During those years, despite the political and military fiasco of the King of France, two Franciscan Friars, Father Roger Guèrin ( or Garin) and Father Gèrard Odon (Eudes), Minister General of the Friars Minor, both of the Religious Province of Aquitaine, perceived that a military solution to the problem was not going to restore the Holy Sites to Christians. Instead, they saw that the possibility of a juridical bilateral accord, that is, a peaceful means, was preferred. There was precedent for this: the accord of Frederick II (1229) and that of King Richard of Cornwall (1241). This was a peaceful means for the clergy to have secure and continual worship in the Sanctuaries. Moreover, there was a greater possibility of concrete success in this fashion than through the customary "benevolent concessions" of the Sultans. Several favorable circumstances at the time made this approach even more possible.
The first favorable circumstance was the religious zeal of Donna Sancha of Maiorca, the Queen of Naples. Since she was not able to have children through her marriage with Robert d'Anjou, she consecrated her life to benevolent works and to building churches and monasteries in the Kingdom of Naples.(*44) The second favorable circumstance consisted in the good disposition of the Sultan En-Naser Muhammed in granting Christians use of their Holy Places. He had already demonstrated his willingness in this regard by his interactions with the King of Georgia, the Emperor of Constantinople, and the King of Aragon. The third propitious circumstance was the good political and commercial relationship that had existed for about a century between the Kingdom of Naples and Egypt.
In accord with his Minister General, Father Roger succeeded in convincing the sovereigns of Naples, especially Queen Sancha, to negotiate a bilateral accord with the Sultan En-Naser on the restitution of the Holy Places to the Frankish clergy as had been done twice before during the previous century by other Egyptian Sultans. On a previous occasion such a treaty had been arranged quickly with Sultan Malek El-Kamel because of the presence of a Crusader force in the Holy Land. In order to arrange the same treaty and to liberate the Holy Sites from the Saracens and to repair them, it was necessary to offer a large amount of money beyond the expenses needed for the restorations and reconstructions of the Sanctuaries. The threat of the French Crusade and the presence of the large Christian fleet in the Mediterranean convinced the Sultan to pay attention to the petition of the royal couple of Naples.
The whole notion of entering into and successfully completing such negotiations must have been very pleasing to Robert and Sancha. While the rest of the Christian world was talking about another Crusade, another military venture to liberate the Holy Places, they would accomplish the same goal by peaceful means - the liberation of the Tomb of Christ, a goal which had eluded Europe's kings and knights for one hundred fifty years. In an era of widespread selfishness and political disinterest which could ill-afford another military confrontation with Egypt, they would display before the whole world their own deep religious faith and their unquestioned devotion toward the Holy Land.
According to the Franciscan Chronicles of the time, Roger Garin left Naples in 1332-1333 with a group of Franciscan missionaries who were heading for Armenia.(*45) Although the Chronicles do not mention this, it is quite possible that at Cairo Roger was not able to ransom the Holy Places from the Egyptian government on his own authority . In order to accomplish his mission he was accompanied by some expert companions (civil representatives of the King of Naples and counselors of the ambassador) who were experienced in these diplomatic affairs. Such experts were necessary in view of the extraordinary nature of the negotiations and to ensure positive results.
Exactly what did the Sovereigns of Naples ask of the Sultan of Cairo? The ambassador sought to establish historical precedent. At the outset of the negotiations he would have mentioned the very good political and commercial relationship which had existed between the two governments without interruption since the time of Frederick II, friend of Malek El-Kamel, and the time of Charles I, King of Naples, who was also a friend of the Sultan Baybars. For almost three centuries the symbol of that unfailing friendship was the Amalfi Quarter of Jerusalem. It had been founded with the benevolent concession of the Sultan of Egypt El-Mostanzer (1035-1094) by the city of Amalfi (near Naples). Although used for different purposes, the hospital-hospice was a center of good will for all people. It was managed by the noblewoman Lady Margaret of Sicily who was known to all for her charitable works.
The Sovereigns of Naples did not ask for the territory of the Holy Land, but rather for the peaceful return of the Holy Places to Christians so that they might worship at those sites. This was the same concession given to Frederick II in 1229 and to Richard Cornwall in 1241. It was their wish that there would be no need in the future for more Christian Crusades which would disturb the peace of the Sultan's kingdom. They also hoped that such a concession would be a source of divine blessing upon Egypt and bestow a splendid title of eternal glory upon the august brow of the Sultan.
