The first Crusade was launched in 1095, and in 1099, Jerusalem was conquered. Jubilant pilgrims from Europe flocked to visit the newly “liberated” Holy Land, mostly travelling by sea from Italy to the port city of Jaffa, on the coast of present day Israel, and inland from there to Jerusalem.
What these pilgrims often overlooked was that they were venturing into dangerous territory. Once they’d taken over Jerusalem, the crusading knights considered their vows fulfilled, took their plundered riches with them and went back to their homes in Europe, leaving the area precariously surrounded by hostile Islamic states. The Turks and the Muslims who had lost much of their lands to the Christian armies weren’t about to forgive and forget, and a lot of the pilgrims never made it to Jerusalem. They were attacked and robbed, and often killed; Muslim bandits were a constant threat to travelers.
In a single incident in 1118, marauding Saracens ambushed and killed over three hundred pilgrims on the dangerous roads between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Bands of fighters soon became a fixture outside the walls of the city itself. And that’s when the Templars first made their appearance. Nine pious knights, led by Hughes de Payens, a vassal of the count of Champagne, and Geoffroi de St Omer, a vassal of the count of Boulogne, arrived in Jerusalem and made their way to King Baldwin’s palace in Jerusalem. They offered their humble services to the king, asking for his permission to create an order they referred to as The Militia of the Poor Knights of Christ. They told the king that they had taken the three traditional solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, but had added a fourth: a perpetual vow to protect the pilgrims on their journey from the coast to the city.
Given the situation, the knights’ offer was gratefully received by the king. The crusading state was in desperate need of trained fighters. King Baldwin was very impressed by the religious knights’ dedication and gave them quarters in the eastern part of his palace, which stood on the site once occupied by King Solomon’s Temple. They became known as The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon – or, simply, the Knights Templar.
The religious significance of the site the King Baldwin gave the burgeoning order is key to the enduring myths and legends about the Templars.
Solomon had built the first temple in 950 BC. His father David had started the work following God’s command, building a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, a portable shrine that contained the tablets of stone which were engraved with the commandments God gave Moses. The glorious reign of Solomon came to a close with his death, when eastern nations moved in and conquered the Jewish lands. The Temple itself was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Chaldeans, who proceeded to take the Jews back to Babylon as slaves. More than five hundred years later, the Temple was rebuilt by Herod in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his Jewish subjects and demonstrate to them that their king, despite his Arab origins, was a devout follower of his adopted religion. It would be his crowning achievement: prominently dominating the Kidron valley, the new Temple was a magnificent and elaborate building of a far grander design than its predecessor. Its inner sanctum, reached by two huge golden doors, housed the Holy of Holies, which was accessible only to the Jewish High Priest.
After Herod’s death, the Jewish rebelliousness was rekindled and by 66 AD, the insurgents were back in control of Palestine. The Roman Emperor Vespasian dispatched his son Titus to put down the rebellion. After fierce fighting for over six months, Jerusalem finally fell to the Roman legions in 70 AD. Titus commanded that the city, whose population was by now totally annihilated, be razed. And so, ‘the most wonderful edifice ever seen or heard of’, as it was described at the time by the historian Josephus, was lost again.
A second Jewish rebellion, less than a hundred years later, was also crushed by the Romans. This time, all Jews were banned from Jerusalem and sanctuaries to Zeus and to the Roman god-emperor Hadrian were built on the Temple Mount. Six hundred years later, the site would see the building of another holy shrine: with the rise of Islam and the conquering of Jerusalem by the Arabs, the location of the holiest site of Judaism was to be redefined as the place from which the prophet Mohammed’s horse ascended to heaven. And so in 691 AD, the Dome of the Rock was built on the site by the Caliph Abd El-Malik. It has remained a shrine to Islam ever since, except for the period during which the Crusaders controlled the Holy Land when the Dome of the Rock was converted into a Christian Church called the Templum Domini, the ‘Temple of our Lord’, and when the Al-Aqsa mosque, built in the same compound, was turned into the headquarters of the burgeoning Knights Templar.
