When I was younger, I watched a lot of films with my family and one of our favourites was ‘National Treasure’, a film about an historian called Benjamin Franklin Gates who searches for a treasure that was once protected by the Knights Templar.
In the film, the knights from the first crusade discover a treasure hidden beneath Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The Knights Templar later decide that the treasure is too grand for any one man or king, so they bring the treasure back to Europe and, over time, secretly smuggle it to the New World where they form a new order – the Freemasons.
The film is one giant conspiracy theory, however, ever since, I have been fascinated by the Templars. Earlier this month, I visited Tomar for the first time, also known as the Templar City. I explored the famed castle and Convent of Christ, and my visit, by chance, coincided with the yearly Templar festivities where the city centre is turned into one giant medieval festival focusing on recreations, seminars, markets, celebrations and other activities that evoke the history, legends and secrets of the Knights Templar. Here is what I learnt.
Jerusalem, a city located in modern-day Israel, has long been considered the Holiest Land in the world for three of the largest religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. For that reason, throughout history many different groups and empires have conquered and ruled over the land and 1099 marked the year the Christian armies, during the Crusades, briefly captured Jerusalem from Muslim control.
This led to an abundance of Western European pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land for the first time. However, although Jerusalem was under Christian control, the journey to the Holy Land was still a precarious one, as the pilgrims still had to cross Muslim-controlled territories, and many were robbed and killed on the way.
For this reason, a French knight named Hugues de Payens, in around 1118, decided, with eight other relatives and acquaintances, to create a military order called the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. Over time, the group became simply known as the Knights Templar.
The Temple of Solomon, also known as the First Temple, was the first temple in Jerusalem. King David conquered Jerusalem in 1000 B.C and made it the capital of the Jewish kingdom. His son, Solomon, a few decades later then built the first holy temple. It was long destroyed by the Babylonians before the Crusaders conquered the land, however, the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Jerusalem, is believed to be the location of the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. Therefore, the Crusaders referred to the Temple Mount as Solomon’s Temple.
Although the Templars began as a small group based in Jerusalem, they quickly expanded and, at the height of their influence, possessed a huge fleet of ships, owned the island of Cyprus and set up a prosperous network of banks which allowed pilgrims to deposit assets in their homeland and then withdraw funds in the Holy Land. Over time, their bank grew to the point of being a lending institution to nobles and kings.
The Templars gained a reputation as fearless and skilled warriors, and fought and won various battles against Islamic armies. They also played a pivotal role in helping Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, conquer Santarém in 1147 and then Lisbon that very same year from the Moors.
As a reward for helping the Portuguese king expand his territory, the Templars were gifted lands. One of those lands is the current location of the city of Tomar, a city founded by the Knights Templar themselves in 1160, where they erected the famous Convent of Christ that served as the Templar stronghold.
The Templars were officially dissolved in the 14th century by the Pope due to pressure from King Philip IV of France who resolved to persecute and end the military order. Many became critical of the Templars’ wealth and power, and it is believed that King Philip’s resolve was mainly due to the fact that he was indebted and denied additional loans by the Templars.
When the order was dissolved, the Templars based in Portugal were turned into the Knights of the Order of Christ and played a major role in Portugal’s maritime adventures during the Age of Discovery. Portuguese Grand Masters of the Order included both Prince Henry the Navigator, who was a central figure and regarded as the main initiator of the Age of Discovery, and Manuel I who was the king of Portugal during the colonisation of Brazil and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of an ocean route to India.
Whilst it is believed that the Knights Templar fully disbanded around 700 years ago (except for in Portugal), many believe the order went underground and still exists to this day.
The convent, built over five centuries, was incredible with its combination of different architectural periods, the eight cloisters, the huge, majestic dining room, and the never-ending dormitories, all worthy of a film set for a Harry Potter film. But it was the ‘Charola’ – the original Romanesque Templar church, dated from the 12th century and decorated with statues, carvings, gold and breathtaking 16th century paintings – that I feel epitomized the grandeur of the Templars.
There are many myths and legends that surround the Templars, such as the widespread belief that the Templars discovered and kept such religious artefacts as the Ark of the Covenant – a gold plated wooden chest that houses the two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments that were given to Moses, parts of the cross from Christ’s crucifixion, and the Holy Grail. Legend has it that the Holy Grail can be found in the illustrious Portuguese Templar city, and I look forward to my next visit to learn more about these amazing Knights.
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.