How White Supremacists and Islamists exploit the Middle Ages

IMG_3976I’ve tried to avoid this topic but with comments from white supremacists appearing on social media channels linked to this blog, I need to make my position crystal clear on the relationship between the Knights Templar, white supremacists and Islamist-inspired terrorists.

It’s quite simple. There isn’t one.

That unfortunately hasn’t stopped groups in my native United Kingdom like the English Defence League adopting Templar symbols and mottos as their own. White supremacist marchers who stormed Charlottesville in 2017 employed imagery referencing the Holy Roman Empire and the Templars. The words Deus Vult  and Saracen Go Home were recently sprayed on a mosque in the town of Cumbernauld, Scotland and extreme right groups in northern Europe and the United States can be heard yelling Non Nobis Domine.

Groan.

This might all be ignorable if the consequences weren’t so potentially fatal. On 22 July 2011, Anders Breivik killed eight people in the Norwegian capital by detonating a bomb and then made his way to a summer youth camp where he gunned down 69 teenagers. On YouTube he had posted a rambling manifesto covered in Templar imagery and ranting about the need for a crusade. I blogged at the time that this murderous sociopath had zero in common with the Knights Templar.

Why did I claim that? Here’s some reasons:

  • The Knights Templar were not loners or sociopaths. They were a military order endorsed by kings, princes and popes. The Templars ran agri-businesses (huge farms to finance the crusades), banking operations and were high level political advisers. They were not bedsit bombers or hate filled cranks.
  • Turcopoles were local Middle Eastern warriors who joined the Templars as auxiliaries. They were often Christians whose families had been Christian for longer than many families in Europe.
  • In one recorded incident, the Templars admonished a Christian who was trying to stop a Muslim praying in the Al Aqsa mosque, which was rebranded the Temple of Solomon while Jerusalem was under crusader control.
  • The Templars were respected by their Saracen opponents – not because they were racists but because of their bravery and dedication. First into battle and last to leave.
  • Christians respected Arabic learning. When the Spanish city of Toledo was taken by crusaders after centuries of Muslim control, scholars from all over Europe descended on its libraries like locusts. When the Templars were put on trial, they were accused of having been influenced by and admiring Islam.
  • Muslims and Christian realms were in much closer proximity – literally bumping up against each other. The caliphate in Spain bordered France. In Sicily, the king issued proclamations in Norman French, Greek and Arabic. The crusader states conducted trade and diplomatic relations with their Saracen enemies out of necessity. Templars would have known their Saracen counterparts, probably by name in many instances.
  • There was no concept as we understand it of white supremacy in the Middle Ages. The Templars were certainly a Christian order but Christians could still be found in large numbers in north Africa, the Middle East and the Byzantine empire (modern Turkey and bits of Syria on occasion). Christians were white and brown, to put it crudely. Please show me where a Templar ever talked about whiteness being a defining issue.
chess
Christian and Muslim play chess in the Middle Ages

Ultimately the Templars were all about keeping the Holy Land Christian and pushing back the caliphate in modern Spain and Portugal. But they saw this as a lofty, spiritual cause – not a thuggish day out to beat up some migrants and asylum seekers.

That is not to deny the existence today of extremist and violent Islamist inspired terrorism. To me, the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda are the mirror image of white supremacism. They preach a murderous form of religious supremacism where their victims are both Muslim (Shia, Sufi, dissenters) and non-Muslim. They frame the past in terms that are also completely ahistorical. Ignoring the complexities of medieval politics, they boil the past down to a binary struggle between the “caliphate” and the Christian “House of War”. This is as false as the perspective of white supremacists.

The caliphates of the past that they imagine were 100% Muslim were nothing of the sort. The Ottoman empire was a patchwork of ethnicities and faiths. In fact, Ottoman Constantinople had a much more diverse population then modern day Istanbul. The Ottomans also stoned less people to death over a four-hundred-year period than ISIS in two years of nightmarish terror in Syria and Iraq.

alandalus
An image to excite an Islamist ideologue

Islamists also use medieval analogies to prop up their world view. The 2017 terrorist attack in Barcelona led some blood-soaked supporters of ISIS on social media to invoke the memory of the medieval caliphate that once ruled Spain and Portugal – Al-Andalus. Ignoring the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslim co-existed under that caliphate, they claimed it was only a matter of time before Islamic rule was reinstated.