The heroic idea of nine brave monks valiantly defending the vulnerable pilgrims quickly captured people’s imaginations across Europe. Many soon regarded the Templars with a romantic reverence and offered themselves as new recruits. Royalty and noblemen from across Europe paid generously to support them, showering them with gifts of money and land. The King of Aragon, for instance, gave the Order one-fifth of all the lands his armies had conquered from the Muslims. This was all helped greatly by the fact that they were given papal blessings, a rare occurrence that meant a great deal at a time when all kings and all nations looked to the papacy as the ultimate authority in Christendom.
And so the Order grew, slowly at first, then much more rapidly. The Templars were highly trained as fighters, and as their successes in the field mounted, their activities widened. From their original mission of protecting the pilgrims, they gradually came to be regarded as the military conquerors of the Holy Land. When Ascalon was taken in 1153, the Templars were the first to fight their way into the city. They were also successful diplomats and mediators: in 1167, they negotiated a treaty which turned Egypt into a protectorate of Jerusalem. When, a year later, the King of Jerusalem decided to turn his back on the agreement and invade Egypt with the help of another order of knights, the Hospitallers, the Templars refused to join them. The campaign was a disaster and ended in failure, allowing a victorious Saladin to enter Cairo.
In less than a hundred years, the Templars became one of the wealthiest and most influential bodies in Europe, second only to the papacy itself, owning huge tracts of land in England, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Austria. And with such an extensive network of territories and castles, they soon established themselves as the world’s first international bankers, arranging credit facilities for bankrupt royals across Europe, safeguarding the pilgrims’ funds, and effectively inventing the concept of the traveler’s cheque. Money in those days was just gold or silver, which was simply worth what it weighed. Instead of taking it with them and risk getting robbed, the pilgrims could deposit their money at a Templar house or castle anywhere in Europe, where they would be given a coded note for it. Once they reached their destination, they would go to the local Templar house, present the note, which would be decoded using their tightly guarded encryption practices, and draw that amount of money there.
What started off as a small team of nine well-intentioned noblemen dedicated to defending pilgrims visiting the Holy Land turned into the most powerful and most secretive organization of its time, rivaling the Vatican in terms of wealth and influence.
Over time, The Muslim armies finally recaptured the Holy Land in the thirteenth century and sent the crusaders packing, this time for good. The Templars were the last to defend, and leave, the Holy Land. The battle at Acre, in May, 1291, would be the Crusaders’, and the Templars’, last stand. The besieged city was mercilessly attacked, and with each breach of its walls, more of its men, its elderly, and its infants would be put to the sword, its women and young boys shackled and herded off as slaves. The Templar fort, at the southernmost tip of the city, was the last to fall. Behind its walls, two hundred Templars had stayed on to protect those who had taken shelter there. On the night before the fort was finally overrun, the Temple’s Treasurer, Thibaud Gaudin, set sail from the docks under cover of darkness, headed for the Templar castle at Sidon, taking with him as many women and children as the galley could hold. He was also said to have been entrusted with the Templar treasure.
Ironically, although the Templars were the last fighters to leave Acre, they would be unfairly blamed for the loss of the Holy Land. When they got back to Europe, their whole raison d’être was gone. There were no pilgrims to escort, no Holy Land to defend. They had no home, no enemy, and no cause. And they didn’t have too many friends either. Their power and wealth, coupled with the loss of the Holy Land, made them hugely unpopular. Contempt for the poor soldiers of Christ was rife: they weren’t so poor anymore, they had grown arrogant and greedy. It was certainly true that the leaders of the Templars had by then lost touch with the founding ideals of the Order, and had grown increasingly corrupt. And many royals, the King of France in particular, owed them a lot of money which they were keen not to have to repay.
