Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lamas At Loggerheads

Three articles look at China and religion. First, a war of attrition over Tibet; next, China v the Vatican; third, a Chinese project at the Buddha’s birthplace.


IT WAS never going to be easy. Installing the Chinese Communist Party’s chosen man as Tibet’s second-highest ranking religious leader has been an uphill struggle since 1995, when it declared him, at the ripe old age of six, to be the new Panchen Lama. But a recent attempt to introduce him to monastic life suggests that Tibetan resistance to China’s choice is still strong. Loyalty to the young man is brittle.

For China, this matters hugely. Tibetan Buddhism has a religious hierarchy with the Dalai Lama at the top, followed by the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama is traditionally involved in recognising the Panchen Lama, and the Panchen Lama is part of the process by which each new Dalai Lama is chosen. China has its eyes on a complex struggle that will play out after the death of the current 76-year-old Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India. With the endorsement of its own Panchen Lama, China wants to choose a successor to the current Dalai Lama and seek to control him. Hence it is believed to be keeping another young man, who was the Dalai Lama’s choice as Panchen Lama 16 years ago, incommunicado in an unknown location. China fears that Tibetan exiles will appoint their own Dalai Lama and it does not want any authoritative Tibetan figure to show him support. Both China and the exiles have recently been stepping up preparations for a coming dispute.

On China’s side, this has involved an effort to burnish its Panchen Lama’s credentials by getting him some monastic training. Gyaltsen Norbu, as he is named, has spent most of his 21 years in Beijing. His outings have been few and secretive. Across Tibet, images of the Dalai Lama’s choice of Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, can sometimes be seen on furtive display in monasteries, his face frozen in time as a little boy. Chinese officials probably hoped that installing Gyaltsen Norbu in a big-name monastery might win him more supporters. With some parts of Tibet roiled by unrest—a protesting monk burned himself to death on August 15th in Daofu, a Tibetan-dominated county of Sichuan Province—this was always bound to be tricky.

The monastery they chose was Labrang in southern Gansu province, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It is not clear why. Historically, the Panchen Lama’s seat was Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse in central Tibet.

Robert Barnett of Columbia University in New York says it is possible that even at Tashilhunpo some lamas do not accept China’s choice. In 1997, Tashilhunpo’s then abbot, Chadrel Rinpoche, was sentenced to six years in prison (he has not resurfaced since) for helping the Dalai Lama make his choice of Panchen Lama. In 1998, Chinese officials tried to give their Panchen Lama a monastic start at Kumbum in Qinghai Province, a monastery that has usually acquiesced to Chinese rule. Its abbot, Arjia Rinpoche, fled to America to avoid the duty.

Labrang has no reputation for tameness. Its monks joined a wave of protests that swept Tibet and neighbouring Tibetan regions in 2008 after an outbreak of rioting in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. In recent days, Labrang has again proved stubborn. Locals gave China’s Panchen Lama, who arrived on August 11th, nothing like the rapturous reception his predecessor, the tenth Panchen Lama, received during visits to Tibetan areas. Large numbers of police prevented any protests, and foreigners were ushered out of town. Tibetan exile groups quoted sources at Labrang saying that Gyaltsen Norbu was expected to stay for weeks or months. A local official, however, says he left on August 16th. His cool welcome, it seems, hastened him on his way.

In Dharamsala in India’s Himalayan foothills, Tibet’s government-in-exile has been busy manoeuvring, too. On August 8th it swore in a new prime minister, Lobsang Sangay. This is touted by the exiles as an historic event, with the new man taking over all the Dalai Lama’s political functions. Mr Sangay, who has never been to Tibet, struck an ambiguous tone in his inaugural speech, referring to Tibet as “occupied” but also expressing his wish for “genuine autonomy” under Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama’s decision to give up his political role appears aimed at bolstering the post of prime minister before his death. A new Dalai Lama chosen by the exiles is likely to be a small boy who will need many years of tutelage before taking up his duties. It also presents a challenge to China, which has always refused to recognise the Dalai Lama’s political mantle. Now that he no longer has it, China has a face-saving opportunity to engage with him properly. Chinese officials have held several rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives in recent years, the latest in January 2010, but have not moved beyond finger-wagging.
Few see any sign of change. The man likely to become China’s next president, Xi Jinping, visited Lhasa in July for official celebrations of the Communist Party’s takeover of the territory 60 years ago. He praised the fight against “separatist and sabotage activities staged by the Dalai group and foreign hostile forces”. But there have been some positive signals, too. A meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama at the White House in July elicited the usual sharp criticism from China. But it did not derail subsequent exchanges between China and America, including a visit to Beijing this week by the vice-president, Joe Biden.

On August 13th the Dalai Lama told reporters in France that he would discuss the issue of his reincarnation at a meeting of Tibetan religious heads in September. He said that unlike China, he is in no hurry to make arrangements.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Knights Templar : The Hidden Side

If the end of the Knights Templar was fraught with baffling enigmas, the foundation and early history of the Order seemed to us to be even more so. We were already plagued by a number of inconsistencies and improbabilities. Nine knights, nine “poor’ knights, appeared as if from nowhere and among all the other crusaders swarming about the Holy Land promptly had the king’s quarters turned over to them! Nine “poor’ knights without admit ting any new recruits to their ranks presumed, all by themselves, to defend the highways of Palestine. And there was no record at all of them actually doing any thing, not even from Fulk de Chartres, the king’s official chronicler, who must surely have known about Map 5Jerusalem the Temple and the Area of Mount Sion in the Mid-Twelfth Century them! How, we wondered, could their activities, their move into the royal premises, for instance, have escaped Fulk’s notice? It would seem incredible, yet the chronicler says nothing. No one says anything, in fact, until Guillaume de Tyre, a good half century later. What could we conclude from this? That the knights were not engaged in the laudable public service ascribed to them? That they were perhaps involved instead in some more clandestine activity, of which not even the official chronicler was aware? Or that the chronicler himself was muzzled? The latter would seem to be the most likely explanation. For the knights were soon joined by two most illustrious noblemen, noblemen whose presence could not have gone unnoticed.
According to Guillaume de Tyre, the Order of the Temple was established in 1118, originally numbered nine knights and admitted no new recruits for nine years. It is clearly on record, however, that the count of Anjou -father of Geoffrey Plantagenet joined the Order in 1120, only two years after its supposed foundation. And in 1124 the count of Champagne, one of the wealthiest lords in Europe, did likewise. If Guillaume de Tyre is correct, there should have been no new members until 1127; but by 1126 the Templars had in fact admitted four new members to their ranks.” Is Guillaume wrong, then, in saying that no new members were admitted for nine years? Or is he perhaps correct in that assertion, but wrong in the date he attributes to the Order’s foundation? If the count of Anjou became a Templar in 1120, and if the Order admitted no new members for nine years after its foundation, its foundation would date not from 1118, but at the latest, from 1111 or 1112.

