For nearly two centuries, the Knights Templar plundered the vast riches of the Near East while marching under the banner of Christ in the Crusades. In addition to the silks, bullion, spices and other valuables the Templars claimed as spoils of war, the wealth of countless dukes, barons, viscounts and other lords flowed into the Order’s coffers as the flower of European nobility rushed to join the ranks of the holy warriors. The massive fortune collected by the Templars generated awe, jealousy and—in the centuries after their disbandment—hope for a payout.
“It’s fantastic treasure,” says Marty Lagina, who along with brother Rick stars in History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island. The show follows the brothers’ quest to uncover a vast store of riches long rumored to be hidden on its titular Nova Scotian island. What exactly that treasure is (and who hid it) eludes clear-cut definition. Theorists and treasure hunters speculate it is anything from lost manuscripts of Shakespearean plays to Marie Antoinette’s jewels to a sunken Viking ship. But the Laginas have seen enough evidence to convince them the treasure could be part of the lost Templar riches. “The connection with the Templars has always been there, since the original discovery of the Money Pit, which supposedly happened in 1795,” says Rick. “There’s always been four or five credible theories about the treasure’s origins—one of which has been that it’s from the Templars.”
How did the wealth of a medieval order of knights, who were destroyed more than a century before Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage, find a home in the New World? The prevailing theory among true believers is that during the Templar’s final days, a fleet of the Order’s ships sailed from La Rochelle, France to the safety of Scotland. The treasure then rested at Kilwinning Abbey until Sir Henry Sinclair and a group of Scottish knights spirited the wealth away to Oak Island, hiding the riches on the island for their progeny to eventually recover.
The story strikes most historians as more than a little fanciful, and the Laginas certainly approach it with a healthy sense of skepticism. “The theory gets a little more tenuous after you have the knights leaving Scotland,” says Marty. However, the brothers quickly point to what they believe is evidence that other Europeans reached the shores of America before Columbus. “There’s the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, which, according to the carbon-14 dating, was constructed between 1440 and 1480,” says Rick (though most researchers believe the tower was built well after Columbus’s discovery). He also references the Narragansett Rune Stone in Rhode Island, which, according to geologist Scott Wolter, contains a mark that links the slab of rock to the same sect of monks that helped construct Kilwinning Abbey—the same place that supposedly housed the Templar treasure before its journey to the New World. “There are these connections—spider web connections—but no dots that say it went from here to here to Oak Island,” says Rick.
Despite the lack of a smoking gun proving Sinclair and the Scottish knights made the voyage to Oak Island, the brothers maintain certain discoveries they’ve made on Oak Island make the Templar theory intriguing, if not convincing. “Has there been a find on Oak Island that we can say is a definitive tie-in to the Templars? No,” says Rick. “But, are there curious facts and bits of discovery that indicate the possibility? Yes.” One of those bits of evidence is the fact that the flag of the island’s native peoples, the Mi’kmaq, bears a striking resemblance to the Templar’s battle flag: a red cross on white with a red crescent and red star.
For Marty, the engravings of what appear to him to be corn and trillium flowers in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel—a chapel built by Henry Sinclair’s grandson William in 1446—lend credence to the Templar theory. “To me, being from upper Michigan, there does really appear to be trilliums in the chapel,” says Marty. Both corn and trillium flowers are native to the Americas, indicating to Marty that Henry Sinclair had visited the New World and passed on what he saw to his family, who later incorporated it into the chapel decorations.
After pouring so much of their time and energy into navigating the pitfalls and perils of Oak Island in their effort to uncover the island’s secrets, the Laginas have high hopes their story will end with some sort of payoff. “We all want our money back,” says Rick. But while the brothers would love to discover a pile of gold and riches straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure, the rewards of the hunt extend beyond material goods. “I believe there’s a story on Oak Island of historic significance, and I want to be part of the team that figures it out,” says Rick. “If that story involves the Templars—one of the most powerful entities on the face of continental Europe during their time—then all the better.”
