We have to admit to a secret fascination for the Knights Templar, though where and when it began we hardly know, certainly before the Da Vinci Code book and film erupted. Perhaps it was the very name itself, conjuring up images of medieval knights and castles with a more foreign twist than tales of Arthur.
Dominating the city of Tomar, UNESCO World Heritage listed, is the Convento San Cristo, overlooking the city from the lofty fortified hill above, headquarters of the Knights Templar of Portugal for nearly 900 years.
The origins of the Knights Templar appear to have begun humbly enough with just 9 members around 1107, stirred into action by Hugues de Payns – their mission to rid their world of Arab invaders, for which they were suitably compensated with generous donations of lands, villages and castles. Over time they acquired substantial holdings, the crowning glory is undoubtedly in Tomar.
By 1190 Christian Knights were fighting to free Portugal from Islamic domination as an Islamic army crossed the River Tejo, captured the nearby castle at Torres Novas and putting Tomar under siege for six days. They held despite overwhelming odds. The leader Gualdim Pais, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, at 70 years old led the knights to victory underscoring their military prowess as fighting monks. You will see his statue in the towns historic main square.
From victory to victory along with other Portuguese nobility gradually re-Christianised the whole of Portugal growing in power and wealth.
It all collapsed in a tragically violent end early in the 14th century. The King of France, jealous of the Order, persuaded the Pope that the Knights Templar Order should be destroyed and very nearly was with assets seized elsewhere throughout Europe and so would it have ended in Tomar but for an 11th hour reprieve.
Tactical rescue came in the form of The King of Portugal, Dinis, offering the Order protection from further persecution, persuaded the Pope to allow the formation of a new Order, the Order of Christ, and transferring the Templar holdings and headquarters away from Tomar. The Order was then back to business dedicated to the re-conquest of Iberia from the Muslims and continued against the Muslim states in Africa, based from a new fortress at Castro Marim, near the border with Spain.
The Knights Templar followed a rite of spiritual practice based on Gnostic traditions, which unsurprisingly was viewed with considerable disfavour in Rome. Secret chamber building where rites and initiations were conducted, accessed by underground tunnels contributed to their downfall, creating fire to the smoking gun of mystery surrounding the warring knights.
In true fairytale style, 100 years later it was restored by one of the most remarkable men of his time. Prince Henry the Navigator. As both headquarters for the Order of Christ and building living quarters for himself and his wife within the Castle.
Prince Henry was determined to use the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry and numbers inherited from the Jews and Arabs to discover new lands. These sciences were all brought together to develop ways of calculating the position of a ship at sea. Until this had been achieved no sailor could tell with any degree of accuracy the position of a ship at sea. The Knights Templar castle at Tomar was at the centre of these discoveries.
One group of people who benefited from their connection to the Order were the Jews. During the 15th century Spain was expelling Jews, confiscating estates and wealth. Portugal on the other hand was doing its utmost to conserve them in their country. Jews enjoyed a privileged situation in Portugal, choosing their own quarters and occupying the most desirable real estate. Portuguese nobles took beautiful Jewish maidens as mistresses, recognised their male illegitimate offspring, as Knights by joining the Order of Christ. This is reflected in the synagogue in Tomar, dating from the 15th century, one of the oldest synagogues in Europe.
Over the following centuries the power of the Order declined in Portugal and eventually ceased to exist other than some of the ceremonial titles held by the head of the Portuguese state.
The spirit of the Knights Templar is still very much alive and lives on in Tomar.
One of the oldest in the country, the outstanding round church (rotunda) of the castle was built in the 2nd half of the 12th century, a spectacular architectural feat it comprises viewed externally, a 16 side polygonal structure with strong buttresses, round windows and bell-tower. Inside the church is a central octagonal structure connected by arches to the surrounding gallery. Magnificently decorated with late gothic/manueline sculpture and paintings added during a renovation starting in 1499, it is well worth a visit.
During recent attempts to beautify the perimeter of the castle of Tomar and its rotunda, an area was cleared around the original Almedina gate. A chunk of the pathway that once accessed the gate from the outside has eroded revealing a doorway into a cave. The lintel stone is still in place decorated with a winged serpent carved upon it, flanked by the heads of two dragons. The two uprights that would have constituted the body of each dragon are missing. However, a drawing made in 1918 shows the engravings still in their entirety, accompanied by a description of which parts of the Arab pathway were visible inside the subterranean passages and leading to the chamber beneath the rotunda.
The Knights Templar in Portugal may very well have continued the initiatory practice of ‘raising the dead’, just like the Essenes in Jerusalem. But it appears they took these and other secrets to Portugal. During interrogation by the Inquisition, a Templar knight cryptically stated: “There exists in the Order a law so extraordinary on which such a secret should be kept, that any knight would prefer his head cut off rather than reveal it". This statement has single-handedly caused a flurry of speculation as to what the secret was that the Templars were privy to. Were they only following a rediscovered secret doctrine of initiation or was there something else?
Investigate for yourself on the new 22 day TIKI TOURS 'Timeless Portugal & Madeira' tour departing on 8 June 2018.
Additional reading – First Templar Nation – Freddy Silva
Explores how the Knight Templar’s created Europe’s first Nation State. A fusion of rare sources and engaging storytelling, this provocative work uncovers a previously unwritten chapter in Templar history that places the intrepid knights in a previously unknown time and place.