So you know everything there is to know about the Knights Templar – well, watch this short film and see how smart you really are. And tell me what facts you would include in future films!
In the late 1930s, Hitler was menacing central and eastern Europe – and the Soviet Union, after initially attempting to appease him, was finally realising the scale of the threat posed by Nazi Germany. So how to get the Soviet public onside? Step forward brilliant movie director Sergei Eisenstein. In a film called Alexander Nevsky, he depicted the heroic struggle of the Russian medieval armies against the Teutonic knights. The Battle of the Ice still chills me to the bone – a fantastic piece of film making. The music is by the composer Prokoviev. Unfortunately, Stalin pulled the movie after he decided to enter into new negotiations with Hitler.
I’d like your thoughts on how much we can learn today from the experiences of the Knights Templar in the 12th and 13th centuries. We have certainly entered into a period where faith, politics and history have combined to create a particularly toxic brew. So could we find solutions by delving into the past?
What we find might surprise us. Listening to several podcasts lately on medieval history and especially the story of the Byzantine empire, I’m struck by how fluid the boundaries were between Islam and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Those boundaries are becoming more fluid again.
I’ve blogged many times in the past about how the caliphate once dominated southern Europe. Spain and Portugal were majority Muslim from 711CE to around the start of the 13th century. Sicily was an emirate and Greece was swallowed up by the Ottoman empire in the late Middle Ages. For many centuries, the boundaries between the two faiths seemed set, into modern times, but that situation is changing. The question is – can we live in harmony?
Just as parts of Europe were Muslim in the Middle Ages – so was the presence of Christianity surprisingly strong in North Africa and the Levant. Not just as a result of crusader conquest, but populations that had remained Christian long after the Arab conquest of the seventh century. Egypt, for example, was more than likely majority Christian for at least three hundred years after the Arabian armies stormed in. Syria had large Christian populations that are only now being finally decimated by war and terrorism. Constantinople was the capital of an eastern Christian empire that – at times – dominated Asia Minor and the Balkans until it was crushed by the Turks in the middle of the fifteenth century.
Religious zealotry – what we might now term ‘extremism’ – abounded in the medieval period. On the Christian side, new monastic orders preached asceticism and violent crusade. On the Muslim side, a violent interpretation of jihad was demanded from those who felt the caliphate had grown soft and corrupt. As Spain was slowly invaded by Christian crusader kingdoms in the north, waves of Muslim zealots – the Almohads and Almoravids – tried to put backbone in to the caliphate with a return to perceived theological purity. Sound familiar?
Cicero once correctly noted that those who ignore history fail to grasp the present and future. Quite right! So I’d like to know what you think the past can teach us today. Your thoughts would be very welcome.
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.
On 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.
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.