En-Naser must have been very pleased with such words. These ideas coincided perfectly with his own. In fact, in 1331 he had sent a message to the Pope and to the King of France through the papal legate Friar Peter of Palud, the titular Patriarch of Jerusalem: "that he declared to them his willingness to concede the most ample exemptions to the merchants, the full liberty of worship to the priests, to the Christians, and to the pilgrims who came to the places of the Holy Land, and even the possession of the Holy Places, on condition that the Pope remove all prohibitions of trade between Europe and Egypt. As for the claim to the restitution of the Holy Land, the Sultan declared that neither prayers nor threats would ever make him cede one inch of land to the Christians (nec passum pedis)".(*46)
The Sultan was fully satisfied with these arrangements and ordered his Prime Minister (the Grand Vizir) and his subordinates to begin the negotiations in a favorable atmosphere. Naturally, with such good beginnings, Father Roger and all the persons of the embassy had reason to believe that within a few weeks and with some gracious gift they would receive the Sanctuaries of the Holy Sepulchre, the Cenacle, the Nativity, the Tomb of the Madonna, Gethsemane, the Ascension, Tabor, Nazareth, and others in Judea and Galilee. However, the contrary proved true. The Grand Vizir and a "good group" of renegade ex-Coptic Christians showed excessive zeal and "patriotic love for the country".(*47) They restrained the generous hand of the Sultan so that he would not be cheated by those "dogs of Frankish infidels" and have them occupying the whole Holy Land, the Land of Islam! For them it was a matter of treason. Thus, instead of taking only a few weeks, the agreement took many years to negotiate, a delay which was both costly and which offered no certain outcome.
The negotiations seem to have been limited to the four sites considered as the most important: the Basilica of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the Church of the Tomb of the Madonna, the Cenacle, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. From the beginning of the negotiations they had to consider the first two sites. They offered the greatest chance of success. The Frankish Clergy had been established in Bethlehem ever since the time of the visit of Baybars (1266). Very soon a new difficulty arose: the legal concession would not be the same as in the years 1229 and 1241, but would be made only on the conditions that the Oriental clergy would have a presence at the Sites and that government doorkeepers would be posted at the main doors of the shrines in order to collect the entrance tax from the pilgrims. In theory everything was granted, but in reality very little had been granted, and that had taken a long time to negotiate. The physical condition of the churches and convents was a shambles due to the indifference of the Moslem governments. The right to repair them was not totally refused, but it was delayed until a more opportune time. Despite the beautiful words of friendship which passed between the two governments, the political climate and the mentality of the Mameluke Sultans and their governments were very different from the noble attitude in the last days of the Ayyubid Sultans who in their time did not want to imitate the liberal attitude of the Caliph Omar (638). After eight centuries of Arab control the Holy Places had fallen into incredible disrepair. The wars between 1244 and 1303 had caused a certain distrust amongst the Mameluke Sultans, as well as had the recent claims of the French government that they would obtain the territory of Palestine by peace or by the sword.
The negotiations for the Cenacle followed. It appeared to be a Sanctuary buried amongst great ruins. In the minds of the Saracens it was not considered as a Holy Place of the first order. Many difficulties had to be overcome. In the end, however, the Sultan granted the right of exclusive possession, along with permission to make restorations and the possibility to purchase adjoining land, whether it was privately owned or owned by the municipality of Jerusalem. The additional land was desired in order to build a small convent and a future hospice for women, as well as to provide space for a garden and cemetery for the Friars.
Finally they had to discuss the most difficult Site of all: the Holy Sepulchre. Negotiations for the Holy Sepulchre were made more difficult because of the presence of the Georgians. It took a long time to conclude an agreement. Even when finished, it was not particularly satisfactory because of the many restrictions imposed by the government.
The entire Christian world considered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which included the site of Calvary) as the most important Christian Sanctuary. The great dream of the Crusaders for over two hundred years, and now the dream of the Sovereigns of Naples, was to possess this Holy Place. This great esteem for the Tomb of Christ was well known to the Saracens, the Turks, and the Mongols. It was precisely for the liberation of this Sanctuary that Crusaders had left their homelands and ventured into far-away places and waged dangerous wars. Although the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Principalities of Syria had been vanquished, the hope of liberating the Holy Sepulchre never died. The Sultan rightly ascertained that by granting rights within the Holy Sepulchre to the Sovereigns of Naples he would divert the Western Christians, especially those who were enemies of Egypt, from their thoughts of new crusades. In this way he could preserve the peace of the Mameluke Empire. From a purely political point of view the Sultan knew that it would be to his advantage to grant the concessions, not only to benefit the Franks, but to his own benefit as well.
Despite these signs of good will, the government at Cairo was faced with a truly embarrassing situation. The Sultan himself, as we have already seen, had given the use of Calvary and the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre to the Georgian monks. How could he save face in this situation? Could he suddenly take away these two Holy Places from the Georgian monks who were also his loyal subjects? They held these sites only by virtue of a "benevolent concession". Now he was negotiating for a juridically binding contract which would return the sites to the Franks who had legally possessed them two hundred years before. In the current situation it was preferable for the Egyptians not to disturb an arrangement which could lead to unpredictable political and military consequences, both for the Egyptians and for the Franks. It was preferable to have patience with the situation, even if it took many years. In future years a more opportune moment for action might arise for the Franks to take possession of the Edicule in the Holy Sepulchre. In short, theoretically, the right of the Franks over the most holy part of the Sanctuary was recognized, as it had been in regard to the Sanctuaries of the Tomb of the Madonna and the Nativity. In fact, before the end of the Fourteenth Century all the rights which had been suspended at the time of the negotiations would be recognized. Naturally, the Frankish Religious (the Franciscans) were not able to pursue all these negotiations on their own. It was not always easy, but in order to guarantee the validity of the agreements they enlisted the aid of other European sovereigns.
