How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.


Is there a Muslim inscription on the Throne of Saint Peter?

tcajan13_p18In an early nineteenth century book in my library I came across a fascinating story that I’d like some historical sleuths out there to confirm or deny. The claim in the book is that on the Throne of St Peter in the Vatican – held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church – is inscribed the declaration of faith made by all Muslims (the Shahadah): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger)”

I came across this because the book is a calendar of holy events during the year and the 18th January, just gone, is The Feast of St Peter’s Chair. The book describes the throne at the end of the nave in St Peter’s basilica – the centre of the Roman Catholic church:

A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair on which St Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated

Charles the Bald

The chair has not been seen in modern times. It is indeed a worm-eaten relic donated to pope John VIII in the 9th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. He gave the pope this present in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pontiff, thereby making him the divinely anointed ruler of central Europe. This papal ceremony had been initiated by his grandfather Charlemagne.

Pope John VIII was in terrible trouble. The Muslim Saracens had overrun Sicily and southern Italy and were menacing Rome. He needed the help of the emperor. In the end, Charles couldn’t give the papacy the support it badly needed and the pope turned to the Byzantine empire for assistance. This angered some in Rome and he became the first pope to be assassinated.

Pope John VIII

Fast forward to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The French leader took Italy and, as in other places, Napoleon’s soldiers looted religious sites. They were imbued with the anti-clerical ideas of the revolution and not cowed by the holiness of the Vatican. Once they got into the basilica, they had the throne of St Peter in their sights. By now, the ancient relic was encased in seventeenth century statuary – a magnificent ebony and gold construction.

The sacrilegious curiosity of the French broke through all obstacles to their seeing the chair of St Peter. They actually removed its superb casket and discovered the relic. Upon its mouldering and dusty surface were traced carvings, which bore the appearance of letters. The chair was quickly brought into a better light, the dust and cobwebs removed, and the inscription faithfully copied. The writing is in Arabic characters and is the well-known confession of Mahometan faith – “There is but one GOD and MAHOMET is his prophet!”

The Shahadah appears on ISIS flags

The book speculates that the chair might have been crusader spoil from the east – though that would be contradicted by the account of it being an earlier donation in the ninth century, 200 years before the First Crusade. The statement inscribed on the chair is known as the “Shahadah” – which only has to be recited three times in order for somebody to become a Muslim. In our time, it’s also the Arabic statement on the flags of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State.

The Venice throne

Coincidentally, there is another throne of St Peter held in the church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice – once the seat of the Venetian patriarchs. This church is rarely visited by tourists, though it should be. The throne is clearly modelled from an Islamic gravestone. Historians believe its journey began in the Muslim Fatimid empire. When that collapsed, it was most likely looted by Byzantine troops. Then during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it would have ended up in Venetian hands after their soldiers ransacked Constantinople.

The worm-eaten throne in Rome

Back to the throne in Rome – it was exposed again to public view in 1867. This was for the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Photos were taken by the Alessandri brothers at the time. The throne is one foot ten inches high and just under three feet wide. With metal rings on the side, it was clearly intended to be carried with poles – presumably with the pope seated in it. Bits had been hacked off for relics to be given away. The “arabesque” motifs were noted by spectators.

And as my book notes:

This story has been since hushed up, the chair replaced, and none but the unhallowed remember the fact, and none but the audacious repeat it. Yet such there are, even at Rome!


Venice – evidence of an evil Crusade

One of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion must surely be the sacking of Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the year 1204. The city of Constantinople had been the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire since the emperor Constantine – the first emperor to embrace Christianity. it had been “The City” of the early Middle Ages rivalled by none. Yet by the Fourth Crusade, the eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantine Empire as it’s more commonly called though it was never called that at the time – was in a slow decline. The lands it had once ruled in Egypt and the Levant were now under Muslim control and the Balkans had mostly slipped away. 