His brother agrees that finding solid proof of a Templar presence at Oak Island would constitute a huge win, but also embraces the mindset of what his sibling calls “hopeful skepticism.” “There are certain people who believe almost every lost treasure in existence has a connection to Oak Island. So we’ve got to take it all with a little dose of reality,” Marty says. In an adventure filled with half-truths and cryptic clues, keeping that level head may be the most valuable asset of all.
This article appears in the Newsweek’s special edition, Secret Socities: Infiltrating the Inner Circle, by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.
This week a group of Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in Northern Syria successfully captured a key district in Kobane. They have now gained control of 80% of the town, including key locations such as the police headquarters, according to BBC News. The Kurdish fighters have been playing an important role in the battle against IS since September 2014. A look at the fascinating and at times tragic history of the Kurdish people can give some insight into how they have become increasingly important to events in the Middle East.
Kurds belong to the Iranian section of the broad family of Indo-European peoples, but details of their exact origins are hard to confirm. Links can be found to the Medes, a tribe from the sixth century BCE who conquered Assyria and founded an empire that included what is now Iran and central Anatolia. The Medes political influence came to an end with the arrival of Alexander the Great in the region. From then until the rise of Islam, there were references to mountain tribes with names similar to Kurd, although it is debated among scholars whether these can be definitively linked to modern Kurds.
The tribe’s conversion to Islam in the seventh century provides the first explicit references to the name Kurd. Although never establishing a permanent nation state, the Kurds have frequently played a key role in the history of the Middle East. Since the Crusades, they have held a reputation as fierce fighters, often recruited into the armies of other states, tribes and civilisations. This reputation was most clearly embodied in Saladin, a key Muslim military leader during the Crusades, who was of Kurdish decent.
Historically the Kurds led nomadic lives in the plains and highlands around south-western Armenia, north-western Iran, northern Iraq, north-east Syria and south-east Turkey. Their society was built around sheep and goat herding. Despite the lack of a permanent state, a strong Kurd cultural identity exists, one fostered through centuries of tradition and shared history.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century the Kurd’s traditional nomadic existence came under threat as borders of neighbouring states became more rigidly established in traditional Kurdish mountain territories, putting pressure on the Kurds to integrate into other societies.
At the start of the twentieth century Kurdish nationalists became more determined, and began agitating for a state of their own. Since the 1890s Kurdish newspapers and political clubs existed in what is now Turkey, highlighting a growing cultural autonomy. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One presented a great opportunity for the establishment of Kurdistan, and the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 made provision for the Kurdish state. Three years later however, the borders of Turkey were drawn in the Treaty of Lausanne and Kurdistan was not included. The Kurds were thus left with minority status in the states of the Middle East.
In the 1920s and 1930s Kurdish uprisings in eastern Turkey were met with brutal government suppression. Over the following decades attempts were made to outlaw the Kurdish language and prevent Kurds wearing their traditional clothes in the country’s major cities. In 1978 Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an organisation dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the PKK engaged in acts of guerrilla warfare and terrorism against the Turkish government in the Eastern provinces, until Ocalan was captured in 1999. In 2002 the Turkish government legalised broadcasts in the Kurdish language, as part of the attempt to gain membership to the European Union, but tensions and skirmishes have continued.
The conflict with IS has further complicated the situation between Turkey and its Kurd population. 160,000 Kurd refugees have been allowed across the Turkish border, to escape the fighting in Iraq and Syria. However, Turkey remains reluctant to further involve itself in the war with IS, fearing that former PPK fighters will cross the border and launch attacks on Turkey.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have been pulled into the fighting by IS advances into their territories in the respective countries. In January 2014 several Kurdish political parties in Syria took advantage of the disorder caused by the Syrian Civil War to declare the creation of a Kurdish regional government. The Syrian Kurd’s fight against the IS militants can be seen as another part of this campaign for independence, securing their territory from the rapid jihadist advance that has shocked the Middle East.
The 30 million Kurds in the Middle East make up the fourth largest ethnic group living in the region. As their contribution to the fighting against IS proves, they still play a vital role in the outcome of events and the path of history in the Middle East.
