According to Emma Jung, analyst, lecturer and wife of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, the way in which the literary genre of the Holy Grail appeared at the end of the twelfth century was both sudden and surprising. In an authoritative study of the Grail legend (which she undertook on behalf of the Jung Foundation) she argued that something of great significance must have lain behind this abrupt and dramatic materialization. Indeed she went so far as to suggest that in Chretien de Troyes’s Conte du Graaland Wolfram’s Parzival – the first two exemplars of the genre – it was almost ‘as if a subterranean watercourse had been tapped’.1 What might that ‘subterranean watercourse’ have been?
The answer, I thought, lay in the period of history in which the Grail romances began to circulate. This, after all, was the era of the Crusades – an era that had brought Europeans into close contact with Arab and Judaic culture for the first time and that saw the occupation of Jerusalem by Christian armies for eighty-eight years (from AD 1099 until the recapture of the Holy City by Saladin in 1187). It was in 1182 – the eighty-third year of the occupation – that Chrétien produced his version of the Grail story. And shortly after the fall of Jerusalem Wolfram von Eschenbach started work on his own Parzival.
I therefore found it difficult to resist the conclusion that these early recensions of the Grail romance must have been based on something that had happened – or on material that had come to light – during the period that Jerusalem had been under the full control of European forces. I looked very carefully at the text of Parzival to see whether there was any evidence to support this conjecture and discovered that Wolfram had on several occasions made mention of a mysterious source named ‘Kyot’ – a man, he said, whom he had relied upon heavily for his information and who fortunately had been:
a baptized Christian – otherwise this tale would still be unknown. No infidel art would avail us to reveal the nature of the Gral and how one came to know its secrets.2
This was by no means the only place in Parzival where the German poet had hinted that there might have been more to his Grail than at first met the eye. I was already satisfied that this ‘something more’ could well have been the Ark of the Covenant – the real object that lay behind the beautiful fictional symbol. Now as I studied the widely scattered references to ‘Kyot’ it occurred to me that this shadowy figure, whose identity was never clarified, could have been the source who had introduced Wolfram to the secret of the Ark’s hiding place in Ethiopia. Referred to at one point as ‘Kyot, who sent us the authentic tale’,3 he was clearly very important. But who was he?
There were few obvious clues in Parzival itself. Here Kyot was spoken of as a ‘Master’4 and there it was suggested that his mother tongue had been French.5 But beyond such hints there was very little to go on. I therefore turned to the literary scholars and found that several of them had identified Kyot quite specifically with a twelfth-century French poet, Guyot de Provins, who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem shortly before the recapture of the Holy City by the Saracens6 – and who had also been attached for a while to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.7
This latter fact caught my eye because I knew that Frederick – like Wolfram – had been a German by birth (before his election as Emperor in 1152 he had been Duke of Swabia8). And I also knew (see previous chapter) that this same Frederick had been one of the two monarchs specifically named amongst the various Christian kings to whom the ‘letter of Prester John’ had been addressed in the year 1165.
Investigating further I then learned something else – something that turned out to be of major importance: Guyot/Kyot had been closely associated with the Knights Templar9 who, according to Emma Jung’s study, ‘were considered to be the guardians of Solomon’s Temple’.10 I also knew that it was from Solomon’s Temple that the Ark of the Covenant had mysteriously disappeared in Old Testament times. I was therefore excited to discover that, in Parzival, Wolfram had described the guardians of the Grail as ‘Templars’11 and had referred to them, flatteringly, as:
a noble Brotherhood … who, by force of arms, have warded off men from every land, with the result that the Gral has been revealed only to those who have been summoned to Munsalvaesche to join the Gral Company.12
Were Wolfram’s ‘Templars’ the same as the famous military order of that name?
I found that the word translated into English as ‘Templars’ had, in the Middle High German of Parzival, been Templeis.13 Amongst the scholars there was some debate about what exactly had been meant by this. The consensus, however, was that the term was ‘an obvious variant of the regular forms templarius, templier, Eng. Templar’14 and that Wolfram’s ‘Order of Knighthood dedicated to the service of the Gral’ could therefore be ‘identified with the order of the Knights Templar’.15
I then remembered that one of the guidebooks I had used on my visit to Chartres cathedral had spoken of ‘Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is said to have been a Templar – though there is no proof of this’.16 On further investigation I was able to establish that there had indeed been persistent rumours to this effect.17 I also learned that several well respected scholars had suggested that the German poet might himself have paid a visit to the Holy Land whilst writing Parzival.18
Digging for hidden treasure?
I had been intrigued by Emma Jung’s assertion that the Templars in Wolfram’s time ‘were considered to be the guardians of Solomon’s Temple’. I had not understood why this should have been so. However, when I began to research the order, I discovered that it had derived its official title (‘The Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’) from the fact that its Jerusalem headquarters had been located on the summit of Mount Moriah – where Solomon’s Temple had stood until its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 BC. That Temple had been built in the tenth century BC and its explicit – indeed its only – purpose had been to serve, as the Bible put it, as ‘an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord’.19
By identifying themselves with Solomon’s Temple, therefore, it seemed to me that there was a very real sense in which the knights had also identified themselves with the Ark of the Covenant. And my feeling that this was so strengthened as I began to investigate the curious history of the order.
The Templars, I learned, had been founded by nine French noblemen who had made their way to the Holy Land in AD 1119 – twenty years after Jerusalem had been captured and occupied by the European powers. The twelfth-century historian, Archbishop William of Tyre, noted that ‘foremost and most distinguished’ amongst these nine men ‘were the venerable Hugh de Payens and Godfrey de St Omer.’20
On checking further I discovered something interesting. Hugh de Payens, who was in fact the first Grand Master of the Order,21 had been born in the village of Payens, eight miles north of the city of Troyes in the old French county of Champagne.22 Moreover it seemed that the nine founders were all from the same region.23 In this there were several coincidences:
1 Chartres, with its great cathedral, had – in both the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – been a dominion of the Counts of Champagne.24
2 One of the original nine knights, André de Montbard (who later became the fifth Grand Master), was an uncle of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux25 – who was himself a native of Champagne. This enormously influential cleric had taken a special interest both in Gothic architecture and in the Grail romances.26
3 The city of Troyes, so close to the birthplace of Hugh de Payens, the first Templar Grand Master, was also the home of Chrétien de Troyes, the ‘inventor’ of the Holy Grail.
4 Hugh de Payens was a cousin of the Count of Champagne,27 and, in the year 1125, the Count of Champagne joined the Templars.28
5 When Chrétien de Troyes rose to prominence rather later in the twelfth century his principal patron was the Countess of Champagne.29
Noting this string of coincidences with some interest, I went on to learn more about the early history of the Templars.
