There can hardly have been a worse event in the Middle Ages than the sacking of the great city of Constantinople by a crusader army – a Christian army destroying a Christian city.
The scars of that incident can still be seen in modern Istanbul in the remains of Byzantine monuments stripped of their gold and jewels and left as naked stone.
This was the high point – or low point – of the Fourth Crusade where the Doge of Venice, Dandolo, re-directed a crusader army that owed him vast sums of money towards his commercial enemy Constantinople and away from Saracen/muslim targets like Cairo.
Ignoring threats of excommunication from the pope, Dandolo – in his nineties and blind – personally led the crusader force in its attack on “The City” as Constantinople was known. His actions crippled this once invincible metropolis that had resisted Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Arabs – but succumbed to people who were supposed to be its allies.
It’s hard to appreciate now that Constantinople, situated at the end of the Silk Route and at the crossing point between Europe and Asia, was by far the wealthiest metropolis in the early middle ages. The roofs of its greatest buildings gleamed with gold. Its spires rose majestically to the skies.
Constantinople literally shone as one approached it. The huge walls encircling it, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fifth century, had never been breached – even by vast Muslim armies – and were assumed to be impregnable.
To those crusaders and Templars who now decided to rape the city of its vast booty, the religious justification would have been the schism between Rome and the Christian church in the east. The Greek speaking Christians of Constantinople were out of communion with the pope and their rite was deemed to be heretical. So, they deserved what they were going to get!
On a more worldly level, the Byzantine emperors who ruled the city had long resorted to crafty diplomacy and a high level of duplicity to maintain their empire which had once dominated the eastern Mediterranean but was now being squeezed by conquering Turkish armies as well as Christian kings in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia.
Once the crusaders got in to the city, they burnt and plundered with an unseemly ferocity and made a point of desecrating the ancient cathedral of the Hagia Sophia (holy wisdom). This included crowning a whore on the bishop’s throne. There is a contemporary description of this event:
Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch’s seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.
All of the above is fact. Now we stray into the realms of Templar conjecture. Could it be that during the siege, the Templars acquired the head of Baphomet, which they subsequently worshipped in a heretical manner.
Quite what the ‘Baphomet’ is – head of the devil, goat’s head, Mohammed’s head – is anybody’s guess. And there’s not much if anything by way of contemporary documents to say that the Templars believed they had such a gruesome object in their possession.
Our only lead is the ramblings of a Templar during the court trials of 1307 when the Templars were suppressed by King Philip of France and pope Clement V. Having been subjected to torture by the French king’s agents – and this was a hundred years after the sack of Constantinople – he claimed the Templars did indeed worship a head of something called Baphomet. Was he speaking the truth or was he unable to take any further torture?
However, there’s no reason to suppose that the Templars didn’t walk away from Constantinople with a few religious trophies including the head of Saint Euphemia – which they claimed to have – though confusingly, her entire body is today held in the church of Saint George in Istanbul.