Let’s be clear on this. Islamism is an ideology developed largely in the 20th century around groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the puritan Salafi and Wahabbi schools of thought. Contrary to its claims, it is not and never has been mainstream Islam. Fortunately for the Islamists though, white supremacists characterise this ideology as…mainstream Islam – doing it a great favour. Islamist ideology has borrowed heavily from fascist and Leninist methodology and created a totalitarian version of the caliphate that neither Saracens or crusaders would have recognised.

Every so often in the history of Islam currents have emerged that are dubbed, by Muslims, as “Khawarij”. Heretical and violent bigots who believe they have the right to determine who is a good Muslim and who is not – and then to excommunicate (“takfir”) or even execute those who don’t meet their criteria. In the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammed anticipated these people who would “recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats. They will slay the followers of Islam and would spare the people of idolatry. They will pierce through the religion just like an arrow which goes clean through a prey.” He called on other Muslims to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are Khawarij, twisting Islam to a bloody agenda. And they have a symbiotic, mutually supportive relationship with the white supremacists. Because both Islamists and white supremacists strive for an end of days civilizational clash. They crave the end of compromise, co-existence and moderation yearning instead for what ISIS terms the “extinguishing of the grey zone”.

If we want a world safe for our children – we must reject both ideologies. We can start by disconnecting the Knights Templar and the Saracens from this hateful garbage – both white supremacism and violent Islamism. It’s time for Medieval Studies departments and other experts to stop hiding under stones cowering and come out to refute this distortion of the medieval era. There has been an encouraging start from THESE medieval experts.

The silence of others is literally costing lives.

Your views, as ever, very welcome. But advocacy of racism and/or violence will be taken down.

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Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

Did the Templars find anything under the Temple of Solomon?

The nine knights who founded the Knights Templar petitioned the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1119 to establish their headquarters in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque – before the crusaders seized the city in 1099, putting an end to four hundred years of Muslim rule. The knights believed that the Al Aqsa was actually the Temple of Solomon. It stood, as it does today, on the Temple Mount – which had previously been home to the vast temple of the Jews of the Old Testament. The Babylonians and later the Romans had destroyed that temple and any vestige of its magnificent past.

This does beg the question why the Knights Templar, who derived their name from this holy site, were so keen to be based there? The answer many have advanced is that the Templars were not so much interested in the mosque above ground as the treasure they thought might lurk below. Those who give credence to this argument point to the warren of tunnels underneath the Temple Mount – or Haram al-Sharif as Muslims call it. Surely, they argue, the Templars were scrabbling around for something down there?

Could it have been thTemplare fabled wealth of king Solomon? If they had discovered those riches, that could account for the very rapid financial growth of the Templar order and its position as a major banking power as well as military force. Or did they uncover sacred relics under the temple of Solomon? Some minds have raced in the direction of the Ark of the Covenant, the shroud of Jesus and the head of John the Baptist. Note that during the trials that ended the Templar order in 1307, they were accused of worshipping a head – some say that of a cat, others a three-faced god and yet others – John the Baptist.

There is a theory that when the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they discovered ancient secrets that had to be guarded – kept secret maybe. The Templars were specifically founded to keep these secrets under lock and key – away from the eyes of the faithful. What could be so terrifying to the church that it needed to set up an order of military monks? Some allege it was the Holy Grail – which was neither a platter nor a cup but the relics of Mary Magdalene who had married Jesus and borne him a child after his crucifixion. Those of you who have read the Da Vinci Code will know that the child was a girl and established a divine blood line to the present day.

