On the face of it, the contract looked like a windfall. A group of French knights
wanted transportation to Egypt to begin a new crusade. The five-year truce
Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin signed had ended, and both Saladin
and Rchard were dead. The leader of the knights, Boniface of Montferrat,
was willing to pay the Venetians well for carrying his army across the Mediterranean.
Egypt, Boniface told the Doge of Venice, was the most vulnerable part of Islam, and the
key to the Holy Land.
But to the Doge, Enrico Dandolo, Egypt was something else: It was Venice's
leading trading partner.
A lesser man would have resigned himself to losing either the ferry contract or
the lucrative trade with Egypt. Dandolo did neither. He sent a message to Saphadin,
Saladin's brother, who was now Sultan of Egypt, telling him not to worry. Then he
spoke with his council.
Dandolo cared nothing for crusades. His only concern was Venice. Now 80, he
had fought the Pisans, the Genoese, and the Byzantines for control of the eastern
Mediterranean. His city was now the greatest power on the inland sea. In one of his
battles with the Byzantine Greeks, he had suffered a blow on the head that killed
his eyesight. Though his eyes were useless, there was nothing wrong with Dandolo's
hindsight or foresight. He could look back at the years of strife between Venice and
Constantinople, including a massacre of all Italian merchants in the Byzantine capital.
He remembered, too, that when Saladin had captured Jerusalem, Isaac Angelus, the
Greek emperor, had sent his congratulations. He could also look forward to a Venetian
thalassocracy based on Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the Greek islands. The Great
Council, the ruling body of the Venetian Republic, endorsed the Doge's plan.
Dandolo agreed with the Crusaders to transport 4,500 knights, 4,500 horses,
9,000 squires, and 20,000 heavily armed soldiers called sergeants to Egypt. He would
also supply 50 warships and their crews...