There was much that was strange. Perhaps strangest of all, however, was the way in which the nine original knights were received by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1119. As soon as they had arrived in the Holy City they told him that they wanted to establish their headquarters on the Temple Mount30 – where the monarch had recently converted the Al-Aqsa Mosque to serve as his own royal palace. Rather astonishingly he complied at once with their request, giving them, for their exclusive use, a large part of the former mosque and its outbuildings immediately adjacent to the famous ‘Dome of the Rock’, which marked the site where Solomon’s Temple had once stood.31
Thereafter, like latter-day archaeologists with an important dig to complete, the knights lived, ate, slept and worked on this uniquely precious site: indeed for almost seven years after their arrival they rarely left it and adamantly refused admission to any outside party. In public pronouncements they had declared that their mission in the Holy Land was to ‘to keep the road from the coast to Jerusalem free from bandits’.32 I could find no evidence, however, to suggest that they took any steps to fulfil this mission during those first seven years of their existence; on the contrary, as one authority put it, ‘the new Order apparently did very little’ in this period.33 Besides, simple logic suggested that nine men could hardly have protected anybody on a highway almost fifty miles long – and their number stayed at nine until they were joined by the Count of Champagne in 1125. Moreover, the members of an older and far larger military order – the Knights of Saint John – were already doing the job of protecting pilgrims when the Templars arrived.34
I could only conclude, therefore, that Hugh de Payens and his colleagues must have had some other, undeclared, purpose. As noted above, they largely confined themselves to the precincts of the Temple Mount during the first seven years of their sojourn in Jerusalem – and this suggested very strongly that their real motive must have had to do with that very special site.
From the beginning their behaviour was secretive and I found, as a result, that there was no really hard evidence about what they had been up to there. It seemed at least possible, however, that they might have been looking for something, and this suspicion deepened when I learned that they had indeed used their occupancy of the Temple Mount to conduct quite extensive excavations.
Because the Temple Mount today contains the third and fourth most sacred sites of Islam – the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque – modern archaeologists have never been permitted to work there. In recent years, however, Israeli teams have operated freely immediately to the south of the Mount, and there they found the exit-point of a tunnel which they identified as having being dug by the Templars in the twelfth century.35 In their official report the archaeologists stated:
The tunnel leads inward for a distance of about thirty metres from the southern wall before being blocked by pieces of stone and debris. We know that it continues further, but we had made it a hard-and-fast rule not to excavate within the bounds of the Temple Mount, which is currently under Moslem jurisdiction, without first acquiring the permission of the appropriate Moslem authorities. In this case they permitted us only to measure and photograph the exposed section of the tunnel, not to conduct an excavation of any kind. Upon concluding this work … we sealed up the tunnel’s exit with stones.36
And that was all that was known, or could be said, about the Templar tunnel. The archaeologists had only been able to confirm that it continued further than they themselves had been allowed to go. Extending inwards from the southern wall, however, I realized that it might well have penetrated into the very heart of the sacred precincts, quite possibly passing directly beneath the Dome of the Rock a hundred or so metres to the north of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Dome of the Rock, I discovered, was so named because within it lay a huge stone, known to the Jews as the Shetiyyah (literally the ‘Foundation’). When the Temple of Solomon had been erected on this exact spot in the mid-900s BC, the Ark of the Covenant had been placed on the Shetiyyah, which had formed the floor of the Holy of Holies.37 Then, in 587 BC, the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians and most of the population of Jerusalem had been carried off into exile. There was no evidence, however, to suggest that the conquerors had also carried off the Ark; on the contrary, it appeared to have vanished into thin air.38
Subsequently a legend began to circulate which provided a possible explanation for what had happened – an explanation that was accepted by most Jews. According to this legend, only moments before the Babylonian looters had burst into the Holy of Holies, the sacred relic had been hidden away in a sealed and secret cavern directly beneath the Shetiyyah.39
Expressed as it was in a variety of Talmudic and Midrashic scrolls, and in the popular apocalypse known as the ‘Vision of Baruch’40 – all of which were still very much in circulation in Jerusalem in the twelfth century AD – it occurred to me that the Templars might easily have learned the details of this intriguing legend. Moreover, with a little further research, I was able to establish that they could well have done so some years before 1119 – the date of their official arrival in Jerusalem. Hugh de Payens, the founder of the order, had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1104 in the company of the Count of Champagne.41 The two men had then returned to France and were known to have been together there in 1113.42 Three years later Hugh went back to the Holy Land alone43and then returned once more – this time to gather together the eight knights who travelled with him in 1119 and who formed the nucleus of the Templar order.
The more I thought about this sequence of events the more likely it seemed to me that Hugh and the Count of Champagne could, on their 1104 pilgrimage, have heard of the startling possibility that the Ark of the Covenant might lie concealed somewhere within the Temple Mount. If so, I speculated, then was it not also probable that they could have formulated a plan to try to recover the sacred relic? And did this not explain the determined manner in which the nine knights had taken control of the Temple Mount in 1119 – and also the many other curiosities of their behaviour in the early years of the order’s existence?
I found tangential support for this conjecture in Emma Jung’s authoritative study of the Grail legend. There, in an excursus, the psychoanalyst argued that the European occupation of Jerusalem in the twelfth century had been inspired, at least in part, by a belief that some puissant, sacred and incalculably precious relic lay concealed in that city. As she commented:
This deeply-rooted concept of hidden treasure contributed to the fact that the summons to liberate the Holy Sepulchre awakened a resounding echo [and] imparted [an] inflammatory motive power to the Crusades – if it did not actually cause them.44
There could have been no treasure more precious or more sacred than the lost Ark of the Covenant – which, in a century that was unusually obsessed with the recovery of religious relics,45 could well have looked like the ultimate prize. It therefore seemed to me not just possible, but actually highly probable, that Hugh de Payens and his backer the Count of Champagne could indeed have been motivated by a desire to find the Ark – and that they could have established the Templars, and taken control of the Temple Mount, in order to achieve this goal.
If so, however, then they failed in their objective. In the twelfth century, as one expert put it, ‘the asset value of a famous relic was prodigious’.46 Possession of a relic as uniquely significant as the Ark of the Covenant would, in addition, have brought enormous power and prestige to its owners. From this it followed, that if the Templars had found the Ark, they would certainly have brought it back to Europe in triumph. Since that had not happened it seemed to me quite safe to conclude that they had not found it.
Yet rumours persisted that they had found something in their seven years of intensive digging on the Temple Mount. None of these rumours had any academic authority whatsoever – but some were intriguing. According to one mystical work, which attempted to address what the Templars had really been up to in Jerusalem between 1119 and 1126:
The real task of the nine knights was to carry out research in the area in order to obtain certain relics and manuscripts which contained the essence of the secret traditions of Judaism and ancient Egypt, some of which probably went back to the days of Moses … There is no doubt that [they] fulfilled this particular mission and that the knowledge obtained from their finds was taught in the oral tradition of the Order’s … secret circles.47
No documentary proof was offered to back up this attractive assertion. In the same source, however, I was interested to note a name that I had come across several times before in my research – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who here was said (again without any supporting evidence) to have sent the nine knights to Jerusalem.48
I already knew that Bernard had been the nephew of one of the nine founder knights. I was also aware that he had joined the Cistercian order in 1112, that he had become an abbot by 111549 and that he had risen to a position of considerable prominence in French religious circles by 1119 when the first Templars had arrived in Jerusalem. I therefore thought that it would be most unwise to dismiss out of hand the possibility that he might have played some role in the formulation of their mission. This suspicion intensified considerably when I began to look into what had happened to the Templars after their first curious seven years.
