The Da Vinci code and the Knights Templar

LITERATURE: All who have read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, know that pivotal to the plot lies the ancient Order of the Knights Templar. Also, come to think of it, many other books that bring into focus Christianity, the Holy Grail, the Crusades, the hideous story of the Inquisition, cannot omit the myths of the Knights Templar.

Time was when the Christian world seemed to move around them, just as some affected segments of today's Catholic world revolve around Opus Dei - also featured by Dan Brown.

You see, the Templars still evoke much interest, if only because their legacy is embroidered with a rich seam of rumour and skulduggery. It is to the Templars that we owe the superstition of Friday the 13th being most unlucky.

It is also said that they invented the traveller's cheque and created Switzerland! This latter is most interesting even if we have no hard evidence; and yet, of all the Templar myths, this could be the most plausible.

When the Swiss cantons rebelled against the Holy Roman Empire in the early 14th century and wished to form a fledgling country, Rome was amazed to find that a federation of farmers and merchants could boast a first-class army.

It couldn't be done without help - and in Swiss folklore, we have the tale of a band of "white knights", their robes emblazoned with the red cross and with the red cross also vividly shown on their tunics or surcoats, who came to the aid of the cantons. Even Switzerland's expertise in international banking is cited as proof that the Templars came there and, above all, the new united federation took, as its national flag, the cross of the Templars.

In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown has emerged as one of a long line of fabulists. He pedalled the myth that the Templars had survived as guardians of dark religious secrets. As such, the Templars knew where the Holy Grail was hidden and who were the progeny of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But listen to author Umberto Eco - he once stated: "The lunatic writer is easily recognised. Sooner or later, he brings up the Templars."

Early Crusades

The Templars were formed during the early Crusades of the 12th century. So were the Teutonic Knights and the Knights Hospitalers. At first, the Templars were regarded as a sort of freelance security service for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

Two enterprising French knights set up the Order in 1119, twenty years after the Crusaders had captured Jerusalem. The Templars pledged to devote their lives to the safety of pilgrims, and made their headquarters on Temple Mount, near the al-Asqa mosque.

This site, Christians believe, is of the old Temple of Solomon, and it is from the word 'Temple' that the knights became 'Templars'.

With its rapid expansion, the Order won papal approval and with it, the right to extract tithes and also to take booty. To be a Templar became a career choice for young men of noble birth. The Order was monastic and followed the rules created by its patron, saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

All Knights were subject to the Grand Master, appointed for life. He oversaw all military efforts in the East and financial interests in the West. The Knights swore to chastity, poverty and obedience, and also vowed to defend the holy places against the "infidel". This they did with bloody determination.

By the second Crusade of 1147-49, the Templars gloried in a reputation as fearsome fighters. Readers who have followed the "Robin Hood" series on local TV would have seen, in one episode, how the Templars wrought havoc in Nottingham and Sherood. Their characteristic white surcoats and cloaks with the red cross, became a symbol of valour.

They built fortifications across the Holy Land and were undoubtedly, the best-trained fighting force of their day. Even the great Muslim leader, Saladin, found them to be such fanatical fighters that he realised that any negotiation was pointless. In 1187, Saladin captured 230 Knights and offered them freedom if they converted to Islam. None chose to do so, and Saladin had them all decapitated by a band of Sufis.

Fanaticism

Dan Brown tells of an immensely rich Order with its hidden and ever-shifting bases, its killing agenda and its unrelenting fanaticism. How did all this come to be? It was the Pope who caused the riches to flow into the Templar coffers. He encouraged families across Europe to donate vast gifts of land and money to the Order. The Templars, he said, were guardians of the Holy Land.

We now know that, at its height of power, the Order controlled 9,000 estates from Scotland to Syria and drew rents from them all.

Dan Brown has made good use of the fateful Friday the 13th in his book. Before I go to that in more detail, let us see what brought about the decline of the Templars (and, for that matter, have they really been wiped out, or are they as strong as ever, now bitterly anti-Catholic, occupying secret warrens across the globe?) As I said, there were other Crusading Orders and there arose vicious squabbles between the Papacy and crusading monarchs.

This rose to such a pitch that it not only split the Western Alliance but also led to the rout of the Templars, hounded by the fanatical followers of Muslim leaders such as Saladin.

Target of envy

Wherever they went, the Templars insisted that they were answerable only to the Pope and this made their presence in Europe sour. Also, the vast wealth they carried made them a target of envy and hostility. Dan Brown is right. They are doggedly implacable and people came to look askance at their secretive rules and arcane rituals.

True, the Templars had developed these to instil discipline and create a sense of brotherhood, but they were considered unholy.

All this made people hostile and envious. They spread dark rumours - that the Templars were in league with the Egyptians and that they practised necromancy and other heretical arts.

This also spurred King Philip IV of France to move against the Templars. The king was desperate for funds to wage war against England but had made a packet from his persecution of the Jews.

This brings us to the fateful date - Friday the 13th. Philip launched his persecution of the Templars on Friday the 13th of October, 1307. He arrested the Knights on charges of heresy. More than 2,000 were cruelly tortured and forced confessions were collected and made public, whipping up more hatred.

According to what was royally revealed, the Templars had confessed to crimes that were too horrible to contemplate!

Molay's curse

Philip then forced Pope Clement V, who was then in exile in Avignon, to suppress the Order and give him access to all Templar assets. This, the Pope did! In 1913, the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake and officially, the Templars ceased to exist. not so, says Dan Brown and so many others.

Philip's persecution was launched on Friday the 13th. Screaming in his death throes, de Molay cursed the king and the Pope and vowed they would answer before God for their injustice. Pope Clement died a month later - some insist on Friday the 13th, although one very rarely finds a calendar with the date falling in consecutive months.

King Philip also died in the same year - also on Friday the 13th - and people believed that he, too, was a victim of de Molay's curse.

Unanswered questions

Ever since, the Templar myths have circulated and are kept alive by many tantalising and unanswered questions.

It is this that has given Dan Brown and so many other writers, fabulists and theorists, much grist. For example, where are the thousands of Knights Templar across Europe who escaped the French persecution and suppression? Again, the entire fleet of Templar ships vanished from La Rochelle, France - also on Friday, the 13th of October 1307. Where did they sail to and how much wealth did they carry....and how many Knights manned them? Nobody knows, and yet so many claim to know.

The answers may still blow in the wind, but Dan Brown seems to have caught some of this wind in his sails! A new literary landscape? Who can tell....because, to borrow a line from "The X-Files", the truth is out there - somewhere!.

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