By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com
“The castle of the fairy-tale king” seduces more than a million tourists every year with its serene facade and mysterious air featured in postcards, travel guides and products from Walt Disney. The castle holds its own tales which it told to world and some and kept in mystery.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria who designed the castle as his solitary refuge was said to have been driven to insanity. Later in 1886, he was declared to have drowned a mysterious death. A few weeks later, the castle, Neuschwanstein, was opened to the public. Until today, it is among the famous tourist destination in Germany. Beyond the fairy-tale story, the fortress also holds a Nazi past. It was only recently featured in George Clooney’s World War II film, “The Monuments Men”. The film is about a special forces unit with a mission to track and steal back Europe’s stolen art works and treasures during the Second World War.
King Ludwig II did not just build the fortress forever immortalized in tales for royal ceremonies and residential purposes. He designed it particularly to isolate himself from the public. With the same intention as that of the king, the Nazis also chose the site to hide their plunders from the world.
Hitler’s Marching Orders
Hitler ordered the Rosenberg task force to “search lodges, libraries and archives of the occupied territories for material valuable to Germany.” The task force was created for the exclusive purpose of searching and looting art works from around the world. The command was given after German troops attacked France. It was the Fuhrer’s dream to open a “Fuhrer’s Museum” in Linz, Austria displaying all the treasures they have plundered during their war exploits. Acting upon orders, the Nazis looted art works and valuables and kept them hidden in various locations all over Germany including monasteries, salt mines and castles between 1940 and 1945.
“Neuschwanstein castle was chosen as headquarters of the ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg,’ the German art-looting organization,” said an art historian Tanja Bernsau. The castle was also set in an ideal location being near the Austrian border and far from Berlin which are likely targets of Allied attacks. The castle was built with a design similar to that of medieval inspiration. However, the castle was featured with the latest of architectural technology of the time. The castle has central heating, electric bell system for summoning servants and flushing toilets. The cornerstone dated back to 1868. However, the castle was not yet complete. There was still a large part unfinished which could be used for storage.
Tracking Lost Art
In the film, ‘The Monuments Men,’ Rose Valland is played by Cate Blanchett. Most of stolen art works found in the Neuschwanstein were looted from France. It was also the French connection that provided the U.S. Army information that led to the castle. efore the death of Monuments Man and art historian S. Lane Faison, Jr., in 2006, he described their find in an interview for the Archives of American Art. He said that the key to unlocking the discovery was French curator Rose Valland.
“She pretended to be a [Nazi] collaborator,” Faison said of Rose Valland. The curator worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum which was one of the Nazi’s central collection points before the looted items were shipped to Germany. For many years, Valland secretly traced the route of the art work and found out where they ended up eventually.
Salvaging the Loot
Valland then made a report which provided the Allies with information of the looted items leading the U.S. troops to the Bavarian castle. The troops then stormed the hideout in 1945. The troops discovered a vast file of index cards, lists and slides which document in detail stolen items numbering to around 21,000.
Saving Europe’s Art
The crates which contained invaluable pieces of art work were then transferred to the U.S.-directed Central Art Collecting Points. The center is assigned with the restitution or the returning of the items to their original owners. “And that’s where the huge task started,” said Iris Lauterbach of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. “The works of art had to be inventoried, photographed and restituted one by one. American and German art historians and secretaries worked together to restitute tens of thousands of pieces.”
S. Lane Faison also related how the task came as a daunting mission. Faison returned to Germany in 1951 to transfer the operations initially started by the U.S. to the Germans. “One of the saddest problems was that acres, I think you might say, of furniture just went on and on and on, piled up to the ceiling…and chairs, tables, household things, everything you could think of known to have come from Jewish sources,” Faison said. “But what do you do? And if somebody lost six Louis XV chairs, which ones were they? And did we have them? There was no way – you can’t identify such things.”
The Huge Task Ahead
The mission handed over to the Germans continue to this day. Germany continues the huge task of identification and art restitution. The discovery of stolen art in Germany also continues to be news. The film “Monuments Men” which recently had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, though interesting and informative of the preservation efforts of the art in war, received its share of criticisms.
