Templar hero: Gualdim Pais

We think of the Crusades as a series of battles between Christianity and Islam that took place in the Middle East. But in fact, the Crusades were fought in many places including modern Spain and Portugal.

When the Knights Templar were founded in 1119, the Iberian peninsula was divided between an Islamic caliphate in the south and several Christian kingdoms in the north. Separating these two very different and warring realms was a buffer zone that swapped hands over and over.

Between the rivers Mondego and Tagus in Portugal lay lands referred to in the medieval period as ‘nullis diocesis’ – territory with no bishop or patriarch. Church and state had no firm hold over these lands. Instead, crusaders and Moors (the Muslim armies) fought each other bitterly gained and losing the advantage.

It fell to the Knights Templar to try and hold the line. The king of Portugal gave the Templars control over nullis diocesis hoping their combination of religious zeal and military courage would be enough to push back the Moorish invaders.

The knights built a string of castles to defend their position. One such was the fortress at Tomar, which you can still see today. It’s famous for an octagonal church that lies within it referred to as the ‘charola’ – allegedly modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

D._Gualdim_Pais,_Mestre_dos_Templários_-_História_de_Portugal,_popular_e_ilustradaThe Portuguese Templars at Tomar elected a grand master for their new nation and the most famous of these was a formidable character called Gualdim Pais. You can still see a statue of him in the town square. He holds a kite shield and resembles a Norman knight of that period.

He had served in the Holy Land and been present at the Siege of Ascalon in 1153 – when Fatimid Egypt had been soundly defeated. Back in his native country, he fought yet another crusade. The difference being that this war, by and large, was moving in favour of the Christian side. Bit by bit, the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, that had ruled much of Spain and Portugal for four hundred years, was gradually being driven back.

However, in 1190, Gualdim faced a dire threat he might never have anticipated. A vast army from Morocco surged through southern Portugal and arrived at the mighty stone walls of Tomar. So bitter was the hand to hand combat that a door into the city is still called the Gate of Blood. The ground was crimson as both sides thrust and cut at each other.

Five years later, Gualdim died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Olival, which you can visit today.

 

 

The Templars, hidden treasure and the Dead Sea Scrolls

bedouin
Two Bedouins discovered the Dead Sea scrolls

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were herding their flock on the rocky and steep slopes near Qumran by the shores of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The area is pockmarked by caves and a goat disappeared inside one of these black holes. One of the shepherds threw a stone after it to tease the animal out but instead heard a sound like breaking pottery.

The shepherd had made one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. In several large stone jars, hidden away two thousand years ago, were sacred scrolls that included a version of the Old Testament written down a thousand years before the oldest version in existence in 1947.

Qumran
Qumran today

A mysterious community had taken root at Qumran building a town on the mountain face with purification baths, a library, aqueduct and houses. It had fled what it saw as the decadence and evil of Jerusalem around 150 BC.

Initially, its hatred was directed at the High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and their Greek overlords – the Seleucid Empire. These people, the community believed, were already damned. God had decided who to save and who to throw into hell fire. The community at Qumran didn’t need salvation through church sacraments or goodly deeds in life – they already knew they were part of God’s elect.

priests
Jerusalem priests – doing well under Roman rule

The Seleucids gave way to the Roman Empire and the priests of the Temple shamefully collaborated with the Romans for their own personal gain, power and prestige. The High Priest and Roman governor worked in hand in glove. Puppet Jewish kings like Herod Antipas were more than happy to be cyphers for Roman imperial rule in return for a glittering lifestyle.

Many Jews yearned for the return to the self-government they briefly enjoyed between the collapse of Seleucid rule and the arrival of the Romans – the period of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. And in 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against imperial control in a bloody insurgency that took over five years for the Romans to crush.

Roman vengeance was cruel and without mercy. The Temple in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders, was ransacked for all its treasures. And then the building was torched and demolished. It would never rise again. The glory of the Jews – the most holy place to them – was reduced to rubble and ashes.

The Romans even celebrated their theft of the Temple treasury on an arch in Rome – the Arch of Titus. You can still see soldiers proudly carting off their booty that some conjecture included the Ark of the Covenant.

Back in Qumran, the community of ascetic Jews that had lived there for over two hundred years would have been very aware of events in the big city. They had been looking forward to an apocalyptic end of days that would end the rule of darkness and bring forth the rule of light. Those who were evil – Romans and Temple priests – would be damned. But the community of Qumran would be saved and resurrected.

copper-scrollFast forward to 1952 and archaeologists were finding more and more scrolls in the caves. They came to believe that the community, realising the Romans and fleeing Jewish refugees were coming in their direction, began to secrete their sacred knowledge into dark and unseen places.

