The Brotherhood of the Crypt

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

Imagine yourself as a citizen of the Roman empire. It is 52 BC and a warm summer night’s breeze brushes across your cheek, ruffling the tails of the blindfold tied tightly around your head. Perhaps you are a merchant or a sailor, possibly a soldier between campaigns. You are being led swiftly along a jagged rocky path, your hands bound, deep into the woodlands close to your home town. You come to a stop and you hear a series of passwords exchanged between your escort and a second voice. The words you recognize but their emphasis and arrangement is strange to you. Your escort tugs at your arm and you resume your brisk pace but as you step forward a few paces the unmistakably dank, cool air of a subterranean refuge fills your nostrils. After several twists and turns, your escort once more pulls you to a stop and says to you:

“I can bring you no further, neophyte. You must meet him alone.”

With a gentle push between your shoulder blades, he propels you forward into the unknown labyrinth. Your heart hammers against your rib cage as you take you first step into formless dark. Your foot meets nothing but air and you are plunged headlong into a pool of impossibly cold water. After negotiating several more trials of a similar nature, you feel an unnatural warmth on your skin and you begin to hear the crackling of a fire and the echoes of chanting ahead of you. As you step forward into this room, you are seized at either arm and rushed forward and pushed down on your knees. You are beginning to regret your foolish decision when suddenly your hoodwink is removed. You are blinded by the light of burning braziers and as your vision readjusts to the new light you see a man standing before you garbed in a black robe and wearing a fearsome mask. Behind him is a towering stone stele depicting a man astride a writhing bull, plunging his dagger into its breast. Plants appear to be growing from the wound and various animals are depicted as sharing in the feast. The entire scene is bordered by the zodiacal sigils and cornered by effigies of the Four Winds. The man in black begins to speak:

“When the peace of our world was threatened by the great demon Ahriman, humanity had no hope of prevailing against such a potent force of violence and despair. Ahriman sought to destroy this world by inducing drought, thirst and starvation. Not a drop of moisture remained in the kingdoms of the plants and animals and the whole world cried out in desperation. In our darkest hour, the great hero Mithras, sprang forth from the stone of the world and took up the orb of the Cosmos in his protective embrace. From his bow he let fly an arrow that struck the earth and from this wound came a renewing spring, which rejuvenated the Earth, if only temporarily. Still the threat of destruction persisted and with the assistance of the moon-mother, Selene, the vital fluid essence of life itself was secreted away in a giant bull on Earth. A raven, acting as the messenger of the Sun, came to Mithras and told him of the forest in which the bull was hiding. Mithras burned away the withered and desiccated trees and forced the great bull out in the open. He captured the bull and dragged it underground into the bowels of the Earth where he wrestled it into submission and plunged his dagger into its breast. Trees sprang from the wound, bees were born from the droplets of blood and all of the earth was rejuvenated by this great sacrifice.”

The man in black steps forward and cuts you free of your bonds and takes your right hand in his and, clasping it firmly, declares, “Behold the grip of Mithras. It shall ever identify you as being in allegiance with your brethren as Mithras and Helios were united in like manner. Rise, Raven, and take your rightful place amongst your Brethren!”

The Dawn of Mithras

Although embellished with artistic license, the above account is close to the experience that the novice initiate into the Roman cult of Mithras would have had. Mithraism has its roots in the dawn of civilization, a deity named Mitras making an appearance in the Vedas as the bringer of the light of dawn nearly 2,000 thousand years before his bull-slaying counterpart would appear in Iran. From Persia, Mithras made his way to Greece through Mithradates Eupator VI, a grizzled naval commando of the ancient Mediterranean Sea and king of the Cilician Empire who helped the Greeks repel the attempted conquest of

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Mithradates Eupator VI

Rome. Mithradates was the first to establish Mithras at the head of a mystery religion. This fraternity, created and led by Mithradates himself, functioned as a sort of ancient special forces to be used in piratical incursions across the Mediterranean. The Cilician navy rose to infamy and came to dominate the Mediterranean slave trade after the dissolution of the Carthaginian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. These “pirates of Mithras” also carried out an enterprise of kidnapping Roman magistrates and their families, most likely under the direction of Mithradates himself for political motives as well as profit.