“I didn’t like the film,” Iris Lauterbach said. “The film pretends to be based on a true story, but it contains too many fictitious elements.” She shared that the film gave out some informative inputs. Yet she also has some reservations on whether the film connects the European war theater and art to the lay person given the complexities that surround them. The tour of Neuschwanstein will also not be able to provide answers of the lost art works. Tourists will only find themselves amused of the castle tours to the king’s bedroom, the artificial dripstone cave and kitchen all intricately and lavishly laid out. However, the tour does not answer questions on the role of the castle in one of Europe’s darkest episodes.
“We’re not trying to hide that fact,” said castle spokesperson Thomas Rainer. He also said that the management even wants to provide answers to the castle’s role in the Nazi plunder. The director of the Bavarian Palace Museum department recently wrote an essay about art looting and art rescue sites during the Second World War. “But we have more than a million visitors per year and very strict regular tours that last 30 minutes,” Rainer said. “We focus on what we can during that time.”
On this day in 1096, the armies of the First Crusade officially set out for the Holy Land. They were responding to Pope Urban II’s call the previous November for people of the faith to travel to Jerusalem and liberate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Muslims. The pope chose August 15 because it is the date of the Feast of the Assumption.
His armies were preceded by the so-called People’s Crusade, which was organized several months earlier by the itinerant preacher Peter the Hermit and decimated by the Seljuks in Anatolia before ever making it to Jerusalem.
While reclaiming Jerusalem was the pope’s nominal goal, he was also responding to an appeal for help from Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, who too was fighting off Seljuk Muslims from the east. Only on June 7, 1099, the pope’s Crusaders, led by Raymond of Toulouse, Robert of Normandy and Tancred, arrived in Jerusalem, which the Fatimids of Egypt had by then wrested from Seljuk control. After a siege of more than a month, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on July 15. Their new Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted until it was routed – almost completely – by Saladin in 1187. The Crusades continued until early in the 14th century.
The “window” of the Apollonia Fortress’ dungeon affords a view of the kind of Mediterranean scene that is fast disappearing: gravel cliffs sloping sharply down to turquoise and pale green inlets, grouper fish darting around a reef, clearly visible in the transparent water, and one man sunbathing on the rocks, completely naked. The tourists standing at the spot where the magnificent tower once loomed gaze enchanted at the view – either at the sunbather’s exposed limbs, or, more likely, at the remnants of the Crusader port. This is a collection of boulders protruding from the water, what’s left of the towers that once stood by the entry of the ancient port before they grew weary and collapsed in the mid-20th century, several hundred years after they were built.
Crusader nobles awakened to this vista every morning, peering out at the European ships that anchored across from the port and the boats that made their way back and forth to fill the city’s storerooms with precious goods. The living quarters of the Crusader fortress, where the families of the knights who ruled the area resided, were located on the western side of the fortress, which faced the sea. This section eventually collapsed after ceaseless erosion by the waves of the gravel ridge.
Apollonia’s natural harbor never developed into a port as large as Acre, where dozens of ships would anchor in the 13th century, to be loaded with locally- produced sugar bound for Europe. But the ruins of Apollonia are enough to make one see that the constant movement of people, raw materials and cooking techniques was already occurring hundreds of years before the word “globalization” became part of the modern vocabulary.
Sugar cane, lemons, oranges, eggplant, bananas, rice and other agricultural products originally cultivated in the Far East were adopted by Western civilization via the Middle East. The legends that grew up around the West’s first encounters with these unfamiliar foods and the way they spread throughout Europe were largely connected to the Crusades and the knights who flooded the Middle East with blood on their way to the Holy Land. They hungrily gorged themselves on sugary sweets and almonds, it’s said, and brought these treats back with them to their native countries.
But the historic truth, as usual, is a bit more complex, since most of the knights who settled in the Crusader kingdom never returned to Europe. Today it is widely believed that the reconquest of Spain and Sicily from the Muslim Empire, rather than the Crusades, introduced the foods and flavors of classic Arabic cuisine into the lands of the Mediterranean and then to Western Europe.
Whatever the case, the West’s encounter in the Middle Ages with Arabic cuisine, which in many respects was more advanced than Western cooking of the time, was a source of great excitement among the Crusaders. This week, we returned to the cuisine of the Land of Israel in the 12th and 13th centuries – via a Crusader cooking workshop at Apollonia National Park.
Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are. In the Middle Ages, so we learned in the workshop, food defined a person’s identity and status in the world. This is true to a great extent today as well, but it was even truer when people believed that the nobleman’s physical build required him to eat the dainty flesh of fish, fragile, high-flying birds, and roast game. A peasant whose body was not designed to digest such foods and nevertheless sampled them, was liable to take sick, according to popular belief at the time, and so he was supposed to make do with simple, crude vegetables that grew close to the ground. Once in a while, the poor would season their bean and root vegetable stew with a paltry bit of fat from an animal’s less desirable parts.
Meanwhile, the upper middle class ate hardly any vegetables. And as for carbohydrates, white bread made from wheat was food for lords only. In Europe, the peasants ate black bread made from rye or oats, and delivered any wheat, a much rarer commodity, to whoever was above them in the social hierarchy. Thus, the Crusaders were quite surprised to find that in the Holy Land, everyone ate white bread and pita made of wheat.
In Europe, cooking employed mainly animal fat, usually lard, and food was so greasy that bumps were carved in bowls to keep it from slipping out of people’s hands. In the Middle East, the main sources of fat were olive oil and sesame oil.
Another surprise was the abundance of available spices and the broad use of herbs. In medieval Europe, food was seasoned primarily with black pepper and a little salt, which was also used to preserve, smoke and dry foods. In Arab cuisine, by comparison, seasoning was considered a real art. Extensive use was made of spices such as ginger, saffron, cinnamon and cloves, which the Arab traders brought from the spice lands of the East, and of seasonings produced from indigenous herbs.
The Crusaders appear to have internalized the principles of seasoning so well that if you tried to follow Crusader recipes exactly as written, you’d end up with dishes quite unappetizing to the modern palate. Seasoning in Crusader times was not just meant to improve the taste of the food, but had a host of other purposes as well. For one thing, it was a status symbol that reflected a person’s ability to purchase expensive spices from faraway markets. And the various colors that spices gave to food had mystical meanings – for example, the golden hue produced by yellow saffron was an allusion to the possibility of eternal life. The spices also had medicinal purposes.
But most often, the heavy seasoning was intended to cover up the awful taste and quality of the raw ingredients. At a time when there was no refrigeration, the meat was frequently in a bad state. Such dubious meat, buried under layers of spices to hide its flavor, gave the central bazaar that served the Crusaders in Jerusalem its name – the Rue de Malquisinat (“The Street of Bad Cooking”).
Na’ama Frustig and chef David Gol, the leaders of the workshop, chose dishes composed of ingredients that existed during the Crusader period here and adapted them to the modern palate – i.e., they reduced the cacophony of spices and flavors of the original recipes. The lamb packed into the browned meat pies is not soaked overnight in sour milk, as was customary back in the Crusader era, but chopped and fried with egg yolk (in the Middle Ages, eggs were rarely eaten on their own as a food, but were cooked with other ingredients), rosemary, parsley, oregano, thyme and a variety of other local herbs. Jacques de Vitry, the governor of Acre, wrote admiringly of the lemon trees, whose tangy fruits were ideal for making sauces for fish and fowl. So chicken thighs were brushed with a mixture of lemon, olive oil and sumac. While the lentil stew simmered over an open fire, workshop participants were taken on a tour of the fortress’ kitchens.
Here is an adaptation of a recipe that appears in different versions in cookbooks from the late Middle Ages. It is based on lemon, spices and wine (the Crusaders who settled in the Holy Land revived, at least for a while, the wine industry that had faded during the age of Muslim occupation) and is a good example of that era’s tendency to blend sweet, sour and salty tastes.
Lemon sauce for chicken and pheasant
2 1/2 cups white wine
4 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
Peel the lemons and set aside the peel. Squeeze the lemons, keep the juice and the pulp and discard the white pith. Combine lemon peel, pulp and juice with the wine and cook over a low flame for four minutes. Add the sugar, cinnamon and salt and simmer for one more minute.