Indeed there is very persuasive evidence for this conclusion. In 1114 the count of Champagne was preparing for a journey to the Holy Land. Shortly before his departure, he received a letter from the bishop of Chartres. At one point, the bishop wrote, “We have heard that .. . before leaving for Jerusalem you made a vow to join “la mi lice du Christ”, that you wish to enrol in this evangelical soldiery. ‘3 “La mi lice du Christ’ was the name by which the Templars were originally known, and the name by which Saint Bernard alludes to them. In the context of the bishop’s letter the appellation cannot possibly refer to any other institution. It cannot mean, for example, that the count of Champagne simply decided to become a crusader, because the bishop goes on to speak of a vow of chastity which his decision has entailed. Such a vow would hardly have been required of an ordinary crusader. From the bishop of Chartres’s letter, then, it is clear that the Templars already existed, or had at least been planned, as early as 1114, four years before the date generally accepted; and that as early as 1114, the count of Champagne was already intending to join their ranks -which he eventually did a decade later. One historian who noted this letter drew the rather curious conclusion that the bishop cannot have meant what he said.” He could not have meant to refer to the Templars, the historian in question argues, because the Templars were not founded until four years later in 1118. Or perhaps the bishop did not know the year of Our Lord in which he was writing? But the bishop died in 1115. How, in 1114, could he ‘mistakenly’ refer to something which did not yet exist? There is only one possible, and very obvious, answer to the question that it is not the bishop who is wrong, but Guillaume de Tyre, as well as all subsequent historians who insist on regarding Guillaume as the unimpeachable voice of authority.

In itself an earlier foundation date for the Order of the Temple need not necessarily be suspicious. But there are other circumstances and singular coincidences which decidedly are. At least three of the nine founding knights, including Hugues de Payen, seem to have come from adjacent regions, to have had family ties, to have known each other previously and to have been vassals of the same lord. This lord was the count of Champagne, to whom the bishop of Chartres addressed his letter in 1114 and who became a Templar in 1124, pledging obedience to his own vassal! In 1115 the count of Champagne donated the land on which Saint Bernard, patron of the Templars, built the famous Abbey of Clairvaux; and one of the nine founding knights, Andre de Montbard, was Saint Bernard’s uncle.

In Troyes, moreover, the court of the count of Champagne, an influential school of Cabalistic and esoteric studies had flourished since 1070.”2 At the Council of Troyes in 1128 the Templars were officially incorporated. For the next two centuries Troyes remained a strategic centre for the Order; and even today there is a wooded expanse adjacent to the city called the Foret du Temple. And it was from Troyes, court of the count of Champagne, that one of the earliest Grail romances issued quite possibly the earliest, composed by Chretien de Troyes.

Amid this welter of data, we could begin to see a tenuous web of connections a pattern that seemed more than mere coincidence. If such a pattern did exist, it would certainly support our suspicion that the Templars were involved in some clandestine activity. Nevertheless, we could only speculate as to what that activity might have been. One basis for our speculation was the specific site of the knights’ domicile the wing of the royal palace, the Temple Mount, so inexplicably conferred upon them. In A.D. 70 the Temple which then stood there was sacked by Roman legions Under Titus. Its treasure was plundered and brought to Rome, then plundered again and perhaps brought to the Pyrenees. But what if there were something else in the Temple as well something even more important than the treasure pillaged by the Romans? It is certainly possible that the Temple’s priests, confronted by an advancing phalanx of centurions, would have left to the looters the booty they expected to find. And if there were something else, it might well be concealed somewhere near by. Beneath the Temple, for instance.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls found at QumrAan, there is one now known as the “Copper Scroll’. This scroll, deciphered at Manchester University in 1955-6, makes explicit references to great quantities of bullion, sacred vessels, additional unspecified material and ‘treasure’ of an indeterminate kind. It cites twenty-four different hoards buried beneath the Temple itself .

In the mid-twelfth century a pilgrim to the Holy Land, one Johann von Wurzburg, wrote of a visit to the so-called “Stables of Solomon’. These stables, situated directly beneath the Temple itself, are still visible. They were large enough, Johann reported, to hold two thousand horses; and it was in these stables that the Templars quartered their mounts. According to at least one other historian, the Templars were using these stables for their horses as early as 1124, when they still supposedly numbered only nine. It would thus seem likely that the fledgling Order, almost immediately after its inception, undertook excavations beneath the Temple. Such excavations might well imply that the knights were actively looking for something. It might even imply that they were deliberately sent to the Holy Land, with the express commission of finding something. If this supposition is valid, it would explain a number of anomalies -their installation in the royal palace, for example, and the silence of the chronicler. But if they were sent to Palestine, who sent them?

In 1104 the count of Champagne had met in conclave with certain high-ranking nobles, at least one of whom had just returned from Jerusalem.” Among those present at this conclave were representatives of certain families r. Brienne, Joinville and Chaumont who, we later discovered, figured significantly in our story. Also present was the liege lord of Andre de Montbard, Andre being one of the co-founders of the Temple and Saint Bernard’s uncle.

Shortly after the conclave, the count of Champagne departed for the Holy Land himself and remained there for four years, returning in 1108.35 In 1114 he made a second journey to Palestine, intending to join the mi lice du Christ’, then changing his mind and returning to Europe a year later. On his return, he immediately donated a tract of land to the Cistercian Order, whose pre-eminent spokesman was Saint Bernard. On this tract of land Saint Bernard built the Abbey of Clairvaux, where he established his own residence and then consolidated the Cistercian Order.

Prior to 1112 the Cistercians were dangerously close to bankruptcy. Then, under Saint Bernard’s guidance, they underwent a dazzling change of fortune. Within the next few years half a dozen abbeys were established. By 1153 there were more than three hundred, of which Saint Bernard himself personally founded sixty-nine. This extraordinary growth directly parallels that of the Order of the Temple, which was expanding in the same way during the same years. And, as we have said, one of the co founders of the Order of the Temple was Saint Bernard’s uncle, Andre de Montbard.

It is worth reviewing this complicated sequence of events. In 1104 the count of Champagne departed for the Holy Land after meeting with certain nobles, one of whom was connected with Andre de Montbard. In 1112 Andre de Montbard’s nephew, Saint Bernard, joined the Cistercian Order. In 1114 the count of Champagne departed on a second journey to the Holy Land, intending to join the Order of the Temple which was co-founded by his own vassal together with Andre de Montbard, and which, as the bishop of Chartres’s letter attests, was already in existence or in process of being established. In 1115 the count of Champagne returned to Europe, having been gone for less than a year, and donated land for the Abbey of Clairvaux whose abbot was Andre de Montbard’s nephew. In the years that followed both the Cistercians and the Templars both Saint Bernard’s order and Andre de Montbard’s became immensely wealthy and enjoyed phases of phenomenal growth.