Late in 1126 Hugh de Payens suddenly left Jerusalem and returned to Europe accompanied by none other than André de Montbard,50 the uncle of Saint Bernard. The knights arrived in France in 1127 and, in January 1128, participated in what was to be the most significant event in the early history of the Templars. That event was the Synod of Troyes, which had been convened with the explicit objective of procuring the Church’s official backing for the Templar order.51
Three things particularly interested me about this important meeting. First, it took place in the home town of the poet who, some years later, was to invent the Holy Grail; second, it was presided over by Saint Bernard, in his capacity as its secretary;52 and third, during the course of the Synod, it was Bernard himself who drew up the formal Rule of the Knights Templar that, henceforth, was to guide the evolution and development of the order.53
If my suspicions were justified, therefore, it seemed that the original nine knights had initially been preoccupied with their excavations on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Whatever else they might have unearthed there, however, it had become clear to them by 1126 that they were not going to find the prime object of their search, the Ark of the Covenant. This realization had made it necessary for them to consider their future: specifically, having lost their raison d’être, should they simply cease to exist as an order, or should they try to forge ahead?
History showed that they had indeed suffered a crisis of identity in 1126, that they had resolved it and decided to forge ahead, and that they had enlisted the powerful support of Saint Bernard in this enterprise. At the Synod of Troyes he drew up their Rule and obtained the full backing of the Church for their expansion. And thereafter, in a series of sermons and glowing panegyrics such as De laude novae militae,54 he vigorously promoted the young order – thus using his own prestige and influence to guarantee its success.
The results were spectacular. New recruits flocked in from all over France and later from many other parts of Europe as well. Donations of land and money were received from wealthy patrons, and political power quickly followed. By the late twelfth century the order had become phenomenally rich, was operating a sophisticated international banking system,55 and owned properties throughout the known world.
And all this, in a sense, it owed to the intervention of Saint Bernard in 1128 – and to his continued solidarity and support in the years that followed. Had he played this role on behalf of the Templars purely out of a sense of altruism? Or had they perhaps given him something in return?
Remembering that the 1130s were the decade in which Gothic architecture had suddenly and mysteriously burst upon the scene in France, remembering that Bernard had been a prime mover in the dissemination of the Gothic formula, and remembering too the persistent rumours that the Templars had gained access in Jerusalem to some deep and ancient source of knowledge, I could not help but wonder if this had been the trade-off. To be sure, the knights had failed to find the Ark of the Covenant. But what if, in their excavations on the Temple Mount, they had unearthed scrolls, manuscripts, theorems or blueprints relating to Solomon’s Temple itself? What if these discoveries had included the lost architectural secrets of geometry, proportion, balance and harmony that had been known to the builders of the pyramids and other great monuments of antiquity? And what if the Templars had shared these secrets with Saint Bernard in return for his enthusiastic backing for their order?
These speculations were not entirely without foundation. On the contrary, one of the oddities of the Templars was the fact that they had been great architects. In 1139, Pope Innocent II (whose candidacy, incidentally, had also been enthusiastically backed by Saint Bernard56), granted the order a unique privilege – the right to build their own churches.57 This was a privilege that they subsequently exercised to the full: beautiful places of worship, often circular in plan like the Temple Church in London, became a hallmark of Templar activities.
The knights also excelled in military architecture and their castles in Palestine were exceptionally well designed and virtually impregnable. Foremost amongst these imposing fortresses was Adit (Château Pélérin or Castle Pilgrim) which, I discovered, had been built in the year 1218 by the fourteenth Grand Master of the Templars, William of Chartres58 – in whose name was revealed yet another connection to the great Gothic cathedral.
Standing to the south of Haifa on a spur of land surrounded on three sides by the sea, Adit in its heyday was well supplied with orchards, fresh water, and vegetable gardens and even possessed its own harbour and ship-yard together with a jetty two hundred feet long. Often besieged by the Saracens but never captured, it had been capable of sheltering as many as four thousand people. Its massive walls, resting on unusually deep foundations, were more than ninety feet high and sixteen feet thick59 – and were so well made that large sections of them still survive intact. The site was thoroughly excavated by the archaeologist C. N. Johns in 1932. He concluded that the skills of the Templar architects and masons had been astonishingly advanced by comparison with the norm in the Middle Ages and had, indeed, been ‘exceptional’ even by modern standards.60
The Templars also built extensively in Jerusalem where they continued to maintain their headquarters on the Temple Mount until the Holy City was recaptured by the Muslim general Saladin in 1187. I learned that a German monk named Theoderic had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1174 – at which time he reported that all the buildings within the precincts of the Dome of the Rock were still ‘in the possession of the Templar soldiers’.61 He added:
They are garrisoned in these and other buildings belonging to them … Below them they have stables once erected by King Solomon … with vaults, arches, and roofs of many varieties … According to our estimation they will hold ten thousand horses with grooms.62
In fact the ‘stables’ had not been erected by King Solomon, but dated back to the reign of Herod the Great (around the time of Christ). The vaults, arches and roofs, however, had been the work of the Templars themselves, who greatly extended these subterranean halls and who were the first and only people to use them to accommodate horses.63
Theoderic’s eyewitness account of the Temple Mount in 1174 continued with these words:
On the other side of the palace [i.e. the Al-Aqsa Mosque] the Templars have built a new house, whose height, length and breadth, and all its cellars and refectories, staircase and roof, are far beyond the custom of this land. Indeed its roof is so high that, if I were to mention how high it is, those who listen would hardly believe me.64
The ‘new house’ that Theoderic had referred to in 1174 was, unfortunately, knocked down in the 1950s during some renovations undertaken on the Temple Mount by the Muslim authorities. The German monk’s testimony was, however, valuable in itself – and what I found most valuable about it was its breathless tone. Clearly he had regarded the Templars’ architectural skills as almost supernaturally advanced and had been particularly impressed by the soaring roofs and arches that they had built. Reviewing his statements I thought it far from accidental that soaring roofs and arches had also been the distinguishing features of the Gothic architectural formula as expressed at Chartres and other French cathedrals in the twelfth century – cathedrals that I knew were regarded by some observers as ‘scientifically … far beyond what can be allowed for in the knowledge of the epoch’.65
And this brought me back again to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Looking more thoroughly into what was known about his life and ideas, I was able to confirm my earlier impression that his influence on the iconography of the Gothic cathedrals had been massive, but indirect, taking the form mainly of groups of sculptures and of stained-glass windows that had been inspired by his sermons and writings, often after his death.66 Indeed, in his lifetime, Bernard had frequently opposed the unnecessary proliferation of images and had stated: ‘There must be no decoration, only proportion.’67
This emphasis on proportion, harmony and balance in architecture was, I knew, the key to the strange magic of Gothic architecture and, as I became more familiar with Saint Bernard’s thinking, I realized that it was in this area that his influence on the design of Chartres and other cathedrals had been most profound. In those great edifices, the introduction of a number of remarkable technical innovations like ribbed vaulting, ogive arches and flying buttresses had enabled the builders to use geometrical perfection to give expression to complex religious ideas. Indeed, in a very real sense, it seemed that architecture and faith had merged in twelfth-century Gothic to form a new synthesis. This synthesis had been summed up by Saint Bernard himself when he had asked ‘What is God?’ – and had then replied to his own rhetorical question with these surprising words: ‘He is length, width, height and depth.’68
Gothic architecture, as I already knew, had been born at Chartres cathedral with the start of construction work on the north tower in 1134. This, I now learned, was no accident. In the years immediately prior to 1134 Bernard had cultivated a particularly close friendship with Geoffrey the Bishop of Chartres,69 inspiring him with an ‘uncommon enthusiasm’ for the Gothic formula70 and holding ‘almost daily negotiations with the builders themselves’.71
Interesting though it was in itself, the great significance of this piece of information for my purposes lay in the fact that ‘the years immediately prior to 1134’ were also the years immediately after the Synod of Troyes, at which Saint Bernard had obtained official Church recognition for the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Historians had never been able to account adequately for the sudden way in which Gothic architecture had emerged in France in the 1130s. But my earlier speculation that the Templars might have had a hand in it now looked increasingly plausible. Reviewing all the evidence I had gathered I felt satisfied that they could indeed have unearthed on the Temple Mount some repository of ancient knowledge concerning the science of building, and that they could have passed on what they had learned to Saint Bernard in return for his support.