The main celebrity of Apollonia was King Richard the Lionheart. Since little Apollonia did not appear on the map of holy pilgrimage sites, not too many VIPs of the time stayed there, but the English king did spend at least one night. He had run into a unit of Saladin’s army near the city, and in the famous Battle of Arsuf, managed, despite the Crusader army’s inferior numbers, to achieve a great victory, which paved the way for the conquest of the Holy Land. This battle exacted a heavy price among the Crusaders, including the life of Richard’s friend, Sir Jacques, who as buried at the Church of the Holy Lady in Apollonia in the presence of the king himself. The church and the knight’s grave have yet to be found (take note, all you prospective writers of best-selling historic adventure tales).
The history of the Apollonia fortress, unlike that of the city itself, is very brief. It was built by the Crusader rulers of the city, but it wasn’t long before, in the face of the Mamluk threat, it passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitaller, who were thought to have a better chance of defending the city. As it happened, this strategy was not very successful. Nor was the digging of a wide, 17-meter deep moat that could only be crossed by a raised wooden bridge, or biological weapons in the form of animal carcasses that were hurled over the wall to spread disease among the enemy. Just 24 years after it was built, the Mamluks conquered the fortress after a siege that was anything but lengthy.
But before that happened, 200 Knights Hospitaller and their bearers used to dine at the large wooden table in the dining hall twice a day – most likely in shifts, given the tight space (during the siege, 2,000 people somehow squeezed into the fortress).
The Christian monastic communities, which set down in great detail the rules of eating – including what goes on the menu, seating arrangements and frequency of meals – had an especially important influence on lifestyles in the Middle Ages. Every knight had his own personal knife, there were no forks as yet, and spoons were a rare item. The soup and stew bowls found in excavations were designed to enable diners to drink from them directly.
In the five cooking and baking ovens found in the kitchen next to the dining hall, stews simmered and slabs of meat were roasted. The city’s knights went on hunting trips in pursuit of the fallow deer, wild boar, rabbits and bears that still populated those unsettled areas at the time. One of the city’s rulers died in a freak hunting accident when his hat became stuck on a tree branch, causing him to be strangled.
Tagliot – Archaeology 4 All offers cooking workshops in Philistine, Crusader and Ottoman cuisine. For more information, call 03-6423432 or visit http://www.tagliot.com
Why did Hitler crave the missing panel in the famous Ghent Altarpiece? Maybe because the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a map to the Holy Grail.
On the night of 10 April 1934, one of the twelve oak panels that comprise Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Often referred to as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” this monumental oil painting is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. It is also the most-frequently stolen, having been burgled, in its entirety or in parts, at least six times—quite a feat, considering that it is the size of a barn door (14 x 11.5 feet) and weighs about two tons. It was the most-desired artwork by the Nazis, including Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.
The two Nazi leaders actually raced one another to be the first to steal the altarpiece. The Nazi art theft unit, the ERR, captured it first for Hitler, from its hiding place at Chateau de Pau, in the south of France, where the Belgian government had sent it for safe-keeping. But an emissary from Göring appropriated it for the Luftwaffe head’s massive stolen art collection, which included some seven-thousand masterpieces, displayed at his country estate outside Berlin. Hitler got wind of this, and intercepted the altarpiece, sending it first to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, where it was restored, and then for storage in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, where the twelve-thousand most famous stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied Europe were kept in secret, destined to feature in Hitler’s planned “super museum,” which would be the size of a city, and display every important artwork in the world. From the Altaussee salt mine, the Ghent Altarpiece and its fellow captives were ultimately rescued, thanks to the combined efforts of Austrian miners and a pair of Monuments Men, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein, who only learned of the Altaussee hoard thanks to a fortuitous toothache that led them to a former SS officer, an art historian who was in hiding as the war drew to a close. The upcoming George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, dramatizes some of these stories, though taking a great many liberties in the process.
The iconography of The Ghent Altarpiece has long fascinated scholars. The painting was immediately the most famous in Europe, when it was completed in 1432. It was the first major oil painting. Oil had been used to bind pigments to paintings since the Middle Ages, but Jan van Eyck was the first to demonstrate the true potential of oils, which permit far greater subtlety and detail than largely-opaque egg-based tempera paint, which was preferred before The Ghent Altarpiece popularized oils. The altarpiece contains over 100 figures, and is an elaborate pantheon of Catholic mysticism—at its center stands a heavenly field, brimming with uniquely-depicted figures around a sacrificial lamb, representative of Christ (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb from which the work draws it title). The lamb stands upon an altar and bleeds into a chalice—the Holy Grail.
