The Saint and the Sultan

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Program: #20-38   Air Date: Sep 07, 2020

In 1219, St. Francis traveled to meet the Muslim Sultan Al Malik; eight centuries later in 2019, the Pera Ensemble has reconstructed music from this extraordinary spiritual event.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording The Saint and the Sultan with the Pera Ensemble directed by Mehmet C. Yeșilçay. It is on Berlin Classics and is CD 0301383BC.
It is just 800 years since the most important inter-faith engagement in history, an early rapprochement between Christendom and Islam: on the fringe of the Crusades, there is a meeting between St Francis of Assisi and the Muslim Sultan Al Malik Al Kalim. The Pera Ensemble and Mehmet Cemal Yeşilçay take a look at this historic encounter. It shows how music united the most varied nations and religions even then, bringing about a creative synthesis of two worlds.
The year is 1219. Appalled by the un-Christian behaviour and barbaric cruelty of the Fifth Crusade shown by men who confess his own faith, Francis of Assisi sets out for Damietta in Egypt. His aim, to seek out Sultan Al Malik Al Kalim of Istanbul in the middle of a war and convert him and his court, is foolhardy and highly dangerous. In the military camp of the North Egyptian city, however, he comes upon a deep piety and a belief in the same God to whom Francis himself prays. He is never to reach his goal, any more than the Sultan, who has assumed Francis will be able to negotiate a peace settlement. In spite of this, the weeks they share together affect them both deeply, giving them ideas and inspirations which will influence each of them, as Christian and as Muslim, in later life.
The Sultan and the Italian believer sealed a friendship so sincere that the Muslim ruler allowed Francis of Assisi to preach the gospel of Christianity in his realm. Francis discovered during his journey that the Muslims were not the “cruel beasts” depicted in Crusader propaganda. He not only took over some Islamic practices, of which the best known example is surely the rosary; he set down in the original rule of the Franciscan order he founded that the members of his community were to distinguish themselves in other cultures by a simple and conciliatory attitude and live out their Christian faith through a willingness to serve others, and should not find fault or quarrel.
“This meeting of minds shone out like a beacon and was in my view the beginning of a dialogue between the religions. The message today is more important than ever: we must talk to one another about our beliefs, peacefully and with respect!” (Mehmet Cemal Yeşilçay)
Christian and Muslim songs, instrumental improvisations, hymns of praise and Sufi songs from the 13th century are brought together by the Pera Ensemble, which unites internationally renowned European specialists in period performance practice with the élite of Turkish art music. The highly meditative character of this collection draws performers and listeners alike into the world of musical dialogue and gives them a sense of how the music has taught people the art of peaceful coexistence. Mehmet Cemal Yeşilçay himself is an example of the common bonds between these two cultures. Born in Istanbul and brought up in Munich, having given concerts around the world and made extensive recordings, he has made a name for himself as a leading interpreter and musicologist: “I began to study Early Music back in the Eighties. I do believe, however, that our ‘1219’ project is more specific and gains its relevance not only from the date it commemorates but in particular from its content.”
From World Magazine1219: The Saint and the Sultan (Berlin Classics), the latest recording by Mehmet Cemal Yeşilçay and his Pera Ensemble, commemorates the 800th anniversary of Francis of Assisi’s journey to Damietta, Egypt, the economic heart of the 13th-century Muslim world, to convert the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

The context came with unusual perils. The Fifth Crusade was underway, and Francis was therefore “the enemy,” subject to imprisonment, torture, and execution. He experienced at least one of the first two. He avoided the third but not for lack of trying: At one point, he challenged al-Kamil’s priests to an “ordeal of fire.” (They declined.) In the end, the sultan proved as almost-persuadable as Agrippa had while listening to Paul. And Francis, who had expected either a miracle or martyrdom, was honorably escorted back to the crusaders’ camp. 

To capture in music the flavor of such a dramatic event must have been daunting. Yet Yeşilçay and his ensemble have captured exactly that.

From the crusader hymn “Deus Lo Vult: Pax in Nominee Domini,” which opens Disc 1, to “Surah Al-Hujurat 9/13 & Surah Al-Ahzab 33/56,” which concludes Disc 2,  1219 combines vintage Oriental and Occidental compositions and texts, situating spirited singing and original-language recitations amid period-piece instrumental virtuosity.

Ultimately, what eventuates over the course of 1219’s distinctively Middle Eastern–sounding two hours and 13 minutes feels less like a competition of worldviews (although it was, and remains, that) and more like the mutually respectful dialogue that historians believe actually took place between Francis and al-Kamil once each got over his surprise at the other’s not being as threatening or as antagonistic as he’d expected.

Marcabru (?1110-?1150)
Pax in Nominee Domini


Thibaut King of Navarre (1201-1253)
Seigneurs Saichiés
Au Tans Plain De Felonie


Farabi (872-950)
Du Shems


Alfonso El Sabio (1221-1284)
Poi las Figuras


Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)
Vokal Improvisation


Al-Lusiri (1212-1294)
Qasida Burda


Francesco d'Asissi (1182-1226)
Cantico Della Creature
Lodi di Dio Altissimoa-Zikir


Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273)
Evrad-I Sherif


Yunus Emre (1240-1321)
Gel Gör Beni Ask Neyledi


Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306)
Dona de Paradiso


Shadheli (1196-1258)
Hizb-Ul bahr


Danse Real
Lauda di Cortona 13e s

Ave Donna Santissima
Sia Laudato
Troppo Perde l'Tempo
Laudar Vollio
O Divina


Entel Hadi Entel Hak
Talaaql Badru Aleyna
Hasbi Rabi Celallah
Hicazussak & Ussak Nasheed

La Septime Esampie Real
Medieval Lute, Qanun, Mey
Nat-I Sharif (Hymne sur le Prophète)
Rebap Fidel, Vihiuela
Oud, Qanun
Qanun, Ney, Violoncelle, Bendir
Qanun, Traverso
Surah Al-Hujurat 9/13, Surah Al-Ahzab 33/56, extrait du Coran

Ensemble Pera


Composer Info

Marcabru (?1110-?1150), Thibaut King of Navarre (1201-1253), Farabi (872-950), Alfonso El Sabio (1221-1284), Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), Al-Lusiri (1212-1294), Francesco d'Asissi (1182-1226), Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273), Yunus Emre (1240-1321), Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306), Shadheli (1196-1258)

CD Info

Berlin Classics CD 0301383BC