The Papal-Porte Axis


Here's the NYT's rundown of various attitudes toward Islam to be found among the cardinals who will soon choose the next pope. (One of them, of course, will be the next pope.) Some cardinals hope that Muslims will become more secular, others believe Muslims have something to teach Christians about piety. The story's major theme involves Catholic-Muslim dialog, and whether the next pope will exert the same effort toward mutual understanding as did the last pope.

John Paul II was certainly well intentioned, but why should interfaith dialog represent the standard for Catholic-Muslim harmony? The Church has a very long history with Islam, and the Crusades represent only one aspect of it. Surely the pope who set the standard for a completely "normal" relationship with Islam was Alexander VI (1492-1503). Even as the Ottoman navy was capturing a series of Christian cities in the Mediterranean, Alexander sought a military alliance with the Sublime Porte against one of his fellow Christian rulers in Europe. That's mutual understanding.

Alexander VI is usually considered the bottom of the papal barrel, merely because he was a greedy, aggrandizing sensualist who attained the Papacy through simony. That's all true, but given some of the other pontiffs' records, such failings don't make him uniquely bad. Alexander's real historical problem is that he was a Borgia (the father of Lucrezia Borgia, in fact) with many powerful enemies outside the Church who spread lurid tales of incest and poisoning, and who described such unlikely episodes as the infamous 50 coupling Roman harlots competing professionally for Alexander's entertainment.

Anyway, in 1494 Charles, the king of France, was marching down the Italian peninsula with an impressive agenda. He was threatening to depose Alexander as illegitimate, take control of the Papacy, crown himself king in Naples, and was even talking of an anti-Ottoman Crusade that would make him king of Jerusalem. Alexander, unable to find allies in Europe to defend him, turned to Constantinople, and Sultan Beyazit II (the grandfather of Suleiman the Magnificent). Alexander wanted two things from Beyazit: an attack on Charles using the sultan's allies, and money.

In fact, Beyazit had been sending the pope 40,000 gold pieces annually. Why? Because Beyazit's brother Cem lived with the pope; he was a kind of papal hostage. Cem had fought Beyazit for the sultanate, lost, and taken refuge on Christian Rhodes. He ended up in Rome, where Alexander kept him around should he someday prove useful. Beyazit's annual payment made sure Cem stayed away from Ottoman territory. Alexander wanted an advance on that payment.

Beyazit sent the money, began diplomatic maneuvers on Alexander's behalf, and even made an offer of his own: If Alexander would murder Cem and send the corpse to Constantinople, Beyazit would forward Alexander another 300,000 gold pieces "with which to buy possessions for your sons." But Beyazit's letter was intercepted by Charles, to Alexander's intense embarrassment. Thus, despite their best common efforts, the pope never consummated his alliance with the sultan against the king of France.

Here's how their story ends. Charles enters Rome, even capturing the pope's mistress. (Alexander ransoms her.) But Charles decides against deposing Alexander because he fears the process will be far too troublesome. However, Charles does demand custody of Cem, perhaps to use in his planned Holy Crusade (which, obviously, never takes place). Alexander refuses. Cem soon dies anyway, probably poisoned by the pope with the connivance of Beyazit. If so, Cem is the only victim of Papal-Porte intrigue.

In 1499, Beyazit brings Cem's body home, "together with his property," according to an Ottoman account, "amongst which was an enchanted cup, which became brimful as soon as delivered empty into the cup-bearer's hand, a white parrot, a chess-playing monkey, and some thousands of splendid books . . ." While they were burying Cem, a great "thunder-clap and tumult" caused the funeral party to flee screaming from the sepulchral chamber. They didn't come back for more than a week.