A whispers campaign was started about the Templars, no doubt facilitated by the ritualistic secrecy with which the Order had conducted its initiation rites over the years. A shocking and outrageous litany of heresy charges was leveled at them: that they denied Christ, that they engaged in devil worship, that they urinated and desecrated the cross in their cabalistic ceremoniesm, that they engaged in sodomy. King Philippe had used the very same charges a few years earlier to get rid of a previous pope, Boniface VIII. At dawn on Friday, October the 13th, 1307 – which is where the superstition originates – the King’s men raided all the Templar houses and preceptories in France and arrested more than 600 Templars, including the Order’s Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. Arrests follow in Aragon, England, Ireland, Portugal and Germany. Under threat and torture, most of the captured men accept the charges in order to stay alive, but many don’t. In May, 1310, fifty-four Templars are burnt alive in Paris, more throughout France. The pope abolishes the order in March of 1312, and hands over their possessions to the Order of the Hospitallers. The final act takes place at the Ile de la Cite in Paris, in March, 1314: de Molay and the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charnay, are put to the stake. Although he had confessed months earlier, de Molay retracted his confession, announcing:
“I confess that I am indeed guilty of the greatest infamy. But the infamy is that I have lied. I have lied in admitting the disgusting charges laid against my Order. I declare, and I must declare, that the Order is innocent. Its purity and saintliness have never been defiled. In truth, I had testified otherwise, but I did so from fear of horrible tortures.”
From the flames of the pyre, de Molay cursed both the king and the pope, summoning them to face God’s judgement alongside him. They were both dead within seven months.
There’s little we can say with absolute certainty when it comes to the Templars, as chroniclers of the era weren’t particularly reliable, or necessarily impartial. Even something as basic as the Templars’ flag, their standard, the bauceant, is the subject of debate: we know it was made up of two squares, one sitting above the other, one black and one white, but some chroniclers have the upper part as black, others have it as white, and even others have a splayed cross superimposed on the white section.
Another reason we don’t have much to go on is that the Templars’ central archive was lost. It was last believed to be in the hands of the Knights of St John, to whom it was given by the pope after the dissolution of the Order in 1312, and kept at their base in Cyprus, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1571.
Several aspects of Templar history are up for debate, which has, in turn, fed a whole litany of discourse, both historical and fictional, about them. How close were they, for instance, to the Muslims, with whom they were said to share mystical and spiritual insights? What we do know is that the Templars had well established diplomatic contacts with the Muslim leadership, including Saladin. The Muslims were the dominant force in the region, and it makes sense that the Templars needed to maintain a courteous, mutually beneficial framework for alliances and truces with their enemies in order to survive. In 1187, after the battle of Hattin, more than two hundred Templar knights were captured and, it is widely believed, tortured by Saladin’s men. When Jerusalem capitulated later that year, however, the Templars were able to buy the freedom of hundreds of citizens and nobles from Saladin, and led them to safety in Tyre. It’s probably fair to say that they had mutual respect for each other’s spiritual and military dedication, but that’s probably where they drew the line. After the fall of Acre, Muslim writers wrote with unabashed glee about the defeat of their enemies, confirming that the Templars were still, in their eyes, fanatical warriors of Christ. Or were they?
And what of the mythical Templar treasure? The Templars were known to be phenomenally wealthy. One historian claims the Templars discovered 148 tons of gold and silver in and around Jerusalem when they first got there, even before the donations from across Europe started pouring in. But once they were rounded up by King Philippe’s men, little of their wealth was found. Had they already plundered it while desperately trying to hang on to the Holy Land? Or is there more to that story? There are widely accepted claims that the night before the Templars were all arrested, twenty-four knights rode out of the Paris preceptory with several wagonloads of crates and escaped to the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. They’re supposed to have sailed away on board eighteen galleys, never to be seen again. What were they carrying? And what happened to their cargo? We simply don’t know.
How good was their encoding system? The Templars were known to be masters of encryption. Codes were the backbone of their whole banking system. Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land would deposit money with them in Europe before leaving, at one of the Templar Preceptories, and they’d be given a receipt that was written in code, a kind of bank statement, which could only be deciphered by the Templars themselves. That way, no one could forge a deposit note and cheat them. Once the pilgrims reached the Holy Land, they could show up at any Templar castle, present their coded receipt, and withdraw funds.
