The mistaken statue of Saladin

At Kerak castle, built by crusaders in the 12th century, there is a block of stone in the walls depicting a very muscular figure. For centuries, it was believed to be Saladin – scourge of the Templars and crusaders and the Muslim ruler who re-took Jerusalem.  In fact, it definitely isn’t Saladin and is much, much older.

The figure is a Nabatean warrior – the civilisation that built the legendary tomb city of Petra. It dates back to the 2nd century AD and shows a cavalryman equipped for the afterlife. So what on earth is it doing in a crusader castle? Well, masonry from much older monuments (this would have been nearly a thousand years old when Kerak was built during the crusades) was often incorporated into new buildings. So this chap – whose name we shall never know – found himself immortalised in the wall of Kerak castle.  Even if he was given an incorrect identity subsequently!

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!!

Historic Tomar to host its first Templar festival

Tomar is a beautiful Templar town in Portugal where the order held out after being crushed throughout Europe. On top of a hill overlooking the winding streets of the medieval town is a Templar ‘charola’ or octagonal church built like a fortress. Attached to it is a semi-ruined convent constructed in the 16th century Manueline style.

Down in the valley is another church called Santa Maria Olival where the Portuguese Templar masters were buried including the legendary Gualdim Pais – vanquisher of the Moors!

Tomar was recently chosen to be the global HQ of The International Order of the Knights Templar – OSMTH – and this has led to the first ever Templar festival being held in the town. Quite why it hasn’t happened before I can’t imagine. Having visited Tomar every year since 2009, I can assure you that this is a must see for any Templar.

I wish I could have given you more notice but I only found out about the event yesterday, which is happening between the 23rd and 26th of this month. Full details in Portuguese can be found HERE.  If you can’t make it – then please browse the images below from my last visit in August, 2012.

Cyprus and the Knights Templar – a grim Easter anniversary!

coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus
Coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus 

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is now racked by a financial crisis.  Demonstrators have taken to the streets in their thousands as savers have been forced to hand up to as much as 10% of their savings to bail out the bankers. Little wonder that bankers are extremely unpopular.

But it won’t be the first time that Cypriots have raged against bankers on the island. Back in 1192, the Knights Templar were in control of Cyprus having bought it a year earlier from Richard the Lionheart.  He in turn had taken it from the Byzantine empire, the eastern Christian remnant of the Roman empire that was notionally, though not always, on the crusader side against the Muslim Saracens.

King Richard was busy trying to defend the mainland crusader states and so when the Templars offered to buy it off him, he seized the chance. And of course the Templars had the money to make good on the deal. They were not only first class soldiers – but also first class bankers. It may have been a primitive form of finance that they operated, but it was advanced for the age. The Templars issued an early form of travellers’ cheque to their customers allowing them to go on crusade without having to take all their bullion around with them. Templar preceptories operated a bit like high street banks where nobles could pop in and cash a cheque to keep them going far from home.

But bankers have never been loved. And the locals soon got weary of these warrior monks – cum – bankers running their island. There weren’t many Templars present, as few as twenty according to some accounts. The islanders had spent centuries staving off Saracen attacks plus they were religiously and culturally more affiliated to Constantinople than Rome. Add to that the Templars would have been trying to recoup their investment quite aggressively by extracting whatever wealth they could from Cyprus. Templar books needed to be balanced in order to pay for crusading in outremer.  Needless to say, these Latin Christian crusaders  soon outstayed their welcome.

Concerned at rumblings of revolt, the Templars retreated within their garrison. There were reports that the Cypriots were planning to massacre the knights on Easter Day, 1192.  So, after regaining their courage, the Templars stormed out of their castle and embarked on a wholesale massacre of anybody they met. This isn’t exactly the finest hour in the history of the Knights Templar – but it happened. The killing quelled the rebellion and an uneasy peace returned. But shortly afterwards, the Templars sold Cyprus on to Guy de Lusignan – who you will recall from the movie Kingdom of Heaven – had just lost the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies. So he needed somewhere to rule.

Here is Guy de Lusignan fighting Balian in the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.

Last Templar Grand Master executed on March 18th

Templars burned at the stake.
Templars burned at the stake

The year was 1314 and in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burnt at the stake in front of a huge crowd. After two hundred years of crusading, it was all over for the Order of the Temple.

