Pamplona when the King died, so Theobald just took charge, ruling both Navarre and Champagne. When we see his name in a note that “Count Theobald of Champagne led a Crusade in 1239,” we don’t realize that this guy we’ve never heard of was actually tightly connected to all of the big Crusade stars.

Count Theobald did pretty well for himself. After a stay at Acre, he decided to fortify Ascalon by overseeing a new castle. He rescued another group of barons and knights from defeat in Gaza, and then negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil for continued control of Jerusalem. In his truce agreement, he was handed control of most of the significant towns and castles the Crusaders cared about, including some Templar castles that had been captured. Legend says that Theobald wrote some poems there and also brought home two plants: a special breed of rose, and perhaps the first grape slip that became Chardonnay. So Theobald came, saw, wrote, built, and transplanted—and went home. It was time for the next shift of barons to arrive.

Here we see the seeds of disaster laid for the next Crusades. “Next shift” to arrive? It was that easy? Yes, it really looked like Crusading had gotten easy. Take a sabbatical year, get on a ship at Marseilles with your friends. Stop at Acre, attend some feasts. Make a show of force, find a nice building project you can put your name to. Fight a few skirmishes, lose a few red shirts. Send the Sultan a threatening letter. Compare his reply to your wishlist of towns, and in a few exchanges, you’re done. Go home and spend the rest of your life dusting the pretty souvenirs.

During these few decades of easy success, the Crusader states grew and prospered, though not to the size they had been in the Baldwins’ time. I wonder if the Europeans fully realized that this second round proved that they could only succeed in the Holy Land when the Muslim forces were too disunified to oppose them. The Ayyubids were wise enough to realize it and accept truces that gave away some power. They stayed busy, but they could focus on tugs of war with each other, not with Europe. If that situation changed, crusading was going to change dramatically. Some shift of Crusaders would show up with bags full of sun screen and beach reads and find out that there would be no souvenirs this time.


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Baba Ishak’s revolt, 1239

I want to talk about a minor revolt that took place in Anatolia between 1239 and 1241 not because it’s important on the world stage, but because it illustrates very clearly the strains in the Muslim world at this time. The revolt was led by a mystic named Baba Ishak (Father Isaac), and it went on until authorities captured and hanged him.

When we say that waves of Turkic migrants kept coming west, it’s hard for us to picture exactly what this looked like. Going back to the Abbasid Caliph’s heyday, in the 800s, Seljuk Turks began arriving in large family groups, traveling at the speed of their flocks and carts. They meandered through Iran and Iraq slowly, picking up Islam and other cultural habits over several generations. The Turkish language they spoke in Anatolia, by the time they drifted that far west, was generously peppered with Persian and Arabic words and ideas. They gave their children Arabic Muslim names, so that it becomes harder for us now to distinguish in a written history who was Arabic or who was Turkish.

But as those people settled, a new wave arrived. This went through the 900s, 1000s, 1100s, and now the 1200s. The newest arrivals were Oghuz Turks who were pushed out of the east by the approaching Mongols. They had little in common with the settled Anatolian Turks. They could probably understand the language easily, apart from the unfamiliar borrowed words. But while the old settlers had now been Muslims through the entire Crusade period and several dynastic changes, the new arrivals were fresh off the steppes and still worshiped the Father Sky and Mother Earth. The old settlers had learned farming; the new arrivals were pastoral nomads. The old settlers had lost track of how many ideas and customs had been shaped by Islam and the new western cultures, until they saw how different and “green” the new arrivals were.

The new arrivals were duly converted to Islam, but they didn’t get it. Turkic steppe life had a lot of gender equality; men and women dressed alike, women owned the yurt and carts, and men typically were out in the field or forest while women ran everything at home. Suddenly they were expected to take on Arab norms of female segregation and male leadership. The Arabic language had strong gender markers in every word, where Turkish had none.

Some mystics in Eastern Iran created versions of Islamic theology that were easier for the former Tengrists to digest. Their version was tolerant of alcohol (fermented milk was a steppe staple). It promoted equality of women, played down the Ramadan fast, and followed Tengrist blood taboos rather than Muslim slaughtering laws. Worship with music was okay in this folk religion, too. It seems to have been mostly part of Sunni Islam, but some of the leaders may also have been given commissions by the Nizaris (the Ismaili Shi’ites who were constantly rebelling in Iran, operating out of their stronghold Alamut). It may have overlapped with Sufism (this gets difficult for an outsider to distinguish).