*45 - Chronicon XXIV Generalium (Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, IV, 9-10): "Anno Domini MCCCXXXIII idem Generalis (Geraldus Odonis)... misit multos fratres de Provincia Aquitaniae et de aliis partibus Ordinis ad convertendum... Armenos Armeniae et alios infideles... De quibus frater Rogerius Garini dictae Provinciae ad Terram Sanctam pergens, obtinuit a Soldano Aegypti locum sacrum Montis Sion, ubi fuit illud coenaculum magnum stratum... In quo locum fratrum conventum aedificavit; et ex tunc ibi et in Sancto Sepulcro fratres nostri habitaverunt usque in hodierum diem". The chronicler wrote this in 1360 (Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, IV, 13-20, 59-64, 225-226).
*46 - The Sultan expressed these ideas to the Dominican Brother Peter of LaPalu, the Papal Legate (1331), according to the Franciscan chronicler of the "Chronicon de Lanercost" (Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, III, 359-367, especially 363-364).
Upon reflection on the complex history of the ransom of the Holy Places from the hands of the Moslems, we have come to believe that the nation which had the greatest interest in the transactions was actually the Republic of Venice. In past centuries and in the beginning of the Fourteenth Century, Venice was in a stronger position economically and politically than the other European nations. Thus, Venice could act more boldly with the Egyptian government.
The Sultans of Cairo, both the Ayyubids and the Mamelukes, were well aware of the fact that Venice had many times risked papal excommunication in order to continue trade with Egypt. It was clear that the "Serenissima" on the one hand had sent its ships to Egypt loaded with iron, wood, arms, military and industrial technicians and employees, all of which were lacking in the Arab lands. On the other hand, Venice stopped the Christian Allies because their cause would have damaged the commercial and diplomatic relations between Venice and Egypt.
We hold that the greatest service rendered by Venice to Egypt was the detouring of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) from the Holy Land to Constantinople. Venice participated in the Crusades only when they were not directed against Egypt. In fact, two other Crusades, the Fifth (1218) and the Sixth (1249), were disastrous failures on Egyptian territory.
The Fourteenth Century repeats the history of the Fourth Crusade. Philip VI, king of France, promoted a Crusade against Egypt in 1331. He requested an alliance with Venice. Venice agreed to the Crusade, but only because it was certain that the Christian League would never execute it. On the contrary, Venice again decided at this time to divert the Crusader ships against the Turks, their own constant and obstinate enemy (cf. Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, II, 192-194).
In exchange for favorable trade status and for this constant military policy the Sultans of Egypt granted Venice some privileges that were not even given to their own subjects: freedom of cult, free commerce, great personal regard, and respect for their personal property.
In one of the six letters sent by the Sultan El-Adel to the Doge Pietro Ziani (1205-1229) we read: "Et omnes qui vadunt in peregrinationem ad Sanctum Sepulchrum cum Veneticis, sint salvi et securi, in personis et in rebus" (Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, III, 289). In 1257 the Mameluke Sultan Aybak gave the Republic of Venice the Protectorate of the Syrian Christians (G. Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, I, Quaracchi 1906, 235). This lasted until the occupation of Syria by the Turks (1516-1517). In 1304 the Emir of Acre and Safed wrote to the Venetian Doge in the name of Sultan En-Naser Mohammed: "Et tale est praeceptum domini mei, quod ego debeam salvare et custodire et honorare homines Venetie super omnes homines mundi. Et si aliqui de vestris vellent ire ad sanctum Sepulchrum peregre, nos faciemus eis dare scortam eundo et redeundo sine aliquo timore de mundo... Et si aliqui vellent habitare in nostris partibus, salvabuntur et celebrabuntur per nostros sicut nos ipsi. Et fiet eis honor plusquam ipsi petere sciant” (Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, III, 288).
Therefore the Republic of Venice had the power to easily persuade the Egyptian government to consign the Christian Holy Places to them (naturally without the territory of Palestine) as a pledge of the solid peace and sincere good will which endured between Egypt and the West. Unfortunately the strong voice of propaganda continued to spread the notion of a military solution throughout the European nations.
Unfortunately no one suggested to the leaders of Venice the idea of a peaceful solution for the problem, the idea which had been given to Robert and Sancha of Naples. If Venice had followed a peaceful course of action it would have added to the glory of the Venetian Republic. However, just as no one at that time thought of venturing past the Straits of Gibraltar, an adventure which would have stretched the glory of Venice to the New World, no one thought of a peaceful solution. Instead Venice spent its energies in the narrow world of the Eastern Mediterranean, among the small Arab, Turkish, and Greek bankers. In the end Venice would be absorbed into the Napoleonic and Austrian Empires.
*47 - For this particular information, see also Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-bibliografica, III, 366-367 and the footnote.