Slightly inland from the seaside town of Cascais, nestled on a low mountain that seems to generate its own cloud cover, is the retreat of former royals and wealthy citizens called Sintra. The mountain and its cloud cover must have made for a pleasant coolness in the hot Portuguese summers. C and I made a couple of day trips up there to visit some former palaces, residences and monasteries.
One of these is called Quinta de Regaleira, the former home of a baroness that was later bought by Carvalho Monteiro, a super wealthy Brazilian, at the turn of the century. After buying the house he then bought up the rest of the hill where the baroness’ home was situated. After a false start at commissioning a design for a place for himself, he decided to hire an opera set decorator to design both the house and its chapel, but also to effectively turn the whole mountaintop into a colossal set, with fake ponds, underwater labyrinths and a series of underground tunnels that functioned as a metaphorical voyage of initiation and self-discovery — a voyage inspired by the Knights Templar, the Freemasons and alchemists as well. Disney take note — this guy was doing freaky cosmic theme parks before anyone else.
So I asked myself, as readers of Dan Brown’s books no doubt have, who were these Knights of Templar?
They came into existence after the crusades had gained a foothold in Jerusalem. The first crusade, or shall we call it invasion of the Middle East by western Europeans, was in 1099. Jerusalem was captured from the Arabs, and Europeans began to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land in significant numbers to see and feel the aura of the place where their faith originated. While Jerusalem was, for these pilgrims, a kind of protected Green Zone, the approach to it was not. The route from the port of Jaffa (alongside present-day Tel Aviv) inland to Jerusalem was dangerous, and scores of pilgrims were slaughtered by what we might now call insurgents, or freedom fighters…or defenders of their homeland? The hapless pilgrims needed to call Blackwater or some other ruthless mercenaries for hire to protect them. So, one hundred years later a French knight proposed the creation of an order that would attempt to protect these pilgrims — the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, so called because they were given a headquarters by King Baldwin II: the Al Aqsa Mosque, which, significantly, had been built over the former Temple.
What was this Temple of Solomon, I ignorantly asked myself? According to Wikipedia it was, in its first incarnation, “the first temple of the ancient religion of the biblical Israelites, originally constructed by King Solomon… It was designed to house the Ark of the Covenant” — so we’re in Raiders of the Lost Ark territory now. Other powerful relics were rumored to be buried at this site, but all we know is that the Templars got hold of bits of what were referred to as pieces of the “True Cross.”
The Temple of Solomon was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times…marking important events in Jewish history. Here is a (somewhat exaggerated?) visual depiction from a Freemasonry website — it brings to mind the Merchandise Mart building in Chicago. Freemasons sometimes claim that the architects and masons who built this massive thing were the original Freemasons — hence the association with the Knights.
Eventually the Romans took it over, and built their own temple there — and at present there is once again a mosque on the site, which includes the oft-disputed Dome of the Rock.
Beneath a section of the Dome of the Rock there is a cave known as the Well of Souls. All sorts of wild myths abound: “Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad ascended heavenwards from the stone above the cave, a related tradition has grown up that states that the Last Judgment will happen at the Sakhrah, and that the souls of the dead gather in the well of souls to wait for that event, and to pray… [and lastly,] according to pre-Islamic folklore, the well of souls was a place where the voices of the dead could be heard along with the sounds of the Rivers of Paradise.” [Source] That’s a lot of mythical weight to bear!
The Knights were quickly endorsed by the Catholic Church, and wore recognizable white mantles featuring a symmetrical red cross (this cross appears regularly at Monteiro’s theme park). They became an expert fighting unit — proto-Jedi Knights, spiritual warriors and protectors. About 100 years after their founding the Pope not only recognized them but gave them special privileges — one can imagine how noble their cause would have seemed to the European imagination. They were granted tax-free status, and were allowed passage anywhere they wanted to go — borders were no longer of any import to the Knights. Being a kind of military and financial institution (see below), this papal bull was immensely helpful.
Though as individuals they were legendarily poor and relied on donations to continue their work, their order quickly amassed massive assets and devised innovative financial techniques. For instance: a pilgrim or entourage might want to visit the Holy Land but not leave their valuables unattended back home. So, they would place them in the hands of the regional Templars in their hometown, and in turn they were issued a paper certificate, which they could redeem for money in Jerusalem. The first form of checking, and banking of a sort, was born. Already the plot thickens — you can imagine the kinds of assets the organization accumulated. The whole island of Cyprus belonged to the Templars at one point!
Their power increased and they became an established institution (partly financial) in Europe and elsewhere in the following centuries. But not everyone was happy about this. King Philip of France ended up owing them a lot of money and he wondered how he could get out of his debts. He pressured Pope Clement V to go after the Templars. At first the Pope was timid in his attack on the Jedi — but King Philip must have had some leverage, because after a bit the Pope summoned the Templars to him and arrested and tortured them all, accusing them of heresy, homosexuality and weird initiations. Some signed confessions under torture (which they later recanted) and most of the powerful Templars were burned at the stake.
