Masonic Articles and Essays
The Secretive Origins of the Poor Knights of Christ
Ven. Bro. Aksel Suvari 14o
The origins of the Knights Templar are shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Theirs is a legend of nobility, martial prowess and dark rumors of occult practices. But where did they come from and what was their true mission in the Holy Land?
Since the days of the Crusades, mystery, legend and whispers of the supernatural have followed the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon throughout history. Formed in the ancient French city of Troyes in the early days of the twelfth century, the chivalric order became renowned throughout the medieval world on the basis of their military, architectural and financial prowess. This enigmatic brotherhood of warrior monks are known as the protectors of the pilgrim’s road to Jerusalem. While this would eventually become an important duty of the order, a closer examination of the available sources shows that the original nine knights who undertook an expedition to the freshly conquered Holy Land set foot with an entirely different goal in mind.
The world of the First Crusade (AD 1096-1099) was awash with religious fervor and the scent of conquest was in the air.
Christian forces occupied the Holy Lands for the first time in 461 years and the lines of communication between Europe and the Middle East were being restored. The European crusaders encountered an Arabic world at the height of a prodigious Golden Age. The Abbasid Empire had established a society that thirsted after knowledge, commingling the poetic precepts of Islam with the mathematics, astronomy, music and philosophy of the Western Mediterranean to produce a flourishing esoteric culture.
It was this milieu that a man named Hugues De Payens, the future co-founder and first Grand Master of the Templar order, and Hugh, Count of Champagne, a later addition to the brotherhood, encountered when they took their first voyage to the Holy Land in AD 1104. Historical background is especially hard to find on Hugues de Payens. The limited documentation available tells us that he could have been born no later than AD 1070 and that he came from the village of Payns, near the city of Troyes. Hugh, Count of Champagne was a descendant of French provincial nobility, his father being Theobald III, Count of Blois. Before he became a Templar Knight, the Count was known for granting the Cistercian Order the lands required to build Clairvaux Abbey. The original purpose of this first voyage is unknown but it is likely that they were going to reinforce the ill-fated crusaders of AD 1101 in their battles against the remaining Seljuq Turks, one of whom was a relation of the Count’s, Stephen II the Count of Blois. Something that he or his benefactor discovered while adventuring in remote Asia Minor must have intrigued Hugues De Payens for he returned to Jerusalem alone three years later on what seems like, with historical context, a reconnaissance mission. After completing this second expedition he returned to France only long enough to recruit the eight other knights who would become the nucleus of the Poor Knights of Christ and of The Temple of Solomon. In AD 1119 these nine men set off on a covert conquest of Jerusalem, furnished with information that no ordinary pillagers were aware of; their prize was nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant itself.
Now of course there is no historical document extant today that explicitly states the aims of the budding secret society but by extracting the context of the history we do have we can put together the pieces of a rather interesting theory; the original aim of the Knights Templar was the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant from its hiding place in Jerusalem and while it was not found, something was discovered that allowed the Order to accumulate immense wealth and power. The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Bible as an object of unrivalled power. A gold plated box of acacia wood measuring two and a half cubits in length, one and a half cubits in width and breadth (52in×31in×31in) and said to contain the two Tablets of the Law inscribed by the finger of God himself, to which was added in later years a jar of manna and the Rod of Aaron. In the legends of the Old Testament it was said to have destroyed the walls at Jericho and to have parted the Jordan River. It was the source of power for the Tribes of Israel and was the nucleus of the Temple of Solomon, venerated above any other relic. The legend of the building of the Temple of Solomon insists that the sole purpose of the Temple was to serve as an ‘house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD’ (Chronicles 28-2) yet after the destruction of the First Temple it disappears entirely from history and literature.
This much would have been well known to any Bible student, let alone the founder of the Knights Templar. What would have been unavailable to anyone who had not spent time in the Holy Land, however, was knowledge of the Shetiyyah, the foundation stone of the Temple of Solomon. Talmudic legend holds that when the First Temple was raised in the mid-900s BC, the Shetiyyah was the giant slab of natural rock that the Ark of the Covenant rested upon and served as the floor of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. In later years the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik built what is now the Dome of the Rock over the Shetiyyah, as it is from this rock that the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. What the Christian forces likely did not know however was that there is a partly natural, partly man-made cave beneath the Shetiyyah stone. Known today as the Well of Souls, according to the Islamic legend it was formed during the aforementioned ascent of the Prophet, as the rock did not wish to part with so holy a presence. With the financial backing of the Count of Champagne, an inclination towards the mystic side of the Christian faith and the ancient and reliable lust after buried treasure, Hugues De Payens could have plausibly paid, muscled or meandered his way into this secret. This information was in fact already in print in the form of an epigraphical work known as The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, attributed to the Biblical scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah, which was in wide circulation amongst the rabbinical circles throughout Jerusalem in the early twelfth century. By reading the chapter concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians we can see what drew the Templars to the Holy Land.
