Discovering the treasure of the Knights Templar – “Buried” on the History channel

Get read to find out where the treasure of the Knights Templar is buried – when the History channel airs Buried on 31 January, 2018. And guess who appears as an expert when they arrive in Portugal? Yes – me!

I’ll be seen clambering around tunnels in Tomar, once the nerve centre of Templar operations in Portugal. This is where the knights fought off repeated invasions of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim forces in the south. It’s also where the Templars transformed into the Order of Christ after they were banned in 1307.

Buried is accompanying the History channel drama series Knightfall – which you will know all about if you follow this blog! So….look out for me on screen soon!

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Racy images in an early Islamic palace

During my recent visit to Jordan I journeyed into the eastern deserts towards Iraq and visited the only remnant of an early Islamic castle dating back to around 723AD – built by the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid II.  This was within a hundred years of the death of the prophet Muhammad – so fascinating to see how an early Muslim lived. And it seems Al-Walid lived very well.

The site was being cleaned by a team of archaeologists as I entered and being in the middle of a vast, hot desert, I was very much on my own. What I saw was not what I expected. The remaining building of a once great palace was a bathhouse with Roman-style underfloor heating and rather racy paintings on the walls and ceilings. Dancing ladies and animals playing musical instruments. It seems the caliph liked the high life!

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Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

Being Jewish in the Middle Ages

German Jews of the thirteenth century. From He...
German Jews of the thirteenth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Luftgarten.

It must be said that being Jewish in the medieval period was challenging – to put it mildly. The fortunes of Jews at this time varied dramatically but on the whole, things were not good. From the late Roman period, those who had framed the theology of Christianity – the so-called ‘doctors of the church’ – made it quite clear that Jews were going to be held to account for the crucifixion of the Son of God for all time. What that meant however – was open to interpretation. However, Ambrose of Milan and Saint Jerome, both revered by the Catholic church, in the fourth century openly condoned attacks by mobs in the eastern empire on synagogues. When the emperor demanded the reconstruction of these places of worship, they condemned him.

Nevertheless – Jews survived and played a valuable economic role in medieval society. So much so – that by the Norman period, they were protected by the king and could not be molested. At least that was the theory. But you can’t keep a good prelate down – and by the 12th and 13th centuries, good Christian leaders were whipping up any number of scare stories against the Jews. I think it’s fair to say their position deteriorated through the 13th century to the point where even the king could no longer stand between them and their enemies.

So let’s look at some examples – starting with the ‘blood libel’ of ritual murder. It was circulated among the people that the Jews needed the blood of a Christian child in order to perform their Passover rituals. This story became quite elaborate claiming that Jews met secretly to decide which city would provide the next innocent victim. There were voices against this nonsense including Bernard of Clairvaux and pope Innocent IV who pointed out in 1247 that the Jews were forbidden by the Torah to use blood in any ritual.

Pope Gregory X wrote in 1272:  And most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away their children and killed them and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children.

I’ve blogged previously about the child martyr William of Norwich, claimed to have been killed by the Jews in that city and canonised by the local church. Harold of Gloucester was another – a boy of eight years of age who a contemporary chronicler claimed had “scars of fire, the thorns fixed on his head and liquid wax poured into the eyes and face”.

It should be pointed out that in Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal – not only Jews but their Moorish (Muslim) neighbours were accused of such behaviour. Their accusers were more often than not the growing Dominican order of monks – a leading force in the early Inquisition. What is incredible is that blood libel continued to be believed in Spain right through to the seventeenth century. Even when the inquisitors were taken to the alleged burial place of a tortured child and nothing was found, they surmised that God had decided that this should be the case and the child had been assumed bodily into heaven! On this occasion, four Spanish Jews were tortured and burnt alive.

Jews may have found blood libel both horrifying and perplexing – but they also  had to contend with the accusation of host desecration. In 1215, the pope delivered the doctrine of transubstantiation… the idea that the bread in the Eucharist actually becomes the physical body of Christ. No sooner had this been promulgated than Jews were accused of stealing hosts. Why? Because it amused them to stab, beat and boil the piece of bread that the ignorant Christians thought could become God. But – according to the accounts of the period – as the Jews performed this terrible act, the host would bleed or even, on occasion, Christ would appear!

Somewhat airbrushed out of medieval history was the emergence of Christian cults around the host where it would be processed through the streets and a knife displayed that – it would be asserted – Jews used to stab at it!

Surely things couldn’t get worse. Oh yes they could – because along came the Black Death between 1348 and 1351. A quarter of Europe’s population died in this massive outbreak of bubonic plague. It was typical in this period to ascribe medical conditions to God’s will. Far easier to understand that than get to grips with the science. Mobs – often led by local clerics – ran amok. It’s believed that about three hundred Jewish communities around Europe were completely wiped out.