Hastily, they hid their precious scrolls. Possibly, they were also helping to spirit away treasure from the temple in Jerusalem as Roman forces swarmed over it. Could it be that the ascetic community of Qumran helped the priests they hated in Jerusalem to hide the sacred vessels?

In 1952, archaeologists discovered a copper scroll. All the other scrolls had been made of papyrus or animal skin but this scroll was etched into metal. It was clearly intended not to rot or be chewed away by insects. The information on it was vitally important.

The copper scroll detailed the hiding place of a vast treasure in gold and silver. Look under the third step at such-and-such building and you will find a strong box with this amount of talents in gold…the scroll read. One hiding place after another was listed.

Many scholars believed it was referring to treasures taken out of the Temple before the Romans arrived and placed in over sixty locations. This raised the tantalising prospect that all over modern Israel and Jordan are the most spectacular finds waiting to be discovered.

titus
The Romans celebrated looting the Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome – you can still see it!

Others argued that the community was leading people of the future on a wild goose chase for objects that did not exist at all. And certainly, treasure hunters have been consistently disappointed ever since. But it’s hard to imagine a community facing the arrival of Roman legions set on decimating them in an act of bloody imperial vengeance would waste their last moments on earth etching a hoax into a copper scroll.

A Templar related theory posits that there was a second copper scroll. This one was hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem for future generations to discover. And, the theory goes, when the Knights Templar began digging under what they believed to be the Temple of Solomon, they discovered this scroll. The wealth they were then able to unearth at multiple locations formed the basis of their fabulous wealth.

For many Israelis today, the thrilling prospect of finding the sacred items of the destroyed Temple would herald the prospect of rebuilding it. However, one can imagine the political storm that would create.

Evidence of the Knights Templar fleeing the Holy Land with their loot?

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Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

The former Templar stronghold of Acre in modern Israel has been throwing up some interesting discoveries of late.

A team from Haifa University found the wreck of a long lost crusader ship in the bay with a horde of golden coins lying next to it on the seabed. The gold is dated with certainty to the latter half of the 13th century and that fits with the fall of Acre to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt in 1291. It seems that Christian soldiers, faced with certain defeat, gathered up their wealth and tried to make a getaway.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports on the story HERE. There has always been a great deal of speculation as to what happened to the treasure amassed by the Templars in the Holy Land. This will fuel the suspicion that they spirited a good deal of it back to their preceptories in Europe – making them a target for resentment later on.

Templar tunnel
Secret Templar tunnel in Acre – from my visit in 2012

Another team from Haifa University has made yet another incredible discovery outside the Ottoman walls of the city. They have found the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, another militarised monastic warrior elite force during the crusades.

After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Acre became the centre of crusader operations in the Holy Land. The Christian territories were much diminished by 1291 and looking back, it does seem that defeat was inevitable.

When it came though, the clock began ticking against the Knights Templar. Driven out of all their mainland fortresses in the Holy Land – what was their raison d’etre? How could they claim to have God on their side when defeat after defeat suggested otherwise? Within 20 years after the fall of Acre, the Templar order would be wiped out by the French monarchy and the papacy acting in concert.

Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

Were bombs used in the Crusades?

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

OK – you read that headline and thought…sensationalist tosh! But no, it’s a serious point and the evidence is pretty strong.  I visited Ajlun castle in Jordan last week – a fort built by one of Saladin‘s generals guarding nearby iron mines. There’s a small museum in the castle and it includes some mysterious circular bottles made of glass and mud.

These strange vessels have been found all over the Levant – and in areas where fighting occurred between Saladin’s Ayyubid forces and the crusader kingdoms. Some have been found to have traces of mercury while others were filled with oil or so-called “Greek fire” – a petroleum like incendiary substance used originally by the Byzantines.

Their narrow base allows them to roll fast when they hit the ground and the small size of the top doesn’t really allow for serving any liquid. It’s quite clear to many historians that these were used for military and not any domestic purpose. They were – basically – bombs.

Please excuse slight blurring on the close up shot but they were in glass cases in a dark room and there’s only so much my camera can cope with.

Ajlun castle bomb Ajlun castle bomb

 

More from the biblical city of Gadara – modern Um Qais

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Staying with Gadara – the city where Jesus cured two demoniacs. Other Roman remains here include the main street with identifiable shops and a basilica later converted into a Byzantine Christian church.

