Dozens of military-religious orders sprang up during the Crusades in the Holy Land, but the three most famous are:
They were founded by a French knight, along with eight of his companions, in Jerusalem around 1119 and pledged to defend Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land after the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099.
Legends of its secret rituals, huge wealth and lost treasures have long fascinated conspiracy theorists.
The belief that the Templars were entrusted with the holy grail – said to be the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper or the receptacle used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ's blood as he bled on the Cross – featured in Dan Brown's bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. They were also said to have been guardians of the Ark of the Covenant. 'The Last Templar', a 2005 novel by Raymond Khoury, topped the New York Times Bestseller list for 22 months.
The Knights of St John of Malta
The order's full name is the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem. It is also known variously as the Knights of St John, the Knights of Malta, the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights Hospitallers. It was founded by Italian merchants from Amalfi, south of Naples, in the 11th century to protect Christians in the Holy Land, and set up a string of hospitals along the pilgrimage route from Europe to Jerusalem. When the Saracens recaptured the Holy Land in 1291, the order sought refuge first in Cyprus and then on the island of Rhodes. They were driven from there in the early 16th century and moved to Malta, where they fortified Valletta.
Knights of different nationalities – English, French, German – lived in quarters known as 'auberges'. Their uniform was a hooded monk's habit made of black camel hair with a white Maltese cross emblazoned on the chest. They were expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798 and eventually established their headquarters in Rome, on top of the Aventine Hill. Now known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, it is an internationally recognised sovereign body that prints its own postage stamps, flies its own flag and mints its own coins – a state without a territory. It is a charitable organisation that provides hospitals and humanitarian help in regions suffering from war, natural disasters and poverty and has been a permanent observer at the UN since 1994.
The Teutonic Knights
Like the two other military-religious orders, the Teutonic Knights were initially established to help Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, but later developed into an elite fighting force that took part in the crusades. It was formed at the end of the 12th century in the city of Acre. Its full name was the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Membership of the order was small and confined to Germans, so when necessary its numbers were supplemented by mercenaries.
When crusader armies lost control of Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights shifted their focus to the Baltic and the so-called Northern Crusades against pagan Prussians and Lithuanians. They established a strong presence until they were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian force in 1410 at the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald) in what is now northern Poland. The defeat halted the Knights' eastward expansion and hastened the decline of the order. The order's motto was 'Help, defend, heal' and knights wore white cloaks emblazoned with black crosses. It exists today as a charitable organisation working mostly in central Europe.