Moreover Templar interest in the Ark of the Covenant, and the Templar connections with Wolfram and with Chartres, also rather neatly tied together the two cryptic ‘maps’ that I believed I had identified (one carved in stone in the north porch of the cathedral, the other encoded in the plot of Parzival). Those ‘maps’ had appeared to suggest that Ethiopia was the last resting place of the Ark. The question I now needed to address, therefore, was this: how could the Templars have come to the conclusion that the sacred relic (which they had failed to find after seven years of digging in Jerusalem) had in fact been removed to Ethiopia? What could have led them to think this way?
A possible answer, I discovered, lay in Jerusalem itself – where an exiled Ethiopian prince had sojourned for a quarter of a century before returning to his homeland to claim his kingdom in 1185.72 Not much more than a decade later Wolfram began to write hisParzival and work started on the north porch of Chartres cathedral.
An Ethiopian prince in Jerusalem
The name of the prince who had spent so long in exile in Jerusalem was Lalibela. I became interested in him because of the ‘letter of Prester John’ referred to in the last chapter. That letter had been written in 1165 and I knew that in 1177 Pope Alexander III had written a letter of his own to ‘Prester John’ in response to a request from ‘the Prester’s’ emissaries for the concession of an altar and a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘the only real person’ to whom the Pope’s letter could have been sent was the King of Ethiopia.73 I had therefore naturally wondered which king had sat on the Ethiopian throne in 1177. On researching the matter I had discovered that it had been a man named Harbay and that the concession requested had not been granted to him but rather to his successor, Lalibela.
Neither Harbay nor Lalibela had stemmed from the line of monarchs supposedly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba through Menelik I. Instead they had both belonged to a usurper dynasty known as the Zagwe which had ruled in Ethiopia from roughly ad 1030 until 1270 when the Solomonids were finally restored to the throne.74
This was a period of Ethiopian history about which very little was known. I was able to confirm, however, that the Solomonic line had been interrupted around AD 980 and that this coup d’état had been the work of a tribal chieftainess named Gudit, who adhered to the Jewish faith and who seemed to have been motivated above all else by a desire to obliterate the Christian religion. At any rate she attacked Axum, razed much of the ancient city to the ground, and succeeded in killing its Solomonic emperor. Two of the royal princes were also murdered but a third escaped with his life and fled to the province of Shoa, far to the south, where he married and produced children, thus ensuring the survival of the old dynasty, although in much reduced circumstances.75
Gudit was the head of a large tribal confederation known as the Agaw – to which the Falashas, the indigenous black Jews of Ethiopia, also belonged.76 Although it was by no means certain that she had left any direct successor, historians accepted that within fifty years of her death most of northern Ethiopia had been united under the Zagwe monarchs who, like her, were all of Agaw extraction.
In its early days this dynasty could – again like Gudit – have been Jewish.77 If so, however (and the case was not proved), it had certainly converted to Christianity well before the birth of Prince Lalibela – which took place in the ancient mountain town of Roha, in what is now the province of Wollo, around the year 1140.
The younger half-brother of King Harbay, Lalibela appeared to have been destined for greatness from the moment when his mother saw a dense swarm of bees surrounding him as he lay in his crib. Recalling an old belief that the animal world could foretell the future of important personages, the legends said that she had been seized by the spirit of prophecy and had cried out ‘Lalibela’ – meaning, literally, ‘the bees recognize his sovereignty’.78
Thus the prince received his name. The prophecy that it expressed caused Harbay to fear for the safety of his throne to such an extent that he tried to have Lalibela murdered while he was still a babe in arms. This first attempt failed, but persecutions of one kind or another continued for several years, culminating in the administration of a deadly poison that plunged the young prince into a cataleptic sleep. Ethiopian legends said that the stupor lasted for three days, during which time Lalibela was transported by angels to the first, second and third Heavens. There he was addressed directly by the Almighty who told him to have no anxiety as to his life or future sovereignty. A Purpose had been mapped out for him, for which reason he had been anointed. After awaking from his trance he was to flee Ethiopia and seek refuge in Jerusalem. He could rest secure, however, that when the time was right he would return as king to Roha, his birthplace. Moreover it was his destiny that he would build a number of wonderful churches there, the like of which the world had never seen before. God then gave Lalibela detailed instructions as to the method of construction that was to be used, the form that each of the churches was to take, their locations and even their interior and exterior decorations.79
Legend and history coincided at this point in a single well documented fact: Lalibela did indeed suffer a long period of exile in Jerusalem while his half-brother Harbay continued to occupy the throne of Ethiopia.80 This exile, I learned, began around the year 1160 – when Lalibela would have been about twenty years old – and ended in 1185 when he returned in triumph to his own country, deposed Harbay and proclaimed himself king.81
From that date onwards there were reliable chronicles of his rule, which lasted until AD 1211.82 He made his capital at Roha, where he had been born and which was now renamed ‘Lalibela’ in his honour.83 There, perhaps in fulfilment of his legendary vision, he almost immediately set about building eleven spectacular monolithic churches – churches that were literally carved out of solid volcanic rock (I myself had visited those churches in 1983 some weeks after my trip to Axum, and had found that they were still places of living worship).