Cannibals on crusade – eating flesh in the Middle Ages

Say the word ‘cannibal’ and most people in the west have been brought up to think of some tribe of man eating savages located in the deepest jungle, maybe in a place like Borneo. But in a recent book on the Second World War by Max Hastings – called Inferno (nothing to do with Dan Brown) – he alleges that the people of Leningrad in Russia were so hungry during the Nazi onslaught that they ate their own. The Imperial Japanese Army has also been accused of cannibalism of prisoners in the same war – again in recent books on the subject.

CannibalismSo what about our favorite time period – the Middle Ages? I was asked by a regular visitor to this blog whether allegations of crusaders indulging in cannibalism were really true. Well, the chronicles suggest it happened – even if we have to treat all written accounts with a pinch of salt. But we should give some credence to the stories because those writing about crusaders eating their Saracen enemies weren’t Muslims – they were Christians.

Astonishingly, one person accused of cannibalism is none other than Richard the Lionheart.  It’s said that he requested pork to eat while camped outside the Hospitaller fortress of Acre in modern Israel. His attendants cook him up some Saracens on the basis that they taste of pork (even though they’re not allowed to eat pork – go figure!). Richard bolts down his food and asks to see the pig’s head. Needless to say the attendants produce a Saracen’s head and Richard, far from being appalled, gets stuck into some more “pork” pointing out to his men that they shall never starve as this meat is so plentiful.

This story might have been intended as a sick joke or a boastful means of scaring the Saracens – conversely, the incident may have happened. You have to recall that Richard the Lionheart presided at a mass execution of prisoners so there was a very mean streak to the man.

In an earlier incident in 1098 during the First Crusade – a year before Jerusalem was taken by Prince Tancred – the crusaders overran a Syrian town called Ma’arra. Christian chroniclers, three of them, felt constrained to both record and try to excuse acts of cannibalism by the crusader. In his History of the Expedition to Jerusalem Fulcher of Chartres wrote the following about what happened at Ma’arra.

I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth

Being Jewish in the Middle Ages

German Jews of the thirteenth century. From He...
German Jews of the thirteenth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Luftgarten.

It must be said that being Jewish in the medieval period was challenging – to put it mildly. The fortunes of Jews at this time varied dramatically but on the whole, things were not good. From the late Roman period, those who had framed the theology of Christianity – the so-called ‘doctors of the church’ – made it quite clear that Jews were going to be held to account for the crucifixion of the Son of God for all time. What that meant however – was open to interpretation. However, Ambrose of Milan and Saint Jerome, both revered by the Catholic church, in the fourth century openly condoned attacks by mobs in the eastern empire on synagogues. When the emperor demanded the reconstruction of these places of worship, they condemned him.

Nevertheless – Jews survived and played a valuable economic role in medieval society. So much so – that by the Norman period, they were protected by the king and could not be molested. At least that was the theory. But you can’t keep a good prelate down – and by the 12th and 13th centuries, good Christian leaders were whipping up any number of scare stories against the Jews. I think it’s fair to say their position deteriorated through the 13th century to the point where even the king could no longer stand between them and their enemies.

So let’s look at some examples – starting with the ‘blood libel’ of ritual murder. It was circulated among the people that the Jews needed the blood of a Christian child in order to perform their Passover rituals. This story became quite elaborate claiming that Jews met secretly to decide which city would provide the next innocent victim. There were voices against this nonsense including Bernard of Clairvaux and pope Innocent IV who pointed out in 1247 that the Jews were forbidden by the Torah to use blood in any ritual.

Pope Gregory X wrote in 1272:  And most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away their children and killed them and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children.

I’ve blogged previously about the child martyr William of Norwich, claimed to have been killed by the Jews in that city and canonised by the local church. Harold of Gloucester was another – a boy of eight years of age who a contemporary chronicler claimed had “scars of fire, the thorns fixed on his head and liquid wax poured into the eyes and face”.

It should be pointed out that in Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal – not only Jews but their Moorish (Muslim) neighbours were accused of such behaviour. Their accusers were more often than not the growing Dominican order of monks – a leading force in the early Inquisition. What is incredible is that blood libel continued to be believed in Spain right through to the seventeenth century. Even when the inquisitors were taken to the alleged burial place of a tortured child and nothing was found, they surmised that God had decided that this should be the case and the child had been assumed bodily into heaven! On this occasion, four Spanish Jews were tortured and burnt alive.

