Thursday, April 21, 2011

Travel and Tales of the Templars - Karen Ralls

As it's April, Easter eggs and spirituality are in the news nearly everywhere now, so naturally, tours, travel and pilgrimage often come to mind even more… as does planning for our future spring or summer holidays!


But you're not alone…doing a bit of "time travel" back to medieval times, the time of the High Middle Ages (12th-14th centuries)… the illustrious "white knights" of the Crusades - the Knights Templar- naturally feature strongly. These famed monastic warriors of the Crusades have long been shrouded in mystery; they were believed to conduct mystical rites, guard the Holy Grail, and perhaps possess the lost treasures of Jerusalem….and more. Bankers to kings, trusted diplomats, efficient land managers and farmers, brilliant businessmen, navigators, and far, far more, the Templars' "mythos" through the centuries, it seems, will never die, resonating on into our own times today, often featuring in Hollywood films or famous novels like the Da Vinci Code. Umberto Eco wrote in a famous essay back in 1986 that ever since medieval times, Western culture has been "dreaming" the Middle Ages, and that our current fascination with all things Templar, Cathar, Grail, Arthurian, etc is part of a a modern-day quest for our Western roots. I'd add that yes, we're still "dreaming" the Knights Templar, too - and that their fascinating story is far from over!

So back then, Easter of 1119, some months before travelling, many travellers would have been anxiously awaiting a chance to go on pilgrimage to the sacred holy sites in Jerusalem or Rome, often boarding a Templar ship in the process - if they were lucky enough to get a place via the safest way to travel. Or, by using the other secondary travel options, all of them upon arrival in the Holy Land area would still be hoping beyond hope to desperately avoid any violent attacks on their group during their trip on the highways and byways of Jerusalem. So why all the fear? Well, everyone knew - and had heard - terrifying stories about how bandits were nearly everywhere on the pilgrimage routes and that travel was usually very dangerous for Christians in specific areas - and especially close to Easter, for instance. Having arrived by land or by sea, as more and more pilgrims tried to make their way further on to Jerusalem, increasing numbers of pilgrims through the years were often 'ambushed', tortured or killed on the pilgrimage routes, especially at night.

Yet one Easter stands out among all others as it 'made history', in a sense -- Easter Sunday of 1119, the early twelfth century. Following the earlier First Crusade, many more pilgrims started to flock to Jerusalem, desperate to have a chance - safely - to see the sacred shrines, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, for ex. Judging from eyewitness accounts in the medieval documents from many sources from this period, any travel along certain pilgrimage routes was very hair-raising and dangerous, i.e., bandits lurked around every corner, and robberies and attacks were rife. One eyewitness traveller, on one of the major pilgrim's routes, reminiscient of a scene from a Stephen King horror novel, said he saw a number of previously robbed bodies, all now dead, lying by the side of the road, all of the partially-decomposed corpses gnawed by wild animals, i.e., so inevitably, in such a climate, many would not even bother to wait to bury the dead, as they simply kept on walking as fast as possible, in case they, too, attacked themselves.

So an already tense situation had by then become unbearable. On that particular Easter day itself, the Saracens killed 300 Christian pilgrims and took 60 others as prisoners, a very provocative incident. Obviously, the Church was very concerned about yet another violent incident and diplomatic nightmare, but as this was also Easter Sunday itself, they basically decided that, well, this incident was the 'last straw'. Something absolutely *had* to be done about this constant problem for their pilgrims - and soon. This particular incident was given as one of the key official reasons by the Pope and Church for solving this dogged problem of constant dire dangers to medieval pilgrims -- to start a military religious Order to help protect them, among other things. By a bit later that year, 1119, the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon - better known today as the Knights Templar - then officially emerged into the public domain, a now- legendary military religious fighting force that lasted, incredibly, for well over two hundred years at its peak. Yet, of course, these first nine knights certainly could not have 'policed' all of the pilgrimage routes themselves, as they had nowhere near the numbers or time to do so - but among a number of other things that they were undoubtedly also up to at the time, not all of which are known for certain even today, this was not merely only a 'cover' story, as has sometimes been alleged, as it is known that they and other Christian orders at the time did indeed help pilgrims when they could.

But the Templars were certainly one of the best military Crusading orders of the entire Middle Ages - 'second to none' on the battlefield, as even acknowledged by their own enemies, the Saracens, as well as many of the other key Christian crusading orders that fought bravely alongside them, i.e., the Knights Hospitaller, for example. The Order of the Temple was officially founded with the initial aim of protecting pilgrims going to and from Jerusalem, but many believe they were in all probability also searching for hidden treasures under the long destroyed Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the place where the first nine knights of this tiny, fledgling Order were originally installed. Strangely enough, the official historian of the area at the time makes no mention of any of these nine knights there; however, a number of other chroniclers of the times do mention them to some degree, but reports are often rather conflicting. As the early Templars began whatever their key mission(s) were, as they flourished, the Templar order developed into one of the richest and most powerful organizations of the entire medieval world, and had a huge network of thousands of preceptories and commanderies throughout Europe and the Middle East. Ever used a safe deposit box at the bank or got traveller's checks on a trip? Well, you can thank the medieval Knights Templar for that concept, too, as they were instrumental in further developing those new finance ideas and introducing these concepts to Western Europe.

