Chianti & History

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Come summer, we escape Cambridge for points East and despite our poverty, find ourselves in Italy. Here, we do as the Romans do: during the day, we sprawl at piazzas in the shadows of mighty edifices, and at night, prowl the streets, like the progeny of the wolf-suckled. And soon, we will meander through the undulating gold and olive hued Tuscan countryside, drunk on fresh warm Chianti from roadside enotecas, and on the periphery of Montepulciano, will find our kinsman’s villa where we will drink more, eat more and revel for a fortnight. Then we will head further east on a cheap ticket that includes a long layover in Amman, before arriving at our final destination, Karachi.

Sipping wine in the shadow of the edifice of history, we have mused that the next leg of the journey, from Italy to Jordan, recalls another made a millennium ago by the Franks of Italy who swept south circa 1097. Let by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, David Koresh-like figures, the First Crusade began with an attack on the Jewish communities across the Italian coast and ended at the gates of Nicaea where they were wiped out by the young Turkoman leader Arslan. Subsequently, one Bohemond of southern Italy, along with a French contingent comprising Raymond St. Gilles and the Brothers Bouillon, led another effort that succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Carnage followed the fall of the city: Muslims, Jews and Christians alike were slaughtered.  Soon, a tenuous Frankish empire comprising the principalities if Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli was established, one that relied on the Genoa and Venice for naval support.

The attack stirred a period of introspection amongst the disparate Muslim nations of the region: the Fatamids of Egypt, the Seljuk Abbasids in Baghdad and the Turkomans of “Rum.” Ultimately, because of the attacks, the Muslims were able to summon a coherent response: Salahuddin. Salahuddin expelled the Crusaders circa 1290. There were other Crusades, the most unfortunate being  what has come to be known as the Children’s Crusade (when bands of children were sold into prostitution before they left the continent.)

Although we don’t like reading too much into history, today, when the horrid specter of jihad looms, the Crusades seem strangely relevant. Moreover, the quest for Jerusalem seems to be a powerful historical dynamic. Of course, the Crusades summon different memories for different peoples. Here in Italy, the Crusaders are lionized while in the Middle East they are remembered as the defeated. Of course, history like literature, is simply an exercise in perspective.

Ridley Scott’s perspective on the Crusades makes for a mildly interesting spectacle (although Orland Bloom is an unfortunate casting decision). Amin Malouf’s the Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a novel variety of historiography. P.M. Holt’s unembellished version appeals to our sensibilities. It is, of course, the ascendant civilization that canonizes collective memory and defines discourse.

We remember things differently and different times (and like to think of different things altogether) but then we’ve had too much to drink. And we believe, “It’s not where you’re from/ It’s where you’re at.”