Speaking on the eve of the invasion, Baruch writes of the preparations of the angels:
‘And I saw him descend into the Holy of Holies, and take from there the veil, and holy ark, and the mercy seat, and the two tables, and the holy raiment of the priests, and the altar of incense, and the forty-eight precious stones, wherewith the priest was adorned and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. And he spoke to the earth with a loud voice:
Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of mighty God,
And receive what I commit to you,
And guard them until the last times,
For the time comes when Jerusalem will also be delivered for a time,
Until it is said, until it is again restored for ever,
So that, when you are ordered, you may restore them,
So that strangers may not get possession of them.
And the Earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up'
Baruch is quite obviously referencing the cave beneath the Shetiyyah and the entombing of objects of great religious significance and power within it. Although we cannot be sure exactly that it was on the strength of this legend alone that the Templars went to Jerusalem, in a cultural climate of obsession with the recovery and display of religious artifacts it is certainly plausible that such a story could have served as the impetus of the formation of the Templar band. Certainly the evidence of what they did upon arrival would suggest that the Templars had a very specific interest in what lay on the peak of Mount Moriah. Once in Jerusalem the small coterie of knights immediately sought the audience of King Baldwin II and demanded that the notoriously prickly king (he was known as Baldwin the Thorny) cede to them a portion of the former Al-Aqsa mosque that Baldwin had converted into his personal palace. Not just any part of the sprawling complex would do, the Templars required of the king the section of the mosque closest to the Dome of the Rock and the outbuildings surrounding it. Uncharacteristically, King Baldwin immediately acquiesced to their demands and allowed these nine unknown knights free reign over a portion of his palace. Whatever reasons they furnished Baldwin with must have been extremely persuasive, though none of them have made it down to us today. Publicly, the Knights advertised themselves as the protectors of the pilgrims and guardians of the coast road from Jaffa to Jerusalem however simple logic tells us that 9 knights are not going to protect much of anything over a distance of 50 miles.
Not to mention the Knights of Saint John who were already doing the job of protecting the pilgrims long before the Templar Knights arrived. They vanished underground for the next seven years, laboring within and around the Dome of the Rock. During this period the knights lived, slept and worked tirelessly on their site like archaeologists driven by divine purpose. They rarely left the excavation and steadfastly refused to allow any outsiders to see their work. Some remains of their work can still be seen today. The Shetiyyah still bears medieval tool marks on its surface and a team of Israeli archaeologists operating in 1985 discovered what they identified as being a Templar built tunnel that would have led directly underneath the Dome of the Rock, though it had been sealed off some time ago. What it was, if anything, that the Templar Knights discovered hidden underneath Al-Aqsa is a long disputed question with no answer able to be historically verified, though some are more plausible than others. What is almost certain, unless the Knights were possessed of the highest degree of skill in self-control and secrecy, is that they did not find the Ark of the Covenant for if they had they absolutely would have used it. If the Order had discovered the actual Ark of the Covenant and this relic was as powerful as Biblical lore claims it to be (and even if it wasn’t) it would have been used as a symbol of righteous supremacy that could have even shaken the authority of the Holy Roman Church. Now, it is highly unlikely that the Templars would have spent seven years digging in the most archaeologically valuable site in the world and come away completely empty-handed. They certainly would have discovered the cave underneath the Shetiyyah referred to in the Apocalypse of Baruch and while the Ark of the Covenant may have been spirited away at some other time, there may have remained some priestly raiments, precious stones or holy vessels of the tabernacle.