Neither did Lalibela forget his twenty-five-year sojourn in the Holy Land – many of the features of which he attempted to reproduce in Roha-Lalibela. For example, the river running through the town was renamed ‘Jordan’; one of the eleven churches – Beta Golgotha – was specifically designed to symbolize the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and a nearby hill was called Debra Zeit (‘Mount of Olives’) so that it might represent the place where Christ was captured.84
Not content with making his capital a kind of ‘New Jerusalem’, the Ethiopian king also sought, throughout his reign, to maintain close links with Jerusalem itself. There was, I discovered, nothing particularly new about this. Since the late fourth century AD clergy from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had been permanently stationed in the Holy City.85 It had been a desire to increase and consolidate this presence that had led to Harbay’s request to Pope Alexander III to grant the concession of an altar and a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nothing had come of that – other than the Pope’s rather tentative letter sent in 1177 in reply to Harbay’s initial approach. A decade later, however, there had been two important developments: in 1185 Lalibela had seized the Ethiopian throne, and in 1187 Saladin had driven the Crusaders out of the Holy City and had forced Jerusalem’s Ethiopian community, together with other Eastern Christians, to flee to Cyprus.86
The royal chronicles showed that Lalibela had been deeply disturbed by this turn of events and, in 1189, his envoys had managed to persuade Saladin to allow the Ethiopians to return and also to grant them, for the first time, a key site of their own – the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.87 Subsequently, in relatively modern times, these privileges had again been lost; in consequence, I learned, Abyssinian pilgrims were now obliged to make their devotions on the roof of the chapel – where they had established a monastery.88 They also still possessed two other churches in Jerusalem as well as a substantial Patriarchate situated in the heart of the Old City within a few minutes’ walk of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Both in terms of foreign and domestic policy, and also in terms of architectural expression and spiritual development, Lalibela’s reign had represented the zenith of the Zagwe dynasty’s powers and achievements. After his death a steep decline set in. Finally, inAD1270, his grandson Naakuto Laab was persuaded to abdicate in favour of Yekuno Amlak – a monarch claiming Solomonic descent.89 Thereafter, until Haile Selassie was deposed during the communist revolution of 1974, all but one of Ethiopia’s emperors had belonged to the royal line that traced its heritage back, through Menelik I, to King Solomon of Jerusalem.
A pattern of coincidences
Reviewing what I had learned about Lalibela’s illustrious reign, I realized that it fitted perfectly into the beguiling pattern of coincidences that I had already identified as being associated with the Crusades, with the Templars, and with the twelfth century:
• At the very beginning of the twelfth century (or more properly in 1099, the last year of the eleventh century) Jerusalem was seized by the Crusaders.
• In 1119 the nine founding knights of the Templar order – all French noblemen – arrived in Jerusalem and took up residence on the site of the original Temple of Solomon.
• In 1128 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux won official church recognition for the Templars at the Synod of Troyes.
• In 1134 work started on the north tower of Chartres cathedral, the first-ever example of Gothic architecture.
• In 1145 the name ‘Prester John’ was first heard in Europe.
• In 1160 Prince Lalibela, the future monarch of Ethiopia, arrived in Jerusalem as a political exile fleeing the persecutions of his half-brother Harbay (who then occupied the throne).
• In 1165 a letter purporting to have been written by ‘Prester John’ and making a series of awe-inspiring claims about the size of his armies, his wealth and his power, had been circulated in Europe addressed to ‘various Christian kings’.
• In 1177 Pope Alexander III issued a response to the above document but, significantly, made reference in it to another communication that he had received somewhat later – a request from ‘Prester John’ to be granted an altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It seemed that this request had been lodged by ‘the Prester’s’ emissaries who had spoken to the Pope’s personal physician Philip during a visit that the latter had made to Palestine. (The ‘Prester John’ who had asked for this concession could only have been Lalibela’s half-brother Harbay who, in 1177, was still on the throne of Ethiopia.)
• In 1182 the Holy Grail made its first-ever appearance in literature (and, for that matter, in history) in an uncompleted narrative poem by Chrétien de Troyes.
• In 1185 Prince Lalibela left Jerusalem and returned to Ethiopia where he successfully deposed Harbay and seized the throne. Almost immediately thereafter he began building a group of spectacular rock-hewn churches in his capital Roha – later renamed ‘Lalibela’ in his honour.
• In 1187 Jerusalem fell to the Muslim forces of Sultan Saladin and the Crusaders were driven out, along with members of the Ethiopian community in the Holy City – who sought temporary refuge in Cyprus. (Some Templars also went to Cyprus – indeed, after the fall of Jerusalem, the knights bought the island which became, for a while, their headquarters.90)
• In 1189 emissaries sent to Saladin by King Lalibela managed to persuade the Muslim general to allow the Ethiopians to return to Jerusalem and also to grant them a privilege that they had never enjoyed before, the same privilege that Harbay had sought from the Pope in 1177 – namely a chapel and altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
• Between the years 1195 and 1200 Wolfram von Eschenbach began to write Parzival, which continued the earlier work done by Chrétien de Troyes and which, in the process, transformed the Grail into a Stone, incorporated many Ethiopic elements into the story, and specifically mentioned not only ‘Prester John’ but also the Templars.
• At exactly the same time work started on the north porch of Chartres cathedral with its Ethiopic Queen of Sheba, its Grail (containing a Stone), and its representation of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Templars, Gothic architecture, the Holy Grail and the notion that somewhere in the world there existed a powerful non-European Christian king called ‘Prester John’ had therefore all been the products of the twelfth century. And in that same century, just before Parzival was written and the north porch of Chartres cathedral built, a future Christian king of Ethiopia – Lalibela – had returned to his homeland to claim his throne after spending twenty-five years in Jerusalem.
It seemed to me, from everything I had learned, that all these matters must have been intricately connected by some common factor that had remained hidden from history, perhaps because it had been deliberately concealed. Proof positive of a Templar quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant, first in Jerusalem and then later in Ethiopia, would provide that hidden but common factor – the missing link in the complex chain of inter-related events, ideas and personalities that I had identified. I knew, at least for the moment, that I had gone as far as I could with the part of my investigation that related to Jerusalem. But what about Ethiopia? Was there really any evidence at all that the Templars might have gone there to look for the Ark – and that they might subsequently have arranged for the results of their quest to be encoded by Wolfram in the arcane symbolism of his ‘Stone called the Gral’?