Hitler so craved the Ghent Altarpiece because it was one of the most famous artworks in history, and it was by a Germanic artist, in the realistic, Northern Renaissance style that Hitler preferred. It had also been forcibly repatriated to Belgium after the First World War, before which certain panels of the altarpiece had been displayed in Berlin. The Treaty of Versailles mentioned only four works of cultural heritage, foremost among them The Ghent Altarpiece. Hitler wanted to correct the humiliation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, and recapturing the altarpiece would go some way toward that goal.
But there may also have been a more fantastic reason why Hitler wanted this painting above all others. Rumor had it that he was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, the so-called Arma Christi, or instruments of Christ’s Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. Hitler believed that the possession of the Arma Christiwould grant their owner supernatural powers. As the tide of the war turned ever more against the Nazis, Hitler cranked up his efforts to seek some supernatural way to bring victory to the Third Reich.
Cue the soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’sübermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The idea that the Nazis had teams of researchers hunting for supernatural treasures, religious relics, and entrances to a magical land of telepathic faeries and giants might sound like a bad History Channel documentary, or out-takes from an Indiana Jones movie. But despite the considerable popular interest in all things Nazi-related, and all things supernatural, relatively few people are aware of a very real organization that was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones plots: the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization.
The Ahnenerbe (which literally means “Inheritance of the Forefathers”) was a paranormal research group, established by order of SS head Heinrich Himmler on 1 July 1935. It was expanded during the Second World War on direct orders from the Fuhrer. Hitler and other top Nazi leaders’ (Himmler foremost among them) interest in the occult is well and widely documented. The Nazi Party actually began as an occult fraternity, before it morphed into a political party. Himmler’s SS, ostensibly Hitler’s bodyguard but in practice the leading special forces of the Nazi Army, was wholly designed based on occult beliefs. Wewelsburg, the castle headquarters of the SS, was the site of initiation rituals for twelve SS “knights” that was modeled on Arthurian legend. The magical powers of runes were invoked, and the Ahnenerbe logo features rune-style lettering. Psychics and astrologers were employed to attack the enemy and plan tactics based on the alignment of the stars. Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’s übermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The Ahnenerbe sent expeditions all over the world. To Tibet, to search for traces of the original, uncorrupted Aryan race, and for a creature called the Yeti, what we would call the Abominable Snowman. To Ethiopia, in search of the Ark of the Covenant. To the Languedoc, to find the Holy Grail. To steal the Spear of Destiny, which Longinus used to pierce Christ’s side as Christ hung on the cross, and which disappeared from a locked vault in Nurnberg. To Iceland, to find the entrance to a magical land of telepathic giants and faeries called Thule, which Hitler and most of the Nazi brass believed was the place of origin of the Aryans, and was very real. If they could find this entrance, believed to be accessible via a secret code hidden in a Medieval Icelandic saga called The Eddas, then the Nazis might accelerate their Aryan breeding program, and recover the supernatural powers of flight, telepathy and telekinesis that they believed their ancestors in Thule possessed, and which was lost due to inter-breeding with “lesser” races.
As crazy as all this may sound, it was fervently believed by many in the Nazi Party—so much so that huge sums of money were invested into research, along with hundreds of workers and scientists. This pseudo-scientific institute both sought supernatural advantages for the Nazi war effort, but also had a propagandistic agenda, to seek “scientific” evidence to support Nazi beliefs, like Aryan racial superiority.
With all this in mind, it is entirely plausible that Hitler believed that the Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded map to supernatural treasure. After all, the Ahnenerbe was hard at work looking for a secret entrance to the magical land of Thule in the Icelandic saga, The Eddas. Whether such a map is in The Ghent Altarpiece is another matter, one that scholars dismiss out of hand, though it is tempting to interpret the complex, enigmatic iconography and disguised symbolism of van Eyck’s masterpiece in terms more exotic than those in the average art history textbook. But there is also another component to the story that fuels this theory, and it is linked to the 1934 theft of that single panel.
