I was in Lisbon in August of this year and made an interesting discovery…
This year, I was walking up a steep hill in Lisbon to visit the medieval cathedral. This austere fortress-like edifice was built after the city was taken from its Muslim rulers by the Templars and the Portuguese army – assisted by many foreign crusaders – in the year 1147.
What the Christians found when they entered the city was a huge mosque at its centre. This was torn down and the cathedral erected in its place.
It’s not the most attractive medieval building in Europe and with its thick walls and arrow slit windows, you get the impression that the citizenry were expecting their former rulers to try and return and recapture the place.
It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a Muslim city here, at the westernmost end of a global medieval caliphate stretching from India to the Algarve in southern Portugal. Algarve, by the way, is from the Arabic “Al-Gharb” meaning the west. The city had been in Muslim hands for over four hundred years. It’s been the capital of Catholic Portugal for the last eight hundred years. So the Islamic heritage has been largely erased.
Half way up the hill, I found an antique shop selling statues from the 17th to 19th centuries that had once adorned churches in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Curiously, many of items had lost their clothes and hair at some point. So pictured here is Jesus Christ with the bloodied wounds from his crown of thorns but the crown, his hair and robes have gone.
What you’re left with is the puppet-like body that was always underneath to be manipulated as the church saw fit. His arms could be extended, his legs crossed, his head bowed, whatever was required.
This would have been little different to statues of the medieval period and today, as in those times, these are often carried in processions around the streets on special feast days.
Quite a morbid shop I must say, but completely fascinating.
I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal!
SPOILER FREE! I’m not going to give away one tiny morsel of the thrilling documentary on the Templars that the History Channel is planning to accompany its Templar drama series Knightfall – coming out in the autumn.
Forget Game of Thrones – that was fiction! Knightfall and other content on the Templars coming your way will be about brave knights who really existed. Winter is indeed coming. But it’s a Templar winter for us – not a Targaryen one!
I had the honour and pleasure of filming with the History Channel team in Tomar, central Portugal just three weeks ago. This is a historic town dominated by a Templar castle.
It was once the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe about 800 years ago. On top of a hill, the Templar castle stares solemnly down at the small town. Within its walls is an eight sided chapel modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It also may borrow from the shape of the Dome of the Rock, another sacred site in Jerusalem, which at the time Tomar was built – from 1160 – was under crusader control. The Dome of the Rock had been shut down as a mosque and consecrated as a Christian church, the Templum Domini. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, was what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. That had been taken over by the Knights Templar as their global headquarters as it was believed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon.
But enough of Jerusalem – back to Portugal!
While Jerusalem was the front line between Christianity and Islam in the east, Tomar was the front line between the two faiths in the west. A Muslim caliphate had ruled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Now a huge reconquest by Templars, crusaders and Christian kings was underway. The Templars used Tomar as their base of operations. In 1190, it even came under direct attack from a vast army that stormed out of Morocco determined to crush the knights once and for all.
But what is underneath Tomar? For decades, rumours have swirled of secret tunnels that may have been used for initiation rituals or for storing treasure the Templars brought back from Jerusalem via Cyprus and the Paris temple. Here are some of the old books I’ve used in my research on Tomar – often picked up in Lisbon bookstores and street markets.
The theory is that one tunnel links the Templar castle to their church and mausoleum of Santa Maria Olival. That church was built at a surprisingly remote location very vulnerable to Muslim attack. It housed the bodies of Templar grand masters of Portugal. It’s believed to have been built on top of an earlier Benedictine monastery after those monks fled in the face of Muslim armies in the eighth century. That monastery in turn may have been constructed atop a Roman temple and even earlier pagan places of worship.
The Templar castle on the hill is also slap bang on top of Roman and Moorish (Muslim) remains and you can see a stone from a Roman altar embedded in its medieval walls.
Tomar became a place of safety for the Templars when in 1307, the rest of Europe turned against them. Led by the French king and the papacy, there was a movement to crush the Knights Templar forever.
But the Portuguese did not forget that the Templars had fought bravely against Muslim warriors and so they let them continue at Tomar though under a new name – the Order of Christ. The Portuguese king – Dinis – protected them and allowed the knights to continue to serve the kingdom.
The question remains though – when the Templars retreated to Tomar, did they bring their wealth with them? Did that wealth include sacred items from Jerusalem that might have included something we term today as the Holy Grail?
The Order of Christ would play a leading role in Portugal’s voyages of discovery around the world. The ships that rook the great discoverers to Brazil, India and South Africa bore the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ – and the Templars – on their sails. Why? Did the Order of Christ possess knowledge that the Portuguese could ill afford to do without?
I’m half-Portuguese myself. I’m always pleased to see how bright Jewish people were able to contribute to Portugal for far longer than in other countries. Many, posing as “New Christian” converts, would be at the forefront of the discoveries and scientific and artistic accomplishments that were a hallmark of that period.
But there was also the Order of Christ – that emerged from another persecuted group of people, the Templars. Was it Templars and Jews together who led Portugal to its period of greatness? More on the role of Portugal in the Templar story in subsequent blog posts. Your comments welcome as ever!
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!
I’m half Portuguese and for years I’ve watched English friends of mine recoil at the sight of the blood and gore that is to be found all over statues in churches in southern Europe. My great grandmother’s crucifix has pride of place in my study in London and it’s a gore fest. Why is it then that the Latin world loves to see Jesus, the saints and martyrs covered in wounds, cuts and bleeding?
