Via della Seta. That, Google Translate tells me, is the Italian expression for “Silk Road.”
The city-states, for Italy was nowhere near being Italy back in 1100, were duking it out for supremacy. Although Rome was sucking wind, trying to recover and build St. Peter’s, and Florence was still finding itself, the big tunas in medieval Italy were the coastal cities. So the Via della Seta was not about carts rumbling down the road to markets but ships sailing across the big Mediterranean Sea to the little seas… the Red Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aegean, Adriatic, Ligurian, Ionian–the Black Sea.
The sea dogs were traders and carriers of cargo and ships and horses. Knights in armor especially in 1099. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were trumpeting up a holy war to push back the Saracens and Ottomans who were all over the place, suggesting there might be a competitor to the one true religion. The Republics answered the call by carrying men in heavy armor from France, England, and Germany in their ships down the coast. Some of them even joined the fight.
Leave It to Dagobert of Pisa
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the Crusades and who ended up running things, Pisa is not the first place that comes to mind. And yet…
The Republic of Pisa became a mighty power in the 11th century. The Saracens tried to capture the island of Sardinia, but the Pisans and the Genoese took it back. That win gave Pisa supremacy to the south coast and the seas near Sicily and Sardinia, where Genoa on the north coast had Corsica and the waters to the west. Pisa wanted to flex its muscles a little more. There was a war going on down south, so they sailed to find out.
The Crusades have such a bizarre history. The person who starts them always seems to end up getting lost in the picture. In 1095, Alexios I of Constantinople petitioned the pope for some Christian troops to help push the Saracens away his lands near the Black Sea. Somehow, this got turned around to the point where Christian troops were sailing south to Jerusalem instead. By 1099, the fleets of the city-states had also carried siege equipment down the coast, and the Crusaders were stumbling over each other attacking Antioch, Aleppo, and other random places.
They took Jerusalem back from the Fatimids, who had only taken it from the Seljuk Turks a year before. They installed a new Latin Patriarch, who just happened to be good ol’ archbishop Dagobert of Pisa. There is the archbishop in the bow, praying to the troops as they sail off to Jerusalem. They say “Amen,” and “if you stand there, you’ll probably pitch into the water on the next wave.”
I wondered what a “patriarch” was, so looked it up to find: Patriarchate is an ecclesiological term in Christianity, designating the office and jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical patriarch. Ecclesiastical means churchy, so that means a patriarch is a churchy term made by church-people who decide that their office is going to go There, right There. In the middle of Jerusalem, by dog.
So it makes sense that Dogbert would be running that patriarchate.
Venice Takes the Cake… Er… the Relics
The Republic of Venice was not to be outdone by any old Pisans. The Venetians thought they owned the other side of the seas of Italy, the Adriatic and so forth. (I wrote about the Doge last year, letter D, who did not want to be confused with Dogbert, so he added an “E” on the end of his title.)
The Venetians, over the course of the next century, also grew fat, dumb, and happy sailing people down to the Levant. By then, the Saracens and the Ottomans under Saladin had taken Jerusalem back, but they were back-ing and forth-ing across the Mediterranean, too. The Venetians and the Genoese were going at it over in the Black Sea, though the Venetians had gotten very tight with the Byzantines.
In the palace of Constantinople, if you read about the Komnenes, there was constant civil war and backstabbing going on. During the Fourth Crusade, the Pope mustered yet another army to go try to take Jerusalem back, but as the Venetians started down the coast, they persuaded the warriors to attack Zara, a Catholic city, as practice for fighting the Muslims. The Venetians had a trade dispute with Zara, and told the French knights that they would waive their exorbitant fee if the knights helped with an attack. Many of the knights refused. The attack went forth anyway, and the pope excommunicated the Venetians for attacking Christians under the guise of a holy war.
Still, the Republic of Venice was a stubborn lot, and they continued on to Constantinople to help oust whoever claimed to be in charge at the time. They then looted and plundered the city outrageously,taking a lot of holy relics that had been considered sacred to the Byzantines. David Perry has written a fascinating book about how the Venetians (and other Crusaders) ended up creating all these religious justifications for what they did.
Sacred Plunder is what Perry calls the book, about how the Crusaders created origin stories for these items that they stole. For example, Venice later claimed St. Mark as their patron, which justified them stealing his body away from a crypt in Egypt, and they placed relics all over their own cathedrals in order to prove that their Christianity made them do it.
