Knights Templar Sites in Portugal | Portugal Visitor

Knights Templar Sites in Portugal

Tracking the Mysterious Templars

The Knights Templars continue to intrigue more than 900 years after their founding in Jerusalem in either 1118 or 1119.

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon to give the Templars their full name still inspire books, video games and movies on their esoteric past.

Steeped in mystery, the Order is believed to have influenced the Freemasons, who adopted Templar symbols and their initiation ceremony and even the temperance movement, based on the belief the early Templars abstained from alcohol.

The Templars first came to Portugal in the 12th century to help the new nation in its fight against the Islamic presence in Iberia known as the Reconquista. They first participated in the siege and fall of Santarém to Afonso Henriques in 1147 and later that year in the capture of Lisbon. As a reward Portugal’s new king began to give them lands and property.

The Templar mascot is two knights on one horse

History of The Templars

There are various legends about the early beginnings of the Templars. Historians debate about when exactly the Order was formed and who was involved.

One story has the Templars established by eight knights and the first Grand Master, the French knight Hugues de Payens, thus making the number 9 a symbolic number in Templar lore. A papal bull officially recognized the Order in 1139.

The main duty of the Templars was to protect pilgrims on the way to Palestine and to defend Jerusalem and the other major Christian sites.

The Templars were the shock troops of the Crusades.
The Templars and other religious/military orders were the shock troops of the Crusades

Once fabulously rich, though their members took a vow of poverty, at the peak of their power the Templars controlled huge estates across Christendom, at one time including the whole of Cyprus. By the late 12th century the now dynamic religious and military order had become the shock troops of the Crusades, victorious in battles at Montgisard and Arsuf.

The Templar mascot was two knights riding one horse to emphasize their vow of poverty but the fame and power of the Order attracted the younger sons of noble families across Europe eager for excitement and glory on the battlefields of the Holy Land. With them came money and with the inevitable deaths of many of these men, inheritances and bequests of cash and land.

The Templars are credited with establishing one of Europe’s first banking and money transfer systems. Pilgrims making the dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem would deposit their valuables with the Templars in Europe and receive in exchange a letter of credit. This letter could be redeemed in the Holy Land. The Order paid no tax and can be viewed, in fact, as Europe’s first multinational corporation, a state within a state, similar in this respect to other orders such as the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes and later Malta.

As dramatic as was the Templars’ rise so was their fall. In 1307 King Philip IV of France, himself in debt to the Templars and jealous of their power and prestige, arrested the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay and many of his followers. They were accused of heresy, idolatry and of spitting on the cross during their initiation ceremonies, tortured and burnt at the stake.

Finally in 1312 Pope Clement V disbanded the order forever.

Convent of Christ, Tomar, Portugal.
The Convent of Christ in Tomar was the stronghold of the Templars and later the Order of Christ in Portugal

Order of Christ

After the Templars were suppressed in the 14th century, they were simply re-established as the Order of Christ in 1319 in Portugal by order of King Dinis.

Dinis refused to prosecute Templars within his own realm and welcomed scores of Templar refugees to Portugal. Along with their wealth they brought a great nautical, cartographic and astronomical knowledge with them.

These immigrants were subsumed into Dom Dinis’ new Order of Christ. This reconfigured religious order, inspired by the Templars, was to be a key driving force behind the urge to carve out a new empire and begin a fresh Crusade. Indeed, the Order could be seen represented by the Templar cross on the sails of Portugal’s caravels.

Henry the Navigator, who led the order for twenty years and did so much to inspire Portugal’s “Age of the Discoveries” used the wealth of the Templars to finance his voyages of exploration and colonization. King Manuel I of Portugal was also a Grand Master of the Order of Christ.

Thus Portugal is the ideal place to follow in the footsteps of the early Templars. Much still remains from their time. Here is a list of some of the best Templar sites in Portugal.

Convent of Christ, Portugal.
The exterior of the Charola, Convent of Christ, Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

The Convent of Christ (Convento de Cristo) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the best place to start on the trail of the Templars. Located on a hill above the town of Tomar, the historical site covers around 45 hectares and was founded in the 12th century by Gualdim Pais (1118-1195) and the Knights Templars.

Pais – a statue of whom stands in the central square of Praça da República in Tomar – was a Portuguese knight who fought the Moors under D. Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, and later took part in the Crusades in Palestine.

Pais was to become the fourth Grand Master in Portugal of the Order of Knights Templar in 1157 and began building the new HQ of his order in Tomar from 1160, when the town was close to the front line of the war against the Moors.

The Charola was the original Romanesque Templar church and dates to the foundation of the Convento de Cristo in the late 12th century. During the 16th century altarpiece paintings, murals, stucco work and carvings were added during the reign of King Manuel I (himself a Grand Master of the Order of Christ) to create an amazing space full of historic atmosphere. The round church is supposedly modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and is sixteen sided on the outside and octagonal on the inside.