These early Mithraists, who were in nearly constant opposition to the forces of Roman imperialism, conceived of themselves as a sort of hidden militia of Mithras, the cryphii or ‘hidden ones’. They recognized Mithras as a god of righteous warfare, of resistance to oppressive force. Eventually the iron hand of the Roman general Pompey shattered the rule Mithradtes VI and his fraternal mercenaries were scattered to the winds. A few of these Mithraic pirates were captured and paraded through the streets of Rome as part of Pompey’s tribute, the general then installing them as beekeepers in province of Apulia. From here, Mithraism was rekindled and slowly spread northwards to the teeming and lively marketplaces of Rome and found welcome among the Roman collegia, associations of tradesmen and merchants. Mithraism further ingratiated itself into the fabric of Roman society as the cult spread like wildfire among the legions, similar to the expansion of Freemasonry in the 19th century throughout the military of the British Empire. At the height of the Roman imperial period, followers of Mithras ranged as far afield as the scorching fringes of the Sahara to the windswept moors of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Mithras slaying the bull

The Cult of the Invincible Sun

Mithras was a solar deity and bore the title of Sol Invictus, “Invincible Sun”, in reference to his pact with the Sun to restore the Earth. Very few Mithraic liturgical texts have made their way into contemporary hands, as befits a secret society, but a few scraps do remain. Some scholars, such as Robert Turcan in ‘Cults of the Roman Empire’ (1996) speculate that in performing the duties that the Sun was normally responsible for (duties that Helios was somehow prevented from fulfilling), Mithras assumed his throne by his act of heroism. Within the mithraeum, Mithras’ position was always in the south, representing the Sun at full strength at the meridian. On the entrance of the Mithraic crypt and within the mythology of the fraternity, Mithras is flanked by two attendants, Cautes and Cautophates, who represented the Sun at dawn and sunset respectively. Cautes holds a torch pointing upwards while Cautophates directs his towards the ground. They have also been taken as representing the vernal (ascending) and autumnal (descending) equinoxes, which along with the winter and summer solstices, were of the utmost importance to the Mithraic cult.

Mithraism was a religion of the crypt and unlike other Roman mystery religions, had no exoteric function. They held no public ceremonies and the mithraeum were strictly off-limits to outsiders. Because they took no public tithing, Mithraism had to adapt to the circumstances of the individual chapters. The mysteries of Mithras were held in tent’s on the battlefield, discreet taverns and, when possible, in custom built subterranean temples financed by wealthy patrons of the brotherhood. These lavish temples, such as the mithraeum of Ostia, would have been ringed in statuary depicting the seven classical planets and had ceilings painted a deep sky blue, daubed with white stars. The regular meetings of the Mithraic brotherhood were known as “magic banquets” and were held weekly if not daily. They consisted of the brothers entering the temple in procession determined by rank of initiation and taking up places around the edges of the mithraeum. The master of the temple fulfilled the symbolic role of Saturn and sat in a throne wreathed in solar symbols. On occasions that required no extraordinary ceremonies, the proceedings began with a lecture upon spiritual and moral philosophy, no doubt illustrated by the symbolism and astrological allegories of the myth of Mithras. Following this period of study the brethren would participate in a symbolic meal of bread and wine, similar to the Catholic Eucharist, as a symbol of the feast shared by Mithras and Helios, followed by a communal meal.

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A drawing of Aion found at the mithraeum of Ostia

Under the Canopy of Heaven

The study of time and astronomy were of central importance to the mysteries of Mithras. One of the dominant artistic figures of many mithraeum, the lion-headed deity Aion watched over the proceedings of the mystery cult. At Ostia, he was depicted as holding the twin keys of wisdom, the scepter of royal power and the thunderbolt with the tools of a smith, a rooster and a pine cone at his feet. He also has a serpent wrapped around him, the snake’s ability to shed its skin representing infinity. Aion represented unbounded time, in contrast to the limited and linear form of time personified by the Saturnian deity Kronos and was often encircled by the zodiac. Mithraism came into being in the same era as the discovery by Grecian astronomer Hipparchus of the phenomenon now known as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by the subtle wobble of the orientation of the Earth’s axis and takes 25,920 years to complete. It has astrological significance in that every 2,160 years the Sun rises on the summer solstice in alignment with a different zodiacal constellation. The Mithraic mysteries were conceived in the midst of a change in ages. Mithras, as the newborn ‘Sol Invictus’, represents the victory of the fire-sign Aries over the previous age of Taurus the Bull. The twin aspects of Cautes and Cautophates symbolizing the addition of Gemini to the retinue of the Sun, the astrological age of Gemini having preceeded that of Taurus. In the tauroctony scene that could be found in every mithraeum, several animals are shown feasting on the bull, including a dog, a lion and a scorpion. These animals surely represented constellations though their exact symbolism and interplay within the Mithraic myth has been lost to history.

