There can hardly have been a worse event in the Middle Ages than the sacking of the great city of Constantinople by a crusader army – a Christian army destroying a Christian city. The scars of that incident can still be seen in modern Istanbul in the remains of Byzantine monuments stripped of their gold and jewels and left as naked stone.
This was the high point – or low point – of the Fourth Crusade where the Doge of Venice, Dandolo, re-directed a crusader army that owed him vast sums of money towards his commercial enemy Constantinople and away from Saracen/muslim targets like Cairo. Ignoring threats of excommunication from the pope, Dandolo – in his nineties and blind – personally led the crusader force in its attack on “The City” as Constantinople was known.
It’s hard to appreciate that Constantinople, situated at the end of the Silk Route and at the crossing point between Europe and Asia was by far the wealthiest metropolis in the early middle ages. Its roofs and domes were covered in gold and to contemporary eyes, it literally shone as one approached it. The huge walls encircling it, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fifth century, had never been breached – even by vast Arab armies – and were assumed to be impregnable.
To those crusaders who now decided to rape the city of its vast booty, the religious justification – and this applies to the Templars involved as well – would have been the schism between Rome and Christian church in the east. The Greek speaking Christians of Constantinople were out of communion with the pope and their rite was deemed to be heretical.
On a more worldly level, the Byzantine emperors who ruled the city had long resorted to crafty diplomacy and a high level of duplicity to maintain their empire which had once dominated the eastern Mediterranean but was now being squeezed by conquering Turkish armies as well as Christian kings in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia.
Once the crusaders got in to the city, they burnt and plundered with an unseemly ferocity and made a point of desecrating the ancient cathedral of the Hagia Sophia (holy wisdom). This included crowning a whore on the bishop’s throne. There is a contemporary description of this event:
“Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch’s seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”
All of the above is fact now where we stray in to the realms of Templar conjecture is the belief that this is when the Order acquired the head of the Baphomet. Quite what the ‘Baphomet’ is – head of the devil, goat’s head, Mohammed’s head – is anybody’s guess. And there’s not much if anything by way of contemporary documents to say that the Templars believed they had such a thing.
Our only lead is the ramblings of a Templar during the great trials when the Order was suppressed. Having been subjected to torture by the French king’s agents – and this was a hundred years after the sack of Constantinople – he claimed the Templars did indeed worship a head of something called Baphomet. Historical detectives have to decide whether there was something to this or an example of people saying anything when they’re being stretched on a rack.
However, there’s no reason to suppose that the Templars didn’t walk away with a few religious trophies including the head of Saint Euphemia – which they claimed to have – though confusingly, her entire body is today held in the church of Saint George in Istanbul.