As we pondered this sequence of events, we became increasingly convinced that there was some pattern underlying and governing such an intricate web. It certainly did not appear to be random, nor wholly coincidental. On the contrary we seemed to be dealing with the vestiges of some complex and ambitious overall design, the full details of which had been lost to history. In order to reconstruct these details, we developed a tentative hypothesis a “scenario’, so to speak, which might accommodate the known facts.

We supposed that something was discovered in the Holy Land, either by accident or design something of immense import, which aroused the interest of some of Europe’s most influential noblemen. We further supposed that this discovery involved, directly or indirectly, a great deal of potential wealth as well, perhaps, as something else, something that had to be kept secret, something which could only be divulged to a small number of high-ranking lords. Finally, we supposed that this discovery was reported and discussed at the conclave of 1104.

Immediately thereafter the count of Champagne departed for the Holy Land himself, perhaps to verify personally what he had heard, perhaps to implement some course of action the foundation, for example, of what subsequently became the Order of the Temple. In 1114, if not before, the Templars were established with the count of Champagne playing some crucial role, perhaps acting as guiding spirit and sponsor. By 1115 vmoney was already flowing back to Europe and into the coffers of the Cistercians, who, under Saint Bernard and from their new position of strength, endorsed and imparted credibility to the fledgling Order of the Temple.

Under Bernard the Cistercians attained a spiritual ascendancy in Europe. Under Hugues de Payen and Andre de Montbard, the Templars attained a military and administrative ascendancy in the Holy Land which quickly spread back to Europe. Behind the growth of both orders loomed the shadowy presence of uncle and nephew, as well as the wealth, influence and patronage of the count of Champagne. These three individuals constitute a vital link. They are like markers breaking the surface of history, indicating the dim configurations of some elaborate, concealed design.

If such a design actually existed, it cannot, of course, be ascribed to these three men alone. On the contrary, it must have entailed a great deal of co-operation from certain other people and a great deal of meticulous organisation. Organisation is perhaps the key word; for if our hypothesis was correct, it would presuppose a degree of organisation amounting to an order in itself a third and secret order behind the known and documented Orders of the Cistercians and the Temple. Evidence for the existence for such a third order was not long in arriving.

In the meantime, we devoted our attention to the hypothetical “discovery’ in the Holy Land the speculative basis on which we had established our “scenario’. What might have been found there? To what might the Templars, along with Saint Bernard and the count of Champagne, have been privy? At the end of their history the Templars kept inviolate the secret of their treasure’s whereabouts and nature. Not even documents survived. If the treasure in question were simply financial bullion, for example it would not have been necessary to destroy or conceal all records, all rules, all archives. The implication is that the Templars had something else in their custody, something so precious that not even torture would wring an intimation of it from their lips. Wealth alone could not have prompted such absolute and unanimous secrecy. Whatever it was had to do with other matters, like the Order’s attitude towards Jesus.

On October 13th, 1307, all Templars throughout France were arrested By Philippe le Bel’s seneschals. But that statement is not quite true. The Templars of at least one preceptory slipped unscathed through the king’s net the preceptory of Bezu, adjacent to Rennes-leChateau. How and why did they escape? To answer that question, we were compelled to investigate the Order’s activities in the vicinity of Bezu. Those activities proved to have been fairly extensive. Indeed, there were some half dozen preceptories and other holdings in the area, which covered some twenty square miles.

In 1153 a nobleman of the region a nobleman with Cathar sympathies became fourth Grand Master of the Order of the Temple. His name was Bertrand de Blanchefort, and his ancestral home was situated on a mountain peak a few miles away from both Bezu and Rennes-leChateau. Bertrand de Blanchefort, who presided over the Order from 1153 until 1170, was probably the most significant of all Templar Grand Masters. Before his regime the Order’s hierarchy and administrative structure were, at best, nebulous. It was Bertrand who transformed the Knights Templar into the superbly efficient, well-organised and magnificently disciplined hierarchical institution they then became. It was Bertrand who launched their involvement in high-level diplomacy and international politics. It was Bertrand who created for them a major sphere of interest in Europe, and particularly in France. And according to the evidence that survives, Bertrand’s mentor some historians even list him as the Grand Master immediately preceding Bertrand was Andre de Montbard.

Within a few years of the Templars’ incorporation, Bertrand had not only joined their ranks, but also conferred on them lands in the environs of Rennes-leChateau and Bezu. And in 1156, under Bertrand’s regime as GrandMaster, the Order is said to have imported to the area a contingent Of German-speaking miners. These workers were supposedly subjected to a rigid, virtually military discipline. They were forbidden to fraternise in any way with the local population and were kept strictly segregated from the surrounding community. A special judicial body, ‘la Judicature des Allemands’, was even created to deal with legal technicalities pertaining to them. And their alleged task was to work the gold mines on the slopes of the mountain at Blanchefort gold mines which had been utterly exhausted by the Romans
nearly a thousand years before.

During the seventeenth century engineers were commissioned to investigate the mineralogical prospects of the area and draw up detailed reports. In the course of his report one of them, Cesar d’Arcons, discussed the ruins he had found, remains of the German workers’ activity. On the basis of his research, he declared that the German workers did not seem to have been engaged in mining.3’ In what, then, were they engaged? Cesar d’Arcons was unsure smelting perhaps, melting something down, constructing something out of metal, perhaps even excavating a subterranean crypt of some sort and creating a species of depository.

Whatever the answer to this enigma, there had been a Templar presence in the vicinity of Rennes-leChateau since at least the mid-twelfth century. By 1285 there was a major preceptory a few miles from Bezu, at Campagnesur-Aude. Yet near the end of the thirteenth century, Pierre de Voisins, lord of Bezu and Rennes-leChateau, invited a separate detachment of Templars to the area, a special detachment from the Aragonese province Of Roussillon.38 This fresh detachment established itself on the summit of the mountain of Bezu, erecting a lookout post and a chapel. Ostensibly, the Roussillon Templars had been invited to Bezu to maintain the security of the region and protect the pilgrim route which ran through thevalley to Santiago de  Compastela in Spain. But it is unclear why these extra knights should have been required. In the first place they cannot have been very numerous not enough to make a significant difference. In the second place there were already Templars in the neighbourhood. Finally, Pierre de Voisins had troops of his own, who, together with the Templars already there, could guarantee the safety of the environs. Why, then, did the Russillon Templars come to Bezu? According to local tradition, they came to spy. And to exploit or bury or guard a treasure of some sort.

