Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.
Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.
That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.
It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.
When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that their initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross. So what is true?
Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth. But it was the desecration of the crucifix that shocked medieval opinion. These were supposed to be religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land and they were denouncing their own faith in private.
The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.
This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…
As for some of the other more lewd aspects of the initiation, Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question. Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand.
However, this failed to convince king Philip who viewed this bizarre rite as a very strong excuse for banning the Templars, burning dozens of them and confiscating their property.
In 1307, the king of France – Philip the Fair – issued orders to arrest every Knight Templar in his realm. This was done in total secrecy in what one writer has described as the medieval equivalent of a dawn raid. A couple of ex-Templars, disgruntled with the order they had once sworn loyalty to, had spilled the beans to the king’s officials about all manner of dubious practices the Templars were alleged to engage in.
This included the notorious kiss on the base of the spine, the mouth and the navel. There was also the worship of a head – sometimes described as a cat’s head or a three-faced head or the head of John the Baptist or a head in the sand that spoke, etc, etc. The Templars denounced Christ, it was alleged, and stamped, urinated and spat on the cross. This was the very cross that they displayed on their tunics and yet they dishonoured it.
The heresies that the rumour mill attributed to the Templars included being closet Muslims, closet Cathars or closet Mandaeans. The latter were an eastern gnostic sect who revered John the Baptist but rejected Jesus Christ. The stamping on the crucifix was believed to evidence the Templar disdain for Christ. The Cathars were a major heretical movement in France that threatened both royal and church power in the south of the country. Cathars rejected the Catholic church’s hierarchy and sacraments disputing the real nature of Jesus. As regards Islam, it has been argued from the medieval period to the present day by some that the Templars had got a little too close to Muslim belief and the scientific knowledge held in the caliphate’s universities and libraries.
Of course, all of these accusations may be utter tripe. The real reason for the Templars being rounded up, tortured and forced to confess to all of this was that king Philip of France just needed their money. He had bolted to the Paris Temple during a mob riot in the city asking the Templars for their protection but while in their safekeeping, he had seen their wealth at first hand and determined to get his hands on it. Philip had form in this regard having already mugged France’s Jewish population, Lombard merchants and even the church. Why not shake down the Templars?
But in the ‘no smoke without fire’ camp, there are those who think the Templars may genuinely have been influenced by eastern philosophical and religious ideas that crept into their ritual and belief. Maybe not in the lurid terms described by the charges at their trial – but hateful to the western church all the same. The truth is – we don’t know. But what is certain is that the allegations above were upheld at the time and dozens of Templar knights including the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay were burnt at the stake on the basis of their forced confessions.
In 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
ISIS has not only been destroying ancient Roman and Assyrian monuments but also the medieval Christian and Muslim heritage of Syria and Iraq. For example, the Mar Elian monastery dated back to the 4th century when the Roman empire converted to Christianity. ISIS bulldozers brought its walls crashing down.
Dura-Europos was described as the Pompeii of the desert yielding amazing remains of Roman armour and many temples. Needless to say that aerial photographs show it to have now been looted and demolished in a mindless display of barbarism.
Mosul saw the infamous attack on the city’s museum but less well reported was the burning of the university library and the central public library. In those flames went thousands of ancient books, manuscripts and scientific instruments developed by medieval Arabic scholars. UNESCO said it was possibly one of the worst destructions of libraries in history.
The Mar Behnam monastery survived centuries of the Islamic caliphate and the Mongol invasion of the Middle Ages. But then ISIS showed up and rigged the 4th century site with explosives pulverising a saint’s tomb and exquisite decoration.
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 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!