Save human civilisation from ISIS thuggery

ISIS has not only been destroying ancient Roman and Assyrian monuments but also the medieval Christian and Muslim heritage of Syria and Iraq. For example, the Mar Elian monastery dated back to the 4th century when the Roman empire converted to Christianity. ISIS bulldozers brought its walls crashing down.

Dura-Europos was described as the Pompeii of the desert yielding amazing remains of Roman armour and many temples. Needless to say that aerial photographs show it to have now been looted and demolished in a mindless display of barbarism.

Mosul saw the infamous attack on the city’s museum but less well reported was the burning of the university library and the central public library. In those flames went thousands of ancient books, manuscripts and scientific instruments developed by medieval Arabic scholars. UNESCO said it was possibly one of the worst destructions of libraries in history.

The Mar Behnam monastery survived centuries of the Islamic caliphate and the Mongol invasion of the Middle Ages. But then ISIS showed up and rigged the 4th century site with explosives pulverising a saint’s tomb and exquisite decoration. Save human history from ISIS

Paris – the beating heart of the Knights Templar

Templars in ParisOn this very sad day, it’s worth remembering what a great historical city Paris is – and why it will endure. It was, after all, the de facto headquarters of the Knights Templar. In what is now the Marais district, there was once a huge preceptory run by the knights. They drained the marshy land, evidencing their ability to be industrious farmers as well as fearsome warriors. This was in the first half of the 12th century, the first decades of the Order’s existence.

Eventually, they threw up a monumental tower complex that lasted into the nineteenth century. It took many years to tear it down. This impregnable building was used during the French Revolution – long after the Templars had disappeared – to imprison King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, prior to their execution on the guillotine. Napoleon had it demolished in all likelihood over fears that royalists would turn the fortress into a pilgrimage site for their late monarch.

As you all know, it was a French king – resident in Paris needless to say – who decided in 1306 to move against the Templars with a compliant Pope in his pocket. Philip the Fair had noted the wealth contained in the mighty fortress and figured it would serve him better if it was moved to his treasury. In order to do that, Philip had to crush the Templars. The leaders of the Order were arrested, tortured and the last Grand Master – Jacques de Molay – were burned to death on a small island in the Seine.

A Murder committed at Christmas and the Templars have lost their greatest treasure

QUEST FOR THE TRUE CROSS – out soon in paperback on Amazon

(Quest for the True Cross is a thrilling Templar adventure starting with the grisly murder of an elderly priest in a church. Two unscrupulous thieves are spiriting away the True Cross from the Syrian city of Edessa – which kicks off a desperate hunt to retrieve it. The following is an excerpt from Quest for the True Cross by Tony McMahon, which will be available in paperback on Amazon very shortly – keep looking out for it!)


medieval murderTemplar church,


The priest clasped at his assailant’s tunic as he struggled for air. Besnik lessened the pressure on the old man’s windpipe yet his grimy hands remained firmly round Father’s Jean’s neck, leaving unsightly purple bruises.

“You should have found a linen box to crawl into and hide,” the Romani mercenary cackled.

“I beg you not to do this, my son,” the priest gasped.

“I’m not your son.”

Death medievalThis cannot be how I meet my end, Father Jean thought. Surely this creature is capable of some decency. Nobody can be devoid of all compassion. If I can only find some common ground between us, I will see the sun rise tomorrow.

“We are … we are both men of the book. Children of Abraham.” Father Jean took a faltering breath. “Only our view of His Son truly divides us.”

His assailant was unmoved.

“I’m neither Saracen nor Frank,” Besnik sneered at the priest. “Don’t waste words about your useless God on me.”

Time was marching against Besnik and his accomplice Giyassedin. Outside the city was falling to the Seljuk Turks. An immense Saracen wave had crashed over the seemingly impenetrable fortifications. The Christian forces had been scattered and their control of this great Syrian city was very much at an end. It wouldn’t be long before the Turks found this church and ranksacked its riches. The two thieves had to work fast. Besnik’s hand gripped Father Jean’s throat once more. The Romani derived a sadistic thrill from tightening his fingers around his victim’s windpipe. The priest grabbed at the mercenary’s hand but it was locked in position and squeezing. He lifted Father Jean off his feet, the priest kicking at Besnik in a futile defence.

“I … I … I … know … nothing …”

medieval deathHis hold was so tight that the cartilage in Father Jean’s throat crackled. Eyes bulging and face reddened, the black-robed cleric writhed as Besnik calmly and methodically throttled him.

“I told you he wouldn’t talk,” Giyassedin observed from the side of the altar in a matter-of-fact way. “He’d rather die than tell us.”

Besnik dropped the priest in a heap on the floor. His patience had worn thin. He resumed beating the old man with his fists. Blow after blow rained down on the cleric’s bloodied face. Feebly, the old man raised a hand to defend himself but Besnik pushed it away. A strong punch closed the priest’s left eye as he groaned for this brutal torture to cease.

