A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq: Riccoldo da Montecroce's Encounter with
BY RITA GEORGE-TVRTKOVIC BREPOLS, 248 PAGES, $116
Toward the end of the thirteenth century, a friar named Riccoldo da Montecroce left his Dominican house in Florence to make the long journey to the Middle East, but unlike other pilgrims he did not have the biblical sites as his final destination. He planned to travel to Baghdad, the Muslim cultural center and former residence of the caliph on the Tigris River. His aim was to learn Arabic and spread the Christian faith among Muslims. He found instead a thriving religious culture that challenged his own faith.
Riccoldo was not the first Dominican to live among Muslims for an extended period of time. A Dominican house of studies had been established in Baghdad some fifty years earlier. What makes his journey noteworthy is that he wrote a highly personal account of his experiences with detailed references to Muslim beliefs and practices. A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq provides the first English translation of two of his writings: the Liber Peregrinationis (Book of Pilgrimage) and Five Letters on the Fall of Acre (really meditative essays, one addressed to God the Father and another to the Virgin Mary). The translator, Rita George-Tvrtkovie, an associate professor of theology at Benedictine University, also offers a well-informed analysis of the historical and religious settings that brought them forth.
Since the eleventh century, Christians in the West had been writing about Islam, but few had firsthand knowledge of it. The Qur'an had been translated into Latin in the twelfth century, but most writers relied on a few polemical works and had no acquaintance with Muslim literature. They drew on the same sources, repeating what they had learned from earlier polemicists such as the Venerable Bede. Following John of Damascus, the first Christian to write about Islam, they viewed Islam as a Christian heresy, reveled in unflattering details about the Prophet's life (like the story about his relation to the wife of his adopted son), repeated stock quotations from the Qur'an (that Jesus is "word and spirit of God," for example), and claimed that Islam traces its roots back to Ishmael, not to Abraham.
Though Riccoldo arrived in the Muslim world with customary Western views of Islam, he was a ready learner, and his book is filled with wonder at what he observed. One of his favorite words is "stupefied." "I was...