Whatever their mysterious mission, they obviously enjoyed some kind of special immunity. Alone of all Templars in France, they were left unmolested by Philippe le Bel’s seneschals on October 13th, 1307. On that fateful day the commander of the Templar contingent at Bezu was a Seigneur de Goth .39 And before taking the name of Pope Clement V, the archbishop of Bordeaux King Philippe’s vacillating pawn was Bertrand de Goth. Moreover, the new pontiff’s mother was Ida de Blanchefort, of the same family as Bertrand de Blanchefort. Was the pope then privy to some secret entrusted to the custody of his family a secret which remained in the Blanchefort family until the eighteenth century, when the Abbe Antoine Bigou, cure of Rennes-leChateau and confessor to Marie de Blanchefort, composed the parchments found by Sauniere? If this were the case, the pope might well have extended some sort of immunity to his relative commanding the Templars at Bezu.

The history of the Templars near Rennes-leChateau was clearly as fraught with perplexing enigmas as the history of the Order in general. Indeed, there were a number of factors the role of Bertrand de Blanchefort, for example which seemed to constitute a discernible link between the general and the more localised enigmas. In the meantime, however, we were confronted with a daunting array of coincidences coincidences too numerous to be truly coincidental. Were we in fact dealing with a calculated pattern? If so, the obvious question was who devised it, for patterns of such intricacy do not devise themselves. All the evidence available to us pointed to meticulous planning and careful organisation so much so that increasingly we suspected there must be a specific group of individuals, perhaps comprising an order of some sort, working assiduously behind the scenes. We did not have to seek confirmation for the existence of such an order. The confirmation thrust itself upon us.

Source: The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.

Knights Templar : The Mysteries

In greatly abridged form, this is the history of the Knights Templar as writers have accepted and presented it, and as we encountered it in our research. But we quickly discovered that there was another dimension to the Order’s history, considerably more elusive, more provocative and more speculative. Even during their existence, a mystique had come to surround the knights. Some said they were sorcerers and magicians, secret adepts and alchemists. Many of their contemporaries shunned them, believing them to be in league with unclean powers. As early as 1208, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III had admonished “the Templars for un-Christian behaviour, and referred explicitly to necromancy. On the other hand, there were individuals who praised them with extravagant enthusiasm. In the late twelfth century Wolfram von Eschenbach, greatest of Medieval Minnesanger or romanciers, paid a special visit to Outremer, to witness the Order in action. And when, between 1195 and 1220, Wolfram composed his epic romance Parzival, he conferred on the Templars a most exalted status. In Wolfram’s poem the knights who guard the Holy Grail, the Grail castle and the Grail family, are Templars.

After the Temple’s demise, the mystique surrounding it persisted. The final recorded act in the Order’s history had been the burning of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, in March 1314. As the smoke from the slow fire choked the life from his body, Jacques de Molay is said to have issued an imprecation from the flames. According to tradition, he called his persecutors Pope Clement and King Philippe to join him and account for themselves before the court of God within the year. Within a month Pope Clement was dead, supposedly from a sudden onslaught of dysentery. By the end of the year Philippe was dead as well, from causes that remain obscure to this day. There is, of course, no need to look for supernatural explanations. The Templars possessed great expertise in the use of poisons. And there were certainly enough people about refugee knights travelling incognito, sympathisers of the Order or relatives of persecuted brethren to exact the appropriate vengeance. Nevertheless, the apparent fulfilment of the Grand Master’s curse lent credence to belief in the Order’s occult powers. Nor did the curse end there. According to legend, it was to cast a pall over the French royal line far into the future. And thus echoes of the Templars’ supposed mystic power reverberated down the centuries.

By the eighteenth century various secret and semi secret confraternities were lauding the Templars as both precursors and mystical initiates. Many Freemasons of the period appropriated the Templars as their own antecedents. Certain Masonic “rites’ or “observances’ claimed direct lineal descent from the Order, as well as authorised custody of its arcane secrets. Some of these claims were patently preposterous. Others resting, for example, on the Order’s possible survival in Scotland -may well have a core of validity, even if the attendant trappings are spurious.

By 1789 the legends surrounding the Templars had attained positively mythic proportions, and their historical reality was obscured by an aura of obfuscation and romance. They were regarded as occult adepts, illumined alchemists, magi and sages, master masons and high initiates veritable supermen endowed with an awesome arsenal of arcane power and knowledge. They were also regarded as heroes and martyrs. harbingers of the anticlerical spirit of the age; and many French Freemasons, in conspiring against Louis XVI, felt they were helping to implement Jacques de Molay’s dying curse on the French line. When the king’s head fell beneath the guillotine, an unknown man is reported to have leaped on to the scaffold. He dipped his hand in the monarch’s blood, flung it out over the surrounding throng and cried, “Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged!”

Since the French Revolution the aura surrounding the Templars has not diminished. At least three contemporary organisations today call themselves Templars, claiming to possess a pedigree from 1314 and charters whose authenticity has never been established. Certain Masonic lodges have adopted the grade of “Templar’, as well as rituals and appellations supposedly descended from the original Order. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a sinister “Order of the New Templars’ was established in Germany and Austria, employing the swastika as one of its emblems. Figures like H. P. Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, and Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, spoke of an esoteric ‘wisdom tradition’ running back through the Rosicrucians to the Cathars and Templars who were purportedly repositories of more ancient secrets still. In the United States teenage boys are admitted into the De Molay Society, without either they or their mentors having much notion whence the name derives. In Britain, as well as elsewhere in the West, recondite rotary clubs dignify themselves with the name “Templar’ and include eminent public figures. From the heavenly kingdom he sought to conquer with his sword, Hugues de Payen must now look down with a certain wry perplexity on the latter-day knights, balding, paunched and bespectacled, that he engendered. And yet he must also be impressed by the durability and vitality of his legacy.

In France this legacy is particularly powerful. Indeed, the Templars are a veritable industry in France, as much as Glastonbury, ley-lines or the Loch Ness Monster are in Britain. In Paris book shops are filled with histories and accounts of the Order some valid, some plunging enthusiastically into lunacy. During the last quartercentury or so a number of extravagant claims have been advanced on behalf of the Templars, some of which may not be wholly without foundation. Certain writers have credited them, at least in large part, with the building of the Gothic cathedrals or at least with providing an impetus of some sort to that burst of architectural energy and genius. Other writers have argued that the Order established commercial contact with the Americas as early as 1269, and derived much of its wealth from imported Mexican silver. It has frequently been asserted that the Templars were privy to some sort of secret concerning the origins of Christianity. It has been said that they were Gnostic, that they were heretical, that they were defectors to Islam. It has been declared that they sought a creative unity between bloods, races and religions a systematic policy of fusion between Islamic, Christian and Judaic thought. And again and again it is maintained, as Wolfram von Eschenbach maintained nearly eight centuries ago, that the Templars were guardians of the Holy Grail, whatever the Holy Grail might be.

