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.”