Month: August 2007

FINDING MY RELIGION III – Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt takes the mysticism back to the Aramaic

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For centuries, the study of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, was considered off-limits to anyone but the most mature scholars. Some believed you could go crazy if you weren’t ready to take its powerful truths about the nature of God and reality.

That was, of course, before a wave of Hollywood stars became entranced with the teachings of esoteric Judaism. Now, it seems, anyone can study Kabbalah, even Madonna and Britney Spears.

Noted Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt was 19 when he read his first few lines of the Zohar, the ancient text that is the foundation for Kabbalah. He’s been fascinated by it ever since and is now one of the world’s leading Zohar translators.

Matt, 54, spent more than 20 years as a professor, most recently at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and is the author of “Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment,” “The Essential Kabbalah” and other popular guides to Jewish mysticism. He is working full time on the first complete English translation of the Zohar based on the original Aramaic text.

Matt recently finished the third of volume of that translation, “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition” (Stanford University Press). The three volumes are available now.



I understand there’s some controversy about when the Zohar, the ancient text that you are translating, was actually written. Can you tell me about that?

Traditional Kabbalists believe that it dates back to early rabbinic times, to the second century, because the main figure in the Zohar is a rabbi who lived then, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But most scholars think it was actually composed 1,100 years later in Spain in the 13th century. And there is strong evidence for that.

What kind of evidence?

Well, the Aramaic itself is very strange. There are invented words, and occasionally there is a Spanish term or references to medieval events or personalities. So if you look at it objectively, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is a medieval creation.

Assuming it was written in the 13th century, why would someone be interested in reading the Zohar today? What is its relevance?

The Zohar is written as a commentary on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, beginning with Genesis. It challenges that text constantly and overturns many traditional teachings. In that sense, you could say that it reimagines Judaism.

In what ways does it rethink Judaism?

For one thing, it challenges the traditional notion of God. It says that none of our usual names for God are adequate. They all fail to capture God’s true nature. The only name that really is correct is the name Ein Sof, which in Hebrew literally means “there is no end,” or the infinite.

So in the Zohar, God is infinity?

Yes. And any picture we have of God, any theological formulation, is really inaccurate and misleading because it doesn’t do justice to the open-endedness of God.

At the same time, the Zohar also says, “If you are going to describe God, you have to balance the masculine with the feminine.” So I think one of its most important contributions is to insist that God is equally male and female. And it does that very graphically. It actually refers to masculine and feminine halves of God, and the goal of religion — the goal of life — is to unite these two halves of God. And how do you do that? By acting ethically and spiritually in the world.

Besides being a commentary on the Bible, the Zohar is also a sort of mystical novel about a group of wandering rabbis. How does that story unfold?

It is a very loose narrative structure, but these rabbis are wandering through Galilee and sharing their mystical secrets with each other. They also run into strange characters on the road who puzzle them. Often, these people seem to be total idiots — for example, a wandering donkey driver or a little child who stumps the rabbis with questions. But it turns out these figures who seem to be fools end up having the greatest wisdom. So part of its message is, you know, you can’t tell where you’ll find teaching, where you’ll find insights.

Traditionally, studying Kabbalah was something you weren’t supposed to do unless you were an older man — I think the cutoff was 40 years old. What was the reason for such restrictions?

There were several reasons. One had to do with an awareness of the power of these mystical teachings. If you lose a sense of yourself and feel that you are melting into the divine — a common experience among students of mysticism — there is a danger you won’t be able to function in the world. You could lose your sanity or be unable to provide for your family or contribute to society.

There’s also the fear that if people really felt that they could contact God on their own terms, then what need would there be for the rabbinic authorities and for the structures of Jewish law? So there is a social danger as well as a psychological one.


Today, it seems like everybody’s studying Kabbalah. Thanks to Madonna and Britney Spears, Jewish mysticism has become chic. What do you make of that trend?

I’m intrigued by it. I think it has, you know, positive and negative aspects. The question I’m often asked, and I wonder myself is, “What about Kabbalah appeals to Hollywood types or to modern Americans?” There are a couple of things I’ve been able to identify.

One is that Kabbalah is a kind of spirituality that doesn’t demand that you flee from the material world. Rather, it says that spiritual seekers should try to transform the world by engaging it. So I think many Westerners who are obviously hungry for the spiritual but aren’t willing to give up the material realm might find that appealing.