And if – just if – the Templars really had found great treasures under the Temple of Solomon and spirited them away – what happened to this treasure? Well, in 1307 when the king of France decided to shut down the Templars and seize their money to clear his debts, knights were seen scurrying out of the great Temple building in Paris with carts groaning under the weight of large sacks. They made their way to the port of La Rochelle and the treasure, Templar knights and the Templar fleet of ships were never seen again.

 

Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar

Bit of festive fun – here are ten things you may not have known about the Knights Templar – add your own facts in the comments below:

The Templars allegedly ran a white slave trade

Let’s start with a contentious claim made by Michael Haag in his book The Templars – that the Knights Templar were involved in trading Turkish, Greek, Russian and Circassian slaves brought from the east and set to work in their preceptories in southern Italy and Aragon. The centre of this grim trade was the Mediterranean port of Ayas in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Turkish or Mongol slavers would capture or buy these unfortunate human beings then sell them to the Templars. I’d be very happy to be told that this is complete tripe. But it’s recorded in various sources.

Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar!
Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar!

Saladin specifically slaughtered the Templars AFTER the Battle of Hattin

The battle at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 was a disaster for the Knights Templar and the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem – Saladin and his saracen army emerged totally triumphant.  In the aftermath, countless Christian soldiers were sold as slaves – so many that the price went down to 3 dinars each and one was reputedly sold in exchange for a shoe! Initially, the Templars and Hospitallers were also sold off as slaves. But Saladin then decided that he really wanted all the Templars slain – without exception. Those who had bought Templars were compensated with 50 dinars each and the knights were then brought before the Muslim ruler. Conversion or death was the choice. It seems few decided to convert. There are accounts from both sides of what happened next – a grisly mass beheading often carried out by zealous individuals and botched very badly. In revenge, Richard the Lionheart would later execute 3,000 prisoners at Acre in one of the worst war crimes in history.

The Al Aqsa Mosque was the global headquarters of the Knights Templar

Even today, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is fought over – a holy place that inspires bloody hatreds. In the early 12th century, it was firmly under the control of crusader Christians. The Dome of the Rock was renamed the Templum Domini and the Al Aqsa Mosque became the HQ of the Templars – sited on what was believed to be the palace of Solomon. Beneath were Solomon’s stables, or so it was thought, and abundant rumours that hidden somewhere on the site was the Holy Grail….or the Ark of the Covenant. Much of the existing mosque today was of Templar era construction.

Henry III pawned his crown jewels to the Templars
Henry III pawned his crown jewels to the Templars

England’s crown jewels were pawned by King Henry III to the Templars

Facing a rebellion by his barons, King Henry III of England sent the crown jewels to the Temple in Paris for safekeeping and to raise money for his fightback. The previous king, John, had made a series of concessions to the same barons by agreeing to sign the Magna Carta. The Templars were broadly supportive of the kings as both advisers and bankers (and pawnbrokers!).

Templars were not – strictly speaking – priests

While the Knights Templar did take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – they weren’t actually priests as such. Barbara Frale in her book on The Templars points out that the knights were not allowed to administer the sacraments as they weren’t formally ordained. And she argues that priests could not wield a sword in battle. Instead, they had their own Templar chaplains assigned to their houses to say mass. But by 1300, many Templar houses didn’t have chaplains. So their spiritual needs had to be administered by priests from other orders.

One monarch donated his kingdom to the Knights Templar

It wasn’t a popular move but King Alfonso of Aragon donated his kingdom to the Templars at his death. The Templars were very active in the “reconquest” (reconquista) of modern Spain and Portugal from Moorish (Muslim) rule. It’s often forgotten that the Templars were active on many fronts – in the Middle East, eastern Europe and southern Europe. The caliphate ruling the Iberian peninsula was remarkably tolerant and urbanised for the standards of the time with Jews, Christians and Muslims living together. But kings like Alfonso were determined to drive out the caliphs and the Templars assisted in this process. They often took control of dangerous areas in the no-man’s land between Christian and Muslim control. Alfonso rewarded their bravery with a big portion of his kingdom when he died but this was reversed afterwards by the counts of Barcelona.