The Degrees of the Crypt

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An artist’s interpretation of the initiation ritual of the degree of Soldier

 

The mysteries of Mithras were divided into seven degrees, each connected to one of the seven classical planets. The initiation of the first degree gained the initiate the title of Raven. This oracular bird who could speak like a man occupied a position between the worlds and was thus the first point of contact between the neophyte and the ineffable. Candidates of the grade of Nymphus wore the flammeum, the bridal veil worn by Roman women on their wedding day. At the crescendo of the ritual, the veil was removed to reveal some particular arrangement of ritually significant objects. The words, “Look Nymphus! Hail, Nymphus! Hail young light!” were spoken, these phrases suggesting that the candidate held a lantern. The title of “Nymphus” implies that this degree represented a intermediate stage between the novice state of the Raven and the mastery implicit in the rank of Soldier. The Soldier bore a mark, either tattooed or branded, as a sign of his commitment to the militia of Mithras. During his initiation, the Soldier would have been presented with a crown on the point of a sword. He was then required to divert the crown to his shoulder, declaring that Mithras was his only true crown. The consecration of the degree of Lion was a ritual bathed in fire. The emblems of this degree are the fire-shovel, the sistrum of Isis and the heavenly fire of the thunderbolt. Fire being the enemy of water, the candidate’s hands were washed with honey to ensure his purity. The ritual itself consisted of physical trials by fire, presumably similar to the fire-walking stunts of the Hindu fakirs.  The candidate for the rank of Persian also had his hands washed in honey but for a different symbolism. The Persian was granted the privilege of harvesting the fruits grown by the grace of Mithras’ sacrifice. His emblems were thus the sickle and the Phyrgian cap of liberty. We know nothing of the ritual of the Heliodromos, the Sun-runner, other than that the symbols of his grade were the torch, a radiant crown and the flail. The Father, adorned in a headdress likening him to Mithras, led the proceedings of the temple and it has been speculated that he and a Heliodromos fulfilled the roles of Mithras and the Sun in the ritual re-enactment of the celestial feast.

There is one gift that the mysterious brothers of Mithras gave to the world that has survived to modern times. Every time we clasp hands with a friend, a colleague or a stranger in a handshake, we recognize them as brothers initiated into the mysteries of the cave-dwelling god of sacrifice. The modern handshake was birthed from the cult of Mithras and has endured millennia in its original form. It is obvious, from what scraps of their rituals remain, that some core concepts of Mithraism have survived in modern Freemasonry. It would be irresponsible to attribute the origin of Freemasonry to this cult or that society but it is beyond doubt that certain aspects of many ancient fraternities have been folded within the embrace of Speculative Freemasonry. The Mithraic obsession with utter secrecy concerning the whereabouts and operations of their temples is certainly echoed in Freemasonry, as is the practice of greeting brothers by certain handshakes. As Freemasons, an examination of Mithraism and similar ancient mysteries will surely bring us closer to timeless and unwavering truths glimpsed by so many throughout the vast expanse of time.

“When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart: ‘By the same powers that you are slain, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hands shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the Tree of Heaven.'”