One cried out to the King and Pope as the flames consumed him that he would see them later; both of them died within the year…but not before the church and king had usurped the accumulated lands and property of the order.
By around 1300 the Templar Order was effectively gone, but as an inspiration they lived on.
Reader Luís Bonifácio adds: "The Order was disbanded in all countries of Europe with the exception of Portugal, where King Deniz, when notified by the Pope to disband the Templars, proposed to confiscate all their belongings, and to form a new Knight Order called the 'Order of Christ.' The Pope accepted, and all the knights, churches, monasteries and territories of the Knights Templar were transformed into the 'Order of Christ,' which was simply the Knights Templar by another name, commanded by a member of the Royal Family. Their symbol continued to be the red cross, with a different design, which you can still see in the sails of the NRP Sagres (sister ship of the USS Eagle). A century later, the Knights of this Order, led by the Grand-Master Prince Henry the Navigator, started the Portuguese Discoveries, an expansion towards Africa, America, India, China and Japan. The Order remained in the lead of the Expansion until Portugal's annexation by Spain in 1580. After 1580, the Order was disbanded, and today remains one of the most important honorific orders of medals in Portugal. In the XVI century, the role of the Order of Christ in Portuguese history was taken by the 'Company of Jesus' (the Jesuits), until the early XX century."
Both Knights Templar and Freemasonry were essentially secret societies — though very different from one another — which led to lots of speculation and rumor. They both also had a vaguely spiritual bent — an idea that initiates might be given special knowledge that was passed down, and strange rituals that both bound the members together and were metaphors for personal discovery. [Source]
Various spinoffs of the Masons in the US in the earlier part of the last century made the initiation and other ceremonies into lovely little quasi-theatrical events. Here is a “set” and backdrop from one such ritual that was for sale via the Webb Gallery in Texas:
One could argue that here was a whole genre of theater that existed out of public view.
So, back to Monteiro’s theme park mountain. The house is pretty great — with Arabic-themed rooms, and a hunting-themed room with mosaics of beasts to be killed and a huge tusked boar bust in marble looming out from the wall — but it is the gardens that folks come to see. Visitors head up the hill, along winding paths, past follies and fountains, through a forest of exotic plants imported from Brazil until one reaches a pile of moss covered stones.
We were told that in the past a hidden staircase led to the top of the pile, but as that route led nowhere, one was sometimes led through a crevasse to a hidden stone door with no handle. And the door was way too heavy to move by hand. How to get inside? Our guide showed us a hole in a crack near the rock door, in which was concealed a lever that released a counterweight, allowing the door to swing open — like a fairytale or an episode out of Arabian Nights come to life! Through the door was what is referred to as the initiates’ well…though it was never used as a well.
In Monteiro’s conception this allowed one to metaphorically descend into the underworld — a realm of self-testing, self-discovery and rebirth. At the bottom of the stairs was the entrance to a couple of tunnels. Our guide escorted us into one of them, saying the other led to a dead end. We pulled out our little flashlights.
Monteiro had a whole maze of tunnels constructed under his mountain — some led to grottoes, with no way out, and one led to another well that had no winding staircase to bring one up and out. To really leave the tunnel complex, and symbolically escape from the underworld (the subconscious?), one had to take a tunnel with no light at the end — to head into darkness. Eventually one emerged in the back of a little (man-made) grotto, and had to exit using stepping stones — stepping in a proscribed manner, right foot first.
Fun, eh! None of it is natural, but with the algae and mossy growth it all seems quite believable.
There is a chapel with a Knights Templar cross on the floor and a Masonic eye in a triangle on the ceiling. A mosaic shows a saint on a seashore preaching to fishes — the fish are leaping out of the water with their mouths open in rapt attention. Inside the main house there is a library that must have been constructed as a kind of contemporary art installation. The walls were filled with books on all sides, and around the perimeter of the floor was a mirror that appeared to extend the bookshelves down below the floor we were standing on. The carpeted ground in the center of the room seemed to therefore “float” — it was a creepy, unnerving sensation. I believe the lowest shelf you can see is actually a reflection:
Nearby Quinta Regaleiro is the remains of a small monastery formerly belonging to the convent of the Capuchos order. Like the magic mountain, it too was somewhat peculiar. There was no sign of a large building that might harbor loads of monks — just a small, rough cobblestoned area with two crosses on top of vaguely triangular stones. C looked behind one of the crosses, and sure enough there were steps that led to a crevasse between two huge boulders. In the crevasse was a door.
The monastery itself was not huge, and was tucked into the natural boulders and vegetation — we were told that these monks sought a kind of enlightenment in harmonizing with nature. Inside, the rooms were often lined with cork bark, as those trees were growing everywhere around. The bark walls, and bark covered doors and window blinds, made the tiny rooms appear even more primitive — as if some other kind of civilization lived here. The rooms for the individual monks, their cells, were so tiny and the doors leading to them so low and small, it seemed the monks were a species of Hobbit.