Tomar and the Knights Templar, Portugal.
Under vows of holiness, poverty and chivalry, the Order of the Knights Templar, founded around 1120 to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land, achieved much else besides. It became the richest and most powerful institution in the medieval world. It introduced novel financial techniques and arguably formed the world’s first multinational corporation.
But worldly success sowed the seeds of the knights’ downfall. Philip IV of France, jealous of a rival rule and heavily in its debt, accused the knights of heresy and began a campaign of imprisonment and torture that led to their extinction. The last of the Templars Jacques de Molay died in Paris in 1314, but not before nearly two centuries of power had established the order’s hold on the public imagination.
Whatever the critical view of Dan Brown and his blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, loosely based on the Templars, he understood the order’s enduring appeal and has thrived on his and others’ controversial interpretation of the “facts” of its mysterious existence. He has also inspired tourist pilgrims to travel the world in search of Templar sites, one of the most compelling of which dominates the central Portuguese city of Tomar and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to the various accounts, following de Molay’s demise, the Templars had to take a low profile. A partial exception was in Portugal, where King Dinis, or, in English, the not-so-regal Denis, (1261-1325), disbelieved the allegations made against them and kept them relatively safe. With his support, the order effectively continued, although in disguise under the new name of the Order of Christ.
Initially the renamed order was headquartered outside Tomar, near the border with Spain, until another royal supporter Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) brought it back to the castle complex that perches above the city.
Henry the Navigator was a driving force behind Portugal’s great age of discovery, and gave a new purpose to the knights, whose mission became to expand the kingdom and spread the faith through maritime discoveries.
Navigating by Google maps, the world now comes to Tomar to tread pavements emblazoned with the red Templar cross. The Templars wore it on their robes as a symbol of martyrdom: to die in combat was considered an honour that assured a place in heaven – a troubling precursor of the suicide bombers of today and the ongoing tension between the Muslim and the Christian faiths.
The atmosphere in Tomar, however, derives, not from a quest for dire historic warnings, but from visitors who sustain a romantic view of a remote and noble past that was a heady mix of the military and the spiritual. The more tenacious can also attempt to master the sprawling layout of the castle complex and its range of architectural styles.
At the heart of it all is a church, modelled, like other Templar churches, on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which was believed by the crusaders to be a remnant of the Temple of Solomon. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem may also have served as model.
A 16-side polygonal structure from the outside, within the church has a central, octagonal structure, connected by arches to a surrounding gallery, or ambulatory. It is striking for the dramatic sense of height, sufficient to accommodate knights who allegedly arrived for mass on horseback. Standout attractions for the modern visitor are an improbably large organ pipe, like a giant, wooden pencil, and a depiction of Saint Sebastian looking beatific, despite the arrows being fired into his side, and of Saint Anthony preaching to the fish.
The church dates from the 12th-century when the castle complex was begun. Additions over the following centuries provide a history not just of the Templars, but of architectural fashions including Romanesque, Gothic and Manueline, or Portuguese late Gothic. This lavish 16th-century blend of maritime elements and representations of the discoveries brought back by Portuguese explorers is at its most exuberant in the Chapter House window with its lichen-covered ropes, mythical creatures and an armillary sphere.
If all that leaves you craving elegant simplicity, you can retreat to the cloisters. For instance, Henry the Navigator had two new cloisters built. The Laundry Cloister was where the lay brothers washed their clothes and the Cemetery Cloister was where the knights were buried. Portuguese azulejos (blue tiles) provide local character and relieve the grey stone.
You can also wander the austere length of the dormitory corridor, where the favourite sleeping cell on a cold winter night on return from battle must have been the one next to the calefactory.
Under all the different guises and styles, the knights remained in residence until the 19th-century when the Liberal Wars, also known as Portugal’s civil war, culminated in 1834 with the end of the absolutist regime and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The Order of Christ became extinct and the newly-anointed Count of Tomar took over, building for himself a now drab-seeming, neo-classical palace that lacks the serene spirituality of the earlier architecture.
To feel uplifted anew, drive just outside Tomar to the best vantage point of the six-kilometre acqueduct that channelled water from four different springs to the knights’ castle. Once again, the grandest of architecture, with its 180 arches, is steeped in history. Completed in 1614, it was built during the Iberian Union, during which the Crowns of Portugal and Spain were united after the Portuguese nobility gathered in the Convent of Christ to settle a succession crisis.
It would be perfectly satisfying to end a visit to Tomar next to the almost Moghul-style purification tank where the cleanliness of the knights’ water was tested, but if you have time for one more stop a 30-minute drive away, Almourol Castle tells another chapter of the Templar story.
This castle on an island in the Tagus River was rebuilt in the 12th-century by Gualdim Pais, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, legendary for leading the successful defence of Tomar when it was besieged by a Muslim army. During the period known as the Reconquista, or the Christian reconquest of Portugal, the castle was part of a defensive line of fortifications.
Reached by a short boat ride from the shore, Almourol’s compact, homogenous beauty is the perfect contrast to the elusive sprawl of the Templars’ castle in Tomar.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.