-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese poet and Freemason

Columbia: An American Goddess

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883

If you were to ask the average American which mythical figure best represents the national character, most would reply with a household name: Uncle Sam. The genial yet intimidating patriarch has dominated artistic and poetic descriptions of the American nation-state for a hundred years. However there is another, more deeply ingrained avatar of the American populace, the omnipresent Columbia. Most famously depicted as the Statue of Liberty , upon which is inscribed Emma Lazarus’ poem reproduced above, Columbia was the mythical figure adopted by the founding generation of the early United States. After the defeat of the British in 1783, America found itself free from international harassment and a wide open frontier of unknowable bounty. What was needed was an icon, a symbol by which to galvanize and direct the consciousness of the American people. By the late 1790’s, Columbia was born.  Columbia quickly became the patron saint of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine of westward expansion embraced with genocidal fervor by the pioneers and politicians alike.

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Columbia advancing towards the darkness of the West, bringing light and civilization in her wake.

Columbia’s figure appears on or within many state and federal buildings constructed in the 19th century, usually cast in bronze and often pointing or facing West. She adorns the Wisconsin Capitol building, sculpted by the same Daniel Chester French who constructed the greatest rendition of Columbia in history, the 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. She reposes atop the Texas Capitol holding the sword of Justice and raising aloft a blazing golden star. She lends her name to numerous towns across America, she is the patron of Columbia University and the seat of governmental power stands in a district built in her honor: The District of Columbia.

Columbia as a symbol is far too complex and deeply-rooted to be ascribed as a creation of political machinations. Columbia is only the latest name given to a goddess who is older than recorded history and can be traced in her modern form to the early Egyptian dynasties. She has been known throughout history variously as Inanna and Ishtar by the Sumerians, Kali by the Hindus, Freya by the Norse and most notably as Isis by the ancient Egyptians. She is the goddess of love, wisdom, warfare and destiny and is venerated by all cultures as the mother of civilization. In the original

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Isis suckling the infant Horus at her left breast.

Egyptian telling of her tale, Isis is also the goddess of magic, friend of slave and aristocrat by equal measure. It was Isis that kept the veil of night cloaked about the light of wisdom and it was her name invoked in the rites and rituals of the numerous fertility cults that sprang up along the banks of the Nile. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, the primary symbol of magical and initiatory societies across the world, is the shape traced in the heavens by the transit of the planet Venus throughout the year. In this Roman context the parallels between Isis and the western conception of the Virgin Goddess in her myriad forms become starkly apparent.

She has also enjoyed considerable veneration throughout history as a figurehead of Freemasonry or as Manly Palmer Hall put it, “The Virgin of The World”. Numerous Masonic writers have expounded lengthy treatises on the Masonic symbolism inherent in the legend of Isis, it being so closely tied to the inner curriculum of Masonry. In the pre-Christian Mystery traditions, Wisdom was always depicted as feminine. In Greece, Wisdom was personified as Athena, Goddess of Knowledge and Crafts. The seven liberal arts are given female representations and the nine Muses invoked by countless artisans and artists are all of female form. For an organization with an historical opposition to the admittance of women, Freemasonry has an oddly persistent fascination with feminine representations of their Craft.

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Freemasonry Instructing The People by Charles Mercereau – 1875

It is often acknowledged that many, if not most, of the founding figures of early America were Freemasons. Could it be that this small group of men, working with the vast repository of Masonic symbolism, crafted a symbol to forge a specific path forward into the future? Is it coincidence that Columbia led the waves of settlers of the New World from ‘sea to shining sea’, transporting the light of civilization from its birth on the Eastern horizon to its maturity in the West? Though she has been subsumed in popular understanding by the withered visage of Uncle Sam, Columbia keeps constant vigil from the forgotten and overlooked corners of American history and geography, a testament to a different time. She may remain cloaked behind the veil she draws so closely to her breast yet the light of her torch still burns for those with eyes to see.

 

The Secretive Origins of the Poor Knights of Christ

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Seal of the Knights Templar

Since the days of the Crusades, mystery, legend and whispers of the supernatural have followed the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon throughout history. Formed in the ancient French city of Troyes in the early days of the twelfth century, the chivalric order became renowned throughout the medieval world on the basis of their military, architectural and financial prowess. This enigmatic brotherhood of warrior monks are known as the protectors of the pilgrim’s road to Jerusalem. While this would eventually become an important duty of the order, a closer examination of the available sources shows that the original 9 knights who undertook an expedition to the freshly conquered Holy Land set foot with an entirely different goal in mind.

