Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Crusaders and the Portuguese Age of Discovery

I saw "Kingdom of Heaven" last weekend. As many of you know, it is a film about the Crusades. While there will be some conservative Western historians that will denounce it as being one-sided, the movie seemed to accurately convey both the extremism of some of the Christian organizations active in the Holy Land and the relative civilization of the Islamic protagonists that swept across that grand stage on their camels and Arabian thoroughbreds. Reminded me of Amin Malouf's "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" and its fascinating summary of contemporary Muslim historians of the medieval period and their struggle to understand the Latin crusaders seeking butchery, glory, wealth and martyrdom.

Now many of you may ask, how is Dave possibly going to relate "Kingdom of Heaven" to our mobile phone walking tours? Well, for those of you who have seen the movie, you'll certainly remember Raynald de Chatillon, Knight Templar and one of the worst of the Christian plundering pirates (in real life he spent just as much time sacking Byzantine Christian as Muslim cities). Well, the Knights Templar had its share of both good and bad knights, but these Knights (known officially as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon) were unquestionably the most powerful military order operating in the Holy Land. They had been founded in the wake of the First Crusade to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, but were also incredibly influential in Europe; their headquarters in Europe was in Tomar, Portugal.

At first the Popes of Rome were very much in favor of the organization; but with their incredible influence and power, and their domination of European banking and lending, made them much envied. Eventually, by order of Pope Clement V in 1307, the Templars were disbanded.

However, in Portugal, the order was simply renamed by a sympathetic monarchy there who were still fighting the Reconquista. It was renamed the Order of Christ, and the name of the Templars' headquarters changed to the Convento de Cristo. I had the great pleasure to visit this magificent structure in Tomar last March, preserved and refurbished by successive Portuguese monarchs.

There I stood by the front entrance and the time-blasted old Gothic Chapel. Now can you see what the next three photos have in common?

I'm not in all three photos so it's not me! Yes, for the highly observant of you, it is the gothic square cross that you see as a repeated pattern in the decorations of these battlements and balconies. Now where have you seen that cross before? Well, here is a hint - Prince Henry the Navigator, who spurred on Portugal's and Europe's Age of Discovery, was also the grand master of the Order of Christ for 20 years until his death.

This is why every Portuguese ship during the Age of Discovery, and many for a century afterwards, left Sagres, Oporto or Lisbon with a square cross, usually in red. Prince Henry was a man of discovery, but he was also a devout Christian that believed in the Crusades as a reality - that is why many of the Portuguese explorers en route to India often found time to hack up Muslim travelers, especially those to and from Mecca.

We discuss the Portuguese Age of Discovery extensively in our walk, "The Heart of Old Macau". In it we share how in the Portuguese empire, Christian proselytizing went hand-in-hand with the earthly desire for wealth through trade. Very understandable in the context of what we've just shared with you about Prince Henry! As the Portuguese and Spaniards discovered to their cost, this fervent missionary activity and in-fighting between Jesuits and Dominicans meant the loss of their immensely lucrative trade between Japan and China. Please give our walk a try if you'd like to hear about Macau's history at the high watermark of the Portuguese Empire! More details can be found at

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