The glory years for the Templars were far behind them, back in the 12th and 13th centuries. By the start of the 14th, it was clear that Jerusalem was unlikely to be reconquered from the Saracens and that the last Christian strongholds taken from Islam in the early crusades were now back in Muslim hands.

This rather left the Knights Templar with a diminishing lack of purpose. It also left the wealth they had raised from all over Europe to fund their activities sitting in their preceptories with nowhere to go. Unfortunately for the Templars, the king of France Philip IV had a very clear idea where the money should go – into his coffers!

Philip had debts – big debts. He’d already had a go at fleecing the merchant classes, the church, the Jewish community and then his attention turned to the Templars. The king owed them money and had no intention of paying them back. Far from it, he was going to raid the Temple’s assets. In order to do that, he rounded up the Templar leaders, tortured them and extracted lurid confessions to damn the order’s good name for eternity.

The arrests and imprisonments took place in 1307 and it would be another seven years before the king rewarded himself with the ultimate Templar scalp – executing the last Grand Master. The shameful deed occurred on March 18th, 1314 – a day of indisputable infamy.

Did the Knights Templar bring down Pope Benedict?

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the image ...
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the image of Our Lady of Fatima 

The Gawker website has listed some of the current online speculations and theories about the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict – an event I blogged about when he made his announcement. Click HERE to visit the Gawker page. There’s some pretty fanciful stuff out there and one theory I couldn’t resist sharing was the the Knights Templar had a hand in it.

But hang on? I hear you cry. Which Knights Templar? Ah – details! Well, the Gawker article quotes what seems to me a pretty feeble “prophecy” from Nostradamus about somebody from “ancient France” who will be elected to steer the “trembling ship”. As with many of his predictions, I find them woefully unconvincing. But you can tell me otherwise!

Why is France mentioned? Because the next pope is going to restore the Merovingian dynasty – the line of monarchs that included Clovis, the Frankish king who accepted Christianity having driven the Romans out of what was then Gaul. This is proved by the writings of a fifty century bishop of Arles called Saint Caesar – who did indeed exist. The good saint said that a ‘great monarch’ will assist the new pope in the reformation of the whole earth, etc.

The Merovingians – you will recall – were part of the bloodline of Jesus according to Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. The end of the dynasty gave rise, it’s claimed, to the Order of Sion, which was behind the formation of the Knights Templar. I hope all this isn’t hurting your head – it’s certainly giving me brain ache.

One final thought on the Templars and Pope Benedict – a group of people claiming to be descendants of the Knights Templar did in fact attempt to sue the pontiff in 2008. The Daily Telegraph report – click HERE to read – detailed how the Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ was seeking £79bn from the Vatican for assets seized by the church from the Templars after their destruction.

Needless to say Pope Benedict didn’t pay up – could they have got their final revenge!?


Dan Brown, Inferno and the Knights Templar

English: Dante Alighieri's portrait by Sandro ...
Dante Alighieri’s portrait by Sandro Botticelli. 

As you all know, Dan Brown is about to release his newest tome – Inferno – this year. But of equal interest to Templar watchers is the simultaneous publication of a “companion” book called Templar Inferno.

This will explore and explain Templar themes in Dan Brown’s new book, which is ostensibly about the great fourteenth century Italian poet, Dante – author of the Divine Comedy.

Templar Inferno is written by Sanford Holst who previously wrote a book speculating on the help given by Phoenicians to Solomon in the building of the original temple in Jerusalem – titled Phoenician Secrets.

He has also penned a work on the links between freemasonry and the Templars called Sworn in Secret. Holst says his new work will shed light on those who were “instrumental in the rise, fall and survival of the Templars” and their influence on Dante’s world. He explains:

“Hundreds of Templars were burned to death but many more survived, and we even know intriguing details of their lives. The knights who refused the pope’s order to surrender were forced to live in secrecy outside the law. Their rebellious underground activities played a role in the fall of kings and the weakening of the Vatican.”

