To find the Holy Grail of course!
Well, that’s if you subscribe to the Dan Brown view of things. But what was the official narrative for the foundation of the Templars? Michael Haag in his book ‘The Templars’ recounts the standard explanation which I’ll paraphrase from. Essentially as the First Crusade died down with the successful establishment of the crusader states like Jerusalem and Edessa, many of the Christian warriors packed their bags and went home. Indeed, there may have been an acute shortage of “Franks” (the Saracen term for all crusaders) from which to recruit armies to defend these new kingdoms.
The best that could be done was to keep the towns well defended but the roads in between were another story. Saewulf of Canterbury in 1102 detailed how pilgrims who arrived at Jaffa were often subject to attack as they struck out on the road to Jerusalem. The stragglers or small groups were particular targets of Bedouin nomads. Pilgrims would more than likely be killed to access the money which was often sewn in to their clothing.
It must have been a rather unpleasant sight for newly arrived pilgrims to traipse along the road to Jerusalem only to find the rotting corpses of other pilgrims lining the way. Not only were the faithful being set upon by local thieves but they also had to contend with Turkic soldiers from the north and Egyptians from the south.
A Russian pilgrim had noted the activities of Fatimids from Egypt: ‘There are many springs here; travellers rest by the water but with great fear, for it is a deserted place and nearby is the town of Ascalon from which Saracens sally forth and kill travellers on these roads’.
It has been suggested that these attacks had been escalating for quite a while. It’s important to realise that Christians had been coming to Jerusalem before the crusades and often experienced no difficulty (was a muslim ruler going to choke off an influx of medieval tourists?) while at other times, they were not so welcome. All depending on the political and religious climate.
In the period after the muslim takeover of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, the Christian pilgrimages to the city continued. Caliph Umar built the Dome of the Rock and cleaned up the Temple Mount. And Christians continued to decorate their church including the Holy Sepulchre. But 100 years before the Templars were founded came the first sign of trouble with Caliph al-Hakim who destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre and embarked on persecutions of the Christians.
By the early 12th century, Christians also had to adapt to the emergence of the powerful and expanding Seljuk Turks. Fresh from beating the humiliating the Byzantine emperor on the battlefield at Manzikert, they were in a bullish and very confident frame of mind. And they put paid to any expansion plans that the crusaders had in Asia Minor in 1104. In the demonology of Christendom, the Turks were rapidly heading for the number one slot where they would remain for many centuries.
So, what was to be done to protect pilgrims from desert thugs, confident Seljuks and Fatimids intent on pushing the crusaders out? Hugh de Payns and his band of knights believed they had the answer when they formed the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in 1118 to notionally defend pilgrims. I say ‘notionally’ because you’ll find enough people who will suggest this was a cover for something else. They were to stop innocent people being raped and killed by brigands. And with this intent, the Templars began a lively two hundred year existence.