The Seljuks of Anatolia had set up their own Sultanate of “Rum,” which is to say: Rome, that is, Constantinople. This Sultan was trying to govern separately from the Seljuks ruling in Baghdad, and from other Sultans like the Ayyubids of Syria and Egypt. Now his territory was faced with these Oghuz migrants who could not fit in. Worse, when a slightly older migrant wave saw that the newest ones were defiantly creating their own Tengri-Islam blend, they joined them. Sultan Gıyasettin arrested their leaders and everything blew up.

The rebellion caught fire just east of the troublesome region where Armenians and Crusaders had been living. Baba Ishak was one of the popular preachers of the new theology. He became the leader of an armed force, and they went on to capture a number of central Anatolian cities. The Seljuk Sultan’s forces had already been worn down with fighting the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Empire of Trebizond, and other Christian establishments. So the rebellion flared out of control for two or three years.

Then the Sultan captured Baba Ishak and hanged him. He hired French mercenaries, probably drifters from Constantinople or Antioch, to defeat the rebels in one last big battle. Presumably, with the armed rebellion ended, the Sufi Babas had to stop preaching syncretist religion and become more orthodox Sunni. But the Sultan of Rum had been fighting on too many fronts, and this was the last thing that bled out his resources. Cities had been ruined and plundered, and Rum had lost its control over a Crimean trading colony.

When the Mongols arrived in Rum territory, conquest was easy. By 1243, the Seljuks of Rum were vassals of the Mongols, sending tribute to Karakorum.

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The Khan’s Grandsons and the Golden Horde, 1236-41

The four ruling sons of Genghis Khan didn’t last long. Jochi, the controversial oldest son, died before his father. So already at the Great Khan’s death, grandsons had been assigned to rule parts of the western Empire.

Batu was the most capable grandson; Batu Khan’s western army was known as the Golden Horde (Алтан Ордын улс). In 1235, the Golden Family decided to send a joint force to conquer more western territory. For perhaps the last time in a united Mongol venture, there were grandsons and even great-grandsons of all four of the Khan’s lineages, all jockeying for power. Who would be named the next Great Khan? (Experienced Mongol generals were the real decision-making leaders, but this could be shushed up so a grandson could take credit.)

The Mongols took two years to prepare for the assault, but they spent it in ways Europeans would not have thought of and could not understand. Essentially, they prepared the infrastructure of the new land in small ways. The chief need of Mongol-Tatar armies was fodder for horses. One way to increase grasslands was to send in small bands to move quickly, avoid showdowns, and just set many farms on fire and tear down walls. Frightened peasants moved out, and a year later, the land reverted to weeds and grass, now more open for a horde to ride through. The Mongols also scouted thoroughly, looking for water and pasture. Last, they set up “Pony Express” mail riders so that their forces could stay in touch over distances.

In 1236, the Golden Horde conquered the Bulgar Turks who lived along the Volga River. The Volga Bulgars were a well-established group in the Volga region, not newcomers. They had adopted Islam even before Kyiv became Christian, and by now they were blending with the surrounding Slavs. The region was dotted with small sovereign states, unlike the way we think of Russia now. The Bulgars comprised their own state, controlling Volga trade from the city of Bolghar.

There’s a curious parenthetical story here; the Hungarians, who came from the east in the 500s, sent a Dominican friar eastward in 1235 to search for their legendary brother tribe, the Magyars. He found such a group near the Bulgars on the Volga, and they could understand each other’s speech. Back in Christian Hungary, the friar made plans to preach to the Magyars on a larger scale, but when he arrived at the Volga again, the Mongols had already made hash of them. The Magyars called their attackers Tatars, their ancestral enemies on the steppes. So the first warning to Europe of the “Tartar” attack came via Hungary. (Europeans generalized the word “Tatar” to have some connection to the Greek mythical river Tartarus.)