‘Those treacherous Templars …’
The first breakthrough came when I received an English translation of the full text of the letter supposedly written by Prester John himself to various Christian kings in the year 1165. Unlike Pope Alexander III’s letter to Prester John, written in 1177 (which was a genuine document intended, as I now knew, for Lalibela’s half-brother Harbay) the 1165 letter was regarded with great suspicion by scholars. Its date was authentic, but it was thought most unlikely that it could have been written by anyone with a real claim to the title ‘Prester John’ – and it was therefore regarded as an elaborate hoax.91
As I read it I could understand why. If the writer was to be believed his ‘realms’ contained, amongst other things: ‘wild hares as big as sheep’; ‘birds called griffins who can easily carry an ox or a horse into their nest’; ‘horned men who have but one eye in front and three or four in the back’; ‘other men who have hoofed legs like horses’; ‘bowmen who from the waist up are men, but whose lower part is that of a horse’; the fountain of youth; a ‘sandy sea’ from which ‘every piece of debris … turns into precious stones’; ‘the tree of life’; ‘seven-headed dragons’ – and so on and so forth.92 Just about every mythical beast and object ever dreamed of, it seemed, was to be found in the land of Prester John. Where exactly this land was located, however, was nowhere specified in the letter – except in the loose reference to the ‘many Indias’ quoted in the previous chapter (a reference, as I now knew, that was more likely to have applied to Ethiopia than to the subcontinent). Moreover, scattered here and there amongst the fabulous creatures were other animals that did seem to belong to the real world: ‘elephants’ and ‘dromedaries’, for example, and also ‘unicorns’ with ‘a single horn in front’ which sounded very much like rhinoceroses – all the more so since, apparently, they were sometimes known to ‘kill lions’.93
Such details made me wonder whether the writer of the letter might have been something more than a hoaxer – might, in fact, have had direct knowledge of Ethiopia (where, of course, camels, elephants, lions and rhinos were all to be found). My suspicion that this might have been so deepened when I noticed that mention was also made of ‘King Alexander of Macedonia’ in a context that linked him to ‘Gog and Magog’.94 This caught my eye because I remembered that Alexander, Gog and Magog had been connected in an almost identical manner in a very ancient Ethiopic manuscript known as the Lefafa Sedek, the ‘Bandlet of Righteousness’,95 which was supposedly unknown outside Abyssinia until the nineteenth century.
Another point of interest was that ‘Prester John’ claimed in the letter that his Christian kingdom contained large numbers of Jews – who seemed to be semi-autonomous and with whom wars were often fought. Again this had a certain flavour of genuine Ethiopian conditions: following the tenth-century Jewish uprising by Gudit (which had temporarily overthrown the Solomonic dynasty) there had in fact been several hundred years of conflict between Ethiopia’s Jews and Christians.96
All in all, therefore, despite the many fantastic and obviously apocryphal aspects of the letter, I was not disposed to believe that it was entirely an imposture. It seemed to me, furthermore, that its prime objective might have been to impress and scare the European powers to whom it was addressed. In this regard I noted in particular the frequent references that it made to the size of ‘the Prester’s’ armed forces – for example:
We have … forty-two castles, which are the strongest and most beautiful in the world, and many men to defend them, to wit ten thousand knights, six thousand crossbowmen, fifteen thousand archers, and forty thousand troopers … Whenever we go to war … know that in front of us there march forty thousand clerics and an equal number of knights. Then come two hundred thousand men on foot, not counting the wagons with provisions, and the elephants and camels which carry arms and ammunition.97
This was unmistakably fighting talk, but what was most notable about it was that it was closely tied to something else – specific, and hostile, mention of the Templars. In a section apparently intended for the ‘King of France’ the letter suggested:
There are Frenchmen among you, of your lineage and from your retinue, who hold with the Saracens. You confide in them and trust in them that they should and will help you, but they are false and treacherous … may you be brave and of great courage and, pray, do not forget to put to death those treacherous Templars.98
Reviewing this ominous suggestion in the context of the rest of the bizarre letter I asked myself a question: in the year 1165, which candidate for the role of ‘Prester John’ could possibly have had a motive (a) to try to frighten off the European powers in general by boasting of his own overwhelming military strength, and (b) to attempt to smear the Knights Templar in particular and to request that they should be ‘put to death’?
The answer I came up with was Harbay, who, in 1165, had been the reigning Zagwe monarch of Ethiopia, and who, as I have already observed, had certainly been the intended recipient of the letter written to Prester John by Pope Alexander III in 1177.
One of my reasons for pinpointing Harbay as the real author of the supposedly hoax letter of 1165 was terminological. I had discovered, as my research had progressed, that all the Zagwe monarchs had favoured the use of the Ethiopic term Jan in their string of titles.99 Derived from Jano, a reddish-purple toga worn only by royalty, the word meant ‘King’ or ‘Majesty’ and might easily have been confused with ‘John’; indeed it could have been precisely because of this (coupled with the fact that several of the Zagwe rulers were also priests) that the phrase ‘Prester John’ had first been coined.
But there was a stronger reason to suspect Harbay. He, after all, had been a man with a burgeoning political problem in the year 1165. By then his disaffected half-brother Lalibela (who was eventually to depose him) had already been in exile in Jerusalem for five years – long enough, I speculated, for him to have got to know the Templars and to have made friends amongst them. Perhaps he had even asked the knights to help him to overthrow Harbay and perhaps Harbay had got wind of this plot.
Such a scenario, I thought, was not entirely implausible. The slightly later request to the Pope for a concession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a request presented in Palestine by ‘honourable persons’ of ‘Prester John’s’ kingdom) suggested that Harbay regularly sent emissaries to Jerusalem; such emissaries, therefore, could easily have picked up intelligence of a conspiracy brewing between Lalibela and the Templars in 1165. If this had been what had happened then it would undoubtedly go a long way to explain the strangely menacing suggestion to the King of France that it might be a good idea if he were to have the ‘treacherous Templars’ (still mainly Frenchmen at that time) executed forthwith. The ‘letter of Prester John’ – at least according to this hypothesis – would therefore have been concocted by Harbay’s agents in Jerusalem as a deliberate strategy to deter collusion between the Templars and Prince Lalibela.
This was obviously an attractive line of reasoning. It was also dangerously speculative, however, and I would have been reluctant to follow it any further if I had not found certain passages in Parzival which seemed to confirm that the Templars might indeed have entered into precisely the sort of alliance with Lalibela that Harbay would have feared.
‘Deep into Africa …’
Written some years after Lalibela had forcefully deposed Harbay from the throne of Ethiopia, Parzival contained a number of direct references to the Templars – who, as I have already noted, were depicted as being members of ‘the Grail Company’.100
What I found intriguing was the specific suggestion, which Wolfram repeated several times, that these Templars were occasionally sent on missions overseas – missions that were highly secretive and that were to do with winning political power. For example:
Writing was seen on the Gral to the effect that any Templar whom God should bestow on a distant people … must forbid them to ask his name or lineage, but must help them gain their rights. When such a question is put to him the people there cannot keep him any longer.101
If a land should lose its lord, and its people see the hand of God in it and ask for a new lord from the Gral Company, their prayer is granted … God sends the men out in secret.102
This was all very interesting, but the passage that really caught my attention came one page later in a lengthy monologue by a member of the Grail Company who spoke, amongst other things, of riding ‘deep into Africa … past the Rohas’.103
Scholars, I discovered, had tentatively identified ‘the Rohas’ with the Rohitscher Berg in Saangau Styria.104 But this derivation looked completely spurious to me: it was not at all suggested by a context that had just mentioned Africa and I was quite unconvinced by the reasons given for it.105 I knew something, however, that the Wolfram specialists in universities in Germany and England could not have been expected to know: Roha was the old name for a town in the remotest highlands of Ethiopia – a town now called Lalibela in honour of the great king who was born there and who made it his capital when he returned to it in triumph in the year of our Lord 1185. Neither was there any reason for the experts in medieval German literature to have been aware that this same Lalibela had spent the previous quarter of a century in Jerusalem rubbing shoulders with the knights of a military-religious order whose headquarters stood on the site of the Temple of Solomon – knights who would have had a special interest in any contender to the throne of a country which claimed to possess the lost Ark that the Temple had originally been built to house. The question that I now needed to address, therefore, was this: was there any evidence at all to suggest that Lalibela might have been accompanied by a contingent of Templars when he returned to Ethiopia in 1185 and deposed Harbay?
