Few organisations are as shrouded in myth and mystery as the Knights Templar. Popular culture holds them variously to be keepers of the Holy Grail, the inventors of modern finance, or devil-worshipping heretics whose shadowy practices live on behind the locked doors of modern Masonic lodges. The truth, as ever, is even more intriguing.
The Knights Templar began life in Jerusalem in the early 12th century, as a monastic military order tasked with protecting Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Their headquarters occupied no less exclusive an address than the Temple Mount, the site of the storied Temple of Solomon. Their residence there for the best part of 70 years became the basis of one of the classic Templar conspiracy theories: that they discovered lost documents in Jerusalem revealing the location of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, and that descendants of the order guard the legendary artefacts to this day.
What’s certain is that the Templars rose to prominence as one of the elite fighting units in the Crusades, their religious zeal inspiring a fearless approach to battle which saw them regularly defeat armies much greater in number than themselves.
Though the individual knights took a solemn vow of poverty – an early Templar emblem depicts two knights riding a single horse, unable to afford one each – the order itself soon attracted powerful patronage and amassed great wealth. The Templars used their fortune to establish strongholds across Europe, but nowhere was their influence stronger or more enduring than in Portugal. Having proved instrumental in the 13th-century Reconquista, which saw Christians reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, the Templars’ resources, political influence and navigational skills helped to usher in the Portuguese Age of Discovery, which would lead to the creation of one of history’s great empires and opened up the world to trade – and colonisation.
Rising prettily from a rocky islet in the middle of the River Tagus, the Castelo de Almourol might be the most photogenic fort in Portugal – and that’s saying something. Accessible only by boat, the site has been a military outpost for at least 2,000 years, occupied and rebuilt by Romans, Visigoths, Berbers, and, most famously, the Templars, who moved in here in 1171. Almourol was one of the Templars’ most valuable strongholds during the Reconquista and is rich in the grisly myths and legends which so often swirl around the order. One relates the story of Dom Ramiro, a Goth lord who welcomed a young Moor into the castle as a guest. Maddened with grief after Christians murdered his family, the Moor took revenge by poisoning Dom Ramiro’s wife and seducing his daughter, Beatriz. It’s said that every year, on the day of St. John, Beatriz and the Moor appear on the lonely keep that rises above the river, renewing a curse that will hang over the castle until Judgement Day.
The sleepy town of Tomar, twelve miles north of Almourol, might seem an unlikely location for the seat of the Templars’ power in Portugal. Olive and fig groves dot the surrounding Ribatejo countryside, and the medieval buildings of the historic town centre are clustered on the peaceful banks of the Nabão River. Over the town square looms a statue of Gualdim Pais, a Christian hero of the Reconquista who was made Grand Master of the Templars in the 12th century. And behind his statue, high on a hill above Tomar, looms the castle he built: the mighty Convento de Cristo, which served as a Templar headquarters in Portugal for 400 years.
Nowhere encapsulates the Templars’ schizophrenic, religious-military character like the Convento de Cristo. Certainly, with its strategic hilltop position, vast sheer walls and fortified battlements, it doesn’t look much like a convent. Inside, the structure is a magnificent monument both to the Templars’ religious fervour and to their fantastic wealth. The centrepiece of the complex is the Charola, a 16-sided chapel modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; legend has it that the circular construction allowed the knights to attend Mass on horseback.
On the Charola’s outer western wall is the magnificent 16th-century Manueline Window, ornately carved with elaborate maritime motifs which celebrate Portugal’s dominance of the seas during the reign of Manuel I. Twisted ropes snake around corals and representations of the armillary sphere, a navigational instrument which also occupies pride of place on the Portuguese flag (the yellow orb behind the shield). Above them sits the square cross of the Order of Christ, the successor organization to the Templars.
By the early 14th century, European royalty and nobility had begun to resent the Knights Templars’ political influence and vast wealth, which had continued to grow exponentially from humble beginnings. Their financial savvy has even led some to label the Templars the progenitors of the modern banking system. As greater numbers of rich noblemen left home to join the Crusades, the Templars would safeguard their money and assets in return for letters of credit, which customers could then use to withdraw funds from other Templar outposts on their travels. The order used their unrivalled resources to buy up vineyards, businesses, and vast tracts of land – which even included the entire island of Cyprus for a time in the late 12th century.
Something, it was decided, had to be done to curb their influence. On Friday 13th October 1307 (a date not lost on those fixated with the Templar mythos), hundreds of Templars were arrested in France on the orders of King Philip IV. Various charges of heresy were levelled at the order, including that their initiation practices involved spitting on the cross and worshipping a demonic idol known as Baphomet. This final charge was seized upon with gusto by later occultists like Aleister Crowley, whose mythology heavily featured a goat-headed demon of the same name.
The accusations proved fatal for the Templars across most of Europe, but in Portugal the order lived on, resurrected under the new name of the Order of Christ. They retained their membership and their resources, including the Convento de Cristo, which served as their headquarters. Under their new name, the order would wield considerable influence over the birth of the Portuguese empire. Grand Masters of the order included Prince Henry the Navigator, the driving force behind Portugal’s Age of Exploration, and Manuel I, who was King of Portugal during the colonisation of Brazil, Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India, and various other milestones which saw Portugal forge the world’s first global empire.
Emblems of the order can be seen on some of Portugal’s most famous buildings, with the armillary sphere and square cross adorning the Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, and other monuments to the Discoveries. The fantastical Quinta da Regaleira, a fairytale park and palace in Sintra, was built much later, in the early 20th century, but is rich in symbolic nods to the Templars, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and other secretive esoteric societies. The estate’s rambling grounds are dotted with grottoes, connected by a labyrinth of underground tunnels. One leads to the atmospheric Initiation Well, supposedly once used for shadowy Masonic rituals of the type that proved to be the ruin of the Templars in the 14th century.
Today, the spectre of the Templars continues to haunt the minds of artists, conspiracy theorists, and others in possession of overactive imaginations. A young George Lucas wrote of the “Jedi-Templar” in his early drafts of Star Wars, while Indiana Jones discovered a Knight Templar standing watch over the Holy Grail during his Last Crusade. Countless conspiracy theories conflate the historic Templars with modern Freemasonry, warning of a shadowy globalist elite working to establish a New World Order. Whatever the truth of the Templars, the monuments they left behind count among some of the most beautiful and atmospheric in Portugal, and with all of those mentioned above easily accessible from Lisbon, a Templar tour makes for a fantastic adventure from the capital.
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Top image: Courtyard in Convent of Christ monastery in Tomar - Portugal © milosk50/Shutterstock