The Mongols conquered anyone else in the region, including the Alans, who were Indo-Europeans from the Persian Empire. The Alans were another of the small sovereign states; their capital city of Maghas guarded a pass in the Caucasus Mountains between Georgia and the north, now Russia. It’s called the Darial Pass, which means “Gate of the Alans” in Persian. The Alans are the modern Ossetians, whose territory Russia is taking from Georgia.

With these small states wrapped up, Batu Khan sent an envoy to the Grand Duke of Vladimir-Suzdal, another sovereign state on the other side of the Volga River. The envoy asked, of course, for their surrender, which the Duke refused. And now (1238) the grand sacking of Russia began. They began with Ryazan, and they also burnt Moskva. Smolensk agreed to pay tribute, and Novgorod was far enough north that they didn’t get there. Pretty much every other city was stripped of gold and silver, and burnt. The small town of Kozelsk somehow managed to hold off a combined Mongol army siege for an unheard-of seven weeks. Their ruler at the time was a little boy, so it makes an even better story. In the end, though, everyone died.

According to Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), the siege of Ryazan was conducted in the Mongols’ idiosyncratic way. On approaching the town, the Mongols had seized peasants for slave labor and sent the rest of them to the city to swell the number of refugees and tax the city’s provisions. Using their slave labor, they quickly built their own stockade wall around the walled city. Western war practice had always encircled a walled city, but never with a literal second wall. Reinforcements could not help the city, and sorties from the city gates could not harm the Mongols. The besiegers had longer-range bows than the defenders, so they were safe out of range while they set up their own catapults.

When the catapults got to work, they threw not only rocks and tree trunks but also pots of gunpowder and other burning substances learned from the Chinese. Simple “firelances” directed rockets at the city. Ryazan’s peasants, who knew little about the world, thought that the Mongols brought dragons. When the city had been sufficiently terrorized and burnt, the Mongols scaled the walls with ladders and took over quickly. Everyone crowded into the church for safety, but of course to the Mongols, this was just an invitation for mass cremation. The city’s rulers were executed; some survivors were enslaved (as always, craftsmen were most likely to be kept) and others were sent to nearby cities to spread the word and start eating siege provisions. Then the clean-up started: the stockade logs were removed and dragged to the next city, while Mongols took a census so that the loot and captives could be fairly divided among their people. And so it went.

Refugees reliably spread the word that the Mongols were unlike anything seen before. They may not even have been human. They drank blood and refused mercy. They were short and invincible; they had no eyelids. The English chronicler Matthew Paris (who had recorded King John’s supposed bid to become a Muslim) recorded the rumors as they reached Western Europe. All learned men in the West wondered: who were these people? Herodotus didn’t say a word about them, and he had cataloged the whole world! They’d have speculated “space aliens” if the idea had occurred to them, but instead, they wondered: descendants of the Magi who came to take back relics that Germany claimed to have? Or a lost tribe of Jews who had forgotten Hebrew and Moses? Of course, as this idea spread, it was clear that there was only one thing to be done: Jews must be massacred to prevent them from opening city gates to their brethren. (what else?)

In 1239, the Mongols entered the Crimean Peninsula and drove out the Cuman people, another of the local older Turkic peoples. The Cuman survivors fled to nearby hills, but eventually were able to return to the plains. They are known today as the Crimean Tatars.

In 1240, Mongol envoys came to Kyiv but were beheaded. The city’s fate was sealed, and total destruction followed. Kyiv’s story had a special twist: believing that the basilica’s holiness would keep them safe, people crowded into the church until it was packed and its doors closed. Those left outside began to climb the walls until they reached the roof, and they perched on the roof until that, too, was full. Then the roof collapsed and killed everyone both inside and out. The Mongols could not have asked better fortune. Kyiv, of course, fell, and Batu Khan began to be known as the Tsar.

Batu Khan still had to jockey for power among his cousins, but the western lands had indisputably been left to him and his brothers. So they solidified their gains by ordering captive craftsmen to build a new city. Sarai (from the Persian word for “palace”) was built near modern-day Astrakhan, which is on the Caspian Sea. Sarai was probably 50 miles upriver, at a place suitable for Mongol life: high wind to keep off mosquitos, sufficient grasslands for horses. They began to build in 1240.