Another reason for Kabbalah’s appeal may be that it is an interesting combination of something very strange and exotic but at the same time familiar. What I mean is that the Kabbalah is based on the Bible – the foundational text of Western civilization — and yet it reinterprets it in a radical way.

Is the Kabbalah that you are studying the same one that Madonna and others are studying?

Well, one thing we have to make clear is that there is no book called the Kabbalah. So when people say they are studying the Kabbalah, it could be thousands of texts. That said, the Zohar is the major text of the Kabbalah. Every Jewish thinker would agree with that.

So what’s being taught and promoted by the Kabbalah Learning Center — now they are called the Kabbalah Center [where Madonna goes] — is the Zohar. This is the same Zohar that I’m working on, although they have their own translation, which is based on a Hebrew translation of the original Aramaic.

Let’s talk about your own spiritual background. Did you grow up in a religious family?

Yeah. My father was a Conservative rabbi on the East Coast. I would say God and religion were central in the home, and that the Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath] was a core part of that. There was a lot of studying and singing and guests and taking walks with my father on Shabbat afternoons.

Did you consider becoming a rabbi yourself?

I considered it, but I was keenly aware of my father’s frustration — he was a very genuine spiritual teacher and demanded a lot of his congregation. And I saw him suffer because of that, not to mention that he was often out in the evening at meetings. I remember once telling him, “I can’t be a rabbi.” And he said, “I didn’t expect you to be.”

Eventually, I decided to teach spiritually but outside the congregational framework and without the rabbinical title. So I went the academic route, and I got a doctorate in Jewish studies. For my doctorate I edited the first translation ever done of the Zohar, which was [from Aramaic] into Hebrew in the 14th century. People say that what you work on in your doctorate often determines what you will do later in life. I didn’t realize that it would determine it so much.

I read in a magazine article that you begin each day by meditating on a few lines of the Zohar after taking a walk up the hillside near your home in Berkeley. Do you still do that?

Yeah. Now I have a more strenuous walk in the morning. I find that if I do a good walk, then I can sit for most of the day without taking a break.

How much a part of your spiritual life is the Kabbalah? It seems like it’s more than just an academic interest for you.

I really try to combine an academic and a spiritual approach. I think you lose some of the richness of the Zohar if you look at it only academically — certainly because it is a spiritual text, and it grew out of spiritual experience. The person writing it is really striving to contact the divine through Scripture, through plumbing the depths of Scripture, trying to discover the divine light hidden in the letters or hinted at by the verses of the Bible.

On the other hand, you lose something, too, I think, if you don’t understand when it was written and who composed it. The person writing the Zohar is trying to present it as something ancient, but he knows what he is doing, and when he talks about hidden levels of meaning, part of the hiddenness is his own project of creating the Zohar. His own creativity is part of what’s going on. It really is an experiment in fiction, a medieval experiment in fiction. And that’s part of its wonder, too.

What is it like to be alone with this mystical material day in and day out? How do you keep your perspective?

I don’t really feel alone. I have one research assistant. Right now, that’s an Israeli in Australia. I’m also in touch with colleagues all around the country, and in Jerusalem, who are involved in Kabbalah or in Zohar specifically.

Fortunately, my wife works at home — she’s involved in spiritual counseling. Our daughter is a senior in college now, but our son is still in high school, and it’s precious to me to take him in the morning to his car pool and to pick him up. So I have that feeling of structure for the day, and then in between, you know, from 8 to 3, I try to immerse myself. Often, I continue to work in the evenings.

Actually it’s harder for me not doing it than doing it. Like now I’ve finished volume 3, and I told myself I needed to take a break. So this past week I really tried consciously not to do Zohar and it was very difficult. I just felt unfulfilled, like I was wasting my time.

It sounds like you love what you do. So, my last question: Zohar the movie? What do you think?

I think it definitely has cinematic possibilities. The running into the donkey driver and the spectacular account of creation are pretty compelling. But I’ll leave that for others.


By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.


Knights in white sashes

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TUCKED away in Clerkenwell in the heart of old London, close to Smithfield meat market and ignored by office workers as they scurry past, is a remarkable link with the Crusades: it is St John’s Gate, which, with the nearby Grand Priory Church, is all that remains of the English headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, one of the two great Crusader orders.

The other order, the Knights Templar, is better remembered because it was so viciously crushed, amid sensational false accusations of blasphemy, sodomy and heresy, by Philip of France and the Pope in the 14th century.