“Where is it?” Besnik yelled at Father Jean.

“I … I cannot … I must not say.”

The mercenary drew his dagger from its leather sheath and grabbing the priest by the few grey hairs on his head, severed an ear with one rapid slicing action. Father Jean clasped his head and screamed. Besnik repeated the question.

medieval killing“Where … is … it?”

His senses dulled by agony, the priest involuntarily allowed his one good eye to dart leftwards for the briefest instant. That was enough for Besnik. He now knew where to find the treasure that he and his accomplice sought. Leaving Father Jean in a pained heap on the flagstone floor, he moved over to the stone pulpit.

“Help me move this,” he barked at Giyassedin.

“Are you sure?”


The two thieves pushed at the block of stone surmounted by a carving of an eagle, the symbol of John the Apostle. With a grinding sound, the pulpit yielded its secret inch by inch. Beneath it was a crudely dug hole in the floor. Besnik thrust a flaming torch into the darkness, revealing a small hill of human bones. A skull stared back mournfully at the mercenary.

“Good,” Besnik announced.

Father Jean looked on in horror.

“What have I done?” The priest wept on his knees, too weak to stand.

Father Jean had never wanted to be a martyr – that was for braver and saintly men. But this creature had no God, he was sure of that.

“Kill me! In God’s name … kill me,” he whispered.

Convulsing in agony, the priest looked up at Besnik. Scum of Christendom! The lowest of God’s creatures! One of that accursed race of men who had fashioned the very nails driven into the hands of Christ in return for base coin. Everybody knew of the perfidy of the Romani people, stealers of bibles and relics, friendless and condemned to wander the earth. And he had delivered up a great Templar treasure to this devil. Those great knights of the Temple of Jerusalem will never forgive me.

“You – you dog!” the priest spat. “You’re more vile than a Saracen!”

Besnik grabbed the cleric’s chin, shoved it back and ran his sharp dagger blade across Father Jean’s throat as if he were killing a pig on market day. A crimson jet spurted out across the grey flagstones. In the warm evening air, the blood soon congealed around the prone body.


How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part three

The temple as it appeared in the Roman period

The temple as it appeared in the Roman period

Last month I was in Rome and one theme of my trip was looking at pagan temples of the Roman period that were then converted into Christian churches during the Middle Ages.

In the middle of the Roman Forum are the pillared remains of a temple built by the emperor Antoninus Pius and dedicated to his dead wife, Faustina. The building took twenty years to complete between CE141 and CE161. Antoninus Pius was ruler of the Roman empire during a period of relative stability and enormous wealth. When the emperor died, it was dedicated to both him and his wife.

150 years later – after a long period of chaos – Rome became Christian and the temple fell out of use. As so often happened during the late empire, the temple began to be recycled as it fell into disuse. However the outer ring of columns and walls survived. This was in spite of one attempt to pull down the pillars, evidenced by cut marks at the top of the columns.

During the Byzantine period, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda – possibly based on the belief that Saint Lawrence was martyred there. You can still see steps leading up to the door of the church built in the Middle Ages. However, the main door of the church is now stranded in mid-air, high above ground level. Repeated excavations over the centuries have removed so much earth and debris that it’s impossible to enter San Lorenzo.

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part two

I was in Rome last month and discovered a Christian church built in the Middle Ages over not one – but THREE pagan temples!

You could easily walk past this church but don’t – go in and ask permission to visit the crypt. It’s a bit smelly but down below the church of San Nicola in Carcere (Saint Nicholas in prison) you’ll see that this medieval place of Christian worship was constructed on top of the foundations of three temples. Hard to explain how this was done but basically the nave completely swallowed up one temple while the outer walls incorporated a row of columns from the temples to each side. The rest of those temples have long disappeared.

The first church was built in the 6th century but the current building was dedicated ten years after the foundation of the Knights Templar in 1128. Down below, you can see evidence of shops that were once above ground – part of the vegetable market that existed around the pagan temples during Roman times. In the Byzantine period, the submerged market seems to have gone through a phase of being used as a prison.

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part one

I was in Rome last month and saw evidence of pagan temples converted into Christian churches – either by being converted for new use or rebuilt using materials from the old temple.

The front of the Pantheon

The front of the Pantheon

When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, he set in train a process that would last centuries – of pagan temples being systematically demolished, plundered or converted to use as churches. The most dramatic example is the Pantheon – a huge rotunda with a still existing dome made of concrete, completed in CE126 under the Emperor Hadrian. Originally, the Pantheon was a temple to all the gods but after Constantine the clock was ticking against the images of deities like Mars and Venus.

Under the Byzantine emperor Phocas – who held sway over Rome and the papacy – the Pantheon was donated by the emperor in CE609 to the church. The Pantheon was consecrated as a place of worship to Mary and the Martyrs. This probably saved the building from demolition though as late as the 17th century, pope Urban VIII stripped bronze away from the portico.