Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Templar City of Tomar

Nestled within central Portugal lies the enchanting Templar city of Tomar. Steeped in history and shrouded in legend, Tomar stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the Knights Templar. Founded in the 12th century by Gualdim Pais, the Master of the Templars in Portugal, Tomar served as a strategic stronghold and spiritual center for the order, playing a pivotal role in the defense of the region during the Reconquista. Known for its impressive architectural heritage, rich cultural tapestry, and significant historical importance, Tomar is often referred to as the "Templar City." Today, Tomar is celebrated for its architectural heritage, including the Convent of Christ which embodies the fusion of Templar and Manueline styles.

In 711 AD, Muslim forces under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated the Visigothic Kingdom at the Battle of Guadalete. Within a few years, much of the Iberian Peninsula fell under Muslim rule, except for a few small Christian enclaves in the northern mountains. The Kingdom of Asturias, established in the mountainous region of northern Iberia, became the focal point of Christian resistance. Over the next several centuries, Christian kingdoms gradually expanded southward, reclaiming territory from Muslim rule through a series of military campaigns and sieges. The Kingdom of León, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal emerged as key players in the Reconquista.

The Kingdom of Portugal was established in 1139, following the Battle of Ourique, where Afonso I, also known as Afonso Henriques, emerged victorious against the Moors. Afonso declared himself the first King of Portugal and began the process of consolidating power and expanding Portuguese territory. However, it's important to note that the region of modern-day Portugal had been inhabited and governed by various peoples and entities prior to this establishment as a kingdom, including the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. The Battle of Ourique is often considered a pivotal moment in Portugal's history, marking the beginning of its journey toward nationhood.

Fueled by the Crusader spirit of the Holy Land, the Reconquista drew inspired Christian warriors and chivalric knighthoods to the Iberian Peninsula to fight back the Moors. The Knights Templar first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in the early 12th century. Their military expertise and financial resources made them valuable allies to Christian rulers engaged in the Reconquista.

The Templars played a crucial role in the construction and defense of key fortifications along the Christian frontier, including castles, watchtowers, and fortified towns. One such strategic stronghold was Tomar. King Afonso I of Portugal granted lands to the Knights Templar as a reward for their assistance in the Reconquista and as a means of securing the newly gained territories. In 1160, the Knights Templar began constructing the Castle of Tomar, which served as the initial headquarters for the Templar Order in Portugal. Over time, their presence expanded, and in 1162, Gualdim Pais, a prominent Templar Knight, began the construction of a castle and the Convent of Christ atop the nearby hill. This vast complex served as the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal and played a crucial role in their activities throughout the region.

The Convent of Christ in Tomar became not only a fortified stronghold but also a center of religious and military activity for the Order. It housed knights, monks, and pilgrims, and its grand architecture reflected the power and influence of the Templars. The Knights Templar were deeply involved in the defense of Portugal against Muslim incursions from the south, and Tomar served as a strategic base for their operations.

However, the glory days of the Knights Templar came to an abrupt end in the early 14th century. In 1312, under pressure from the King of France and the Pope, the Order was disbanded, and many of its members were arrested and executed. In Portugal, King Denis negotiated with Pope John XXII to transfer the assets and properties of the Templars to a newly formed Order of Christ, which was established in 1319 and fell under the authority of the Portuguese Crown. The Convent of Christ in Tomar became the headquarters of this new order, ensuring the continuation of the Templar legacy in Portugal.

The Order of Christ became a military, political, and economic power and influence that was given more land holdings, tax exemptions, and permission to mint its own coin. It was at the Convent in Tomar that the Iberian Union was established in 1581 and lasted until 1640 (during which time the Crowns of Portugal and Spain were united in a dynastic union). The wealth of the order would help fund Portugal’s legendary maritime voyages.

Under the Order of Christ, the Convent of Christ underwent further expansion and embellishment, becoming one of the most important religious and cultural centers in Portugal. In the 15th century, two cloisters were constructed (the Cemetery Cloister and Washing Cloister) as was the Chapel of São Jorge. King Manuel (who also served as Master of the Order of Christ) had the Hall of Passage built that connected the choir to the Chapel of São Jorge. King John III demilitarized the Order of Christ and they were more similar to the Cistercians than they were to the former Templar order. King John III ordered the construction of a new cloister for the order which is considered the best example of Renaissance architecture in Portugal. Saint Barbara's Cloister was built that has a view of the beautiful Chapter House Window and the western side of the church’s nave. The Cloister of John III was started during this time, but didn’t finish until the reign of Philip I of Portugal. During the 17th century, a 6-km aqueduct for the Convent was built. The Order of Christ remained active until the dissolution of the religious orders in the 19th century.

Today, the Convent of Christ in Tomar stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a testament to the enduring legacy of the Knights Templar and their successors, the Order of Christ.

Outside of the Convent now lies a city with a rich history. Located near the Convent is the Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes (National Forest of the Seven Hills) which is described as a lush green park with paths, gardens, and scenic views. Within the city, there are many historical buildings like the Church of Santa Maria do Olival which is a 12th century Gothic church that served as a burial place for the Knights Templar in Portugal (including Gualdim Pais). One of the oldest synagogues in Portugal is in Tomar which also houses the Jewish Museum of Abraham Zacuto. The Praça da República (Republic Square) is surrounded by the City Hall and the Igreja de São João Baptista Church of Saint John the Baptist).

The City of Tomar stands as a living testament to the enduring legacy of the Knights Templar, with its medieval streets, imposing castle, and the majestic Convent of Christ serving as reminders of a bygone era. Visitors to this charming city are greeted with an opportunity to step back in time, explore the mysteries of the Knights Templar, and marvel at the architectural wonders they left behind. As one wanders through the narrow alleys and ancient buildings of Tomar, they are transported to a world where knights once roamed and legends were born.


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