In his book The Sign and the Seal, author Graham Hancock suggests the possibility that whatever was found related to lost or hidden knowledge of a specific form of architecture, perhaps even the techniques used by Solomon himself in the raising of the First Temple. After years spent working on an archaeological excavation of one of the most renowned buildings of the ancient world the Templars were sure to have learned something. After his seven year sojourn in the Levant, Hugh De Payens returned to France in AD 1126 to participate in the Council of Troyes, the meeting of the Church’s administration that would decide the fate of the fledgling order. De Payens was assisted in convincing the Church of the worth of the Knights Templar by the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the very same monk to whom Hugh of Champagne had donated the lands of Clairvaux Abbey. After the successful conclusion of the Council in favor of giving the Templar Knights the full official backing of the Church a few interesting events took place.
Beginning around AD 1130 what became known as Gothic architecture began sweeping medieval Europe, beginning in France and spreading across the face of the Christian world. This movement was largely driven by the same Bernard of Clairvaux, who advocated that simplicity and geometry be venerated in the temples of Christianity. It is plausible that the Templars traded with Bernard some of the information discovered underneath Al-Aqsa in return for his support amongst the clergy. It is also likely that Bernard was involved with the mission the entire time, having known the Count of Champagne before the Order’s formation. Either way, Bernard would go on to become the most fervent supporter of the Templar knights within the Holy Roman Empire, using his position in the Church hierarchy to draw in previously unfathomable numbers of recruits, monetary donations and gifts of land. The Knights Templar would use their newly gained religious support to establish an empire that specialized in finance and the acquisition and development of real estate. Of their 20,000 members at the peak of their existence only 2000 of those were knights, the rest were administrators, laborers and clerks. They were responsible for the construction of the most sturdy and spectacular castles and fortifications in the Holy Land. They used a series of way stations along the pilgrim roads to create the world’s first system of international banking whereby pilgrims would deposit gold at one location, be issued a chit detailing the amount that was held in deposit and withdrew the money as necessary at other Templar outposts along the road. Since there was never a serious risk of all accounts being withdrawn at once, the Templars were able to loan the money out at a profit and use it to purchase property all across Europe. They quickly became the wealthiest private organization in the world, rivaled in power only by the same Church thathad sanctioned them. In AD 1139, Pope Innocent II, whose candidacy had been enthusiastically supported by St. Bernard, granted the Templar Order the right to build their own churches. This right was exercised to the fullest extent with the building of exquisitely constructed houses of worship such as the Temple Church of London alongside their dramatic and imposing castles.
Eventually the Templar Order became too powerful for those in political power to rest easily and in AD 1307 the Templars of France were rounded up and arrested by the agents of King Phillip IV, a monarch deeply indebted to the Order. He was assisted in this effort by Pope Clement V, cooking up charges of the most profane heresy and tarnishing the good name of the Templars. Its last Grand Master, Jacques De Molay was burned at the stake in Paris in March of AD 1314. Its numerous properties were seized by the Church and divvied up amongst the Order’s rivals, namely the Order of Hospitallers. Their commanderies were thrown into disarray, some chapters were dissolved, others were absorbed by other Orders and presumably some Templars went their own way, establishing their traditions elsewhere in secret. There is evidence of their handiwork in places as far flung as the northern reaches of Scotland and the western mountains of Ethiopia. Much of their stonework remains intact today, attesting to an architecture that served a purpose higher than mere convenience and practicality.
Many authors, historians and Freemasons themselves have claimed that the remainder of the Templar Knights either filtered into or became Freemasonry. The quest after the Ark of the Covenant, which we must assume continued after the time of the first excavation and would have been adequately financed during the height of the Order in the 13th century has resoundingly Masonic overtones. Both organizations are intimately connected to the legend of Solomon’s Temple and the search for the Ark can be seen as a metaphor for the initiate’s path towards self-perfection, the secret of the Word of God being the goal in both cases. It would be irresponsible to assume that King Phillip was so thoroughly competent to have eliminated the entireity of the Order and it is unlikely that his influence extended far beyond the borders of France. At the time of their dissolution they had spent nearly 200 hundred years perfecting a form of craft masonry that was decades beyond its time and in some cases is still unmatched by modern methods. It is certainly not hard to imagine that a chivalric order made up of adept builders and stonemasons would have found friends amongst fraternal societies practicing the same set of skills, especially with Scottish Freemasonry beginning to flourish around the same time. In fact, because of the mysterious origins of both fraternities and the grandiose claims of later writers, the two organizations have become almost completely intertwined from a historical perspective. Whatever the case may be, the strange and fascinating story of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon gives a glimpse of not only the possible origins of Freemasonry but also, hopefully, a spark of inspiration and a sense of wonder for the mysteries of the world.
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