The real motive was often a cynical attempt by cancel out debts to Jewish moneylenders and to seize their property. At Strasbourg, the carnage was so complete that there were no Jews in the city until the 18th century. One account says that two thousand Jews were condemned to be burnt in the Jewish cemetery – unless they agreed to be baptized.

By the end of the Middle Ages – things in Spain and Portugal got pretty hideous for the Jews. The two relatively new nations were being forged and having been lands of three faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – the church was most insistent that only one faith should prevail. The Catholic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, willingly snuffed out the remnants of Islam and Judaism in their domains. Many Jews fled to Portugal where things seemed more tolerant for a while. But in 1497, king Manuel ordered that all Jewish children must be baptized in the “General Conversion”.

This created a whole new layer of “New Christians” who were still persecuted right up to the nineteenth century. In 1774, the king of Portugal suggested that those Christians of Jewish ancestry should wear special yellow hats. His wily prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, produced three yellow hats – one for himself, one for the Inquisitor-General and one for the king! The point being made was by then – who knew who had Jewish blood and who did not.

The Battle of Hattin – from the Saracen point of view

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

For eight centuries, fans of the crusades have rightly held their heads in shame at the memory of the battle known as the Horns of Hattin. It was here that Saladin brilliantly ran rings round the Templar and Christian forces achieving a stunning victory. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.

I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.

As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.

The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary. The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly of the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.

And of course – here’s the Battle of Hattin as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven (how I wish Orlando Bloom had not been in the film but hey ho)

The 13th Warrior – medieval movie and guilty pleasure

I’ve never understood the hostility that this movie generated when it came out in 1999 – it seemed that once the critical slating got underway, everybody jumped on board to throw rotten tomatoes at it…and you can go to the Rotten Tomatoes movie website to see that plenty of people still hate The 13th Warrior.

But I’ve got a soft spot for certain movies that have been put through the critical mincer but still retain a certain historical fascination and are actually very watchable – and The 13th Warrior is not a dull movie. It’s rather violent and its take on the relationship between the emerging Arab/Islamic world of the east and the so-called Dark Ages in the west is if nothing else, picturesque and spooky!

And to be blunt – it’s certainly not down there with the unintentionally hilarious Ironclad and pretty dreadful Season of the Witch – two recent historical and hysterical offerings from Hollywood.

The 13th Warrior was based on a book by Michael Crichton – the man who brought you great horror sci fi movies in the 1970s like Coma and Westworld and then went on to conjure up Jurassic Park. The 13th Warrior was based on his book Eaters of the Dead and the movie originally adopted that name but when he was called in to direct it, it changed title.

In short, the year is 922CE and an Arab emissary (Antonio Banderas) leaves his beautiful homeland to go to the barbaric west where he falls in with a bunch of uncouth Vikings. He learns their language and fights battles alongside them against a mysterious creature that is threatening to wipe them out. A Viking prophecy stipulates that a foreign man must be present if the beast is to be vanquished – and along comes our Arab friend. I won’t spoil the plot any further!

The movie cost far more than it made back at the box office and Omar Sharif – who had a bit part in the film – slated it and then the critics gave it a good booting. But I think for those trying to understand the cultural clashes of the very early Middle Ages – it’s a good watch. Time, I suspect, may be kinder to The 13th Warrior than the critics were – I hope you agree!

Dealing with the violent bits in the Bible

I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament.  It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste.  “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.

In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens.  For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.

However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle.  And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered.  In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites.  The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure.  The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it.  The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.

In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes).  Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories.  Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour.  So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like.  No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.

That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue.  He should be completely discarded.

In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible.  He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors.  Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.

Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God.  For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt.  A joyous occasion for the world to be sure.  Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing.  Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho.  The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them.  Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc   Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.

Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”

Nice.

Knights Templar tolerance towards Muslims

Cantigas-di-santa-Maria-2This is a very telling story from an excellent book – Islam’s War Against the Crusaders – in which the story of a medieval Muslim writer, Usama of Shaizar is referenced.

He once visited Jerusalem and went to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Well, it had once been a mosque – and is today of course – but in the crusader period it had become the headquarters of the Templars. It was known as the Temple of Solomon and underwent some major modifications at that time – not least the walling up of the minbar.

Usama described the Templars as ‘friends of mine’ and there doesn’t seem to have been any problem with him popping in to pray. But as he knelt towards Mecca, a Frankish visitor – who was not a Templar – flew in to a rage and made him face in what he saw as a Christian direction. The Templars took exception to this rough handling of their guest and told the Frank off – but as soon as their backs were turned, he did it again!