So – let’s piece together the links between the Templars, Dante and Dan Brown:

  • Hero of the Da Vinci Code Robert Langdon, Harvard academic who is an expert in symbols, finds himself in Florence
  • Dante came from Florence where he wrote The Divine Comedy between 1308 and 1321 (just after the Templars had been crushed)
  • Many Knights Templar, including the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay, were burned to death and this imagery haunted Dante as he depicted hell in the Divine Comedy
  • In case you didn’t know, the Divine Comedy involves the poet being taken on a guided tour of hell (Inferno) by the Roman poet Virgil, in which he sees many odd and haunting spectacles of torture
  • Dan Brown creates links between the collapse of the Templars and the emergence of a new financial order around families like the Medici – who built secret passageways in Florence. Now those of you like me who’ve been to Florence know there’s nothing secret about the Medici passageway that snakes very visibly above the old town. But Brown is referring to passages leading off!

Templar Inferno covers familiar ground to you – like the history of the Templar founders, those who it’s claimed survived the order’s destruction and Rosslyn chapel. If you’re going to read Dan Brown’s new opus – and I’ll gingerly raise my hand now – then I’d invest a few dollars/pounds to get the companion book now available on Amazon.

Top Ten Templar books

Cover of "The Last Templar"
Cover of The Last Templar

What are the top ten Templar books?  Goodreads has compiled its list and there’s some obvious candidates and a few surprises. So – what are the top three?

  • The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury – most famous for the scene where four Templar horsemen charge into a modern New York art gallery and steal a medieval decoder (whatever that is!).
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – Robert Langdon and a hunt for the Holy Grail via Paris and London with lots of police chases and plot twists
  • The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry – ex US Justice Dept agent Cotton Malone goes in search of Templar codes that have confounded experts for centuries

The others are: Seduction and Scandal by Charlotte Featherstone, Blameless by Gail Carriger, The Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, Brethren by Robyn Young, Knights of the Black and White by Jack Whyte, Immortal Hope by Claire Ashgrove and The Highlander’s Touch by Karen Marie Moning.

Here’s the TV adaptation of Khoury’s The Last Templar:

Templar HQ and the mysterious fire

English: The doors of Saladin's minbar in the ...
The doors of Saladin’s minbar in the al-Aqsa Mosque 

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was once the platform on which the great Temple of the Jewish people had stood – destroyed or severely damaged in turn by pharaohs from Egypt, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greek and finally by the Romans.

Recognising the holy nature of the site, the conquering Muslims of the 7th century AD built a structure we now call the Dome of the Rock. The Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the Dome staking a decisive claim by Islam to Temple Mount.

Before this caliph, it is believed that the second or Rashidun (righteous) caliph after the prophet Mohammed built a small prayer house on the mount that was later expanded into the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The reason for Islamic veneration was that Mohammed was believed to have been transported to this place from Mecca during the so-called “Night Journey”, which took only a single night to achieve. It was here that Allah commanded Mohammed to tell Muslims to pray facing Mecca and not Jerusalem.

Successive Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs rebuilt the mosque until the year 1099 when Christian crusaders audaciously took the city. After 450 years of Muslim rule, Christians were back in charge. The last Christian rulers had been the eastern Roman (or Byzantine if you prefer) emperors governing from Constantinople.

The mosque was immediately regarded as the Temple of Solomon built on top of his stables and it was soon suspected that secret treasures of the great king lay underneath the structure. A new order of knights dedicated to protecting Christian pilgrims took over the building and called themselves the Knights Templar. Our very own Templars then set about extensive building work to convert it to a church and include military installations.

When the Muslim ruler Saladin seized Jerusalem back in 1187, he undid much of the Templar work though the large stone extensions remained and today are the Womens’ Mosque and Islamic Museum. Saladin installed a new minbar and for the centuries that followed it reverted to being a functioning mosque.

After 1967, Jerusalem came totally under Israeli control and in 1969, a fire swept through the mosque incinerating the minbar of Saladin and other decorative features. At first, Palestinians blamed Israelis while some Israelis wondered if the Palestinians had done it themselves. But then it emerged that the real culprit was an Australian called Denis Michael Rohan.

Rohan claimed that he believed if the mosque was destroyed, it would hasten the building of the third Temple – one that would replace the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans. This, he asserted, would hasten the coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t come. And Rohan was detained in a psychiatric facility until he died in 1995.

The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři
Knights Templar

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.