I did not think that the answer to this question would be easy to find. Luckily, however, I had been to the town of Lalibela in 1983 while working on my book for the Ethiopian government, and I had kept field notes. I therefore studied these notes with great care. To my surprise, I almost immediately came across something of interest.
On the ceiling of the rock-hewn church of Beta Mariam (yet another place of worship dedicated to Saint Mary the Mother of Christ) I had noticed ‘faded red-painted crosses of the Crusader type’. I had then remarked: ‘These don’t look at all like any of the normal Ethiopian crosses – check out origins when back in Addis.’ I had even made a rough sketch of one of these ‘Crusader crosses’ (which had triangular arms widening outwards). And, although I could not remember doing so, I had obviously followed the matter up to some extent: beneath the sketch and in a different pen I had later added the technical term croix pattée.
What I had not known in 1983 was that the Templars’ emblem – adopted after the Synod of Troyes had given official recognition to the order in 1128 – had been a red croix pattée.106 I did know this in 1989, however. Moreover I also knew that the Templars had been associated throughout their history with the construction of wonderful churches.
Almost inevitably, further questions began to form in my mind. By a considerable margin, the eleven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were the most architecturally advanced buildings that Ethiopia had ever known (indeed, in the considered opinion of UNESCO, they deserved to be ranked amongst the wonders of the world).107 Moreover, a certain air of mystery clung to them: there were other rock-hewn churches in the country, to be sure, but none were even of a remotely comparable standard. Indeed, in terms of overall conception, of workmanship, and of aesthetic expression, the Lalibela monoliths were unique. No expert had been able to suggest exactly how they had been built, and there had been persistent rumours of foreign involvement in their construction. Several academics had speculated that Indians, or Egyptian Copts, had been hired as masons by King Lalibela.108 Ethiopian legends, by contrast, attributed the work to angels! I now had to ask myself, however, whether the true artificers of the Lalibela churches might not have been the Templars.
Certainly, my 1983 field notes painted a picture of a fantastic architectural complex:
Towering edifices [I had written], the churches remain places of living worship eight hundred years after they were built. It is important to stress, however, that they were not built at all in the conventional sense, but instead were excavated and hewn directly out of the solid red volcanic tuff on which they stand. In consequence, they seem superhuman – not only in scale, but also in workmanship and in conception.
Close examination is required before the full extent of the achievement that they represent can be appreciated. This is because, like medieval Mysteries, considerable efforts have been made to cloak their real natures: some lie almost completely concealed within deep trenches, while others hide in the open mouths of huge quarried caves. Connecting them all is a complex and bewildering labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways with offset crypts, grottoes and galleries – a cool, lichen-enshrouded, subterranean world, shaded and damp, silent but for the faint echoes of distant footfalls as priests and deacons go about their timeless business.
Four of the churches are completely free-standing, being attached to the surrounding rock only by their bases. Although their individual dimensions and configurations are very different, they all take the form of great hills of stone, precisely sculptured to resemble normal buildings. They are wholly isolated within the deep courtyards excavated around them and the most striking of them is Beta Giorghis (the Church of Saint George). It rests in majestic isolation at a considerable distance from all the others. Standing more than forty feet high in the centre of a deep, almost well-like pit, it has been hewn both externally and internally to resemble a cross. Inside there is a faultless dome over the sanctuary and, throughout, the craftsmanship is superb.
I concluded my 1983 notes – from which I have copied only the brief extract above – with the following question:
Setting aside the assistance supposedly provided by angels, how exactly were Lalibela’s wonders created? Today, if truth be told, no one really knows: the techniques that made possible the excavation and chiselling of stone on so dramatic a scale, and with such perfection, have long been lost in the mists of history.
In the summer of 1989, looking back at what I had written six years previously, I was uncomfortably aware of how little those mists had cleared – and of how much there remained for me to find out. Intuitively I had a strong feeling that the Templars could have been involved in the creation of the Lalibela complex. The fact was, however, that there was really nothing to support this view other than the red ‘Crusader crosses’ that I had observed painted on the ceiling of Saint Mary’s (one of the four completely free-standing churches).
Nevertheless there was a genuine mystery surrounding the origin of the churches. This mystery was reflected in the inability of scholars to explain how they had been excavated or who their architects could have been. It also found an echo in the quaint insistence of some of the inhabitants of Lalibela that angels had been involved in the work. Now, as I studied my 1983 field notes I discovered that there were other dimensions to the enigma.
Inside Saint Mary’s, I had recorded, a priest had taken me close to the veiled entrance of the Holy of Holies and there had pointed out a tall pillar. I had described this pillar in the following terms:
About as thick as a good-sized tree-trunk, it soars upwards out of the rock floor and disappears into the gloom above. It is completely wrapped, spiral-fashion, in a very old, discoloured shroud of cloth that bears faint traces of washed-out dyes. The priest says that the pillar is sacred and that engraved upon it are certain writings by King Lalibela himself. Apparently these writings tell the secrets of how the rock-hewn churches were made. I asked if the cloth could be drawn back so that I could read these secrets, but the poor priest was horrified. ‘That would be sacrilege,’ he told me, ‘the covering is never removed.’
Gallingly, my notes had nothing else to add on this point. I had gone on to scribble my little entry on the ‘Crusader crosses’ and then had left Saint Mary’s for the next church in the complex.
Closing the battered foolscap jotter that had travelled everywhere with me in 1983, I felt what I can only describe as a sense of retrospective fury at my earlier lack of curiosity. There had been so much in Lalibela that I had failed to investigate. There had been so many questions that I should have asked and had failed to ask. Golden opportunities had thrown themselves wantonly at me from every direction and I had ignored them.
Rather wearily I turned my attention to the hefty stack of primary and secondary reference materials that I had accumulated on Ethiopia. The bulk of what I had consisted of photocopies of worthy but irrelevant academic papers. There was, however, one book which looked rather promising. Entitled The Prester John of the Indies, it was an English translation of the narrative of the Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia in 1520–6. Written by Father Francisco Alvarez, this narrative – running to more than five hundred pages – had first been printed in Lisbon in 1540 and had been rendered into English in 1881 by the ninth Baron Stanley of Alderley.