The Knights of St John were not suppressed – on the contrary, they were given some of the disgraced Templars’ property – but they changed their name over the centuries, as their main base moved from the Holy Land to Rhodes, then again to Malta; and their English Priory, along with all other monastic foundations, was dissolved by Henry VIII.

The Knights of Malta still exist as a Roman Catholic order, whereas the present English Order of St John, a 19th-century revival granted an order of chivalry by Queen Victoria, is now a non-denominational, charitable organisation that admits non-Christian members.

St John Ambulance Brigade vehicles and staff are such a familiar sight at public events that few of us stop to wonder why the brigade is so-called; in fact, it was created in 1877 by the Order of St John, which also founded the St John Opthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem five years later.


In the centuries between Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the revived English order’s purchase of St John’s Gate in 1874, the building had a chequered career – first as the office of Elizabeth I’s Master of the Revels; later as the coffee house where the artist Hogarth spent his early childhood (his father’s advertised boast that Latin was spoken at the coffee house seems to have discouraged, rather than drawn, patrons, and his business failed). The gatehouse then became the home and printworks of Edward Cave, publisher of the Gentleman’s Magazine. On the staff was the great Dr Johnson, who locked himself into a room to write without distraction.

A spell as the parish watch house followed, then, in the 19th century, the gatehouse became the Old Jerusalem Tavern. Somewhere along the way, as prints show, the stone building lost its crenulated roofline, but this has been restored and St John’s Gate today looks much as it did when rebuilt in 1504, with one significant difference: it has lost several feet in height, through the road surface having been built up over the centuries.

Adjoining it at right angles is an Edwardian extension in the same style, with a flamboyant, rooflit Chapter Hall and a fascinating museum of items relating to the Knights of St John’s history and the work of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Objects on show include superb pieces of silver, such as a 17th-century shaving bowl the size of a washbasin; Majolica pharmacy jars; intricate wooden models of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, inlaid with ivory, ebony and mother-of-pearl; two panels of a fine Flemish triptych, marked with the arms of the 15th-century prior John Weston; the exquisitely illuminated Rhodes Missal, completed in 1504; and a cleverly designed late-19th-century litter, or hand-wheeled ambulance.

Although the medieval Knights of St John developed a military role as time went on – culminating in their conquest of Rhodes, which they ruled as a sovereign power for 200 years until 1522 – they began as hospitallers, pure and simple. Their great hospital in Jerusalem held 2,000 patients, Muslim and Jew as well as Christian, who were treated not just well, but luxuriously – provided with feather beds, the finest food and wine, daily washing with hot water and twice-weekly pedicures. Brothers would scour the streets of the city for people too sick to make their own way to the hospital, and for mothers and babies in need of care. The hospitallers believed that the poor represented the person of Christ, and were therefore to be venerated.

The lavish treatment of the sick was continued at their infirmaries in Rhodes, and later in Malta, where patients were fed from silver dishes and beakers. Malta was given to the order by Emperor Charles V, after Rhodes was conquered by the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent in 1523. The Knights ruled Malta until Napoleon captured the island in 1798.

The English branch (or Langue, meaning tongue, as it is called) of the order was re-formed in 1827, with both Catholic and Protestant members. Harking back to the days of chivalry, it began as a Romantic movement, whose members did little more than make excursions along the Thames to dine at Kew or Greenwich. Only in the 1860s did the success of the newly formed Red Cross inspire members to provide a similar service for civilians at home, particularly industrial workers, and thus to find a role in the modern world.


Visitors to St John’s Gate can also see the Grand Priory Church. This now necessitates stepping out along the street, although the church was originally the focal point of the Priory’s enclosed 10-acre site. It is only a fraction of its original size, having lost its nave during Edward VI’s reign when Lord Protector Somerset used the stone to build his palace in the Strand. Lady Burleigh repaired what remained of the church and used it as her private chapel in the early 17th century. It was a Presbyterian meeting-house from 1706 until it was gutted during the Sacheverell Riots of 1710; repaired again, the building became an Anglican parish church until 1931, when it was finally given back to the Knights of St John – only to be gutted by bombing just 10 years later.

Now restored very simply and used for the order’s investitures, the church’s main interest lies below ground, where the beautiful 12th-century crypt has miraculously survived. Its nave of five bays is partly late Norman, partly in Transitional style, and there are two wonderful tombs: one topped by the skeletal figure of William Weston, the order’s last, pre-Reformation prior; the other of alabaster, bearing the effigy of Don Juan Ruiz de Vergara, 16th-century Proctor of Castile. At his feet nestles the effigy of a boy.