There has never been a convincing explanation for the motivation for the theft of the Righteous Judges panel, referred to as such because it depicts a group of Biblical wise men (while also hiding several portraits, including one of van Eyck). While the man who masterminded the theft of the Judges panel, Arsene Goedertier, is known, he could not have acted alone, and his motivation is uncertain. The panel was ostensibly stolen in order to ransom it back to the bishopric of Saint Bavo—but Goedertier had more money in his bank account than was asked for in the ransom demand. For lack of a clear motive, various theories have arisen, one of which is linked to a Nazi art detective, Heinrich Köhn, who was sent to Ghent to find the stolen Judges panel several years before the Nazis seized the other eleven panels of the altarpiece.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, along with Himmler, conceived of the idea to find the lost Judges panel and give it as a gift to Hitler at the tenth anniversary of his assumption of power in Germany, in 1943. Köhn investigated throughout the city of Ghent, even taking apart portions of the cathedral (for one theory held that the panel had been hidden on-site, never having left Saint Bavo). He found nothing, and was sent to fight in the Eastern Front for his failure. Why would the Nazis wish to locate a single stolen panel? They surely had designs on seizing the entire altarpiece, and did not wish it to be incomplete when they did so. Some have suggested that the coded treasure map leading to the Arma Christiwas missing a key component that was hidden in the Judges panel. In order for the map to bear fruit, that panel was needed. It was stolen in 1934, therefore, to keep it out of Nazi hands, should the nascent Adolf Hitler follow through with his plan to recapture The Ghent Altarpiece and make it the focal point of his super-museum.
While there are plenty of non-supernatural, non-Da Vinci Code-y rationales for Hitler to desire The Ghent Altarpiece above all other objects, it is entirely plausible that Hitler might have believed in the coded treasure map theory. It seems far-fetched to us today, until we consider the other crazy theories that were truly believed by Hitler and his cronies. If The Eddas might contain a code to gain entrance to the magical land of Thule, where Aryan ancestors lived as flying telepathic faeries and giants then, according to Nazi logic, then the world’s most important painting might indeed contain a treasure map leading to the Holy Grail.
A mystery sword made by the Vikings and engraved with the word Ulfberht has stumped archaeologists. The sword is forged in such a way that it looks to have been made by technologies that weren’t available until 800 years after the Viking era.
Around 170 of the swords have been found, all of which date from between 800AD to 1000AD, but the technology that would have forged them is from the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and 1900s.
A television programme has looked into the mystery in more detail called, ‘Secrets of the Viking Sword’. Its researchers say that to forge the iron which the swords are made of, the ore needs to be heated to around 3000 degrees (F). It then liquefies and the impurities are removed. It is then mixed with carbon to strengthen the iron. However medieval technologies, which are what the Vikings would have been using, would not have been able to heat any metal or substance that high a temperature. In those days, the impurities would have been removed by hammering them out of the iron.
In contradiction to this, the Ulfberht contains almost no impurities at all and it has thrice the amount of carbon in it than any other metals that are known to have existed at the time. The metal the swords are made of is known as crucible steel.
Furnaces that could heat metals and substances to extremely high temperatures what not invented until the industrial revolution when the tools for heating iron to these temperatures were also developed.
A blacksmith has consulted with the television programme’s researchers and has said that to make a sword like the Ulfberht Is highly complex and difficult. The blacksmith is the only person who has the skills and tools available to try to reproduce the metal of the Ulfberht. He believes that whoever made the sword during the Viking era would have surely been thought to possess magic powers since the metal was and still is so special and unique, Ancient Origins reports.
The sword bends but doesn’t break, it stays razorsharp, and is very light weight, and so to soldiers it would have been thought of as almost supernatural.
The blacksmith spent many days working to try to recreate the Ulfberht using medieval technology, and finally did produce a similar metal with great skill and hard work. Researchers now believe it is possible that the knowledge to make the swords originated in the Middle East and that trade routes between there and Europe would have spread the knowledge and technologies. When those trade routes eventually closed, due to lack of use, so too did the Ulfberht ceased to continue being made.