So much has been written recently about the Knights Templar, but the last chapter in their history was written in Portugal. It’s a tale of adventure, cunning, and exploration. The Templars were a monastic order of knights founded in 1112 A.D. to protect pilgrims along the path to Jerusalem. The Templars came to Portugal in the 12th century at the request of Portugal’s founding king, D. Afonso Henriques.
They built a series of castles on the banks of the Tejo River to defend the new nation from the Moors. At Tomar, the order built their headquarters, a fortified monastery that is one of the most important medieval sites in Europe. The original church was patterned on the Church of the Holly Sepulcher in Israel. Its central nave with its soaring heights were almost unheard of at that time. The massive door was so high that, according to legend, the knights attended mass on horseback. In 1307, Pope Clement V extinguished the order, but the Portuguese king D. Dinis made the secretive order a deal they could not refuse. He created a new religious order, the Order of Christ, and it took over all the lands and castles of the Templars. It also took on their symbols and their power. The Knights of the Order of Christ became, by the 15th Century, enlaced with the royal family. Under the leadership of Infante D. Henrique (Prince Henry), the knights began a new quest as ships with their distinct cross explored the coast of Africa. The Age of Exploration had begun.
With the arrival of Da Gama in India in 1498, the riches of the East flowed into the castle at Tomar. King D. Manuel added a new cloister to the monastery in the uniquely Portuguese Manueline style, rich in symbols of the sea, coral, shell, and twisted rope. The rose of the Templars, as well as their cross, became the symbols of the monarchy.
Today, Tomar is a monument city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its great castle is a fascinating relic of the mysterious Templars, full of secret passages, symbolic paintings, and compelling art. The city below is well preserved with a 14th century synagogue and Jewish Museum, a riverfront park with an Arab waterwheel, a main square flanked by a Gothic church and medieval city hall. The Templars built the gothic Church of Santa Maria do Olival in the 13th as a built as burial ground for the Knights. But the mysterious of Our Lady of the Conception (Nossa Senhora da Conceição) chapel built in the second half of the 16th century in pure Renaissance style, is the center of rumors. Some say it was intended to be the burial site of King Joao III. But others say that it is tied to the secrets of the Templars…. Who knows?