“His son?” I inquired naively. “I hope not!” replied curator Pamela Willis, laughing, “As a member of the order, Don Juan was supposed to be celibate. We believe the boy was his page.”


The Museum of the Order of St John (020 7324 4000, is in St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, London EC1. Nearest Tube stations, Farringdon and Barbican. Museum open Monday- Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday, 10am-4pm (closed bank holiday weekends). Admission free. Guided tours, taking in the gatehouse’s other rooms and Grand Priory Church, 11am and 2.30pm, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday.

Letters remain the holy grail to code-breakers

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For 250 years it defied all code-breakers. Darwin had a go; Dickens, and Wedgwood too. But the 10-letter inscription – DOUOSVAVVM – carved into a monument on the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire thumbed its nose at the curious.

Those of a romantic (or deluded) disposition believed it to be a coded message of the kind used by the Knights Templar and their successors to point to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail or some other religious relic. Others believed it to be a private affirmation of love.

Whatever the truth, the mystery was supposed to have been cleared up yesterday at a press conference at Bletchley Park, where British code-breakers conquered the German Enigma system during the Second World War.

The people at Bletchley, now a museum, promised to lift the veil on the Shugborough Code. They wheeled out some veteran code-breakers to announce the results of months of effort by competing teams of professional and amateur cryptanalysts.

About halfway through the process, eyes began to glaze. Then, as talk of decryption matrices progressed, an expression of helpless incomprehension bloomed on the faces of the assembled media.

And when the final explanation came, it was somewhat less climactic than that in the best-selling Da Vinci Code.


The Shugborough mystery arose in the years between 1748 and 1758 when the monument containing the code was installed. The estate was the home of the Anson family, whose most illustrious member was George Anson, one of Britain’s greatest admirals.

In 1740, Anson led a fleet of seven ships on an epic circumnavigation, the highlight of which was the seizure of the Spanish bullion ship Nuestra Senora de Cavadonga.

Anson’s share of the booty ensured him a happy retirement and the expansion of Shugborough, the home of his brother Thomas. The estate is now owned by the National Trust but still partially occupied by his descendant, the Earl of Lichfield.

The Anson brothers were thought to have been members of secret societies, which abounded at the time.

One, the Priory of Sion, was regarded as a successor of the medieval Knights Templar, persecuted as heretics for their belief that Christ was not divine. Legend had it that they were the guardians of relics recovered from the Holy Land, including the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.


The monument carried a relief based on a painting by Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego. The artist was thought to be a member of the Templars. The monument carries the title of the painting, and below are the 10 letters with the D at the beginning and the M at the end, slightly lowered.

Recently, an American formerly involved with the military used the painting as a key to unlock the code.

Using a series of grids, he came up with the words Jesus H Defy, interpreting the H as chi, the Greek letter used to denote the Messiah.

Result: a Templar message defying the description of Jesus as the Son of God. The American, who refuses to be identified, believes other messages reside in the matrix. GCHQ endorsed his methodology, but not necessarily his conclusions.

So, what is to be made of it all?

Richard Kemp, the general manager of the Shugborough Estate, said: “This confirms a link with the Templars. It’s a very exciting discovery that confirms what was always rumoured to be the case.” And with that he took off in search of the Grail.

Some might think the “discovery” is less than convincing. But Murlyn Hakon, of Bletchley Park, said: “There is something there.”

However, there was another explanation.

Sheila Lawn, 81, a code-breaker at Bletchley during the war, favoured a solution offered by another team. They say the eight central letters, represent a Latin poem to a departed loved one, which goes: “Optima Uxoris Optima Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus”.

The lines are translated as: “Best Wife, Best Sister, Widower Most Loving Vows Virtuously”.

She said: “I believe in the simple approach, and this appears to be an elegant solution.”


Igreja Ortodoxa acusa forças turcas de agressão contra fiéis

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O arcebispo da Igreja Ortodoxa no Chipre, Chrysostomos 2º, afirmou nesta segunda-feira que “a liberdade dos cristãos está mais uma vez ameaçada” no país. Ele divulgou um comunicado afirmando que a celebração de uma missa no monastério de São Barnabás de Famagusta, no território ocupado pelo exército turco, foi impedida com uso de violência.

O terço norte da ilha de Chipre e a parte norte da capital encontram-se sob ocupação militar turca. A administração militar proclamou uma república turco-cipriota, reconhecida apenas pela Turquia. O episódio anunciado hoje é o mais recente das tensas relações na região do Chipre ocupada pelos militares turcos desde 1974.

