THE SIREN'S CALL
The Siren's Call: What really happened to the Knights Templar?
A talk with Michael Haag, author of 'The Templars: The History and the Myth.' Why did they disappear? Blame it on the king of France, Haag says.
Were the Templars greedy? Look instead, says Michael Haag (pictured), at "the egregious greed, cruelty and lies of the king of France." Photo courtesy of the author.
For a group so secret, though, they've received an incredible amount of attention both in the years BDB (before Dan Brown) and ever since.
Michael Haag, who has occasionally contributed to our pages, decided to weigh in and settle the misinformation bandied about by various recent books with his own, "The Templars: The History & the Myth" (Harper: 384 pp., $15.99 paper). He shared some of his revelations with the Siren's Call during a recent conversation.
The Siren's Call: Why did the Templars appeal to you enough that you set out to write a book on them? Was it the result of coming across them in the course of writing your other books about Alexandria and "The Da Vinci Code"?
Michael Haag: I already had a pretty good knowledge of the history, the landscape and the architecture of the Crusader period; writing about the Templars brought things into sharp focus. I have traveled widely throughout the Middle East and have visited every Crusader and Arab castle of significance, including the Templars' last redoubt at Sidon in Lebanon, their fortified city of Tortosa and their castle at Safita. I've also been to the Hospitaller's great castle of Krak de Chevaliers and the Assassins' eyrie at Masyaf, all in Syria, not to mention the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the Templars had their headquarters, the mount itself giving the knights their popular name (properly they were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon).
TSC: They also figure in Lawrence Durrell's "Avignon Quintet," don't they? You're writing about him, aren't you?
MH: Yes, as it happens, I am writing a biography of Lawrence Durrell, who, as you say, runs the Templars as a theme through his "Avignon Quintet." There is an element of economy in this: informing myself about Durrell's interest in the Templars by writing a book about the Templars! Durrell's interest in the Templars, which goes hand in glove with his interest in the Cathars and Gnosticism (also discussed in my book), is one that is widely shared -- for the Templars have enjoyed an afterlife that goes well beyond their destruction in 1312 and continues to this day. Which is why I deal not only with the history of the Templars, which lasted only two centuries, but also with the myth of the Templars, which is rooted in the foundation of Solomon's Temple 3,000 years ago and remains alive in various forms in the present day.
TSC: There are so many books now out there about the Templars, thanks in large part to the interest Dan Brown created with his "Code." Was there something that these books weren't saying about the Templars that you felt needed to be told?
MH: Books about the Templars fall into two categories. Some are strictly history and confine themselves to the two centuries of the Templars' existence. Others are speculative and deal in the many stories surrounding the Templars, in what you might call the afterlife of the Templars that continues in the popular imagination to this day. I wanted to take a serious look at both the history and the mythic afterlife and to show how they are intimately related and always have been -- how the Templars became the subject of popular imagination already at their inception, celebrities, you might say, the superstars of the Middle Ages.
Already during their heyday, the Templars attracted to themselves many associations, legends, rumors and romances. When the story of the Holy Grail first began circulating in medieval Europe, it was immediately associated with the Templars. This star quality of the Templars was due partly to their prominent role in the central movement of the times, the Crusades and the defense of the Crusader states in the East, where the Templars were surrounded by potent historical and sacred associations. After all, the Templars were founded on Christmas Day 1119, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot which marks the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they were headquartered on the Temple Mount, which indelibly associated them with stories surrounding the Temple of Solomon -- and nothing in medieval Christendom could beat that!
But being in the spotlight is not always the most favorable place to be, certainly not when things begin to go wrong. And for the Templars, everything went wrong when the Crusaders lost Acre in 1292; the West's hold on the Holy Land was lost and so was the Templars' raison d'être.
Their extinction was breathtakingly swift, wasn't it?
It is the most dramatic thing about them; knights belonging to an order of great power, wealth and reputation, owing obedience only to the Pope, were arrested in dawn raids across France, tortured and made to confess to abominable crimes and heresies, were often put to the stake, and their order dissolved. The reasons for their fall have long been shrouded in mystery and this has given rise to yet more fevered speculations. What did the Templars really know, what did they really possess, what were they really all about? And why did the pope, the very man to whom they owed sole obedience, let them down, abolish their order and let them go to the stake?
Do we now have any answers to these questions?
We do. New discoveries in the Vatican's Secret Archives, just as I was considering writing this book, revealed the truth of the pope's role in the end of the Templars and revealed the truth about the Templars themselves -- and, no, the Templars were not heretics nor blasphemers, and for what it was worth, they took to the stake and to their graves the pope's blessings and absolutions. But the pope, and indeed the papacy itself, the very independence of the Roman Catholic Church, was under threat from the king of France, a fanatic with totalitarian designs. My book has been the first book to revise the history of the Templars, and revise their afterlife too, in the light of these remarkable revelations.
Whenever the Templars are mentioned in books and articles, I usually find that it is in connection with their vast wealth - and, along with this, their vast greed. Why?
They were extremely expensive to maintain. They were the most superb fighting force in the world at that time, something like supersonic fighter-bomber pilots in our day, where each man and his equipment costs a fortune to keep operational. A single mounted knight in France in the 13th century required the proceeds from 3,750 acres to equip and maintain himself, and for Templars operating overseas in the Holy Land, the costs were much greater since much had to be imported, not least their horses. The Templars' training, their armor, their horses, their squires, their sergeants, not to mention building and maintaining castles, required an enormous outlay. And the knights themselves could suffer high mortality rates in climactic battles and needed to be replaced. All these costs were met through donations from the faithful back in Europe, usually in the form of estates large and small as well as tithes from the Church.
As individuals, the Templars were poor ascetics, but as an order, they were extremely wealthy. In fact, they became so accomplished at moving funds between Europe and the East that they soon set up as international bankers -- the first bankers of modern times. Their lands and their liquid wealth made them a ready target for greed, and the greed came not from among the Templars but from Philip IV, the king of France, who, after stealing the wealth and properties of France's Jews and throwing them out of the country, turned on the Templars. That was the real motive for the Friday the 13th arrests: The king of France needed money to pursue his wars in Flanders and against the English, and he also was asserting himself against the papacy, laying claim to being the man who called all the shots in Europe, whether secular or religious. It was a form of expropriation and nationalization, accompanied by tortures and executions and, of course, the necessary propaganda and lies -- blaming the Templars for being blasphemers, for being heretics, for being haughty and greedy. In the minds of many, the mud stuck.