The first thing to say is that at the time of the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14th centuries, it may have also been a common sight in northern European churches. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demanded simplicity and a cull of graven images, seen as being sinful as per the Ten Commandments. So an English church in 1150, say, may have had equally gory paintings on its walls subsequently whitewashed during the Reformation.
Click HERE for an article on the discovery of lurid murals in an English church where William Shakespeare was born. While England has got used to a more restrained and buttoned up form of Christianity over the last five hundred years, southern Europe has continued with life sized representations of Jesus and the saints being scourged or executed.
Spain is home to some pretty gory Christian icons and this life sized Jesus was one I discovered in the Roman/medieval city of Segovia. The same city includes a Templar church built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.
It’s a four metre long piece of cloth with the imprint of a man from the front and the back. For centuries this ancient fabric has been revered as the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Kept in Turin cathedral, it has been worshipped by millions of pilgrims.
Modern detractors and sceptics have poured cold water on the notion that it could be the shroud of Jesus. Carbon dating placed the date of the material between 1260 and 1380 CE, a long time after the crucifixion.
Historians like Charles Freeman think the church has backed itself into a corner that it could have avoided. He believes that in the medieval period, when the the shroud originated, people knew what it was – a prop for a play performed at Easter. Originally, it would have been much more brightly coloured with a Christ covered in bloody wounds – a gory depiction of Jesus that became more popular in the 14th century.
The shroud has passed through different hands and the myth of its origin has grown to the point of absurdity in Freeman’s view. This has got the point where scientists at the Politecnico di Torino tried to argue that it truly dated from the death of Jesus and the imprint was caused by a release of neutrons as a result of an earthquake in 33 CE – giving us the exact image of Jesus.
The shroud is not Jesus. The shroud is in fact the image of the last Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. The bloody imprints are the marks of the torture he endured at the hands of the King of France and the Pope in 1314. But why the certainty that it’s De Molay and not somebody else tortured and killed in the fourteenth century? The evidence advanced includes links between those families that owned the shroud for centuries and the Templars.
One of the most asked questions about the Knights Templar is whether they continued to exist long after their suppression through the Freemasons. Or put another way, are today’s Freemasons the inheritors of the white mantles of the Templars?
The linkage is difficult to prove but there’s no shortage of theories. One goes that after they were suppressed by Pope and the King of France, the Templars infiltrated stone mason guilds. These were then refashioned to embrace Templar ideals and rituals. In effect, the masons and Templars over time became one and the same thing.
Freemasons came to full public view in 1717 with the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England. The organisation’s website traces the history of the order back to the stone masons of the Middle Ages who built Europe’s great cathedrals and not to the Knights Templar. It doesn’t recognised the aforementioned merger of masons and Templars.
The website cites evidence of people becoming Freemasons throughout the seventeenth century such as a gentleman called Elias Ashmole in 1643. Then in the eighteenth century, grand lodges were formed in England, Ireland and Scotland and the order grew significantly to include top politicians and establishment figures. But as its lodges spread throughout government and business, the conspiracy theories proliferated.
From the eighteenth century to the present day, there were Freemasons happy to state that their rituals and organisation were directly descended from the Templars. Equally, there have always been Freemasons irritated by these claims. However, the creation of an occult mythology around masonic activity was largely created by Freemasons and not their detractors.
The prominent eighteenth century Freemason Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund was forever hammering home the link between masonry and the Templars. The baron founded The Rite of Strict Observance within Freemasonry, as series of degrees through which members would pass including the degree of “knight”.
Michael Haag details in his book The Templars that a crusader connection was first expounded by Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Jacobite who headed up the French Grand Lodge around 1737. He said in a speech that the crusaders had wanted to create a global spiritual confraternity. While attempting to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, he believed they had developed secret signs and rituals to protect themselves from Saracen infiltration.
When the crusades collapsed, these spiritual crusaders left the Holy Land and returned to their European homes setting up the first Freemason lodges. But these were neglected over time and the secrets forgotten. Only in Scotland was the flame kept burning.
The authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail in 1982 wrote about the alleged flight of Knights Templar to Scotland when the order was suppressed by the King of France in 1307, repeating an old claim that they participated in the Battle of Bannockburn against the English. They claimed to have discovered “what seemed to be” a Templar graveyard in Argyllshire with 13th century Templar gravestones and eighteenth century Masonic gravestones. The authors asserted that the later stones had mixed motifs suggesting a fusion at some point between the Templars and Freemasons.
The alleged link between Freemasonry and the Templars has often been used to damage the reputation of masons. Stephen Knight authored The Brotherhood in the early 1980s claiming a link to the Templars and arguing that Freemasons were running the United Kingdom. Knight had also written a book on Jack the Ripper claiming that his murders were part of a conspiracy involving masons and the Royal Family. If that sound familiar, it’s because it influenced the later work From Hell by Alan Moore.
John Robinson’s 1989 book Born in Blood claimed that Knights Templar fleeing arrest and torture in England and Scotland formed a secret society of mutual protection that eventually revealed itself as the Freemasons. The symbols and rituals we associate with the masons in fact dated back to the Templars. He credited this secret society with the Protestant Reformation and included among its members the first US President George Washington.