 

The world of the First Crusade (AD 1096-1099) was awash with religious fervor and the scent of conquest was in the air.
Christian forces occupied the Holy Lands for the first time in 461 years and the lines of communication between Europe and the Middle East were being restored. The European crusaders encountered an Arabic world at the height of a prodigious Golden Age. The Abbasid Empire had established a society that thirsted after knowledge, commingling the poetic precepts of Islam with the mathematics, astronomy, music and philosophy of the Western Mediterranean to produce a flourishing esoteric culture.

It was this milieu that a man named Hugues De Payens, the future co-founder and first Grand Master of the Templar order, and Hugh, Count of Champagne, a later addition to the brotherhood, encountered when they took their first voyage to the Holy Land in AD 1104. Historical background is especially hard to find on Hugues de Payens. The limited documentation available tells us that he

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Artist’s impression of Hugues De Payens

could have been born no later than AD 1070 and that he came from the village of Payns, near the city of Troyes. Hugh, Count of Champagne was a descendant of French provincial nobility, his father being Theobald III, Count of Blois. Before he became a Templar Knight, the Count was known for granting the Cistercian Order the lands required to build Clairvaux Abbey. The original purpose of this first voyage is unknown but it is likely that they were going to reinforce the ill-fated crusaders of AD 1101 in their battles against the remaining Seljuq Turks, one of whom was a relation of the Count’s, Stephen II the Count of Blois. Something that he or his benefactor discovered while adventuring in remote Asia Minor must have intrigued Hugues De Payens for he returned to Jerusalem alone three years later on what seems like, with historical context, a reconnaissance mission. After completing this second expedition he returned to France only long enough to recruit the 8 other knights who would become the nucleus of the Poor Knights of Christ and of The Temple of Solomon. In AD 1119 these nine men set off on a covert conquest of Jerusalem, furnished with information that no ordinary pillagers were aware of; their prize was nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant itself.

Now of course there is no historical document extant today that explicitly states the aims of the budding secret society but by extracting the context of the history we do have we can put together the pieces of a rather interesting theory; the original aim of the Knights Templar was the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant from its hiding place in Jerusalem and while it was not found, something was discovered that allowed the Order to accumulate immense wealth and power. The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Bible as an object of unrivalled power. A gold plated box of acacia wood measuring two and a half cubits in length, one and a half cubits in width and breadth (52in×31in×31in) and said to contain the two Tablets of the Law inscribed by the finger of God himself, to which was added in later years a jar of manna and the Rod of Aaron. In the legends of the Old Testament it was said to have destroyed the walls at Jericho and to have parted the Jordan River. It was the source of power for the Tribes of Israel and was the nucleus of the Temple of Solomon, venerated above any other relic. The legend of the building of the Temple of Solomon insists that the sole purpose of the Temple was to serve as an ‘house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD’ (Chronicles 28-2) yet after the destruction of the First Temple it disappears entirely from history and literature.

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The Ark of the Covenant

This much would have been well known to any Bible student, let alone the founder of the Knights Templar. What would have been unavailable to anyone who had not spent time in the Holy Land, however, was knowledge of the Shetiyyah, the foundation stone of the Temple of Solomon. Talmudic legend holds that when the First Temple was raised in the mid-900s BC, the Shetiyyah was the giant slab of natural rock that the Ark of the Covenant rested upon and served as the floor of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. In later years the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik built what is now the Dome of the Rock over the Shetiyyah, as it is from this rock that the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. What the Christian forces likely did not know however was that there is a partly natural, partly man-made cave beneath the Shetiyyah stone. Known today as the Well of Souls, according to the Islamic legend it was formed during the aforementioned ascent of the Prophet, as the rock did not wish to part with so holy a presence. With the financial backing of the Count of Champagne, an inclination towards the

Shetiyyah 2

mystic side of the Christian faith and the ancient and reliable lust after buried treasure, Hugues De Payens could have plausibly paid, muscled or meandered his way into this secret. This information was in fact already in print in the form of an epigraphical work known as The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, attributed to the Biblical scribe and friend of the prophet Jeremiah, which was in wide circulation amongst the rabbinical circles throughout Jerusalem in the early twelfth century. By reading the chapter concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians we can see what drew the Templars to the Holy Land.