It was Lord Stanley’s translation that I had before me – in a relatively new edition issued by the Hakluyt Society in 1961. The editors, Professors C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford of the University of London, described Alvarez as ‘rarely silly orincredible … a kind, tactful, sensible man … free from the dishonesty of the traveller who tries to exaggerate his own knowledge.’ As a result his book was universally regarded by scholars as being ‘of great interest … incomparably detailed [and] a very important source for Ethiopian history.’109
With this glowing testimonial fresh in my mind I turned to page 205 of Volume I, where Alvarez began his account of his own visit to Lalibela. A lengthy church-by-church description followed which I could only admire for its exhaustive detail and for its plain, no-nonsense language. What I found most striking of all was how little things seemed to have changed in the four and a half centuries that had elapsed between Alvarez’s visit and my own. Even the covering on the pillar in Saint Mary’s had been there! After giving an account of other aspects of that church the Portuguese traveller had added: ‘It had besides a high column in the cross of the transept over which is fixed a canopy, the tracery of which looks as if it had been stamped in wax.’110
Referring to the fact that all the churches were ‘entirely excavated in the living rock, very well hewn’ Alvarez exclaimed at one point:
I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more, and because regarding what I have already written they may blame me for untruth. Therefore I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth, to which nothing has been added, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood, so great was my desire to make known this splendour to the world.111
Like the good reporter he undoubtedly was, Alvarez talked to some of the senior priests at the end of his visit – a visit, it is worth remembering, that was made only three and a half centuries after the churches were built. Amazed by everything he had seen, the Portuguese cleric asked his informants if they knew how long the carving and excavation of the monoliths had taken and who had carried out the work. The reply he was given, unencumbered by later superstitions, caused my pulse to race:
They told me that all the work on these churches was done in twenty-four years, and that this is written, and that they were made by white men … They say that King Lalibela ordered this to be done.112
Coming at the end of everything else I had learned, I felt that I could not disregard this pure and early piece of testimony. To be sure, the history books on my shelves made no mention of any ‘white men’ going to Ethiopia before the time of Alvarez himself. That, however, did not rule out the possibility that white men had gone – white men who had belonged to a military-religious order that was renowned for its international outreach and for its secretiveness; white men who, in the words of Wolfram von Eschenbach, were ‘forever averse to questioning’;113 white men who were sometimes sent to ‘distant people … to … help them gain their rights’;114 white men whose headquarters in the twelfth century had stood over the foundations of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
The priests’ strange statement about the ‘white men’ who had come to Lalibela therefore struck me as being a matter of the utmost importance. Above all else, it strengthened my conviction that Wolfram had been indulging in something more than mere whimsy when, in Parsival, he had linked the Templars so closely to his Grail cryptogram and to Ethiopia. He had never, anyway, been a whimsical writer; on the contrary he had been pragmatic, clever and highly focussed. I thus now felt increasingly confident that my suspicions about him were justified and that he had indeed been admitted to the inner circles of a great and terrible mystery – the secret of the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Perhaps through the good offices of his ‘source’, the Templar acolyte Guyot de Provins, or perhaps by means of a more direct contact, he had been commissioned by the order to encrypt that secret in a compelling story that would go on being told and retold for centuries.
Why should the Templars have wanted Wolfram to do such a thing? I could think of at least one possible answer. Written down and placed in some form of container (a chest buried in the ground for example), the secret of the Ark’s whereabouts might easily have been lost or forgotten within a century or so, and would then only have come to light if somebody physically dug it up again. Cleverly encoded in a popular vehicle such as Parzival, however (which, I discovered, had been translated into almost all modern languages and reprinted in English five times in the 1980s in the Penguin Classics edition alone), the same secret would have stood an excellent chance of being preserved indefinitely in world culture. In this way, through all the passing centuries, it would have continued to be available to those with the capacity to decipher Wolfram’s code. It would, in short, have been hidden in full view, enjoyed by all as a ‘cracking good yarn’, but accessible only to a few – initiates, insiders, determined seekers – as the treasure map that it really was.
This photograph of the ceiling of the rock-hewn church of Saint Mary’s was provided to me by my Canadian publisher John Pearce in November 1991 – shortly before this book went to press. Pearce took it on a visit that he made to Lalibela in 1982. On the arch can be seen a stylised croix pattée contained within a Star of David – a most unusual symbol in a Christian place of worship, but one to which it is known that the Knights Templar were particularly attached. Behind the arch can be seen a section of the cloth-wrapped column said by the priests to have been engraved by King Lalibela himself with the secrets of how the rock-hewn churches were made.
16 In medieval times the Virgin Mary was repeatedly compared to both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. This church steeple reflects these ideas by depicting Mary standing above the Ark.
17 and 18 Amongst many other shared characteristics, the Holy Grail (illustrated above) and the Ark of the Convenant (on the horizon below) were both said to have given off a bright supernatural radiance.
19 In this illustration from a rare 14th century manuscript, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach is depicted second from the left amongst a group of other minstrels. In his Parsival, Wolfram described the Holy Grail not as a cup or container but as a stone.
20 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the force behind the formation of the Knights Templar in the twelfth century, is shown here urging the Second Crusade.
21 A Knight Templar showing the croix-pattée that characterised the Order.
22 The great Muslim mosque known as the Dome of the Rock was built in the seventh century AD and stands at the site originally occupied by Solomon’s Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
23 Interior of the Dome of the Rock showing the Shetiyya, the ‘foundation stone of the world’, which formed the floor of the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple. It was here that Solomon placed the Ark 3,000 years ago and it was from here, at some unknown date, that the sacred relic vanished.
24 and 25. Above: Porch of the Al Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount 100 metres to the south of the Dome of the Rock. The porch, in Gothic style with three central bays, was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century when they used the Al Aqsa Mosque as their palace. Below: for comparison, the Gothic north porch of Chartres Cathedral.
26 Interior of the circular Temple Church in London, with effigies of knights on the floor in the foreground. An early example of Gothic architecture, the church was built by the Templars in the 12th century.
27 Frontispiece of Alvarez’ text, written in the 1520’s, describing the first official Portuguese mission to the court of Prester John in Ethiopia.
28 The rock-hewn monolithic church of Saint Mary in the ancient Ethiopian settlement of Lalibela. Dating to the late 12th century, the church was ‘built by white men’ according to a local tradition recorded by Alvarez on his visit in the 1520’s. Could these white men have been Templars?
29 Twelfth century rock-hewn church of Saint George at Lalibela. The double-cross device on its roof is a variant of the Templar cross and was later adopted by their successors – the Portuguese Knights of Christ.
30 Grand Master of the Templars being burnt at the stake in the early 14th century. The suppression of the Templars began in 1307 and was instigated by Pope Clement V and King Philip IV of France. Less than a year earlier the first-ever Ethiopian mission to Europe had held an audience – in France – with Pope Clement V.
31 Top left: Pope Clement V. 32 Top centre: Robert the Bruce, who gave shelter to fugitive Templars in Scotland. 33 Top right: Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), Grand Master of the Knights of Christ, who inherited Templar traditions and who showed an exceptional interest in Ethiopia.
34 Vasco da Gama, a member of the Knights of Christ, whose son Don Christopher da Gama was killed in Ethiopia in 1542.
35 James Bruce of Kinnaird, who claimed to be descended from Robert the Bruce and whose epic journey to Ethiopia in the late eighteenth century shows evidence of a hidden agenda concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Though he kept it secret during his lifetime, Bruce was a Freemason and an inheritor of Templar traditions in Scotland.