“Quando o arquimandrita –superior de mosteiro na Igreja Ortodoxa– monsenhor Gabriele se dirigiu para o monastério, transformado pelos turcos em um museu e até o momento acessível aos cristãos por meio do pagamento de um ingresso, um grupo de membros da polícia turco-cipriota –uma milícia– interveio ordenando a suspensão das atividades”, informou a nota divulgada hoje pela embaixada do Chipre junto à Santa Sé.

“Enquanto o religioso se obstinava em terminar a missa, [os policiais] cobriram a voz do celebrante com insultos e ofensas contra a fé cristã. Todos os presentes foram fichados”, afirma a nota.


Recentemente o arcebispo Chrysostomos 2º, preocupado pela liberdade dos cristãos em Chipre, mandou um apelo ao primeiro-ministro italiano, Romano Prodi, à chanceler alemã, Angela Merkel, e ao presidente da Comissão Europeia, José Manuel Durão Barroso, para que lhe fosse consentida a restauração das 500 igrejas destruídas que se encontram nos territórios ocupados pelos turcos.

O incidente, segundo a igreja ortodoxa, “condiz com as últimas declarações do chefe de Estado Maior das forças armadas turcas, o general Yasar Buyukanit, o qual no último dia 30 de julho em Ancara [capital da Turquia], em ocasião da celebração da invasão do Chipre, declarou que o Exército turco não abandonará nunca as terras conquistadas com as armas”.

da Ansa, na Cidade do Vaticano
em Folha Online

Turks expel Cyprus abbot from historical monastery

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At the time that religious freedom is preached by Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, the Turkish occupation forces brutally expelled the abbot of the oldest Greek Cypriot Orthodox monastery this week.

Government Spokesman Vasilis Palmas condemned Thursday the expulsion of the abbot of the monastery of Apostolos Varnavas (Saint Barnabas) in the northern occupied part of Cyprus in the middle of a church service.

“Unfortunately this is not the first time that such phenomena take place. Needless to say that we condemn such behaviour which does not contribute to the creation of a positive climate between the two communities,” Cyprus government spokesman Vassilis Palmas said.

On the contrary, Palmas added, it creates tension and raises suspicion, sentiments which do not help at all the effort to build a positive climate with regard to the Cyprus problem.
Apostolos Varnavas is the founder of the autonomous Church of Cyprus. The monastery bearing his name is situated outside the Turkish occupied town of Famagusta, under Turkish military control since the 1974 invasion.

Earlier this week, the Cyprus government allowed for the smooth passage of hundred of Turkish Cypriots from the occupied north to an outpost on the north western coast of the island to commemorate the battles between Greek and Turkish Cypriots 43 years ago.


Tomar – Last redoubt of the Knights Templar

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Persecution drove the warrior monks of the Middle Ages to Tomar in Portugal. There, Richard Robinson finds, they built their Camelot

“I SEE that you are not Jewish,” said the only person, other than my wife and I, inside the sparse, four-pillared chamber. My wife shot me a reprimanding look, as if I had done something really stupid. “You took your hat off when you came in,” he explained. “It is our custom to cover our heads.”

Luis Vasco, wearing the serge cap of his previous career in the Portuguese navy, then showed us around the synagogue – the only one in Portugal to have survived the Inquisition. It had been used as a jail and a barn until it was rescued earlier this century, and now it is a museum, housing a collection of Hebrew-inscribed tombstones salvaged from hidden corners of the country.

Before the king of Portugal ordered their expulsion in 1496, the Jews got along well enough with the Knights of Christ, successors in Portugal to the Knights Templar and the elite of this town of Tomar. Discredited and persecuted everywhere else in Europe, the knights withdrew to the west and built this redoubt, their Camelot.

Outside the synagogue a stony lane led upward towards the castle and abbey of the warrior-monks. For four centuries it was the headquarters of the knightly orders, a church on a bold hill, walled about with battlements. A town grew beneath the walls.

The day before, we had stood on the platform of Lisbon’s new Oriente railway station. Our train followed the river Tagus into the rural past. By a blunder on my part we travelled second-class and shared the carriage with students and weather-beaten peasants, mouths agape in sleep.

We trundled out of Lisbon’s industrial fringes and rattled into cork-tree country, and the vineyards of Ribatejo. This was the riverbank land where the boundary fluctuated, for 150 years or so, between Christian and Moor. It was a shifting frontier where the Templars, charged with the task of driving the Moor from the Iberian Peninsula, built their castles.