Tetrarchs in VeniceBut Constantinople – defended by huge walls – endured. That is until a wily, nonagenarian and blind Doge of Venice called Enrico Dandolo decided that the crusades shouldn’t attack their intended Muslim target but instead divert to Constantinople and sack it. Why? Because the Byzantines had long been the commercial and political rivals of Venice. And the latter was in the ascendancy while the Byzantines were not the force they had once been. So why not kick them while they were down.

And so it came to pass that the city was put under siege and its walls breached. The destruction was on an epic scale and the Venetians stripped the place of all the booty they could carry. That included the four horses you see on top of Saint Mark’s cathedral (well, they’re replicas and the real ones are now under cover). One statue taken back that tourists always seem to miss is a third or fourth century CE depiction of the last pagan Roman emperor Diocletian and his three co-emperors or “tetrarchs”. 

This statue was obviously part of an ancient monument in Constantinople and was just unceremoniously slammed into a corner of Saint Mark’s cathedral where it looks weirdly out of place. But there it is – a piece of crusader/Templar booty.  And most tourists walk past it without blinking.

Tetrarchs in Venice

The destruction of Constantinople by the crusaders – the year 1204

The Taking of Constantinople
The Taking of Constantinople 

A Christian city destroyed by crusaders. It had resisted waves of invaders from Bulgars to Russians and the Muslim emirates. But it was brought to its knees by people it should have been able to trust. This was the betrayal of Constantinople. The worst act of the crusades.

There in the eastern Mediterranean was “The City” – the most opulent metropolis of the Middle Ages. Standing at the end of the Silk Route, a collection of golden domed edifices built by the Roman emperor Constantine and further embellished by rulers like Justinian and the great Byzantine emperor Basil.

Constantinople was beyond doubt the greatest city of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

ConquestOfConstantinopleByTheCrusadersIn1204Unfortunately, it had a deadly rival in Venice – an emerging maritime power in the medieval period.  The Doge – ruler of Venice – funded the Fourth Crusade but finding the crusaders unable to cough up what they owed him, he ordered them to sack Constantinople. Even though the eastern Christians of the city had rejected papal power and formed what we now call the Orthodox church, the pope was still sufficiently scandalized by what he now saw as an abuse of the crusades. He condemned their actions repeatedly but to no avail.

Here was a military venture that was supposed to push back Islam and reassert Christian power in the Middle East. Their original target was supposed to be Muslim Cairo. Instead, the crusaders were heading off to beat up the largest Christian power in the east because they owed money to the Doge. Tragically, they did indeed manage to breach the city’s walls – built in the 400s and thought to be impenetrable. The multi-layered walls had repelled everybody from the Huns to the Arabs and Bulgars. But not this army.

A weak and divided Byzantine leadership crumbled. The crusaders set fire to large parts of the city – and you can still see evidence of the damage in modern Istanbul today, as I have done – and then moved in to the Hagia Sophia. This was the massive cathedral built by Justinian in the mid-500s that still inspires awe today.

Gold and silver and jewels were stripped off the walls and altars. A contemporary chronicler recounted the events with horror:

“For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour.”

Stealing wasn’t enough for the crusaders as they decided to defile the church by crowning a prostitute as bishop:

“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.”

If you visit Venice, look up at the four horses above St Mark’s church – they were looted by crusaders in this year. A so-called Latin kingdom was established that lasted a few decades before the Byzantines were able to reassert control. However, Constantinople would never fully recover from this battering and sank into an irreversible decline.

How did the Crusades start?

Alp Arslan humiliant Romain IV
Alp Arslan humiliates the Byzantine emperor Romanos

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge crowd at the town of Clermont in France and urged them to do something new and very exciting – to march east and fight the forces of Islam. Something terrible had happened – he said. It needed an immediate remedy – every fit and able man must go and defend the Christian holy places.

“Let those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!”

Since the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Middle East had been divided between the Muslim realms covering north Africa and the Levant and the Christian Byzantine Empire (which viewed itself as the unbroken continuation of the eastern Roman empire).

The Byzantines had experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries but in the 10th and 11th centuries, the emperors of Constantinople had not only pushed back the Arab armies of the Caliph but aggressively expanded. However, a new force emerged that checked the Byzantines: the Seljuk Turks. These people had migrated from the Caspian and Aral seas and arrived in Persia before invading down into Syria.