Over the centuries since the Templars’ downfall, many groups and institutions have claimed them as their own. Influencial societies and writers have attributed a great number of pivotal events to the Templars and their legacy. It was claimed they were behind a secret conspiracy that led to the French Revolution, the final revenge for De Molay’s execution. Links to the Freemasons were claimed by people seeking to taint the organisation, and, conversely, by its supporters. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
And today, more than ever, their legend lives on.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is best known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which he co-authored in 1776 at the age of 33.
Among the most intriguing aspects of Jefferson’s life are his views on faith and religion. Although he was raised an Anglican, he became greatly interested in Scottish moral philosophers during his years at William and Mary College, which inspired his criticism of the prevailing religious institutions and of their practices. But he never openly spoke about his own beliefs, and in his political opponents tried time and again to use his silence against him during elections, attacking him in the press and in public speeches. Jefferson never responded to these attacks.
In his later years, after studying the work of the English Unitarian minister and scientist Joseph Priestley and his book Corruptions of Christianity, and after years of correspondence with noted Unitarians like John Adams, Jefferson had become a fierce critic of the Church as an organization, and was greatly troubled by the texts in the Bible. Although he considered Jesus’s ethical system to be the finest the world had ever seen, he’d become convinced that in trying to make His teachings more appealing to the pagans, His words and His story had been manipulated.
Jefferson would stay up late at night in his study at the White House, cutting out large segments from the four Gospels with a razor blade as he proceeded to strip out everything he considered untrue in an attempt to dig out Jesus’s true words from, as he put it, “the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.” He told John Adams he was rescuing the true philosophy of Jesus and the “pure principles which He taught,” from the “artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves.” After having picked out “the very words only of Jesus” from the Gospels, he believed “there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
The man in the book he finally produced in 1820, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” was a far cry from the divine being in the New Testament: no Virgin Birth, no miracles, and no Resurrection.
Catharism had originated in the middle of the tenth century, taking its name from the Greek katharos, meaning ‘the pure ones’. It was based on the notion that the world was evil, and that souls would be continually reborn – and could even pass through animals, which was why the Cathars were vegetarians – until they escaped the material world and reached a spiritual heaven.
Everything the Cathars believed in was anathema to the Church. They were dualists who believed that, in addition to a merciful and good God, there had to be an equally powerful but evil God to explain the horrors that plagued the world. The benevolent God created the heavens and the human soul; the evil God entrapped that soul in the human body. In the Vatican’s eyes, the Cathars had sacrilegiously elevated Satan to God’s equal. Following this belief, the Cathars considered all material goods evil, which led them to reject the trappings of wealth and of power that had undeniably corrupted the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
More worryingly for the Church, they were also Gnostics. Gnosticism – which, like Katharos, is derived from a Greek word, gnosis, meaning higher knowledge, or insight – is the belief that man can come into direct and intimate contact with God without the need for a priest or a church. Believing in direct personal contact with God freed the Cathars of all moral prohibition or religious obligations. Besides having no use for lavish churches and oppressive ceremonies, they had no use for priests either. Religious ceremonies were simply performed in homes, or in fields. And if that wasn’t enough, women were treated as equals and were allowed to become ‘parfaits,’ the closest thing the Cathari faith had to a priest; since physical form was irrelevant to them, the soul residing within a human body could just as easily be male or female, regardless of outward appearance.
As the belief caught on and spread across the south of France and northern Italy, the Vatican got increasingly worried and ultimately decided that this heresy could no longer be tolerated. It didn’t only threaten the Catholic Church; it also threatened the basis of the feudal system in Europe, as the Cathars believed oaths were a sin, given that they attached one to the material – hence evil – world. This gravely undermined the concept of pledges of allegiance between serfs and their lords. The pope had no trouble enlisting the support of the French nobility to put down this threat. In 1209, an army of crusaders descended on the Languedoc, and over the next thirty-five years, proceeded to massacre over thirty thousand men, women, and children.
It was said that blood flowed ankle deep in the churches where some of the fleeing villagers had taken refuge, and that when one of the pope’s soldiers complained about not knowing whether he was killing heretics or Christian believers, he was simply told to “Kill them all; God will know his own.”