In 1095, His Holiness resolved to launch a new kind of war against forces in the Middle East he believed threatened Christianity. The Byzantine emperor had sent him a desperate letter warning that unless action was taken, Christian holy places would be barred to pilgrims. The pope reacted by launching the First Crusade.
The enemy was Islam. Urban fired up his audience with blood curdling rhetoric. Whether any of his stories were true is another matter. It’s certainly hard to imagine a pope today using the kind of language that tripped from Urban’s tongue.
Speaking to a huge crowd at Clermont in France, he painted a very ghoulish picture of the Saracens, Christianity’s enemy, in the Holy Land:
They will take a Christian, cut open his stomach and tie his intestine to a stake. Then, stabbing at him with a spear, they will make him run, until he pulls out his own entrails and falls dead to the ground.
Urban said that those who had been attacking Christians or waging war on their families and communities could sign up on the dotted line and do something useful instead. Basically, the crusade was going to give violent outlaws and brigands the opportunity to wipe their personal slate clean.
At this time, the Turks had made their entry on to the stage of history pushing into the Islamic caliphate and the Byzantine empire. The pope called on everybody to rush to the east and destroy “that vile race” that had overwhelmed the friends of Christianity.
The result was three hundred years of crusade that started well but became increasingly futile. It was also the era that would bring us our very own Knights Templar. All because a pope roused Europe to action with a gory speech.
It’s been reported that the thugs of ISIS have blown up an 800 year old mosque built during the Crusades by Nur ad-Din, a Saracen ruler described during his lifetime as a scourge of the crusader armies.
Up until recently, ISIS had exploited the historical significance of the mosque to legitimise their land grab in Syria and Iraq. Three years ago, their so-called caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi launched the ISIS “caliphate” from the pulpit at the Grand al-Nuri mosque, which now lies in complete ruins.
The mosque was based in Mosul, Iraq – a city that ISIS invaded in 2014. The terror group now faces almost certain defeat at the hands of Iraqi government forces. So they have reacted by blowing up this ancient jewel. It’s appalling to see a mass of rubble where this medieval glory so recently stood.
This mosque was a physical link between us in the 21st century and those far off times. Its builder, Nur ad-Din, famously captured the Knight Templar grand master Bertrand de Blanquefort who was held in prison for three years in Aleppo before being handed over to the Byzantine emperor. Even though he bested the crusaders on several occasions, Nur ad-Din was respected by the Christian chronicler William of Tyre who described him as a “just prince, valiant and wise”.
This is one of many historical sites that have been vandalised by ISIS. Many churches, mosques, shrines, temples and of course the Roman ruins at Palmyra have been trashed by ISIS. The objective is to erase history and undermine the sense of national identity of Syrians and Iraqis. However, with every insane of violence, they simply show themselves to be mindless, bigoted vandals.
One of the greatest mysteries relating to the Knights Templar is whether the order discovered some form of treasure in Jerusalem that would offer an explanation for their fabulous wealth.
Nine knights at the start of the 12th century went to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and asked for permission to guard the roads in to the holy city to safeguard pilgrims. They wanted to form a new order that would combine militaristic valour with monastic discipline and piety. The Patriarch and secular authorities gave the knights the green light and so the Templars were launched.
They asked to be based in the Al Aqsa mosque, which they believed dated back to the reign of king Solomon – pre-dating the destruction of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. King Baldwin of Jerusalem agreed to them being based at this auspicious location. These crusaders were to become the knights of the Temple – the Templars.
In a very short period of time, they began to amass significant wealth. How was this achieved? There are several explanations. The nine knights themselves were well connected aristocrats plugged into a network of well-heeled supporters in the church and state. Bequests began to flood in from those looking to support the crusade in the Holy Land and hoping for divine favour in the afterlife.
As the Templars grew establishing preceptories across Europe, they created a complex financial and economic network to fund their activity in the Middle East. The order even developed the first banking cheques allowing knights to travel great distances without having to carry their wealth in chests. The Templars became money lenders to princes and ran an efficient farming enterprise. So is this where all their money came from?
Well, not according to sources down the centuries. In the 19th century, evidence emerged of excavations underneath the Al Aqsa mosque suggesting the Templars had been digging away for something. Of course, this gave rise to speculation that they had found some form of treasure – possibly the Holy Grail (with little agreement on what that actually is) – explaining their sudden leap in wealth.
As the crusades crumbled in the 13th century, the Templars were forced to abandon Jerusalem. The theory then goes that they hauled their treasure off to be stored in their most formidable and well guarded preceptory in Paris. This building with its thick walls still stood during the 1789 French revolution but was demolished in stages in the years that followed.
So did the Templars get their wealth out of Paris as their leaders were put on trial for heresy by king Philip the Fair of France – a monarch always short of money who fleeced the Templars, the church, the Jewish community and anybody else who could pay for his wars?
When the Templars were rounded up and arrested in 1307, some were imprisoned at the fortress of Gisors in France. Graffiti on the walls was said to include the image of a large cart carrying treasure away. A caretaker at Gisors in 1929 claimed to have found an underground chapel crammed with vast riches. However, when the local authorities turned up to investigate further, there was nothing at all. He was duly fired.
In the 1960s, the French culture minister Andre Malraux ordered a new dig at Gisors using the army instead of archaeologists. But even their heavy muscle failed to reveal a thing. There was no Templar treasure.
When King Philip of France – scourge of the Templars – sent his forces to raid the Templar headquarters in Paris in 1307, the cupboard was indeed bare. There’s no doubt there had been a great deal of loot within its walls because the king had seen it himself on a previous visit but now….nothing. Had the Templars under cover of night spirited away their treasure?
Some were convinced they had. So where did it go? One theory was that the surviving knights headed to the port of La Rochelle and took their ships, loaded with riches, to England and then on to Scotland. There, they helped the plucky Scots beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn – a claim the Scots dislike as it infers they couldn’t win their own battles!
There were already Templars in Scotland, dating back to the order’s earliest days. The knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney. In the late 14th century, the story runs that Sinclair and the knights used old Viking routes to sail to Iceland, Greenland and then to Vinland in modern Canada. There, they founded a kingdom that the native Iroquois referred to as Saguenay.
Stories of Saguenay and the Scottish connection were picked up by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries who duly reported back to the Vatican. One theory is that the 17th century French artist Poussin hints at knowledge of Templars in the New World in his painting Et in Arcadia Ego, also referred to as The Arcadian Shepherds.
I will explain this theory in more depth in another blog post.
The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).
A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.
So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog. The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.
“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!
Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.
If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment.
The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.
As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?
Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.
They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest. Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.
Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France. This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.
It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades and one to ponder if you get bored with your family’s company over the Christmas dinner – which I am sure you will not. But just in case!
The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.
When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Almaric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Almaric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.
Almaric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Almaric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Almaric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.
The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Almaric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Almaric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.
So when Almaric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Almaric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.
Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.
Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Almaric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.
Almaric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.
The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack. The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.
But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Almaric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Almaric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.
Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?