The stuff that all the crusaders manage to procure while in the Holy Land were things like the toenails of Jesus, a shaving of iron from the lance of Longinus, and a sliver from the “rood” (as the medievalists called the cross). Because, of course, Crusader didn’t just sailt down there because Deus vult, God wills it, or because the pope yelled at them or because Bernard of Clairvaux stirred up a bunch of fanatics in a courtyard. Religious fervor might get you suited up and drag you away from the freezing hills of France to seek fame and Fortune. (Reminder to self, need to finish rewatching Kingdom of Heaven). But it was the loot they really wanted.
Since the Venetians continued to look for neighbors to pick fights with even after the travesty of the Fourth Crusade, they also laid their sites on the Genoese. The Republic of Genoa was as strong as Venice, so the two strongest republics of the day met in a battle of the seas, Battle of Curzola in 1298. Nearly a century after the Venetians had put it to their friends in Constantinople, they tried to take it to the Genoese. But although there were roughly the same number of galleys lined up, the Venetians ran their ships aground while trying to surround the Genoese. The Genoese admiral, Lamba Doria became famous, and one of his descendants, Andrea Doria, also had military success trying to follow in his footsteps. And one of the most famous prisoners in the Battle of Curzola was thrown in a Genoese cell, where he started dictating his memoirs, as noted in letter M is for Marco Polo.
But now we come to the Genoese, who got into a really big three-way battle involving the Mamluks in Egypt and the Mongols in Caffa.
What’s Egypt Got to Do with It?
The story so far… Lots of travels back and forth across the Silk Road. Thirteenth-century, the Mongols are pushing across Asia and weakening every culture between the Pacific and the Alps. The Republics of Pisa, Venice, and Genoa are fighting for supremacy with each other around the Mediterranean, while equally opposing groups of Muslims–the Saracens, the Seljuk Turks, and the Ottomans are also fighting for supremacy.
Which brings us to Cairo and the Mamluks. Mamluk in Arabic meant enslaved. Much of the trade among the conquered was the slave trade, and active participants ranged from the Muslims to the Russians to the Mongols to the Vikings. Allegedly, Christians disapproved of slaves, they had their own types of captives and serfs which meant the same thing. And some traders–especially the Genoese–had no problem profiting off the slave trade.
The Fatimids had built a strong presence in Egypt after losing Jerusalem to Dagobert. They were the ones who brought in a large army of slave soldiers, called Mamluks. These warrior-slaves were generally not Muslim, but rather Turks, Egyptian Christians (called Copts), Eastern Europeans (Croatians, Russians, Greeks, &c), and other Caucasians. The army was created by taking young men, purchased when they were teenagers or even younger, and raising them to fight in a way that kept them fiercely loyal and enslaved.
The Mamluks were formidable and growing stronger. The Mongols were formidable and growing stronger; the Khans had their own process for driving loyalty and success. The Mamluks pushed the Mongols out of Syria, after Commander Hulegu had briefly left to return to Qaraqorum to attend Mongke Khans funeral in 1260. After pushing the Mongols out of Syria, for the next forty years, starting with the Battle of Homs and going through 1323, the Mamluks pushed the Mongols out of the Levant. Eventually, the Mamluks and the Mongol group called the Il-Khanate signed a peace treaty in 1323, but all of this contributed to the beginning of the end for the Mongols, who would never regroup enough to move into the west after that.
The Mongols had, however, conquered the area around the Black Sea. They owned the port of Caffa, now known as Theodosia, and in 1266 sold it to the Genoese, who turned it into a trading base. But by the 1310s, the Mongols also had a falling out with the Genoese, leading to a siege of the port of Caffa. This falling out went back and forth for another thirty years until the Mongol leader Jani Beg dug in for a multi-year siege of Caffa in 1340. Until Mongol soldiers started dying of a mysterious illness.
Still, why did the Mongols go after Caffa in 1308 in the first place? Because the Genoese in their trading port had created a thriving slave trade. They were taking the people that the Mongols conquered and were willing to sell, but then selling them to the Mamluks, their mortal enemies.
And that’s what wiped out half of Europe. For the outcome of that, you can see my post last year on B is for Black Death. Or wait for “Y” this year.
By the way, German for Silk Road is Seidenstrasse, which will occupy tomorrow’s post.