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.
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.
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.
Fast 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.
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.
In 1312, Pope Clement V ordered all Christian rulers to seize the assets of the Knights Templar and hand them over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. One king refused to obey. In Portugal, King Dinis took over the Templar assets himself. In effect, he used his royal power to protect and reshape the order so that it could continue. The result was the formation of the Order of Christ.
By 1319, King Dinis had convinced Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to recognise his new order. Dinis argued that Portugal still faced a significant threat from Muslim armies to the south. 150 years before, the Templars had helped the first kings of Portugal to create their country. This had involved conquering cities like Lisbon and Santarem from Muslim control to forge a new Christian nation.
The Templars had always been in the front line pushing the frontier ever further southwards. They had done so at considerable risk to their own safety. For this, Portugal was grateful. And so when the king was asked to suppress the Templars, he recoiled. Dinis came up with a novel and unique solution. Today, we would call it rebranding. He took brand Templar and relaunched it as brand Order of Christ.
As with the Templars, the new order followed the Cistercian rule – the code by which those monks led their daily lives. The Cistercians and Templars had always been closely interconnected. From 1357, the Order of Christ was moved to the same headquarters the Templars had used and built – the castle at Tomar.
King Dinis was a complex character. A poet who resisted church power and did more than any king before him to promote a strong Portuguese identity.
His son Afonso IV continued his father’s legacy nurturing the Order of Christ which was soon to play a leading role in the age of discoveries, which would see navigators from Portugal sail around Africa and discover Brazil.
This year, I went to a historical reenactment festival in northern Portugal called the Medieval Journey – Viagem Medieval. Every year, huge crowds turn out to see battles and short plays about a particular monarch. This year, it was the turn of King Afonso IV.
The festival slogan was a bit grim: Hunger, Plague and War. But Afonso IV reigned during a stormy period that included the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated populations across Europe. He also had to see off attacks from both Muslim armies and those of neighbouring Castile, another Christian kingdom that would evolve in future centuries into modern Spain.
Here are some images from my visit and a video of the battle scene – enjoy!
The whole fascination with the alleged bloodline of Jesus and the Templar association with the Holy Grail goes back hundreds of years. But in relatively recent times, the 1970s to be exact, there was a huge surge of interest in this subject. It was a decade obsessed with the occult and the esoteric.
Henry Lincoln was a charismatic individual who satisfied the insatiable curiosity of the public in these areas. He was convinced that stories about a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ were true. So, he changed tack in his broadcast career from writing scripts for the BBC television series Doctor Who in the 1960s to presenting programmes about the Templars in the 1970s.
In a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published in 1982, Lincoln and his co-authors promoted the hypothesis that the Priory’s main aim was to re-instal the Merovingian dynasty that had once ruled France. These kings had allegedly intermarried with the descendants of Christ. The Messiah, it turned out, had been the husband of Mary Magdalene and she had borne him children.
The popes in Rome have always known that a bloodline of Jesus exists and the role of the Knights Templar, called into existence by the Priory of Sion, has been to protect those descended from Christ. The idea being that it’s the intention of the Vatican to snuff out the bloodline because it poses a threat to papal power. It also reveals that Jesus was very different to the biblical portrayal.
Academics and professional historians are almost 100% united against this account of the Knights Templar as a brainchild of the Priory of Sion, an organisation protecting the bloodline of Jesus. But the book written by Henry Lincoln was an undeniable influence on the Da Vinci Code though I should point out that an attempt by Lincoln’s co-authors to sue Dan Brown failed.
It would also be dishonest of me not to mention that the originator of the Priory of Sion theory was a Frenchman called Pierre Plantard in 1956 who claimed that he himself was in the bloodline of Jesus and descended from the Merovingian kings. He is widely regarded as having perpetrated an elaborate hoax.
Here is Henry Lincoln in 1979 on the BBC explaining his theory.
Henry Lincoln has developed his theories further since the Da Vinci Code was published and you can see a later documentary here:
I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.