The claims are often ridiculous. At the same time there are unquestionably mysteries associated with’ the Templars and, we became convinced, secrets of some kind as well. It was clear that some of these secrets pertained to what is now called ‘esoterica’. Symbolic carvings in Templar preceptories, for instance, suggest that some officials in the Order’s hierarchy were conversant with such disciplines as astrology, alchemy, sacred geometry and numerology, as well, of course, as astronomy which, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was inseparable from astrology, and every bit as ‘esoteric’.

But it was neither the extravagant claims nor the esoteric residues that intrigued us. On the contrary, we found ourselves fascinated by something much more mundane, much more prosaic the welter of contradictions, improbabilities, inconsistencies and apparent “smoke-screens’ in the accepted history. Esoteric secrets the Templars may well have had. But something else about them was being concealed as well something rooted in the religious and political currents of their epoch. It was on this level that we undertook most of our investigation.

We began with the end of the story, the fall of the Order and the charges levelled against it. Many books have been written exploring and evaluating the possible truth of these charges; and from the evidence we, like most researchers, concluded there seems to have been some basis for them. Subjected to interrogation by the Inquisition, for example, a number of knights referred to something called “Baphomet’ too many, and in too many different places, for Baphomet to be the invention of a single individual or even a single preceptory. At the same time, there is no indication of who or what Baphomet might have been, what he or it represented, why he or it should have had any special significance. It would appear that Baphomet was regarded with reverence, a reverence perhaps tantamount to idolatry. In some instances the name is associated with the gargoyle-like, demonic sculptures found in various preceptories. On other occasions Baphomet seems to be associated with an apparition of a bearded head. Despite the claims of certain older historians, it seems clear that Baphomet was not a corruption of the name Muhammad. On the other hand, it might have been a corruption of the Arabic abufihamet, pronounced in Moorish Spanish as bufihimat. This means “Father of Understanding’ or “Father of Wisdom’, and ‘father’ in Arabic is also taken to imply ‘source’.””’ If this is indeed the origin of Baphomet, it would therefore refer presumably to some supernatural or divine principle. But what might have differentiated Baphomet from any other supernatural or divine principle remains unclear. If Baphomet was simply God or Allah, why did the Templars bother to re-christen Him? And if Baphomet was not God or Allah, who or what was he?

In any case, we found indisputable evidence for the charge of secret ceremonies involving a head of some kind. Indeed the existence of such a head proved to be one of the dominant  running through the Inquisition records. As with Baphomet, however, the significance of the head remains obscure. It may perhaps pertain to alchemy. In the alchemical process there was a phase called the “Caput Mortuum’ or “Dead Head’ the “Nigredo’ or “Blackening’ which was said to occur before the precipitation of the Philosopher’s Stone. According to other accounts, however, the head was that of Hugues de Payen, the Order’s founder and first Grand Master; and it is suggestive that Hugues’s shield consisted of three black heads on a gold field.

The head may also be connected with the famous Turin Shroud, which seems to have been in the possession of the Templars between 1204 and 1307, and which, if folded, would have appeared as nothing more than a head. Indeed, at the Templar preceptory of Templecombe in Somerset a reproduction of a head was found which bears a striking resemblance to that on the Turin Shroud. At the same time recent speculation had linked the head, at least tentatively, with the severed head of John the Baptist; and certain writers have suggested that the Templars were “infected’ with the johannite or Mandaean heresy which denounced Jesus as a ‘false prophet’ and acknowledged John as the true Messiah. In the course of their activities in the Middle East the Templars undoubtedly established contact with johannite sects, and the possibility of Johannite tendencies in the Order is not altogether unlikely. But one cannot say that such tendencies obtained for the Order as a whole, nor that they were a matter of official policy.

During the interrogations following the arrests in 1307, a head also figured in two other connections. According to the Inquisition records, among the confiscated goods of the Paris preceptory a reliquary in the shape of a woman’s head was found. It was hinged on top, and contained what appeared to have been relics of a peculiar kind. It is described as follows:

a great head of gilded silver, most beautiful, and constituting the image of a woman. Inside were two head bones wrapped in a cloth of white linen, with another red cloth around it. A label was attached, on which was written the legend CAPUT LVIIIm. The bones inside were those of a rather small woman.

A curious relic especially for a rigidly monastic, military institution like the Templars. Yet a knight under interrogation, when confronted with this feminine head, declared it had no relation to the bearded male head used in the Order’s rituals. Caput LVIIIm -“Head 58m’ remains a baffling enigma. But it is worth noting that the ‘m’ may not be an ‘m’ at all, but U, the astrological symbol for Virgo .

The head figures again in another mysterious story traditionally linked with the Templars. It is worth quoting in one of its several variants:

A great lady of Maraclea was loved by a Templar, a Lord of Sidon; but she died in her youth, and on the night of her burial, this wicked lover crept to the grave, dug up her body and violated it. Then a voice from the void bade him return in nine months time for he would find a son. He obeyed the injunction and at the appointed time he opened the grave again and found a head on the leg bones of the skeleton (skull and crossbones). The same voice bade him’ guard it well, for it would be the giver of all good things’, and so he carried it away with him. It became his protecting genius, and he was able to defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head. In due course, it passed into the possession of the Order .

This grisly narrative can be traced at least as far back as one Walter Map, writing in the late twelfth century. But neither he nor another writer, who recounts the same tale nearly a century later, specifies that the necrophiliac rapist was a Templar.Z3 Nevertheless, by 1307 the story had become closely associated with the Order. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Inquisition’s records, and at least two knights under interrogation confessed their familiarity with it. In subsequent accounts, like the one quoted above, the rapist himself is identified as a Templar, and he remains so in the versions preserved by Freemasonry - which adopted the skull and crossbones, and often employed it as a device on tombstones.

In part the tale might almost seem to be a grotesque travesty of the Immaculate Conception. In part it would seem to be a garbled symbolic account of some initiation rite, some ritual involving a figurative death and resurrection. One chronicler cites the name of the woman in the story Yse, which would seem quite clearly to derive from Isis. And certainly the tale evokes echoes of the mysteries associated with Isis, as well as those of Tammuz or Adonis, whose head was flung into the sea, and of Orpheus, whose head was flung into the river of the Milky Way. The magical properties of the head also evoke the head of Bran The Blessed in Celtic mythology and in the Mabinogion. And it is Bran’s mystical cauldron that numerous writers have sought to identify as the pagan precursor of the Holy Grail.

Whatever significance might be ascribed to the ‘cult of the head’, The Inquisition clearly believed it to be important. In a list of charges drawn up on August 12th, 1308, there is the following:

Item, that in each province they had idols, namely heads... Item, that they adored these idols .. . Item, that they said that the head could save them. Item, that lit could] make riches .. . Item, that it made the trees flower. Item, that it made the land germinate. Item, that they surrounded or touched each head of the aforesaid idols with small cords, which they wore around themselves next to the shirt or the flesh .