By the year 1071, the Seljuks were looking like the new dominant power in the Levant. The Seljuks were probably more interested in crushing the Fatimids in Egypt but were provoked into battle with the Byzantines and beat them soundly at the Battle of Manzikert. The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan captured and humiliated the Byzantine emperor Romanos who was later blinded by his own side for bringing shame to Constantinople.

All of which left Asia Minor open to the Turks – which shook Christians in the west. Even though there was little love between the Latin rite Christians of the west and the Greek rite Christians of Constantinople – there was nevertheless a fear that the east would fall entirely to the forces of the caliph. Or as Pope Urban put it:

“For your brethren who live in the East are in urgent need of your help and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”

He was speaking twenty years after the defeat at Manzikert and there had previously been talk of a crusade – but now a begging letter from Constantinople propelled Rome into action. There was also another element often overlooked. 1094 – the year before Pope Urban’s sermon – has been described as the ‘year of the death of caliphs and commanders’. Both the Fatimid caliph and his vizier died. In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi passed away as well. Two years earlier, the Seljuk vizier had been murdered by the Assassins, a fanatical sect, and the Sultan had died two months later in suspicious circumstances.

Did Pope Urban II know this? Were the crusaders exploiting a political vacuum in the Muslim east? We don’t know from any Christian writers. But there are chroniclers from Syria who condemned the lack of action by both Seljuks and the caliph in Baghdad when crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Clearly, internal divisions after the year of death were still lingering. And it’s only in 1144 that we see a clear fightback from the Seljuks under Zengi – taking Edessa back from the crusaders.

The Crusaders in Egypt

Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fat...
Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fatimids. Madrid Skylitzes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the middle of the twelfth century AD, the crusaders began looking at Egypt as the territory they had to annex if their venture was to have any chance of success. I say “Egypt” but of course the nation that we know today didn’t exist at this time and from 909 to 1171 was part of the huge and sprawling Fatimid empire. This Islamic realm stretched from Morocco to modern Jordan and Syria. It took its name from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, from whom the Fatimids claimed descent and therefore legitimacy.

The real significance of the Fatimids was that they weren’t Sunni. They didn’t recognise the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Worse, from the perspective of the caliph, they adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam and sought to overthrow their Sunni overlords. And they came quite close to achieving that aim. Throughout the tenth century – the Fatimids were by far the most powerful Muslim force but internal and external problems were stacking up.

i10438903255The Fatimids had originated in modern Algeria and through conquest, took over the existing Islamic dominions including southern Italy. In that area, they constantly bumped up against the military power of a very resurgent and aggressive Byzantine empire. But keen to push east and overthrow the caliph in Baghdad, the Fatimids took Egypt and established the city of Cairo. This effectively became their capital and it was from here that they pushed up into the Levant – all the time promoting their version of Islam and insisting that the Sunni caliph was an imposter.

Trouble began for the Fatimids with a rather mad ruler called al-Hakim whose random brutality became the stuff of legend. This included flattening the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and killing all dogs in Cairo because he couldn’t stand their barking. However, al-Hakim was at the same time accused of being too lenient towards non-Muslims by the caliph in Baghdad who began accusing the Fatimids of being less than pure, certainly not descended from Fatima and possibly  – horror of horrors – being of Jewish ancestry! Mercifully for everybody, al-Hakim went out for a stroll one night in Cairo and only his blood stained cloak and a confused donkey were found. He was never heard of or seen again.

There now began a long period of anarchy and secession of territories from the Fatimid empire. Nubians, Turks and Berbers fought between each other and the rulers had difficulty asserting control. By the mid-twelfth century – two new and very large threats had emerged that would eventually combine to destroy the Fatimids. The crusaders had taken Jerusalem and established a string of kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean coast. And from the north had emerged the Seljuk Turks – uniting Sunni Islam under vigorous military rulers.

