Thursday, December 9

Federico Barbaroja, the king who could not swim

Acre.  Place of arrival of the Third Crusade

Acre. Place of arrival of the Third Crusade

Being a child, Federico de Staufen he had listened to his uncle, Conrad III, speak with exalted fervor of those men who left everything and went to conquer the Holy Land. They hadn’t nicknamed him Barbarossa yet. He did not even have hair on his chin when Bernard of Clairvaux ascended the pulpits of all France to declaim that the County of Edessa had to be recovered and the Christian possessions in the East secured. Jerusalem was in danger. The travelers returning from those lands told that the Saracens kidnapped the pilgrims, killed the men and raped and enslaved the women. The Christian kingdoms had to unite and leave for a journey of no return, since paradise awaited them behind the gates of the city that saw Christ die.

Frederick had just been appointed Duke of Swabia when that Second Crusade was on the brink of failure. His uncle, Emperor Conrad III, had been defeated in Damascus by Arab troops and the Byzantines had made peace with the Seljuks, treating them better than the poor Christian soldiers, who starved and thirsty in strange lands. But that child would never forget the mark of faith of those men who returned soulless from hell itself. They spoke of cities scorched by the desert, where the walls multiply and blend in with the sand. Many of them had been able to see up close the spear with which Jesus had been pierced. Also the nails that had confirmed his passion. The sponge still soaked in vinegar and a bottle of milk that had emanated from the very breasts of the Virgin Mary. How to forget such a display of religiosity. Some day he too should forge his memory in hostile lands and recover those relics that so dangerously lived with the infidel.

Federico Barbarroja had to remember that day, many years later, celebrating mass at the foot of the Gösku River, in present-day Turkey. At that time the Anatolian Peninsula was a disputed territory. The Mediterranean coast belonged to a short-lived and legendary kingdom, nicknamed the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. The Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk forces were on the frontier. He was 74 years old, the emperor had lived long enough to know that it is never too late to fulfill a dream. He had become the visible head of the Empire. He had subdued northern Italy with great effort and sacrifice. The pope of Rome now did not kill a fly without their consent and it was his turn to go down to posterity as the monarch of Christendom who recovered the holy places. Jerusalem had fallen into Saladin’s hands two years ago. An infidel could not guard the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord.

By his side they accompanied him 50,000 soldiers, willing to die for their king, but more afraid than a peasant in times of drought. It is not easy to travel the wide world alone, but it is always better than doing it with 50,000 people in the shade. The expedition was forced to loot entire cities and regions for supplies. 50,000 mouths can handle the herds of an entire country and dry up the mightiest rivers in an East that heats up in summer. This terrain was very different from the cities in which he had spent his childhood. Aachen, Regensburg and Mainz were subjected to a wind coming from the Baltic and covered by snow five months a year. But the Levant was arid and burned the eyes when they looked at the horizon.

Frederick had decided to cross the continent on foot. Other kings had responded to the pope’s call with the same religious fervor. But Jerusalem had to be reached on foot. Philip Augustus of France and Richard the Lionheart had embarked in Marseille and Genoa and, after resting in Rhodes and Cyprus, had landed in Acre, their strength intact and their hearts serene. But the Holy Roman Emperor could not cast himself the weakness of renouncing his destiny. Along with his troops he crossed Hungary. He opted for the Danube route, the river where as a child he did not dare to bathe, and crossed the Balkans, making friends with the Serbian peoples, leaving Constantinople aside and crossing the Dardanelles, entering Anatolia and diplomatically avoiding the Seljuk infidels.

He knew the hunger and the cold in the passage of the Myriocephalus, where the mountains freeze in winter. He endured several days without food or drink between Philomelion and Konya, watching the horses die and his men go mad. That morning he got up early and walked to the banks of the Göksu River. After celebrating mass, he went to bathe. Her doctor had prescribed submerging in icy waters to keep her muscles firm. But Redbeard forgot the days when the Danube inspired him to fear. His death did not come at the hands of Saladin, with Gethsemane in the background, but awkwardly drowned in a river of placid waters. They dipped her body in vinegar and mourned her fate. They wanted to take him to Jerusalem but the heat accelerated the decomposition process. The pilgrim emperor’s flesh was buried in Antioch, the bones in Tire, and his heart in Tarsus.

The emperor who had made his faith the most risky of journeys did not get to see Jerusalem.

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