Frederick II may have taken the Mongols up on their offer to let him be the Khan’s Falconer.
Frederick II (1194–1250; ruled 1220–50), who also ruled Sicily (an island south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea), was one of the most fascinating figures of the medieval period. Frederick II presided over his court with a dazzling intellectual brilliance but, like Frederick I, he ignored German affairs. After the death of Frederick II in 1250, Germany found itself in a political struggle with the papacy, or office of the pope, that lasted for centuries.
Frederick II (1194-1250) was a king who fought his entire life against the Roman church. He was one of the last Western sovereigns who was brave enough to defy papal hegemony. Twice he was expelled from the Roman church. Frederick II was also one of the most exotic men of his time. He spoke six languages fluently – not only German, French and Italian, but Latin, Greek and Arabic. He was a poet and philosopher who studied Arabic science and culture. He understood natural science, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.
By birth Frederick was half-German and half-Norman, but brought up in his mother’s realm of Sicily with its half-Arab, half-Greek culture, and inheriting his father’s empire in Germany, he united elements of Islam and Christianity. H.G. Wells wrote that, “Frederick II came to an Islamic point of view of Christianity and to a Christian one of Islam.”
The Sicily of his childhood was stamped by influences from the entire Mediterranean area. In it met Cordoba, Rome, Byzantium, Jerusalem, Egypt. When he was four years old he became king of Sicily, at the age of eighteen he became king of Germany. In 1220 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. A contemporary illustration shows Frederick II with his sword girded on, in the right hand the royal sceptre, on the left fist a falcon, both looking up to the sun.
He avoided setting out on a Crusade either against the Muslims in Palestine or the Gnostic Cathars in southern France. As he repeatedly refused to go to war, Pope Gregory IX expelled him from the church in 1227.
Frederick II did not see much sense in fighting against the Cathars or Muslims. He was an ally of the Cathars and frequently met messengers of this Gnostic Christian community to support their revolt against the Catholic church and the French kingdom.
There was even less reason to fight against his Arab Muslim brothers. He is said to have been initiated into the Sufi mysticism of Islam. He was also in contact with the notorious Ismaili Muslim sect, commonly known in the West as the Assassins. In 1228 he sent a messenger to the Assassin’s fortress of Alamut in Syria. According to Humbert Fink:
“Frederick’s meeting with the Assassins is probably to be considered from the point of view that he was searching the acquaintance of those personalities in the Oriental world who had a position similar to the one he had in his area, sick with the eternal hostilities of the pope. There are no details concerning possible meetings between him and Hassan Sabbath. But undoubtedly there was a connection between Frederick and the Assassins. And only this circumstance is strange enough as the life of a Christian – even the life of a sovereign – was in big danger if he took the risk to come close to the Assassins. But Frederick had to fear nothing. He was respected in the Orient even by the Assassins.”
In 1228 Frederick II decided to make a Crusade to Palestine. He did it his way. It was the only historical Crusade without bloodshed. He met in Cairo with the Egyptian Sultan Malik al-Kamil. They talked about poetry and philosophy, and played chess. Frederick II gave to the Sultan one of his beloved falcons and received in exchange an elephant. They arranged an armistice and agreed that the holy sites Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth should belong to Frederick II. The treaty was signed on 18 February 1229 – a bloodless victory that accomplished more, with an excommunicate pen, than forty years of legal crusading had ever done.
When he crowned himself king of Jerusalem he was deeply fascinated by the marvellous octagonal Al Aksa mosque that united in it Christian and Islamic elements. Astonished he went through the interior and studied the mosaics. He criticised the local Muslim muezzin for failing, out of respect for the new ruler of the city, to give the customary calls to prayer: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem,” he said, “was to hear the call to prayer, and the cries of praise to God during the night.”