For the crusaders of Jerusalem – Egypt became a very attractive target. The Seljuks had invaded the crusader kingdom of Edessa and the Byzantines had claimed sovereignty over Antioch. So the kingdom of Jerusalem began looking southwards at the Fatimids who were busy arguing amongst themselves. Almaric I of Jerusalem, together with the Byzantines, invaded Egypt, which seemed ripe for the taking. And sure enough – they defeated the Fatimids in their first battle.

This has given rise to a question still hotly debated today – could Almaric have annexed Egypt? In the end he retreated but there’s plenty of reasons for supposing he could have succeeded. Some senior figures in the Fatimid empire were already working with the Sunni Seljuks while others remained loyal to the original Fatimid aims. So the ruling elite was divided and treacherous.

It’s been argued that Almaric could have relied on the Coptic Christians of Egypt to rally to his side but that may be an assumption too far. Eastern Christians did not necessarily look favorably at the Latin rites, western crusaders and vice versa. The Greek rites church of Byzantium had gone its own way, splitting from Rome, a hundred years earlier. The Coptic church, with its long history of a powerful patriarch in Alexandria, did not look to Rome for spiritual guidance. But a Latin crusader king could conceivably have convinced the Copts to come on side – they were a much larger percentage of the population at that time – and Almaric might have assured them that he would put the forward march of Islam on hold.

Who knows? It didn’t happen but as I’ll show in future posts – that didn’t stop some very well known crusaders having another go at Egypt.




Top baddies of the Middle Ages!



Here they are – the TOP baddies of the Middle Ages!

170px-John_of_England_(John_Lackland)KING JOHN OF ENGLAND

  • Took on the barons and lost, then made to sign Magna Carta
  • Excommunicated by the Pope
  • Mislaid the crown jewels in a marshy swamp
  • Fled in the face of an invasion of England by the King of France



  • Never seemed to have enough money
  • So shook down the church and France’s Jewish population
  • Then saw how much wealth the Templars when he fled to their Paris headquarters during a riot against his proposed currency devaluation
  • Issued secret orders to arrest all Knights Templar on trumped up charges of sodomy and heresy then attempted to seize the wealth he’d seen


  • The Inquisition really got going with Honorius
  • He sanctioned the new Dominican order to go heretic hunting
  • Wrote a very odd book called the Grimoire of Honorius with helpful tips on how to summon up demons in order to control them and how human sacrifice could be used to root out sorcerers

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 22.44.24ENRICO DANDOLO

  • The Doge of Venice who funded the Fourth Crusade only so he could direct it against another Christian state instead of the Muslims
  • Though blind and very old, he led the crusaders against the Byzantine empire
  • Constantinople, the Christian jewel of the east, was comprehensively smashed up by the Venetians and their allies – and never really recovered until conquered by Muslim forces 250 years later


  • A Byzantine emperor who ruled using terror between 1183 and 1185
  • His own people could take it no longer, rose up and overthrew him
  • A mob in Constantinople tied him to a post and beat him for three days
  • Then they cut off his right hand, pulled out his teeth, hair and eyes and then poured boiling water over his head


  • A very medieval approach to science, this absolute ruler conducted experiments on living people
  • This included imprisoning somebody in a cask with a hole to see if their would escaped from that opening at the point of death
  • Feeding two prisoners and then sending one out to hunt and the other to bed. Then disembowelling them to see which had digested his food better
  • Raising two children without any human interaction to see which language they ended up speaking



The Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople

constanThe Fourth Crusade has to stand out as one of the most depressing and destructive events in history. A crusade that was notionally aimed by Christian Europe at the Muslim east but which was cynically diverted by Venice against its maritime and trading competitor – Constantinople.

Since the division of the Roman Empire and the creation of Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine – first Christian ruler of Rome – “The City”, as it was known, had remained the wealthiest and most glittering urban centre throughout the so-called Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages. There simply wasn’t another city to rival it.

