The Muslim Prince Who Lived In The Vatican

“Out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. ” —Jawaharlal Nehru

In A Nutshell

In the 15th century, Prince Djem (the brother of Ottoman Sultan Bajazet) became a guest of Pope Innocent VIII in the Vatican. Djem was actually a pawn in the political game between Sultan Bajazet and the Pope. But nonetheless, this Muslim prince lived in luxury at the very seat of Christendom. The incongruous situation of the Pope playing host to an infidel further eroded respect for the papacy.

The Whole Bushel

After the death of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, on May 3, 1481, a succession struggle immediately flared up between his two sons Bajazet and Djem. Bajazet was proclaimed sultan, and his half-brother responded by raising an army to challenge him. In a decisive battle, Djem lost and had to flee. He sought the protection of the Knights of St. John, who saw in Djem a valuable bargaining chip in the struggle against the Ottomans. The Knights therefore welcomed him to their base in Rhodes and told Sultan Bajazet that they would keep him out of his skin in return for an annual subsidy of 45,000 ducats. Realizing that Djem was a goose that laid golden eggs who might be coveted by other European powers, the Knights sent him to France for better safekeeping. Once there, the Regent, Anne of Bourbon, put the Muslim prince up for auction among competitors eager for the lucrative hostage.

Here, Pope Innocent VIII stepped in and acquired Djem by offering a cardinalship to Pierre d’Aubusson, the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John. On March 13, 1489, Prince Djem entered Rome accompanied by the Prior of Auvergne. A white horse, a present from the Pope, awaited the Muslim at the city gate. Cardinals sent their households to greet him. Ordinary citizens looked in awe and wonderment at the turbanned Oriental, the brother of Christendom’s sworn enemy, his face covered by a veil. The ambassador of the Sultan of Egypt prostrated himself before Djem and kissed his feet. In one of the strangest events in history, the self-proclaimed leader of the Muslim world was given his own lodgings at the Vatican, the very headquarters of Christianity.

The Pope sent Djem many presents, and the prince spent his time in sport, music, and banquets. He was a man of culture and enjoyed reading. But most of the time, Djem sank into deep depression as he pondered his bleak situation and simply let the hours pass brooding or sleeping. He was always worried that his brother might send an assassin to poison him.

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Indeed, many had volunteered to do just that, for a handsome fee, of course. In 1490, a dispossessed baron was caught poisoning the well that supplied the Vatican with water. This attempt on the life of Djem and the Pope was disclosed by the baron as a plot involving many more people. When Bajazet sent his promised subsidy in November, the ambassador who brought it was rubbed down with a towel as a precaution against poison before being admitted into Djem’s presence. When he offered Djem a letter from his brother, the prince ordered him to lick it first.

To many Christians, there must be a day of reckoning for the scandal of an infidel living with the Pope. Innocent VIII finally died in 1492, and Djem was then transferred into the hands of his depraved successor Rodrigo Borgia, known as Pope Alexander VI. Borgia handed him over to the French King Charles VIII who thought Djem might become useful in his campaign against the sultan. The Pope’s son Cesare accompanied Djem to the French camp. One day, Cesare suddenly disappeared, and Djem was afterward taken ill and died under mysterious circumstances. No one really knows what happened. Was he poisoned by Cesare? Only one thing is certain. A short time before, Alexander had received a letter from the sultan promising him 300,000 ducats and a permanent peace in exchange for Djem’s dead body.

Show Me The Proof

A History of the Papacy During the Period of the Reformation, by Mandell Creighton
Life and Times of Girolamo Sabonarola
History of the Christian Church, Volume VI, by Philip Schaff

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