Inspired by the Islamic architecture of Jerusalem, Frederick II returned to Europe and ordered the construction of the Castel del Monte. Built between 1240 and 1250, the Castel del Monte is an edifice in which everything refers to the figure Eight. It is octagonal, at each corner there is an octagonal tower, in each of the two floors there are eight rooms. Also the interior court is octagonal, in its centre there is an octagonal well. Place of devotion. Place of attention. Place of Power. Frederick II used the eternally recurring figure Eight in its horizontal shape as an emblem of eternity. A symbol of balance and of justice. Castel del Monte symbolised the meeting of East and West.
“Frederick,” wrote Humbert Fink, “was the only Western sovereign and monarch who did not approach the East and the Arabs with the sword but with the art of persuasion and empathy attempted what up to now always had cost flows of blood.”
The influence of Frederick II
The Muslim cultural influence in Sicily continued for centuries. Frederick II of Sicily (1272–1337), who later became Holy Roman Emperor, dressed in Muslim fashions and kept a harem (a group of women, usually relatives including multiple wives, who lived in a secluded part of the house).
After the death of Saladin, competing Ayyubid interests often meant that expediency was put before jihad, most notably when the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, gave Jerusalem to Frederick II of Sicily in AH 626/1229 CE.
Al-Kamil Muhammad (d. 1238) assumed in 1218 the Ayyubid sultanate, although not all of the other Ayyubids acquiesced. Al-Kamil’s dealings with the Crusaders over the course of his reign were tightly interwoven with his relations with his relatives. Al-Kamil’s lifting of the Crusader occupation of Damietta (1219–1221), for example, was accomplished with the assistance of his brothers al-Malik al-Ashraf Musa in the Jazira and al-Malik al-Mu‘azzam ‘Isa in Syria.
In 1227, when the armies of Emperor Frederick II threatened Egypt, al-Kamil was engaged in a power struggle with al-Mu‘azzam, and he therefore offered Jerusalem to Frederick to avoid an invasion of Egypt. The emperor refused. Al-Kamil’s position was subsequently strengthened by Al-Mu‘azzam’s death in late 1227, but al-Kamil continued negotiations with Frederick after he arrived in Acre in 1228. These negotiations led to the establishment of a limited truce, signed in February 1129, that restored an unfortified Jerusalem to the Franks for ten years, five months, and forty days. Both the emperor and the sultan were severely criticized by their respective co-religionists for this agreement.
Arab scholars and administrators were a key part of his court, and Arabic was one of the four official Sicilian languages. It was at Frederick’s University of Naples that St. Thomas Aquinas was first exposed to Arabic translations of classical Greek texts.
Born of nobility in the Italian town of Aquino—hence his name, Aquinas—Thomas was the youngest son of a count who descended from the Normans. His father had once fought in the armies of Emperor Frederick II, who like many another Holy Roman emperor was in conflict with the reigning pope.  Hoping to ensure their good standing with the church, his parents placed the five-year-old Thomas in the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict.
Things did not quite work out as planned: the emperor’s conflict with the pope led to the latter excommunicating Frederick, or expelling him from the church, in 1239, when Thomas was fourteen. As a result, Frederick threatened Monte Cassino, and Thomas had to change schools. He moved to Naples in southern Italy, where he enrolled in what was to become that city’s university.
The university system of Europe was in its earliest days at that time, and a number of new ideas were in the air. Most of these “new” concepts were actually old ones, inherited from the ancient Greeks and translated by Arab thinkers such as Averroës. The latter’s writings had a great impact on the school at Naples, not only because it was relatively close to the Arab world, but also because Frederick (who had founded the school in 1224) encouraged the introduction of Islamic as well as Christian ideas there.
 One factor in this process was the increasingly awkward relationship between Holy Roman emperors and the papacy. After all, of eleven emperors and emperor-elects who ruled between 1056 and 1245 only two––Lothar III (1125–37) and Henry VI (1190–7)––were not excommunicated at some stage of their reign, while popes even declared Henry IV (1056–1106) and Frederick II (1194/7–1250) deposed, in 1076 and 1245 respectively.