The cord mentioned in the last item is reminiscent of the Cathars, who were also alleged to have worn a sacred cord of some kind. But most striking in the list is the head’s purported capacity to engender riches, make trees flower and bring fertility to the land. These properties coincide remarkably with those ascribed in the romances to the Holy Grail.

Of all the charges levelled against the Templars, the most serious were those of blasphemy and heresy of denying, trampling and spitting on the cross. It is not clear precisely what this alleged ritual was intended to signify -what, in other words, the Templars were actually repudiating. Were they repudiating Christ? Or were they simply repudiating the Crucifixion? And whatever they repudiated, what exactly did they extol in its stead? No one has satisfactorily answered these questions, but it seems clear that a repudiation of some sort did occur, and was an integral principle of the Order. One knight, for example, testified that on his induction into the Order he was told, “You believe wrongly, because he [Christ] is indeed a false prophet. Believe only in God in heaven, and not in him.”zs Another Templar declared that he was told, “Do not believe that the man Jesus whom the Jews crucified in Outremer is God and that he can save you.” A third knight similarly claimed he was instructed not to believe in Christ, a false prophet, but only in a “higher God’. He was then shown a crucifix and told, “Set not much faith in this, for it is too young.”

Such accounts are frequent and consistent enough to lend credence to the charge. They are also relatively bland; and if the Inquisition desired to concoct evidence, it could have devised something far more dramatic, more incriminating, more damning. There thus seems little doubt that the Templars’ attitude towards Jesus did not concur with that of Catholic orthodoxy, but it is uncertain precisely what the Order’s attitude was. In any case, there is evidence that the ritual ascribed to the Templars -trampling and spitting on the cross was in the air at least half a century before 1307. Its context is confusing, but it is mentioned in connection with the Sixth Crusade, which occurred in 1249.

Source : The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lost Graffiti Of The Templars

Could graffiti left by the Knights Templar in southwestern France be the missing link between the order and the Holy Grail?

The assumption that first-hand evid­ence of the Templars’ mysteries was erased along with the structure of their organisation has been perpetuated by so many books that most researchers, scholars included, entirely ignore the fact that the Templars actually did leave behind some startling indications of their thoughts in the form of stone-carved graffiti in prisons where they were held following the suppression of 1307.

There are Templar graffiti in the dungeon at Warwick Castle in England and at Chinon Castle in France, but by far the strangest and most intriguing examples are to be found at the guardhouse at Domme, in south-western France – traces of the order that have been unaccountably overlooked in the thousands of pages written about the Templars. These wall carvings are as close to first-hand Templar writings are we are ever likely to get, so when the opportunity arose to take a close look at them I seized my camera and sallied forth. Little did I suspect that what I was to find would leave me astonished and engulf most of my spare time in the following months as I became driven by the need to comprehend what the Templars had left behind on the walls of this terrible place.


High on a rock overlooking the green hills of the Acquitaine region of the Dordogne, on the road from Perigeaux to Cahors, is the ancient village of Domme, a gem of sponge cake-coloured buildings and labyrinthine nooks. During the arrest of the French Templars, starting on the infamous morning of 13 October 1307, 70 of their number were taken to the guardhouse, one of the town’s gateways, where they could serve the pleasure of ‘fair’ King Philip IV while awaiting trial in an area no larger than a tennis court.With only four slit windows to admit light from the outside world, the prisoners’ focus was turned inward, and to forms of expression that might, even today, reveal fragments of their psychology: in the cold and uncertain months and years which followed, the Templars carved graffiti into the walls.

My guide explained that, being denied possessions and food other than bread and water, fingernails and even teeth were used to scrape away the sandstone, although stones must also have been employed, as some of the carvings are deeply incised. It is some striking measure of their faith – as well as the anger and despair they felt in this place – that they were able to make these amazing graffiti so vivid and permanent.

The first carvings are found inside the entranceway: a large cross with a forked base, surrounded by four smaller crosses. Known as a Jerusalem or Crusader’s Cross, this emblem was adopted at the time of the First Crusade, and may have been the personal arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, first brief ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The emblem is surrounded by a circle, possibly representing the imprisonment of the Templars. The ‘stickman’ appearance of the large cross with its triangular base is repeated dozens of times all around the lower level of the guardhouse.

On entering the guardhouse, it becomes clear that its walls are filled with carvings, many of them familiar, some less so. My eye is caught by what my guide explains is a representation of the crucified Christ within a square – for the Templars this square was the symbol of the Temple Of Solomon. So far, this interpretation ties in with what is known. The Templars’ headquarters in Jerusalem was at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the south side of the Temple Mount, what they thought of as the Temple of Solomon. The guide continues with words that touch directly on the mystery of these carvings, describing the other symbols as “geometrical signs that may represent the Jewish seven branches of the candelabra called menorah”.

The menorah is one of the oldest symbols of Judaism, with its seven branches representing light, the seven days of Creation and, when lit, the seven planets, or the all-seeing eyes of God. Interpreting one of the strangest of the Templar carvings (I call it the ‘cross symbol’) as a menorah rests entirely on its having seven main branches. Yet these branches do not curve upwards to an equal height, as they should – four are at different heights, two of which are pointing downwards; the diagonal lines at the midway are different. Representationally, it is unlike the menorah, despite its seven ‘arms’ and triangular base. Seth Mandel, a menorah expert, has found no drawings from antiquity or mediæval times, either in Roman or Jewish sources, of the menorah with straight arms.At least one specialist I consulted offered a Cabbalistic interpretation of the tree symbol, but this requires a similar contortion to viewing it as a menorah.Having explored a number of avenues to find the source and meaning of the ‘cross symbol’, and although a precise correlation for it still eludes me, I believe its origins might now be within reach.


In 1097, the first crusader armies arrived at Constantinople. After taking Nicæa from the Seljuk Sultanate, they marched through Anatolia on their way to Jeru­salem. A guide sent from the principality of Armenian Cilicia to the east led Baldwin of Boulogne to the mountains of the Taurus, then to the Marash plain where he joined with the Armenian forces. He continued towards Edessa (modern Sanliurfa), and was adopted by King Thoros. Upon the assassination of Thoros, Baldwin became the new ruler, and the first crusader state was created. In 1215 (nearly a century after the formation of the Knights Templar), an ancient monastery close to Mount Ararat in eastern Armenia was rebuilt and renamed Geghardavank. The name means ‘monastery of the spear’, for it was here that the lance that pierced the side of the crucified Christ was said to have been brought by Thaddeus (also known as Jude the Apostle).

The walls of the shrine are covered with distinctive carvings of crusader crosses. And there are several of the same engraved cross formations that we find at the Templars’ prison at Domme: one large cross with four smaller crosses in each of the four quadrants. It is not difficult to see what fasc­ination the monastery held for crusading knights as the repository of the Holy Spear; the relic was clearly a huge draw, and is still kept in Armenia’s Etchmiadzin Cathedral (for other contenders to the Spear of Dest­iny, see FT70:35–37; 175:48–52).

