It’s one of those stories that turns the Crusades on its head. A commander in the Knights Templar and a Muslim ruler with a fearsome reputation for defeating crusaders become best buddies. Well, blood brothers to be exact. How could this happen? Well it did – so let’s go back 350 years to unravel the mystery…
In the 1270s, the Templar commander in Sidon, Matthew Sauvage (also spelt Sarmage), and the Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Sultan Baybars, became blood brothers. What this means is that a leading Knight Templar in the Holy Land and the top Muslim ruler agreed to treat each other as if they were true, familial brothers. And to seal this fraternal deal – they mixed each other’s blood.
The event was recorded by an Italian notary, Antonio Sici di Vercelli who was offering his legal services at the time to the Templars. He wrote that Commander Sauvage was “the brother of the Sultan of Babylon (Roman name for Cairo) who was then reigning, because each had drunk from the blood of the other in turns, wherefore they were called brothers”.
This was eyebrow raising stuff.
It revealed a close personal relationship between a Templar and the most powerful Muslim ruler in the region. And Baybars was an extraordinarily powerful figure. A highly effective warrior ranking alongside Saladin in terms of the threat posed to the Knights Templar.
A hundred years earlier, Saladin had ripped through crusader territory and retaken Jerusalem. In the late 13th century, Baybars was inflicting repeated defeats on the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. And not only was he hammering the crusaders, but Baybars also managed to make mincemeat of the Mongols at a huge bust up of a battle fought in Galilee.
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So for Matthew Sauvage to declare Baybars as his blood brother seems wildly inappropriate. Add to this that Baybars was a Muslim ruler of slave descent. The Arab rulers of Egypt had brought in Turkic and other ethnic minorities as mercenary soldiers to defend their realms from the crusaders. These so-called ‘Mamluks’ became steadily more powerful until eventually they seized control in 1250.
Baybars wasn’t ethnically Arab therefore. He was born on what would become the Russian steppe, north of the Crimea. Unlike the Egyptians and Syrians he ruled – Baybars was tall, blue-eyed, fair-skinned and broad-faced. As a military operator, he was utterly ruthless towards the crusaders. Before becoming sultan, he had inflicted a shameful and avoidable defeat on the Templars and forces of the French king Louis IX at the Battle of Al Mansourah.
Strange choice for a blood brother. But this sort of close bonding seems to have happened before. There are other accounts of crusaders and senior Muslim figures becoming blood brothers. Saladin is said to have been the blood brother of Count Raymond III of Tripoli as well as the Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelus.
How might Matthew Sauvage have met Baybars? Well, the Templars sometimes hosted Muslim dignitaries at their preceptories. That might surprise you. But the knights were as capable of engaging in a bit of diplomacy as much as warfare. It’s very possible that Sauvage encountered Baybars as a guest of the Templars.
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There is another theory that Sauvage was taken prisoner in a skirmish between crusaders and some Turkish fighters. The non-Templars were released for a ransom but the Templars had to wait to be rescued by none other than…Baybars. This meant that Sauvage owed a debt of gratitude to the Mamluk sultan cemented by a blood brotherhood pact.
And how does this story end? Not very well to be honest. Because decades later the Knights Templar were destroyed in 1307 and many knights put on trial for their life. And who should pop up as a witness for the prosecution but an ageing Italian notary called Antonio Sici di Vercelli. He recounted this blood brotherhood pact as evidence of Templar duplicity and double dealing with the Saracen enemy.
No doubt this damning testimony helped a few knights on their way to the execution pyre.