Tomar – filming with the History Channel on a Templar quest

I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal – in the next few blog posts, I’ll share my discoveries with you:

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!

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Answering questions from the History Channel in Tomar – August 2017

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!

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The Gate of Blood – in 1190, Templars and Muslims slaughtered each other until the blood ran down the hillside

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.

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Inside the Templar chapel of Tomar – modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

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!

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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.

A saint for your lottery numbers

National-lottery-results-UK-draw-numbers-latest-results-checker-984198Saint Pantaleon is one of those saints that has enjoyed huge recognition and then fallen away a bit.  Allegedly, he was a physician to one of the late Roman emperors who co-ruled in the east – either Galerius or Maximian.  This was when the empire was divided between two senior and two junior rulers – a system called the Tetrarchy.  Diocletian, the emperor who devised this ingenious way of running the vast imperium, also launched the last and most determined persecution of the Christians.

We are led to believe that Pantaleon was convinced that faith was more important than medicine and he duly accepted a rather gruesome martyrdom.  Many of the stories that circulate about martyrs under Diocletian are faintly ridiculous.  They all have common themes about saints having their heads cut off or being boiled alive and yet somehow miraculously surviving, etc.  Whoever told the story of Pantaleon got very carried away because he was pretty much subjected to every horrific mode of execution you could imagine and yet proved impossible to kill.  Only when he himself consented to die, did the blade cut his head off – out of which, by the way, spouted a mixture of blood and milk.

This is a statue I found in Portugal but he also features in the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral and his relics are scattered from Armenia to Italy.  In the latter country, there is a belief that Saint Pantaleon will very obligingly come to you in your dreams and tell you the winning lottery numbers.  He is presumably very selective about how many people he visits during their slumbers.

Saint Pantaleon

Descendants of Christ meet Roman emperor

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Emperor Domitian

Eusebius – Christian historian of the early legal church under the Romans and a bit of a spin doctor – quotes the story of a group of Christ’s descendants meeting the Roman emperor Domitian in the first century AD.  Domitian was a brooding, autocratic ruler hated by the senatorial class but viewed more favourably these days as a reformer, even if his methods were a touch insensitive.

The story of his meeting with the Desposyni of Christ was written over two hundred years later by Eusebius and could be an attempt to suggest that Christianity was more influential at the time than it actually was.  There is nothing from contemporary sources in the first hundred years after Christ that indicates the Romans were even aware of this Middle Eastern mystery cult.  It just didn’t blip on their radar.

When Tacitus writes about Christians a hundred years after the crucifixion, it’s mainly to snigger about reports that these strange people eat their god during their services.

Anyway – here’s what Eusebius wrote about the meeting between Domitian and the bloodline of Jesus:

There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Jude, brother of Jesus, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done. So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work. Being then asked concerning Christ and His kingdom, what was its nature, and when and where it was to appear, they returned answer that it was not of this world, nor of the earth, but belonging to the sphere of heaven and angels, and would make its appearance at the end of time, when He shall come in glory, and judge living and dead, and render to every one according to the course of his life. Thereupon Domitian passed no condemnation upon them, but treated them with contempt, as too mean for notice, and let them go free. At the same time he issued a command, and put a stop to the persecution against the Church. When they were released they became leaders of the churches, as was natural in the case of those who were at once martyrs and of the kindred of the Lord. And, after the establishment of peace to the Church, their lives were prolonged to the reign of Trajan.

—Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiae, 3.20

The power of saints relics in the Middle Ages

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Relics that I photographed in Arles, France

For the Knights Templar – saints’ relics were very important.  And the ordinary people had a great deal of faith in the leg bone or skull of a dead holy person.  Various stories circulated at the time about the power of these relics.

Two beggars had the misfortune to get a little too close to the relics of Saint Martin.  They were desperate not to be healed as nobody would ever give them money again.  And they certainly didn’t want to do an honest day’s work.  But the sweep of the crowd edging forward to touch the body of the saint caught them up and before they knew it, their blindness was cured.  The chronicler says the two men were hugely pissed off by this – rather like the character unwillingly healed in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

One story that shows how everybody was a sucker for a good relic in the Middle Ages was the claim by monks at the abbey of Saint Jean in Aquitaine, south west France, that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist.  This would have come as something of a surprise to a church in far off Antioch – modern Turkey – where they quite sure that the head of John the Baptist had been sitting above their altar for centuries.

But nothing was to stop the French monks who were a bit hazy on the small details of where and how they’d found this head so far from where it had been chopped off a thousand years before.   Needless to say plenty of French peasants began claiming that their ailments were cured by the head in their midst.  And as relics seem to need the company of other relics, John the Baptist was soon joined by the remains of Saint Eparchius.

Saint Eparchius had died in the sixth century and his good deeds in life had centered on rescuing condemned criminals.  Bit soft on crime you could say.  One man hung at the gallows was brought back to life by the saint whose head now joined John the Baptist.  The sky burned with fire when the two relics were put together.

Another relic that showed off its power was that of Saint Junianus whose bits and pieces were being transported in a sack by some monks and one night they stopped off at a village to sleep.  After they left, the villagers erected a wicker fence around the place where the relics had been set down.  Later that very day, an angry bull charged in to the fence and died instantly.

Bishop Gregory of Tours, who was writing in the very early medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire, was sure that Saint Martin – mentioned above – had cured him of all sorts of things.  One was a massive attack of dysentery that left him vomiting and on the toilet constantly.  His physician couldn’t cure him but lo and behold, some dust taken from Saint Martin’s tomb and mixed in to an elixir, did the trick.

Touching Saint Martin’s tomb also sorted out Gregory’s recurring headaches, removed a fishbone from his throat, cured what sounds like chickenpox or shingles and when his tongue swelled up, he took to licking part of the tomb.  Yuck!

Most incredibly to Gregory, a woman who had been beaten up and rendered speechless by a ghost (I’m not making this up!) recovered her speech and was able to tell Gregory all about what had happened after she visited Martin’s tomb.  I’m hoping she didn’t have to lick it as well.