Offshore banking was invented by the Templars

Most of you will know that the Knights were also bankers. You could deposit wealth in one of their preceptories – say at the Temple in Paris – and with a credit note they would issue, you could make a withdrawal at a preceptory in outremer (Christian controlled territories in the Middle East). This meant not having to haul heavy caskets of bullion around with you. But the Templars went a step further and had treasure ships located offshore from which crusaders could make withdrawals safely.

Charges against the Templar included “adoring a cat”

The framing of the Templars was a shabby episode with popes and kings working together to destroy the Order. Various ridiculous charges were trumped up including inappropriate kissing in various parts of the body, denying Christ, venerating idols, operating to secret codes and…..adoring a cat.

It all went horribly wrong for the Templars at the end
It all went horribly wrong for the Templars at the end

Templars were accused of behaving like Muslims

In the frenzy to blacken the name of the Knights Templar – their critics pointed to the fact that some of them allegedly spoke Arabic (well you would being in the Middle East for a while and wanting to understand your enemy’s documents and messages). They also claimed that the Templars performed rituals medieval Christians falsely attributed to Muslims. According to Helen Nicholson in her book The Knights Templar – this included worshipping idols of Mohammed (sic!!), Apollo and Jupiter. Plus spitting on crucifixes. The church loved to tell stories of Muslim Saracen soldiers urinating on the cross to antagonise crusaders. Of course, Muslims do not revere idols – certainly not of the Prophet – and the accusations against the Templars are just absurd. But it worked at the time!

The Spanish and Portuguese nationalised the Templars

The kings of Spain and Portugal more or less took over the Knights Templar. In Spain, the king took the powers of the Grand Master whereas in Portugal a successor order was created called the Order of Christ. The latter organisation was even based at the old Templar preceptory at Tomar – a stunning church you can still see today.

Which dome on the Templar seal?

English: Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the b...
Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the background the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 

The Templars, like all people of high standing in medieval society, possessed seals of office – a metal disc bearing an emblem which would imprint an insignia in to hot wax on a document.  A kind of Middle Ages identity card, hologram, electronic signature.

There wasn’t a single seal covering the entire Templar Order – provincial masters had many variants.  These included the familiar two knights on riding one horse, the lamb of God and the dome of a church.

But which church did that dome belong to?

It could be the Dome of the Rock which after the First Crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem was consecrated as a church becoming the Templum Domini. This was right next to the Templars HQ at what had been the Al Aqsa mosque under Muslim control but then became the Temple of Solomon under the Templars. Nearby the Augustinians also set themselves up on the Templar Mount.

HolyBut more likely, it was the Holy Sepulchre. This was the church founded by Saint Helen – the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine. On a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century, she miraculously discovered several key locations in the life of Jesus including his crucifixion and burial. The Holy Sepulchre church covers both these locations.

 

This church was epic even by late Roman standards but suffered in the seventh century AD when the Persians overran the borders of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine if you prefer) empire and torched Jerusalem including Holy Sepulchre.  It was restored up to a point by the Emperor Heraclius when he re-invaded before falling under Islamic control under the same unfortunate Emperor.

Initially, the Muslims were light handed in their treatment of the Christians and the Church but under the radical Fatimid caliph Hakim – whose name even suggests a violent temperament – the place was razed to the ground.  He pretty much insisted that any remains should be knee high.  The dismantling of Constantine’s basilica was a massive undertaking and proved exceedingly difficult, but it was done.

Once the caliph died, the Byzantine emperor Monomachos in far off Constantinople negotiated with a new caliph in 1048 to fund the reconstruction of the church.  It would never be on Constantine’s massive scale but it was pretty big.  This was the church that the Templars arrived at when Jerusalem came back in to Christian control during the crusades.  And it’s this church that the Templars used as a template for their places of worship and represented on their seal.

The Templars were based, as I said, in the Al Aqsa Mosque near the Dome of the Rock and built substantial annexes on the left and right hand sides of the earlier Islamic building.  One of these annexes is now the women’s mosque and the other is an Islamic museum.