Dazzling ‘treasure tunnels’ found in Israel
IT WAS the valiant last stand of the Templar Knights. They fought furiously to save civilians - and their treasure. But it all came tumbling down around them. Now, archaeologists are digging through the rubble.
"These warrior monks are the stuff of legend and so is their gold," says National Geographic presenter and archaeologist Albert Lin. "During the Crusades, the Knights Templar battle for God, gold, and glory. Somewhere in the modern city of Acre lies their command centre and possibly their treasure."
Now, a new documentary reveals the recently discovered remains of the Templar Knights' last grand Crusader bastion.
They were knights who took the vows of monks to fight for the glory of their religion. They killed to save their own souls. And, in the process, they built up an enormously rich international network of fortresses, estates, farms - and banks.
It was all intended to feed the knights in the Holy Land with cash, horses, food, armour, equipment and fresh recruits.
Instead, it spurred a swath of legends spanning the centuries. A fascination for the white-clad rose-cross knights persists even today, with films such as Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code, television series such as Knightfall, computer games such as Assassin's Creed, and a seemingly endless barrage of conspiracy theory books.
But the truth of their tale is fascinating enough in itself.
The ruins of their enormous stone castles stand testament to their dedication to occupy the Holy Land. But European kings eyed the growing wealth and power of these warrior monks with suspicion. Eventually, this turned into greed.
And, when the Templars finally lost their last foothold in the Middle East - the city of Acre - their fate was sealed.
A hidden door in a junk shop. An ancient crypt under a more modern church. This is where one can find the last surviving link to a tragic moment in the history of the warrior monks.
The port city of Acre was where the Crusaders fought their last stand.
Jerusalem had long since fallen. And, one by one, the European knights had seen their stone bastions fall to the relentless slave-soldiers of Mameluke sultan.
The kings of France, England, Spain - and others - all paid lip service to sending help. But they were fixated on expensive power struggles back home.
In the end, the wealth of the military religious orders - which included the Hospitallers (Knights of St John) and the Teutonic Knights - was not enough.
In 1291, Acre was besieged.
Outside its walls stood some 200,000 Mameluke infantry and horse soldiers.
Against them stood some 600 heavily armed knights of the combined Catholic monastic orders - the Templars, and the Hospitallers of the Order of St John. Just 13,000 allies and mercenaries supported them.
The warrior monks fought desperately to defend the city walls. But Templar Grand Master, William de Beaujeu, was mortally injured. He was carried on his shield back to the Templars' tower on the southwestern edge of the coastal city.
The walls were breached. Muslim soldiers swarmed into the suburbs.
Surviving Templars rallied in their fortified monastery.
Here, above the recently discovered crypt, was the scene of a last desperate stand.
The wounded, tired knights held elite Mameluke soldiers at bay in hand-to-hand combat for five days.
The senior surviving Templar officer, Marshal of the Temple Peter de Sevrey, negotiated the surrender of the trapped knights and the civilians they were protecting. But the tale goes that the women and children began to be molested by the invaders - so the knights fought them off.
Knowing there was now no escape, de Sevrey ordered the civilians and as many of his men onto boats as possible. History regarded this to be a futile gesture - until now. The Templar compound was on the edge of the sea but had only a small water gate. But nobody knew of the secret tunnels to the harbour …
Which makes the speculated evacuation of the fabled Templar treasury and archive all the more possible.
A Templar rearguard stayed behind, continuing to hold the attackers at bay. Eventually, the wall of the Temple compound itself was breached. Thousands of Mamelukes swarmed inward.
But the weakened Templar tower collapsed, killing all below and within it.
The Templar compound in Acre was built some 800 years ago. It remained their coastal logistics hub for more than a century. In 1291, the fortified convent - and with it, the hopes and dreams of Crusader Europe - was reduced to rubble.
But, archaeologists have now identified the last remains of this landmark in Middle Eastern history. Part of the first floor of the original fortified Crusader-era monastery remains.
Its stone looks similar to the church now standing upon its ruins. But there are telltale signs they come from an earlier era.
"If you are looking carefully, the Templar masonry work (is) completely another architecture," says Dr Eliezer Stern of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "The stones are much bigger than the 19th century building."
But, archaeologists have in recent years dug deeper.
Beneath the crypt, they found vaulted chambers. Secret rooms. Tunnels.
"We've established this was a Templar building but I don't know what it was used for," says Dr Stern says.
Its military nature is evident in the three 95,000 litre water cisterns, built as an emergency reserve in case the city - and Templar fortress - was surrounded by the enemy.
Part may even have been used as a guardhouse.
The National Geographic Lost Cities series used LiDAR technology to scan the stone surfaces, building up a high-resolution 3D map to expose any telltale marks.
Perhaps among them would be signs pointing to the truth behind the tales of secret Templar rites and rituals …
What has been revealed are further secret tunnels linking the Templar stronghold to the city's port. This could have enabled a last-minute escape. It could also have been the route for any evacuation - or concealment - of the Templar treasury and archive.
While this remains an enticing prospect, no such evidence has yet been uncovered.
But plans are afoot to continue the digs.
BAND OF BROTHERS
The tale of the Knights Templar began in 1099 with the First Crusade. Catholic kings from Europe seized Jerusalem from Muslim control. Pilgrims flooded to the Holy Land to buy souvenirs from sites said to have been frequented by their biblical heroes.
But, soon, those same European kings and knights wanted to go home.
Nobody wanted responsibility for the expensive defence of the newly conquered lands.
So, a band of faithful knights vowed their allegiance to the Pope alone - promising to live a monastic life while at the same time protecting pilgrims from thieves and the Kingdom of Jerusalem from attack.
It was an inspired idea.
It captured public and institutional imaginations.
Soon they were offered a headquarters inside Jerusalem's Temple Mount (thus their name, the Templars). Fervent believers flocked to give the Poor Knights of Christ their cash, their lands - and even lifetimes of servitude.
It was a magic moment in Christian history.
But soon salacious tales of Templar excesses, buried treasure, secret idols - even the Ark of the Covenant - began to spread. Some persist even today.
And this may have been the unfortunate outcome of the Templars' own spin.
They were a volunteer force.
They needed massive, ongoing donations of cash and productive land.
So they didn't hesitate to embellish the heroic, spiritual - and even supernatural - nature of their quest through contemporary fiction such as the quest for the Holy Grail.
Eventually, it backfired.
A FALL FROM GRACE
After being expelled from the Holy Land, the Templars were left with their vast network of estates, tax exemptions and other privileges.
But for what?
France's King Philip IV was deeply indebted to the monastic order. And he had seen their wealth while seeking refuge from a riot in the enormous, fortified Enclosure of the Templars in Paris.
So he embarked on a campaign of fake news.
King Philip effectively undermined the reputation of the warrior monks. He raised suspicion in the proud, secretive order through allegations of institutionalised homosexuality and devil worship.
Eventually, he bypassed the Catholic Pope who held sole responsibility for the order and had all its members in France arrested and their assets seized.
Many ended up being burnt at the stake. Others were left to rot in dungeons.
It was a blow the Templars never recovered from, with nations such as Spain, England and Cyprus eventually following Philip's example.
But King Philip never got his hands on their vaunted treasure.
Nor did any other European ruler.
Where was it hidden?
Just how rich was it anyway?
Had it all been spent or lost in their last desperate defence of the Holy Land just a few short decades earlier? Or had it been spirited out of the reach of the cash-strapped king at the last moment?
The Knights Templar were officially disbanded in 1312 despite a Papal review effectively exonerating them of all allegations.
But their myths soon took on lives all of their own.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer @JamieSeidel