Speaking on the eve of the invasion, Baruch writes of the preparations of the angels:

‘And I saw him descend into the Holy of Holies, and take from there the veil, and holy ark, and the mercy seat, and the two tables, and the holy raiment of the priests, and the altar of incense, and the forty-eight precious stones, wherewith the priest was adorned and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. And he spoke to the earth with a loud voice: 

Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of mighty God,

And receive what I commit to you,

And guard them until the last times,

For the time comes when Jerusalem will also be delivered for a time,

Until it is said, until it is again restored for ever,

So that, when you are ordered, you may restore them,

So that strangers may not get possession of them.’

And the Earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up 

Baruch is quite obviously referencing the cave beneath the Shetiyyah and the entombing of objects of great religious significance and power within it. Although we cannot be sure exactly that it was on the strength of this legend alone that the Templars went to Jerusalem, in a cultural climate of obsession with the recovery and display of religious artifacts it is certainly plausible that such a story could have served as the impetus of the formation of the Templar band. Certainly the evidence of what they did upon arrival would suggest that the Templars had a very specific interest in what lay on the peak of Mount Moriah. Once in Jerusalem the small coterie of knights immediately sought the audience of King Baldwin II and demanded that the notoriously prickly king (he was known as Baldwin the Thorny) cede to them a portion of the former Al-Aqsa mosque that Baldwin had converted into his personal palace. Not just any part of the sprawling complex would do, the Templars required of the king the section of the mosque closest to the Dome of the Rock and the outbuildings surrounding it. Uncharacteristically, King Baldwin immediately acquiesced to their demands and allowed these nine unknown knights free reign over a portion of his palace. Whatever reasons they furnished Baldwin with must have been extremely persuasive, though none of them have made it down to us today. Publicly, the Knights advertised themselves as the protectors of the pilgrims and guardians of the coast road from Jaffa to Jerusalem however simple logic tells us that 9 knights are not going to protect much of anything over a distance of 50 miles. Not to mention the Knights of Saint John who were already doing the job of protecting the pilgrims long before the Templar Knights arrived. They vanished underground for the next seven years, laboring within and around the Dome of the Rock. During this period the knights lived, slept and worked tirelessly on their site like archaeologists driven by divine purpose. They rarely left the excavation and steadfastly refused to allow any outsiders to see their work. Some remains of their work can still be seen today. The Shetiyyah still bears medieval tool marks on its surface and a team of Israeli archaeologists operating in 1985 discovered what they identified as being a Templar built tunnel that would have led directly underneath the Dome of the Rock, though it had been sealed off some time ago. What it was, if anything, that the Templar Knights discovered hidden underneath Al-Aqsa is a long disputed question with no answer able to be historically verified, though some are more plausible than others. What is almost certain, unless the Knights were possessed of the highest degree of skill in self-control and secrecy, is that they did not find the Ark of the Covenant for if they had they absolutely would have used it. If the Order had discovered the actual Ark of the Covenant and this relic was as powerful as Biblical lore claims it to be (and even if it wasn’t) it would have been used as a symbol of righteous supremacy that could have even shaken the authority of the Holy Roman Church. Now, it is highly unlikely that the Templars would have spent seven years digging in the most archaeologically valuable site in the world and come away completely empty-handed. They certainly would have discovered the cave underneath the Shetiyyah referred to in the Apocalypse of Baruch and while the Ark of the Covenant may have been spirited away at some other time, there may have remained some priestly raiments, precious stones or holy vessels of the tabernacle.

In his book The Sign and the Seal, author Graham Hancock suggests the possibility that whatever was found related to lost or hidden knowledge of a specific form of architecture, perhaps even the techniques used by Solomon himself in the raising of the First Temple. After years spent working on an archaeological excavation of one of the most renowned buildings of the ancient world the Templars were sure to have learned something. After his seven year sojourn in the Levant, Hugh De Payens returned to France in AD 1126 to participate in the Council of Troyes, the meeting of the Church’s administration that would decide the fate of the fledgling order. De Payens was assisted in convincing the Church of the worth of the Knights Templar by the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the very same monk to whom Hugh of Champagne had donated the lands of Clairvaux Abbey. After the successful conclusion of the Council in favor of giving the Templar Knights the full official backing of the Church a few interesting events took place. Beginning around AD 1130 what became known as Gothic architecture began sweeping medieval