Church of Santa Maria do Olival Tomar.
Church of Santa Maria do Olival, Tomar, Estremadura, Portugal

Santa Maria do Olival

The Igreja de Santa Maria dos Olivais (Church of Santa Maria do Olival) is an historic church also in Tomar, associated with the Knights Templars. “Olival” means “olive grove” and thus has associations with the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The Igreja de Santa Maria dos Olivais is also connected with secret and mysterious Templar initiation rituals and the recent discovery of secret underground passageways seems to confirm this. The church is actually set below ground level and signifies the spiritual descent into the womb of the earth and rebirth as a Knight Templar.

The exterior of the church has a magnificent rose window and the pentagram symbol of the Templars, often seen in their churches in Portugal. It is said to represent the five wounds of Christ. However, the symbol was used as evidence of heresy during the torture and trial of Grand Master Jacques de Molay during the reign of King Philip IV in France.

Castelo de Almourol, Portugal.
Almourol Castle

Almourol Castle

Almourol Castle (Castelo de Almourol) is the most magical of Portugal’s castles, set as it is on an island in the middle of the River Tagus near where it is joined by its tributary, the River Zêzere. Like Belver Castle to the east, Almourol lies on the River Tagus, once the border between Christian and Islamic Portugal during the period of the Reconquista (the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors by the Christian Portuguese and their allies).

Capela de Santa Maria do Castelo, Portugal.
Capela de Santa Maria do Castelo within Monsanto Castle grounds, Monsanto, Portugal

Monsanto Castle

Gualdim Pais, the founder of Tomar and the Convento de Cristo, built Monsanto Castle after the town was taken back from the Moors in the 12th century. Its impressive walls are made from the local granite as is the town which grew around it. King Afonso Henriques gave a vast area of territory to Pais and the Templars to administer and protect at this time in Portuguese history. The castles at Monsanto and Idanha-a-Velha were both built in 1171, along with Pombal Castle in Pombal to guard the capital of the kingdom which was at Coimbra at the time.

Belem Tower, Belem, Portugal.
Belem Tower, Lisbon, Portugal

Belem Tower

The 35 meter-high Belem Tower was designed by the military architect Francisco de Arruda and his brother Diogo Arruda between 1514 and 1520 as part of a defensive system at the mouth of the River Tagus. The fortress was named the Torre de Sao Vincente de Belem after the patron saint of Lisbon. It endures as a symbolic icon of the city of Lisbon and its history.

The tower is Manueline in style with the customary motifs of armillary spheres, Templar crosses and thick ropes and also shows the Moorish influences on Arruda’s design – he had built a number of forts in North Africa previously. Diogo de Boitaca, the initial chief architect of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, is also thought to have participated in constructing the building.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Lisbon.
The Templar-inspired Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

Quinta da Regaleira

The Quinta da Regaleira is part of the UNESCO World Heritage cultural landscape in Sintra and is one of the Lisbon area’s most exotic palaces. The enchanting, exotic palace and gardens are full of the symbolism of the Templars and their successors the Freemasons.

The grounds have two wells constructed more like inverted towers which were not built to serve as water sources. The largest is nearly 30 meters deep. It consists of 9 flights of spiral stairs representing the eight knights and the first Grand Master, Hugues de Payens, who founded the Templars in the early 12th century. Experts believe the wells were used for Masonic-Templar initiation ceremonies where the initiates would descend the stairs blindfolded. At the bottom is an octagonal star and within a Templar Cross.

Then the initiates would have to find their way from this darkness to light through the labyrinth of caves and tunnels that connected the wells. This journey represents the spiritual path from darkness to light and from ignorance to enlightenment. The endpoint of this journey would be the chapel which is connected to the labyrinth where the initiate is welcomed into the fellowship.

Other Templar Sites in Portugal

Other places in Portugal with Templar connections include Monsaraz Castle, given to the Knights Templar and later the Order of Christ to garrison and the town of Castelo Branco where the Templars built the city walls. The Igreja de São João Baptista (Church of John the Baptist) in Tomar has Templar crosses on its exterior.

Hermitage of San Bartolomé, Spain.
Hermitage of San Bartolomé, Spain

Hermitage of San Bartolomé

Over in north-central Spain the Hermitage of San Bartolomé (Ermita de San Bartolomé de Ucero) in the Rio del Lobos Canyon is another notable Templar church. It was part of a Templar monastery of which only the chapel remains. It is located equidistant from Cape Finisterre and Cape Creus in a long-inhabited sacred power spot known also to the Romans. The rose window in the transept is designed with ten large and ten small hearts with a pentagram in the center – a frequent Templar symbol. Also within are mysterious carvings relating to alchemy and the Ark of the Covenant.

Gargoyle, Convent of Christ, Portugal.
Gargoyle and Templar Crosses, Convent of Christ, Tomar, Portugal

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