It had been beautified and adorned with monuments, churches and palaces by successive emperors from Theodosius II (who built its thick and impregnable walls) to Justinian (who built the Hagia Sophia cathedral). Under the Macedonian dynasty, the empire of Constantinople had pushed back the Muslim caliphate in Anatolia and the Levant and been a real power to reckon with. It dominated the Balkans and Middle East and its version of Christianity (what we now call Orthodox) was felt as far as Moscow, the Baltics and the Balkans.

But by the start of the 13th century, the Empire had experienced a more turbulent time. The Seljuk Turks had brought a new unity to the Islamic world and gradually, Armenia and Anatolia slipped out of Byzantine (Constantinople) control. The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw the emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, captured by the Seljuks – a massive humiliation. And Rome formalised the split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy by excommunicating the empire – from then on, there would be two Christian worlds and not one.

This split and the crusader regular complaint that the Byzantines were shift and two faced would be used to justify a Christian crusade against a Christian city.

By the end of the 12th century, the crusades in outremer had gone badly wrong. Jerusalem had been lost and the situation for the remaining crusader territories was looking pretty grim. So, Pope Innocent III – often seen as the most powerful pope ever – decided that a direct attack on Cairo was required. Christian Europe would take up the sword once more and defeat the Saracen.

Well, that was the plan. Venice agreed to fit out the crusader navy and this took about a year. The fitting out was not free of charge and when the crusaders prepared to set sail, the Venetians produced a bill for the eye watering sum of 85,000 marks – which the crusaders were unable to pay in full.

There are accounts of what happened next that attempt to present Venice as the aggrieved party but I can’t help feeling that the wily, blind, ninety-something Doge Dandolo – ruler of Venice – had his eye on Constantinople from the outset. Previous crusades had not been covered in glory and I suspect he didn’t really think invading Cairo was going to achieve much. Whereas smashing up Constantinople would benefit Venice hugely.

So the indebted crusaders were ordered by the Venetians to go and besiege the Catholic city (and rival to Venice) of Zara and then proceed on to Constantinople, ignoring the fact that an outraged Pope Innocent III had excommunicated the lot of them.

I won’t go in to all the details of the long siege of Constantinople – but suffice it to say that the city was already weakened by intrigues within its royal court and a failure to maintain its army and navy. But the citizens of The City still thought their massive walls would keep out the crusaders. They had repelled every invader for nearly a thousand years from Huns to Bulgars to Arabs. Unfortunately, they eventually caved in to the crusaders.

It’s still very sad to wander round the ruins of Constantinople and see very plainly where gold, silver and precious jewels were prized away by the crusaders and buildings put to the torch. The evidence of the great sacking can even be seen in the still standing Hagia Sophia – built by the emperor Justinian in the mid-500s and despoiled in 1204.

Dandolo personally led his troops on the siege – in spite of being in his 90s and blind. He shamed them in to moving forward at a critical moment. But he died in Constantinople and you can still see his grave in the Hagia Sophia. However, his bones are long gone – as the Latin Kingdom he established was eventually overthrown by the returning Byzantines and then they in turn were destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. At some point, Dandolo’s bones were fed to the dogs.

Here are some images from my visit to what was Constantinople – and is now the modern Turkish city of Istanbul.


The cable car ride up to the fort of Masada – video

I know many of you like videos of cable car rides! So here is the short ride up to the fort of Masada. This was originally a mountain palace built by Herod then it went in to a decline until it was taken over by rebels during the Second Jewish Revolt crushed brutally by the Romans. Rather than surrender, the rebels on the hilltop committed mass suicide. Later a Byzantine church was built on the site.

The birthplace of John the Baptist

Today I visited the birthplace of John the Baptist as part of my journey to Israel. The Franciscan monastery at Ein Karem – a village now swallowed up by Jerusalem – is a nineteenth century construction sitting on top of an earlier Byzantine church destroyed during a huge revolt by the Samaritans in Israel during the fifth century. This is a revolt I knew little about before my current visit to Israel but the destructive wave it unleashed is becoming ever clearer – worth a blog post in the future I think!

Anyway – here is the church and the spot at which John the Baptist – dear to the Templars – was conceived.