Looking closely at early Christian sites in Armenia, another startling parallel leapt out from the numerous memorial stones, or khatchkars, that exist in their thousands in monasteries and ancient cemeteries. These carved stones, with their ornate branched crosses, reached a peak between the 12th and 14th centuries. If the khatchkar cross is reduced to its essential form – with the horizontal branches splitting off into two diverging branches, each finished with smaller crosses – it resembles the Domme complex cross emblem. There are, however, crucial differences: the five ‘digits’ of the Domme cross are extra elaborations, which may hint towards more ‘heretical’ inclinations; the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Professor Youssef Ziedan, emailed me with the opinion that the symbols are “pagan symbols and not Christian”.

Yet having trawled through hundreds of examples of mediæval Christian and Arabic art and symbolism, nothing comes anything like as close to the strange carvings at Domme as these Armenian crosses, inviting the supposition that at least one of the Domme Templars had been to Armenia and taken the khatchkar carvings as a precursor to the, possibly unique, versions at Domme. It could have been during the Templars’ presence in the country in 1298–9 under the orders of the last grandmaster, Jacques de Molay. Perhaps the inscribing Templar had even visited Geghard monastery and been deeply impressed. Situated as it is close to Iran’s northwesterly borders, with Syria to the south, Armenia (the first country to adopt Christianity as its official state relig­ion, in AD 301) appears to be something of an architectural and artistic ‘missing link’ between the advances of mediæval Islamic mathematicians and early Gothic buildings. Mediæval merchants’ and masons’ marks, for instance, also share characteristics with the Domme symbols, some having precisely the same triangular features. And there are mason’s marks from Chartres cathedral with exactly the same characteristics as the central motif of the ‘cross symbol’: a pair of bent horizontal lines linked by a vertical line. [8]  Other masons’ marks at Chartres could well derive from the same ‘root shape.’

“The great prevalence of these [masons’] marks, composed of mathematical lines,” wrote Robert Ingham Clegg, “is a strong confirmation of the truth of the opinion entertained by Paley, Lindsay, and many other writers, that the secret of the mediæval Freemasons was the application of the principles of geometry to the art of building.” These marks, I believe, are further clues to the obscure connections between Templars and Cistercian monks who facilitated the Gothic flourishing, and the nameless artisans who realised it using rules of form and structure derived from the Pythagorean and Eastern mystery schools.


This curious, octagonal-diamond-triangle emblem resembled nothing I nor any of the dozens of scholars to whom I showed it could find elsewhere, so I eventually went with the official interpretation and looked at Grail representations in the Middle Ages. The chalice held by Melchizedek on the north porch of Chartres cathedral has a good three-dimensional resemblance to the ‘Graal de Domme’. Melchizedek’s chalice contains a stone sphere, an unusual depict­ion echoed in the early grail romance Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170–1220), where the grail is the Lapis Exilis, the stone that fell from Heaven. And who are the guardians of the grail in Parzifal? Wolfram calls them Templeism, an unusual word taken by most to mean the Templars. The octagonal shape found in the Domme ‘stone’ was of special significance to the Templars. It links to certain strictures imposed on them after breaking the rules. Architecturally, the octagon is an ordinary shape for mediæval fonts and church pillars, and also underlies the Jerusalem cross. The intimacy between the Grail and the number eight is encapsulated by the theme of renewal, or resurrection. Might it be that the ‘chevrons’ within the octagon represent the wings of the phœnix, which also appears in Parzifal with the Lapis Exilis: “By virtue of this stone the Phœnix is burned to ashes, in which she is reborn”?

As might be expected, the stone-in-chalice motif has its alchemical tradition. It persists in architecture even down to the watered-down Gothic-revival houses that line England’s suburbs. The banister-ends in many homes, for instance, are topped with identical wooden sculptures. I had always assumed they were eggs in eggcups – but that’s probably a more bizarre idea than them being Holy Grails!

More disturbingly, a graffito at Domme in the niche overlooking the valley depicts Pope Clement V as a serpent being speared by the Archangel Michael. This is clearly an angry satirical swipe at the man who betrayed the Templars, equating the Pope with Satan (or Belial), the ‘old serpent’ and ‘Father of Lies’, throwing his arm aloft as Michael, the most divine of the archangels and commander of the Army of God, is about to defeat him. It might be said that this moment of cosmic drama stems from a fleeting mention in the Book of Revelation (12:7), but considering the importance of Michael in apocryphal documents such as The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, an apocalyptic prophecy and military manual, and other Gnostic and Rabbinic strands with a similar emphasis on Michael/Christ versus Satan, there is the possibility that some of the Domme Templars were influenced by pre-Christian ideas from the Holy Land.

There are other enigmatic motifs to be found at Domme, including a pentagram and several Suns and crescents. A mass of complementary evidence suggests that these relate to the symbolic meanings ascribed to them by the Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists. The Pentagram derived from the proportions of man, and indicated good health. The Sun and Moon were the “guarantors of immortality”. The Pythagorean traditions of numerical and geometric harmonies underlie a family of symbols that, in the developing intellectual centres of Western Europe, were converging with the Christian iconography embraced and espoused by the religio-political establishments of the late mediæval period and culminating in the cloud-piercing summits of Gothic architecture. Pythagoras himself was depicted on French and Spanish cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts. By the 13th and 14th centuries, adherents of the way of truth through enquiry and observ­ation were also indicating themselves via masons’ marks and English church graffiti, a wave of pictographic enthusiasm the likes of which was not seen again until “Kilroy was here” was unleashed across wartime Europe by allied soldiers. One of the very earliest feat­ures of Pythagorean sacred architecture, the oculus, can be found at Royston Cave.

The graffiti at Domme could prove signific­ant in providing extra insight into the members of the Templar order in southern France – it’s almost incredible to find such a place, entirely overlooked by English-language scholarship, and not much better known even in France. The motifs certainly deserve further enquiry (as do the markings at Royston, but for different reasons). A few academics to whom I showed the symbols denied they had any meaning at all, dismissing them as “doodles” or “the idlings of an inmate”. By trying to define a meaning for the symbols, I was, according to one assistant professor, engaged in a hopelessly outmoded way of thinking, since the new wisdom, in art history at least, is that even the word “meaning” requires careful definition. But those who think the symbols are merely doodles perhaps need to be reminded that to the mediæval mind everything was symbolic.