The Order lasted for nearly 200 years at its height, before its suppression by a joint effort of both the French king and Pope Clement V - who issued the papal bull Vox in excelso on 22 March 1312 which finally suppressed the Order. The initial event was sudden and brutal - in the early hours of Friday, 13th October 1307, the French Templars were arrested by the officials of King Philip IV in the name of the Inquisition and their property was confiscated by royal representatives and later granted to the other great military order, the Knights Hospitaller. This event also led to the arrest of Templars elsewhere, but the situation was most severe in France. (The sudden arrest of the Templars on Friday 13th reminds us of the old saying "Friday the 13th, unlucky for some.")

The Templars were then arrested, brutally tortured, charged with serious heresies, and brought to trial -- in fact, a series of arrests and 'trials' that lasted over a period of about seven years, in a number of different countries, as I outline in the Knights Templar Encyclopedia in great detail. It was a complex situation overall, and, contrary to popular belief, there was never only 'one' Templar trial. They were accused by the Inquisition of many things, for example, of trampling on the cross and worshipping a strange head named Baphomet - again, all of which I outline, in addition to what known relics the medieval Templars were known to have had. Many historians believe that most of the confessions of "heresy" against the knights are extremely questionable, since they were extracted by heinous torture; yet, this varied greatly, country by country, which isn't always understood today. The last, courageous remaining Templar officers finally came before the papal representatives in March 1314 and were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment - a nightmare situation. But, even so, Grand Master Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney, the Preceptor of Normandy, bravely continued to protest their innocence and, in revenge, that very evening in Paris, King Philip IV ordered that they be immediately burned at the stake on an island on the river Seine.

Many theories - and myths - abound about whether, or how, the Templars might have survived, which I go through one by one. Even more tantalising for many today is the question of where the Templars hid their treasure, and whether it will ever be found, and, if so, if it should be revealed, and under what circumstances, and so on - and, perhaps as or more crucially, what the exact definition of 'treasure' truly is, or should be. Perhaps the 'real treasure(s)' of the Templars is timeless indeed. A number of medieval Templars did manage to escape or survive, in certain areas here and there, but were understandably quite traumatised and had to be extremely careful and go undercover in order to avoid further trouble or perscution, a situation yet to be fully unravelled, as we continue to translate and work on some of the remaining medieval documents and manuscript fragments today. I outline what is known, for sure, after the 1312 suppression, from historical documents in the Encyclopedia, country by country. Obviously, more will hopefully come to light, in due course….even soon.

In 1340, a German priest on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while walking along the shore of the Dead Sea, came upon two elderly men who turned out to be former Knights Templar! ("surprise!") At the time of the initial Templar arrests in 1307, these knights were already languishing in prison, having been captured after the city of Acre's tragic fall to the Saracens in 1291. After their release, they had "roughed it" in the mountains for years. They had seen no one at all from Latin Christiandom for some time and were absolutely shocked to learn -- 33 years later -- of the French king's attack on their great Order, its subsequent suppression by the Pope on what many felt were trumped-up charges gleaned by torture, and the dramatic burning at the stake of their beloved Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. These two Templar knights illustrate now - like the warriors of the film Highlander, who live forever -- the memory of the Knights Templar lives on, even today. During the time of the official historical order of the Templars (1119-1312), "history" and "myth" were already becoming intertwined. Legendary accounts about the crusaders and their amazing feats made the rounds; back then, too, people whispered about how the Templar may have found the actual Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail, or, even the gold of Solomon's Temple itself…no one was quite sure exactly what it was, but nearly everyone agreed that they must have had something. (sound familiar?!)

Today, their history as well as their powerful "mythos" lives on. Step through the portal of time, back to the Middle Ages, and read the Knights Templar Encyclopedia, if you would like to have a comprehensive view of the facts about this extraordinarily powerful Order - then and now - A to Z. From more than 16 years of meticulous scholarly research and gleaned from a variety of reliable sources, the Encyclopedia is a great way for anyone - no matter what their own particular views about the Templars are - to at least have the most important, key historical facts and information right at their own fingertips, at any time….to be 'well armed' on your own quest!

I've covered not only all of the key areas about the Templar order itself, but also, other key medieval topics also of great interest today too, and how they relate to the Templars -- subjects like Mary Magdalene, the Grail, the Black Madonnas, King Arthur, Templar sites, Rosslyn Chapel, key Templar symbolism, seals, and relics, Gothic cathedrals, the Jolly Roger flag, alchemy, Freemasonry, the Guilds, chivalry, stained glass, Bernard of Clairvaux, the origins of the Order, Templar archives, Assets, Treasuries, Loans, Maritime trade and ports, Farms, Feast days, to name but a few entries. In the back of the book, I've included four key Appendices: a Templar Chronology of Events; Grand Masters of the Knights Templar; key Templar Sites; and Illustrations. There is also a special 'Recommended Reading' section, under specific Templar-related subject headings, to also help you with your own research and/or just plain curiosity. So…'happy hunting!'

Because in the end, it is *your* Quest, too, that also matters the most. Although I have had extensive years of academic research and experience, and was even the deputy Curator of the Rosslyn Chapel art museum exhibition for six years - prior to the Da Vinci Code! - I've never felt that knowledge shouldn't be shared, so I've tried to reach out and offer this initial encyclopedia to you. I write my books for all of you, and hope that you, too, find the Templars - and the Middle Ages - as timeless and inspiring as I do - even today, in our early 21st century! Blessings on your path.

Karen Ralls, PhD, medieval historian and world religious scholar, obtained her doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, was Postdoctoral Lecturer and Fellow (Edinburgh) and also Deputy Curator of the Rosslyn Chapel museum exhibition (1995-2001) prior to continuing with her work in Oxford, England. Originally from the USA, Dr Ralls lectures internationally and has appeared on many History Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic TV documentaries.

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