The Templars laid in to the guy and apologising to Usama, they explained:

He is a foreigner who has just arrived from his homeland in the north and he has never seen anyone pray facing any other direction than east.

Tomar – Templar jewel in Portugal

FullSizeRender (2)Having been twice to Tomar in as many years, I can tell you that this is the Templar destination to visit.  You should treat yourself to a stay in the Hotel dos Templarios and during the day visit the ‘charola’ or circular Templar church built in the twelfth century by Portuguese Templar Grand Master Gualdim Pais.

The thick walled charola had an altar in the middle and Templar knights would originally have ridden in and been able to remain on horseback while a service was said by a chaplain standing in the middle.  Then they could ride out to do battle with the Moors.   This part of middle Portugal was fought over by the muslim ‘Moors’ – who still ruled the south – and the northern crusader kingdoms for many years.  It was a kind of badlands where only the Templars were brave or foolhardy enough to take on the muslim forces.

In my conversations with a local historian, there is remarkable caginess about admitting that this was once a Moorish city.  The official line seems to be that Tomar sits on two Roman towns, that it was largely  unpopulated in the Moorish occupation and after being ‘liberated’ by the Templars, they founded the city as we know it.  But it seems clear to me that within the Templar preceptory, there had been a Moorish settlement (a medina) and that the Templars used building techniques for their walls that have a strong Moorish influence.  The names of the gates in to the preceptory indicate a Moorish influence as well.

The charola now joins on to a vast convent complex built largely in the sixteenth century – two hundred years after the Templars had been crushed under orders from the Pope.  The Convent of Christ is an impressive building constructed in the ‘Manueline’ style – lots of rope motifs in the stonework and a famously elaborate window.  But it’s the charola that I’m always drawn to.  It’s a beautiful space, painted very elaborately – partly at the time but later as well.

French soldiers during the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century did some damage to the convent and the charola but nothing that would ruin your visit.  The whole thing is eerily deserted of both Templars and the later monastic inhabitants.  There are rows of empty cells flanking long corridors – very spooky.

Tomar also has a church where several of the Grand Masters are buried – Santa Maria do Olival.  It’s a bit underwhelming as a building and set next to what looks like a housing estate.  But note the pentagram window.  You’ll have to ask where Gualdim Pais is buried because he’s not easy to find.  Pais is viewed by the Portuguese as something of an Arthurian figure of legend – though unlike Arthur, we know Pais existed for certain.  But he’s shrouded in a certain degree of mystery.  One thing is certain is that he fought the Moors back time and again including a vast army that threatened to overwhelm Tomar in the 1190s.

Here is a north American visitor clearly overwhelmed by the charola at Tomar – I like his little video.

More randomly – here is a tornado that his Tomar last year – this doesn’t happen often!

Crusader massacre of Jews

English: Massacre of Jewish people in Metz (Fr...
English: Massacre of Jewish people in Metz (France) during the First Crusade Français : Massacre des Juifs à Metz par les premiers Croisés 1095 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The First Crusade saw motley bands of peasants, opportunists, criminals and the medieval equivalent of gangsters flock together and go on crusade in search of riches.  On the way to the Holy Land, they often targeted Jews in Europe treating them as if they were de facto Saracens – infidels in their midst.  A chronicler called Solomon bar Samson wrote of a massacre in 1096 in the German city of Mainz, which was clearly horrific even by the standards of the time.  It was led by a noble called Emico who forced his way in to the city with armed men and sought out the Jewish population.

Terrified, the Jews of Mainz headed towards the Archbishop’s palace and took refuge, prepared to fight to the last against the thugs approaching them.

“The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy. They were indeed a poor support; even the bishop himself fled from his church for it was thought to kill him also because he had spoken good things of the Jews.”

In spite of all their efforts, the Jews within the palace could not stop Emico breaking in and men, women and children faced up to the inevitable.  They were going to die.  They would either die at the hands of the crusader gang or at their own hand.

“Then all of them, to a man, cried out with a loud voice: ‘Now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked, and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Only One, the Everlasting and then let him cut his own throat or plunge the knife into his own body.'”

As Emico and his men stormed the courtyard, the Jewish leader Isaac ben Moses stretched out his neck and one of the gang duly cut his head off.

“The others, wrapped by their fringed praying­shawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] “with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction” the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: “There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.”

Emico had arrived with 12,000 men and the Jews were hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately armed.  The Jewish women killed their own sons and daughters and then themselves.

“Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another.”

The tales of suicide and murder go on depressingly and unfortunately this kind of pogrom would be repeated several times over the next hundred years in northern Europe.