Stepping out of the guardhouse at Domme, I found myself unexpectedly shaken. Few artworks have ever affected me so powerfully; the sense of their presence, and of emotional contact with their creators is incredible – akin to the cave paintings at nearby Lascaux. But at Domme a combin­ation of intense devotion and an angry sense of injustice emanates from the walls like heat, challenging you to walk away without reflecting on how it all came about. There amidst the many carvings and inscript­ions – others include life-size hands, a Nine-Men’s-Morris board, a Madonna and Child, a Eucharist scene, numerous angels and dozens of crosses, with their curious dots and forked bases obsessively repeated – the situation of the Templars at their darkest hour is brought closer to us than anywhere else in the world. In considering these inscriptions, both familiar and mysterious, it’s imposs­ible not to imagine the prisoners scoring over and over their traces, reflecting on and sharing their deeper meanings, gaining knowledge and peace of mind and preparing themselves for the trials they must have known awaited them.

In the passageway around the side of the New Age shop on the main street of Royston in Hertfordshire is a doorway to another world. Step through into a descending tunnel, curving under the central crossroads of this mediæval market town, and you reach a cave unlike any other. The passage through which you have arrived is not the original entrance – that would have been by way of an old shaft, a vertiginous climb down footholds cut from the solid chalk.

Looking around the walls of this bell-shaped chamber, dozens of relief-carved figures are apparent, some of them arranged in groups or scenes. A few are easily discernible as Christian icons: crucifixions, St Christopher, St Katherine. Others are more contentious, and their ambiguity leaves a space of uncertainty into which some have allowed the Knights Templar to plant their flag. Indeed, so successful has the ‘Templarisation’ of Royston become (see also FT193:28–30) that the local museum endorses the view that the cave was a place where they gathered in secret after their suppression.

Scholars tread more caut­iously. Dr Helen Nicolson, a Crusades expert and author of several books on the Templars, tells me that, since the Royston carvings show a knight in full armour (a feature I am unable to make out, I have to say), they must have been made at least a century after the Templars were dissolved. She reminded me of the theory that the cave was used as a hermit’s cell in the late 14th or 15th century, and that this hermit made the carvings, but admitted her own preference for the idea that the carvings “were made by Catholics in the 16th century in the time of Edward VI or Queen Elizabeth, or in the 17th century, when Catholicism had been outlawed and Catholics had to meet in secret.” 

Where does this leave the Knight Templars in Royston? Is the Templar theory for the carvings at Royston Cave just another example of how these knights inexor­ably gravitate towards any mystery and are consequently embraced by those – like the present guardians of the cave – who welcome the extra tourists?

The cave was discovered by accident in 1742. Initially thought to contain treasure, it was rapidly cleared of debris, revealing a chamber almost 8m high and 5m in diameter. Intrepid visitors entered via ladd­ers, until in 1790 an enterprising bricklayer cut the 22m (70ft) tunnel and charged visitors sixpence to see the cave.

The first intensive academic study of the carvings was published in 1884 by Joseph Beldam, who assigned a pre-Christian or Roman origin for the cave and concluded that the carvings were made during the Crusades, when it was converted into a Christian oratory with a hermitage “probably attached”. No mention of Templars was made for almost another century, not until Sylvia Beamont suggested that the local knights were farmers and artis­ans, not fighters, and that they used the cave to store perishable foods and as an overnight lodging during market days. The lower part of the cave, she thought, could have been a chapel, poss­ibly used for initiations.Peter Houldcroft, who for many years guided visitors around the cave, went further in supposing the cave’s purpose was entirely ritualistic, coming up with a raised star-shaped platform on which the Templars performed their secret rites.Houldcroft’s notion of the platform derived from post-holes found in the floor and possible beam-holes on the walls, a disputed but interesting theory. Philip Coppens pushes the boundaries even further with his ‘sacred landscape’ argument, making Royston “the only fully-developed geomantic site in Britain, situated at the intersection of two straight roads orientated to the cardinal direct­ions”, a pagan origin reclaimed as a ‘creation myth’ by the later Christian imagery.Where esoteric matters are concerned, there are indeed no coincidences, yet this may be too close to a Foucault’s Pendulum-like master­plan for comfort. But who knows?

What most persuades this observer that the graffiti are linked to the Templars is the presence of the two figures being burned on woodpiles. One of them is beside a large St Christopher, an important Templar saint, the other, more memorable, one leads two rows of 31 figures (also heretics?) and wears a crown or mitre. The figure’s high status indicates that it could even be Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master. Tangentially, another figure with upraised arms is said to be King David rising from water, closely reflected in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge, library illustrating Psalm 69. Freemasons sympathetic to the Templar origins of their society might consider recognising this as one source for the Masonic Sign of Distress with its upraised arms.

Twelve metres above the floor, an oculus (“eye” or round opening) offers a glimpse of sky. This feature most strongly attests to the cave’s origins. Now that it is beyond question that Pythagoreans, mystic-scientists known for at least 500 years before Christ, met in secret, sometimes in the kind of underground temple discovered under Porta Maggiore in Rome, where the roof would have required an oculus for illuminating the living symbols of the sun (Apollo), light, the circle – the first causes of the Pythagorean perspective from which all else stems: number, harmony, geo­metry, music, the spheres and everything on them. Hadrian, one of the more inquisitive emperors, had Pythagoras’s mathematical discoveries expressed within the Pantheon, one of the great ventures into the relationship between the sphere and the cube. This is Pythagoreanism at its most glorious and showy; the religion is essentially practised and disseminated under varying conditions of secrecy. Royston’s echo of Pythagorean rules keeps to the basic essentials for a shrine. It is underground, has an oculus, and an entrance that expresses the tenets of “descending to the divine”, making it difficult to estimate one’s orientation to the surface. Thus the Pythagorean learns that by going underground you find the light.

Jerusalem Scholars Trace Bible's Evolution

A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies -- publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.

For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue's Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.

But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.

The project's scholars have been at work on their critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, a version intended mainly for the use of other scholars, since 1958.

"What we're doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible," said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project.

The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project's version "the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time," said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.

But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project's office on the university campus will find that many members of the university's own staff have never heard of it.

This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible's 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.

If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now. This is both a point of pride and a matter of some mild self-deprecation around the office.

Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin. The last member of the original team died last year at age 90.

The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions -- differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.

A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to "those who swear falsely." The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: "those who swear falsely in my name."

In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God "to you" once read "to us," a significant change in meaning.
Other differences are more striking.

The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.

The year the Bible Project began, 1958, was the year a priceless Hebrew Bible manuscript arrived in Jerusalem after it was smuggled out of Aleppo, Syria, by a Jewish cheese merchant who hid it in his washing machine. This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the complete biblical text in Hebrew.

The Bible Project's version of the core text -- the one to which the others are compared -- is based on this manuscript. Other critical editions of the Bible, such as one currently being prepared in Stuttgart, Germany, are based on a slightly newer manuscript held in St. Petersburg, Russia
Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project's scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.

"A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy," said the project's bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. "But as soon as the words are given to human beings -- with God's agreement, and at his initiative -- the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on."