Jews may have found blood libel both horrifying and perplexing – but they also  had to contend with the accusation of host desecration. In 1215, the pope delivered the doctrine of transubstantiation… the idea that the bread in the Eucharist actually becomes the physical body of Christ. No sooner had this been promulgated than Jews were accused of stealing hosts. Why? Because it amused them to stab, beat and boil the piece of bread that the ignorant Christians thought could become God. But – according to the accounts of the period – as the Jews performed this terrible act, the host would bleed or even, on occasion, Christ would appear!

Somewhat airbrushed out of medieval history was the emergence of Christian cults around the host where it would be processed through the streets and a knife displayed that – it would be asserted – Jews used to stab at it!

Surely things couldn’t get worse. Oh yes they could – because along came the Black Death between 1348 and 1351. A quarter of Europe’s population died in this massive outbreak of bubonic plague. It was typical in this period to ascribe medical conditions to God’s will. Far easier to understand that than get to grips with the science. Mobs – often led by local clerics – ran amok. It’s believed that about three hundred Jewish communities around Europe were completely wiped out.

The real motive was often a cynical attempt by cancel out debts to Jewish moneylenders and to seize their property. At Strasbourg, the carnage was so complete that there were no Jews in the city until the 18th century. One account says that two thousand Jews were condemned to be burnt in the Jewish cemetery – unless they agreed to be baptized.

By the end of the Middle Ages – things in Spain and Portugal got pretty hideous for the Jews. The two relatively new nations were being forged and having been lands of three faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – the church was most insistent that only one faith should prevail. The Catholic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, willingly snuffed out the remnants of Islam and Judaism in their domains. Many Jews fled to Portugal where things seemed more tolerant for a while. But in 1497, king Manuel ordered that all Jewish children must be baptized in the “General Conversion”.

This created a whole new layer of “New Christians” who were still persecuted right up to the nineteenth century. In 1774, the king of Portugal suggested that those Christians of Jewish ancestry should wear special yellow hats. His wily prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, produced three yellow hats – one for himself, one for the Inquisitor-General and one for the king! The point being made was by then – who knew who had Jewish blood and who did not.

The Battle of Hattin – from the Saracen point of view

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

For eight centuries, fans of the crusades have rightly held their heads in shame at the memory of the battle known as the Horns of Hattin. It was here that Saladin brilliantly ran rings round the Templar and Christian forces achieving a stunning victory. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.

I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.

As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.

The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary. The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly of the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.

And of course – here’s the Battle of Hattin as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven (how I wish Orlando Bloom had not been in the film but hey ho)

German Templars, Haifa and the Nazis

During my visit to Israel in March this year, I went to Haifa and came across the most extraordinary story…that of a group of nineteenth century Germans who called themselves Templars, built a town in Ottoman controlled Palestine and fell foul of the British decades later when many of them were entranced by the doctrine of National Socialism.

Georg David Hardegg arrived in a small town called Haifa in 1868 and began to build a community of Germans. They were members of an organisation called the Templar Society. This seems to have been a rather eccentric Lutheran split-off believing that the Jews were no longer entitled to inhabit the Holy Land as they had rejected Jesus – therefore, these latter day Templars decided they had to take over the holy places and rebuild the great Temple.

Truthfully, they had nothing to do with the original Knights Templar. They were industrious settlers and seem to have made a determined attempt to settle in what is now Israel, constructing houses, schools, farming, opening shops, etc. The houses they built can still be seen in Haifa and form part of what is now called Ben Gurion Boulevard.

There has been growing interest in Israel about these German settlers and an exhibition about them was organised in Tel Aviv back in 2006. The Templars arrived at the same time that the Zionist movement was taking off and idealistic Jews were arriving in the same region from Europe. But by the 1930s, the Templars began to fall out quite dramatically with their Jewish neighbours.

About 20% to 30%, according to different estimates, joined the Nazi party. The leader of the community at that time, Cornelius Schwartz, was allegedly a signed up Nazi. And rather provocatively, some decided to rally in full Hitler regalia in the streets of Jerusalem.

In faraway Brussels, a Jewish man was interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters and was astounded to find the officer asking him questions in Hebrew. It turned out he was a German Templar! The Jewish man was sent to Auschwitz but fortunately survived to tell this very odd story.

This Nazi activity came to the attention of the British, who ran what is now Israel from the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War – and a large influx of Jews in the wake of the Nazi holocaust – the British authorities came to the conclusion that the German Templars needed to be kicked out. So, after nearly a century in Haifa, they were deported en masse to Germany.

Israel achieved independence as a Jewish state in 1948 by which time the Templars had disappeared. Here are some photos I took in Haifa of their houses.