We arrived at Tomar station, its concourse lit with oil lamps, its cobbled platforms frustrating the use of wheeled suitcases. In the booking hall, an old-fashioned coin-in-the-slot machine posed the question “How much do you weigh today?” adding the injunction: “for persons only”.


The following day, we walked up to the castle, past the unusual circular chapel of the Charola (where the knights are reputed to have attended Mass on horseback) and beyond the main cloister where a stair led us to the Corridors of the Cross. The transept was getting on for 200 yds long, a tunnel-like hall lined with small, locked doors to the monks’ cells. The disembodied tramp and chatter of tour groups echoed from distant chambers. We were drawn to the light of a window at the extreme end, and to a sound of shouting and cheering from outside.

Below us, on the rough turf of the friars’ vegetable garden, appeared to be a medieval gathering. A crowd of villagers from centuries past was listening to a speech delivered from a balcony, when a plague of mice erupted on the scene. Scores of small children in mouse-costume swarmed from the wings, orchestrated by the director and shepherded by teams of matronly minders.

They chased and harassed the scattering crowd with great enthusiasm. They were rehearsing for their part in next month’s festa dos tabuleiros – Festival of the Trays.

Tomar holds the tabuleiros every four years, a festival in honour of the Holy Spirit, in which beef, bread and wine are given to the poor. It goes back to the founding of the Order of Christ. The townswomen are central to the procession, each in white, traditional dress and bearing a towering headdress of flowers and loaves equal to their own height. “In the old days they were all virgins,” the forewoman of the headdress makers told me. “But it is no longer practical to insist on this precondition.”

This is not a touristy area, but the authorities have recognised a marketable theme and developed the Templars’ Wine Route, one which we sampled with the help of farmer Jose Vidal. Actually, the frugal Templars were denied wine and all other luxuries. But somehow, the expression “drunk as a Templar” had crept into the English language by the time the hapless knights were suffering sham trials and burnings at the stake in 1307.

Lunch with Jose took place in a country dining-room – a plain roadside building with no sign outside – where we ate dried salted cod and baked potatoes with garlic served in a pot of boiling olive oil. While we ate, locals would amble in to refill their glasses at the wine vats which lined the wall.


Essential viewing on the Templar trail is the fairytale island castle of Almourol, which appears to float on the river Tagus. At nearby Constancia, a pretty town famous as the birthplace of the poet Camões and for its annual flower spectacle, there were graphic reminders of how unpredictable this once-navigable river could be. The black-and-white depth gauge scaled the grassy bank of the Tagus and continued across the road, high up a flight of stairs. In the winding streets of the old town, lines had been daubed on walls to illustrate the worst of the 1978 and 1979 floods – a good 15ft above the town square.

Almourol, though, is high, dry and pretty well impregnable. The romantic, towering walls rise from the summit of a crag jutting from the middle of the surging waters. A boatman, of the thickset stoical kind, stood on the bank waiting. I thought he was sure to overcharge: boatmen are notorious for it. We embarked anyway, and after scaling the heights and scrambling the ramparts, found that our return trip came to all of 35p each.

Our single visit to Tomar Castle and the Convent of Christ was not enough, and on our final day we climbed once again the stone-paved spiral of the wagon road. Purple blossom of the Judas tree carpeted the way and high above, the flags of the Templars and of Portugal flapped softly in the warm breeze.

The Chapter House was added to the Templar’s circular chapel by Dom Manuel, Grand Master and future king. This was the crowning glory of Tomar, and its masons employed all their powers in the creation of its jewel, a window of unrivalled complexity.

Here was all the mystery and romance from medieval chivalry to the Age of Discovery expressed in stone. Anaconda coils, scaly serpent swags, fat drapes of cable and chain, heraldic insignia, coats of arms, festoons of seaweed and tropical fruit all worked together in a marvellous fantasy of the mason’s art. It was worth coming to Tomar just for that.

Tomar basics

Getting there
Air Portugal (020 7828 0262) operates three flights daily from London Heathrow. Take a taxi to Lisbon Oriente station and then a train to Tomar (2hrs).

Staying there
Stay in the Hotel dos Templarios (00 351 49 321730), a comfortable modern hotel five minutes’ walk from the town centre.

Further information
Contact the Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office (0171 494 1441) or Templarios Regional Tourist Office, Rua Serpo Pinto 1, Tomar (00 351 49 329000).


Photos by Luis de Matos (c) 2007