To advance farther into the west, the Horde was split up so that rumors and refugees would report conflicting things about the path they were taking. They’re heading to Poland! No, they’re heading to Hungary! Actually, they were heading to both. Had they chosen one target, the king of the other would have come to an ally’s assistance. Both being the targets at the same time, neither could help the other. The Battles of Legnica, Poland and Mohi, Hungary took place only two days apart in 1241.

The Kings of Poland and Hungary begged for assistance from farther south or west. The Pope helpfully called a Crusade against the Mongols, but Crusading was just not set up to deal with lightning strikes from an unknown foe. Batu Khan led the force into Hungary, while Möngke Khan went into Poland. Henry II of Silesia defended Poland, hoping for Bohemia’s forces to arrive in time. He was killed, and the Bohemian army was dealt with separately by the Mongols.

In Hungary, the Mongols bombarded the king’s camp with burning material until the army panicked and fled through a gap in the Mongol lines: a gap the Mongols had planned, one leading to a corridor of Mongol archers. King Bela of Hungary barely escaped death and fled first to Austria, then to the Adriatic coast, as a government in exile. After the battle, in a bid for mercy, the Hungarian clergy tried to impress the Mongols with holy relics on parade, since they had heard that some Tatars and Mongols were Christians. But Mongols had a taboo against anything dead and these relics only made them disgusted and angry. Batu’s forces devastated Hungary, killing perhaps a quarter of the general population and most of its knights.

A total solar eclipse in October 1241 presaged the utter destruction of Europe, and the peasants became hysterical with fear. But soon after the twin battles had opened the way into Austria, Bohemia, and Germany, a Mongol rider brought news from the east. Ögedei Khan, Temujin’s third son who had been elected Great Khan, had died. Möngke and Batu had emerged as leaders in the western expedition, but their cousin Güyük was actually Ögedei’s son. He was really hard to get along with and had already fought with them all. There was no question he’d be trying to seize central power, and the other grandsons didn’t want to let that happen. Besides, any change in leadership required their personal attendance at a khurultai meeting.

So just like that, the western invasions ended. The grandsons and top generals rode back to Mongolia. The building of Sarai went on; there was no question they’d be back. The Russian princes who had survived and sworn fealty to the Mongols were not permitted to renege. However, it was an open question whether the Mongols would expand their invasions. King Bela came back to Hungary, and Poland had a new High Duke. During the time that the Mongols were gone, their top priority was to stop being Christendom’s buffer states by getting the pagans on their margins to convert (and thus become the new buffer states).

Jack Weatherford supplies another interesting outcome: in the Crimean Peninsula, the Mongols traded luxury goods in Italian port cities for the right of Italian merchants to kidnap Slavs and Kipchaks in Mongol lands and sell them as slaves (Slavs/ slaves not a coincidence). Ironically, many of these tall, strong Slavs were sold to Ayyubid Egypt, where they became Mamluks. The Mongols would live to regret this choice.





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Stupor Mundi and the Sixth Crusade, 1229

While the Mongols were trampling Central Asia, life went on as before for the European West and the Middle East. During the years of Temujin’s rise, Europe was focused on the young King of Sicily and Germany, who had finally received the titles King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor, in 1220. Frederick II was supposed to be the ultimate Crusader, the one who’d finally win back Jerusalem. He sat out the Fifth Crusade, but by 1229 he was ready to act.

First, a bit about Frederick. He was descended from Charlemagne’s line on his father’s side; his grandfather was the Crusader Emperor who drowned when his horse slipped in a Turkish river. On his mother’s side, he combined two lines of descent: the Normans who conquered Sicily and the Counts of Rethel who were the ancestors and relatives of the Jerusalem royal family. His mother Constance raised him in Sicily, since his German father had died. Frederick had green eyes and red hair; he was King of Sicily from the age of 3. In his time, it was a powerful empire that included much of southern Italy.

Young Frederick spoke Sicilian Italian and his mother’s Norman French; he also learned Arabic on the streets of Palermo. Someone taught him German. His tutor Cencio, who was from Rome, educated him in Latin and Greek. He studied mathematics with Arabic numbers and later sponsored the work of Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician whose work Liber Abaci re-introduced decimal numbers to Europe. He was also stubborn and strong-willed, skeptical and irreligious. He was an avid falconer all his life.