I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.
I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.
I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.
I will be discussing:
- The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
- Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
- How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
- Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
- Did they reject church authority?
- Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
- The way in which the order was wiped out
One of the greatest mysteries relating to the Knights Templar is whether the order discovered some form of treasure in Jerusalem that would offer an explanation for their fabulous wealth.
Nine knights at the start of the 12th century went to the Patriarch of Jerusalem and asked for permission to guard the roads in to the holy city to safeguard pilgrims. They wanted to form a new order that would combine militaristic valour with monastic discipline and piety. The Patriarch and secular authorities gave the knights the green light and so the Templars were launched.
They asked to be based in the Al Aqsa mosque, which they believed dated back to the reign of king Solomon – pre-dating the destruction of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. King Baldwin of Jerusalem agreed to them being based at this auspicious location. These crusaders were to become the knights of the Temple – the Templars.
In a very short period of time, they began to amass significant wealth. How was this achieved? There are several explanations. The nine knights themselves were well connected aristocrats plugged into a network of well-heeled supporters in the church and state. Bequests began to flood in from those looking to support the crusade in the Holy Land and hoping for divine favour in the afterlife.
As the Templars grew establishing preceptories across Europe, they created a complex financial and economic network to fund their activity in the Middle East. The order even developed the first banking cheques allowing knights to travel great distances without having to carry their wealth in chests. The Templars became money lenders to princes and ran an efficient farming enterprise. So is this where all their money came from?
Well, not according to sources down the centuries. In the 19th century, evidence emerged of excavations underneath the Al Aqsa mosque suggesting the Templars had been digging away for something. Of course, this gave rise to speculation that they had found some form of treasure – possibly the Holy Grail (with little agreement on what that actually is) – explaining their sudden leap in wealth.
As the crusades crumbled in the 13th century, the Templars were forced to abandon Jerusalem. The theory then goes that they hauled their treasure off to be stored in their most formidable and well guarded preceptory in Paris. This building with its thick walls still stood during the 1789 French revolution but was demolished in stages in the years that followed.
So did the Templars get their wealth out of Paris as their leaders were put on trial for heresy by king Philip the Fair of France – a monarch always short of money who fleeced the Templars, the church, the Jewish community and anybody else who could pay for his wars?
When the Templars were rounded up and arrested in 1307, some were imprisoned at the fortress of Gisors in France. Graffiti on the walls was said to include the image of a large cart carrying treasure away. A caretaker at Gisors in 1929 claimed to have found an underground chapel crammed with vast riches. However, when the local authorities turned up to investigate further, there was nothing at all. He was duly fired.
In the 1960s, the French culture minister Andre Malraux ordered a new dig at Gisors using the army instead of archaeologists. But even their heavy muscle failed to reveal a thing. There was no Templar treasure.
When King Philip of France – scourge of the Templars – sent his forces to raid the Templar headquarters in Paris in 1307, the cupboard was indeed bare. There’s no doubt there had been a great deal of loot within its walls because the king had seen it himself on a previous visit but now….nothing. Had the Templars under cover of night spirited away their treasure?
Some were convinced they had. So where did it go? One theory was that the surviving knights headed to the port of La Rochelle and took their ships, loaded with riches, to England and then on to Scotland. There, they helped the plucky Scots beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn – a claim the Scots dislike as it infers they couldn’t win their own battles!
There were already Templars in Scotland, dating back to the order’s earliest days. The knights hooked up with Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney. In the late 14th century, the story runs that Sinclair and the knights used old Viking routes to sail to Iceland, Greenland and then to Vinland in modern Canada. There, they founded a kingdom that the native Iroquois referred to as Saguenay.
Stories of Saguenay and the Scottish connection were picked up by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries who duly reported back to the Vatican. One theory is that the 17th century French artist Poussin hints at knowledge of Templars in the New World in his painting Et in Arcadia Ego, also referred to as The Arcadian Shepherds.
I will explain this theory in more depth in another blog post.