By Christopher de Bellaigue
6 October 2017
In our age, Islam is often taken to task for the violent imagery that is contained within the Qur’an, and the example set by its warrior-prophet, Muhammad, but less often scrutinised is the propensity of Christianity for acts of savagery. Many early Christians held to the pacifism of St Basil, who laid down that Christians who had shed blood were not eligible for communion, but St Augustine of Hippo developed the doctrine of the just war, arguing that it was meritorious to use violence against those who held other religious beliefs. By the end of the 11th century AD, efforts to drive the Muslim emirs out of Spain, and the growth in pilgrimage traffic to the Holy Land – large armed groups infused with religious zeal that could easily be diverted to fighting or looting – were married to a general Christian desire to own the key sites associated with the life of Christ, and the Crusades were born.
The first of these bloody and often anarchic campaigns, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, resulted in the conquest of Jerusalem, but how were the new Crusader territories to be defended from Muslim reconquest? In 1120 the Council of Nablus, held under the auspices of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, decreed: “If a cleric takes up arms in the cause of self-defence, he shall not bear any guilt.” The way was now open for the formation of an order of knights – Christendom was full of them, often underemployed and fighting among themselves – to defend the Crusader states. Under its founder, the Frenchman Hugh of Payns, the new order was governed by a strict code of humility, submission and abstinence, eschewing chivalric bling – the falconry, the pointy shoes, the ornate bridles – in favour of simple uniforms of white, “which signifies purity and complete chastity”.
Baldwin gave Hugh’s men use of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, named after the Temple of Solomon, from which the Knights Templar, the subject of Dan Jones’s new book, took their name. By the time the Crusaders captured it, the Temple Mount had been Islamised through the construction of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque. The Templars took up residence at what was, and remains today, the symbolic chafing point between the three Abrahamic faiths, building a large complex of buildings that was described as “full of walking-places, lawns, council chambers, porches, consistories and supplies of water in splendid cisterns”.
Within a few decades of their establishment the Templars stamped a fearsome reputation on the invasions, sieges, truces and uneasy coexistence that constituted the Crusader epoch. “They were the fiercest fighters of all the Franks,” according to the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, and held fast to the maxim: “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Among their laurels was an engagement at Cresson, near Nazareth, in 1187, when 140 Templars charged with suicidal courage at a force several thousand strong that had been assembled by the renowned Saladin, paramount leader of the Islamic world and a dedicated Jihadi: “Fifty to sixty knights died in a shower of their own gore,” Jones writes, while “the rest were taken away to imprisonment and enslavement at Saladin’s pleasure”. Jerusalem fell shortly afterwards; the Templars’ headquarters had contained a piggery, wrote the courtier Imad al-Din, and Saladin’s efforts to cleanse the area of “this race of perdition, unjust and criminal”, extended to washing the entire building with rosewater.
Even after being expelled from their HQ, however, the Templars continued to prosper, along with the Crusader ethos of pilgrimage and conquest. If the tip of the Templar lance was in the Holy Land, its shaft lay in Europe. A non-domiciled organisation dedicated to war in the Levant, and exempt from the tithe, the Templars counted on the Vatican for patronage – Pope Innocent II placed them under the direct protection of the Holy See – while benefactors conferred on them vast estates from Portugal to Champagne. When Henry II of England did cash penance for sending Thomas Becket to his death in 1170, he gave his forfeit to the Templars, who spent it on the war against Saladin.
Within a few decades of their establishment, the Templars were anything but poor knights; however bravely they submitted to unimaginable torments in the field, their European representatives enjoyed the status of bankers, mediators and advisers to kings and popes: without the bullion and coin conveyed to the east, the Crusades could not have been fought. Allegations of cupidity began to be heard. “Nowhere save in Jerusalem are they in poverty,” quipped the Plantagenet wit Walter Map, but even that wasn’t accurate, for the Templars and their rivals, the Hospitallers, were the chief landowners in the Crusader states, where their ranks were swelled by local Christian nobles as well as recruits from Europe.
Anyone sifting The Templars for evidence of the interreligious cooperation and trade that prospered in the gaps between the fighting, which extended to joint hunting trips and even Templar financing of Muslim clients, will be disappointed. Jones is above all concerned with the military exploits of the order, and he gives us plenty of blood and guts shed under its piebald flag. Nor does he seem particularly interested in the surprising, malleable society that was created by the Crusaders and their Muslim antagonists, under which many Crusaders learned Arabic and Muslims might on occasion be found praying with the Templars’ permission in the corner of the old al-Aqsa mosque. Although he tells his story with a competence that will be familiar to readers of his English medieval histories, this book lacks the texture and verve of these earlier productions, possibly because Jones, like many of his knights, is on unfamiliar terrain.
Perhaps the most gripping part of his story concerns the Templars’ fall, as victims of a persecution as single-minded as any conducted during the Inquisition, and linked, in Jones’s view, to a French monetary crisis that had led Philip IV to devalue the coinage and seize the wealth of the Jews. In October 1307 the king’s men arrested Templars across France and seized their assets; the subsequent, Europe-wide investigation depicted them as an order of infamy whose adepts spat on the image of Christ and were inveterate sodomites. The impossibility of resisting a legal juggernaut became clear in May 1310, when 54 Templars were sentenced to burn. Two years later the order was outlawed. The final Crusader state had in any case been snuffed out a few years earlier. The Templars no longer had anything to protect.
• Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment is published by Bodley Head. The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones is published by Head of Zeus (£25). To order a copy for £21.25, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.