Frederick’s nickname around Europe was “Stupor Mundi,” or the World Wonder. When his tutor became Pope Honorius, he didn’t soften his battles against the Papacy. Chiefly at stake was that he wanted to keep both inheritances, his native Sicily and his father’s Germany. His mother married him at 14 to the widowed Queen of Hungary, who was also a Princess of Aragon. This sophisticated young woman could be regent of Sicily while he battled to regain power in Germany, and she had one son. However, she died two years after they were jointly crowned Holy Roman Emperor/Empress.

In 1225, Frederick added a new title: King of Jerusalem. He married the teenage Queen of Jerusalem, called Yolanda but “reigning” as Isabella II. Born in Sicily, she had never been to the Holy Land, nor did she go now. She stayed behind in Palermo and died in 1228 while giving birth to a son. But in the meantime, Frederick had taken on her inheritance rights and shortly after their son was born, he set out for Acre. He was in a state of excommunication at the time, but he just didn’t care.

Frederick’s arrival in Acre was the Sixth Crusade. It’s very odd that historians gave him the official number, since the next Crusade is just called the Barons’ Crusade without a number. They probably accorded his effort the numbered title not because of any military success, but because he negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt and just made a deal to get back rule of Jerusalem for a ten year period. That was the Sixth Crusade, right there.

During the negotiations, Frederick was the invited guest of al-Kamil in Jerusalem, where he was able to chat in Arabic. He made a point of staying overnight so that he could hear the muezzin’s call in the morning.  Al-Kamil was still warring with relatives in the cities of Syria and the last thing he wanted was another battle front. It was clearly in his interests to negotiate with Frederick. So while the process took five months, in the end they agreed that Latin rule under Frederick would resume in an unfortified Jerusalem, and it would include Bethlehem and Nazareth, but not the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Because Frederick was still under excommunication, the Latin bishop refused to crown him, so he set the crown on his own head. His wife had died and the infant Conrad II was in Sicily, but Frederick didn’t care. He didn’t care, either, that the city was in a state of Latin civil war as his agents and the remaining Crusader lords of the Holy Land could not work together.

Frederick returned to his European lands and had many adventures: wars against the Papacy, wars against another branch of the German ruling family (the Guelphs or Welfs), wars in Lombardy. Frederick hunted with falcons, wrote poetry, and carried out shocking scientific experiments on human beings. It takes a World Wonder to be arrogant enough to do things like raising a baby in complete silence to find out what language Adam and Eve spoke.

Did he really do this? A Franciscan friar who wrote the main records of this time and place claimed that he did this and more: trapped a man in a cask to see if his soul could be seen coming out of the bung hole when he died, or cutting men open to see whose food had been digested better. But it’s possible the friar was making things up. Frederick was an agnostic at best and often at war with Rome; it was in the church’s interests for Frederick to be seen as shockingly immoral.

Frederick did his best to be seen as shockingly immoral, too. He married again, this time choosing a sister of the King of England. She arrived in Germany to find that the Emperor had set up a Muslim-style harem at the palace in Worms. He seems to have followed the Ayyubid style of using African eunuchs as caretakers of the women bought at Middle Eastern slave markets. He added the Princess of England to his harem; she was crowned King and Empress, but her daily life was not at all like other queens’. She didn’t rule or sit with him, she was not prepped to take up the role of regent as other queens were. I suppose Frederick had gotten used to his wives being far away or dead; he didn’t want the usual royal family life, and as Stupor Mundi, he stood up to all peer pressure to be normal. The Pope could excommunicate him again, what of it?

Young Conrad, King of Jerusalem, came to Germany when he was about eight, and his father made him Duke of Swabia in place of older brother Henry who had rebelled. Conrad ruled the Sicilian-German empire after Frederick’s death in 1250. Conrad passed the Jerusalem title down to his son Conradin, who died without issue. The by-then-meaningless title was bounced back to the nearest branch of his relatives, the Lusignan family of Cyprus.


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