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Notre Dame, one of the most spectacular examples of Gothic architecture

Europe, beginning in France and spreading across the face of the Christian world. This movement was largely driven by the same Bernard of Clairvaux, who advocated that simplicity and geometry be venerated in the temples of Christianity. It is plausible that the Templars traded with Bernard some of the information discovered underneath Al-Aqsa in return for his support amongst the clergy. It is also likely that Bernard was involved with the mission the entire time, having known the Count of Champagne before the Order’s formation. Either way, Bernard would go on to become the most fervent supporter of the Templar knights within the Holy Roman Empire, using his position in the Church hierarchy to draw in previously unfathomable numbers of recruits, monetary donations and gifts of land. The Knights Templar would use their newly gained religious support to establish an empire that specialized in finance and the acquisition and development of real estate. Of their 20,000 members at the peak of their existence only 2000 of those were knights, the rest were administrators, laborers and clerks. They were responsible for the construction of the most sturdy and spectacular castles and fortifications in the Holy Land. They used a series of way stations along the pilgrim roads to create the world’s first system of international  banking whereby pilgrims would deposit gold at one location, be issued a chit detailing the amount that was held in deposit and withdrew the money as necessary at other Templar outposts along the road. Since there was never a serious risk of all accounts being withdrawn at once, the Templars were able to loan the money out at a profit and use it to purchase property all across Europe. They quickly became the wealthiest private organization in the world, rivaled in power only by the same Church that

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The interior of Temple Church, London

had sanctioned them. In AD 1139, Pope Innocent II, whose candidacy had been enthusiastically supported by St. Bernard, granted the Templar Order the right to build their own churches. This right was exercised to the fullest extent with the building of exquisitely constructed houses of worship such as the Temple Church of London alongside their dramatic and imposing castles.

Eventually the Templar Order became too powerful for those in political power to rest easily and in AD 1307 the Templars of France were rounded up and arrested by the agents of King Phillip IV, a monarch deeply indebted to the Order. He was assisted in this effort by Pope Clement V, cooking up charges of the most profane heresy and tarnishing the good name of the Templars. Its last Grand Master, Jacques De Molay was burned at the stake in Paris in March of AD 1314. Its numerous properties were seized by the Church and divvied up amongst the Order’s rivals, namely the Order of Hospitallers. Their commanderies were thrown into disarray, some chapters were dissolved, others were absorbed by other Orders and presumably some Templars went their own way, establishing their traditions elsewhere in secret. There is evidence of their handiwork in places as far flung as the northern reaches of Scotland and the western mountains of Ethiopia. Much of their stonework remains intact today, attesting to an architecture that served a purpose higher than mere convenience and practicality.

Many authors, historians and Freemasons themselves have claimed that the remainder of the Templar Knights either filtered into or became Freemasonry. The quest after the Ark of the Covenant, which we must assume continued after the time of the first excavation and would have been adequately financed during the height of the Order in the 13th century has resoundingly Masonic overtones. Both organizations are intimately connected to the legend of Solomon’s Temple and the search for the Ark can be seen as a metaphor for the initiate’s path towards self-perfection, the secret of the Word of God being the goal in both cases. It would be irresponsible to assume that King Phillip was so thoroughly competent to have eliminated the entireity of the Order and it is unlikely that his influence extended far beyond the borders of France. At the time of their dissolution they had spent nearly 200 hundred years perfecting a form of craft masonry that was decades beyond its time and in some cases is still unmatched by modern methods. It is certainly not hard to imagine that a chivalric order made up of adept builders and stonemasons would have found friends amongst fraternal societies practicing the same set of skills, especially with Scottish Freemasonry beginning to flourish around the same time. In fact, because of the mysterious origins of both fraternities and the grandiose claims of later writers, the two organizations have become almost completely intertwined from a historical perspective.  Whatever the case may be, the strange and fascinating story of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon gives a glimpse of not only the possible origins of Freemasonry but also, hopefully, a spark of inspiration and a sense of wonder for the mysteries of the world.