Convento de Cristo, Tomar

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Photo by S. Morris

On my second day in Portugal, we headed just down the road to the city of Tomar, which is overlooked by the imposing facade of the Convento de Cristo. This building dates back to the Roman period but is most famous for its links to the Templars, and it’s stunning architecture.

In 1160, under the supervision of Gualdim Pais (Master of the Portuguese Templars), work began on rebuilding Tomar castle. The original plan had been to build a Templar fortress in nearby Ceras but this was abandoned. One can still see parts of the original fortress in the complex of the Convento complex.

But it is the Rotunda that really catches your eye as you walk into the complex, through the Sun Gate and past the imposing ramps against the castle walls.

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Photo by S. Morris

The rotunda is what makes the Convento de Cristo so famous – it is one of the most original and emblematic examples of Templar architecture in the world. The interior is particularly beautiful and laid out in a circle which follows the pattern of many Templar buildings – just look at the Templar Church in London! The building of this magnificent structure began in the second half of the twelfth century and continued to around 1190 – it was modelled on other Holy places such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which held a special significance to the Templar Order.

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Photo by S. Morris

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Photo by S. Morris

After the Templar Order was dissolved in 1307, many of its members in Portugal transferred over to another religious military order, the Order of Christ, rather than face imprisonment and execution and in 1357 the Convento became the official headquarters of the order. This was somewhat ironic given that the Convento had originally been the headquarters of the Templars in Portugal. Indeed there was barely any difference between the two orders – the Brothers still wore the same insignia and were still a military order who carried out the same work as they had before. They even continued to live under Cistercian rule.

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Photo by S. Morris

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Photo by S. Morris

As you walk around this magnificent site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is so easy to get lost in your imagination and walk alongside Templar knights in their armour, to hear the bustle of the kitchens and the laughter in the banqueting hall. It really is the perfect place for someone who lives and breathes history. There is something incredibly special about the Convento and, despite the many tourists wandering around, it really is a very peaceful place.

Another famous part of the Convento is the Manueline window on the Western facade. Just one look at the carvings here takes your breath away.

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Photo by S. Morris

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Photo by S. Morris

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Photo by S. Morris

The iconography of the window is clearly split into two halves – one is more spiritual and the other more earthly. The earthly side of the window is dominated by the most beautiful carving of a belt buckle. There are a number of coats of arms on this side as well as carvings of knights and roots connected with the earth. The spiritual side is covered in religious carvings such as angels and tree roots not connected to the earth. Interestingly, on the earthly side of the window there are carvings that show links to the Tudor family – you can see the heraldic device of the Order of the Garter, a testament to the investiture of King Manuel to the Order of the Garter by King Henry VII.

Everywhere you look are beautiful little architectural gems. You walk into the cloisters only to see a fountain in the shape of a Templar cross. There are fabulous little carvings everywhere, all of which have meaning, and the place is covered in the most beautiful tile work.

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Photo by S. Morris

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The Convento really is worth a visit and I highly recommend doing so if you ever find yourself in the area. It is so full of history that it’s hard to know where to look, and it really does allow you to step back in time.

[Review] The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder by James Waterson

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The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum.The Assassins were meticulous in their killing. They often slayed their victims in public, thereby cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act – poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.Surviving a mission was considered a deep dishonour and mothers rejoiced when they heard that their Assassin sons had died having completed their deadly acts.Their formidable reputation spread far and wide. In 1253, the Mongol chiefs were so fearful of them that they massacred and enslaved the Assassins’ women and children in an attempt to liquidate the sect. The English monarch, Edward I, was nearly dispatched by their blades and Richard the Lionheart’s reputation was sullied by his association with the Assassins’ murder of Conrad of Montferrat. The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I adore the Assassins Creed game franchise – the fictional stories of how the Assassins fought against the Templars gripped me from the very first game – set during the crusades, you play as Altair ibn l’Ahad and fight against the Templar menace, whilst in the modern day you are Desmond Miles, a man forced to relive his ancestors memories. Suffice to say this sparked an interest in the real history behind the assassin sect, so when the fantastic people at Pen and Sword/Frontline books offered to send me a review copy of this book, I jumped at the chance. It is only the second book I have read on the history of the Assassins and let me tell you, it’s made me hungry for more.

The first thing that struck me about this book was Waterson’s simple prose – something that is very much needed with such a heavy topic. Waterson weaves the tale of the assassins right from their very beginnings seamlessly, and it makes it an absolute joy to read. I was also very pleased to see footnotes within this work. These days, many popular history books have little in the way of citations so this was a really pleasing thing to see. With such a subject, one needs to be able to see where quotations from both primary and secondary sources have come from.

Waterson covers a huge expanse of time in his biography of the secretive sect of killers, starting with the origins of Islam and the controversy around who was to succeed Muhammad (pbuh) after his death. We see the rise of the assassins then and read about their suicidal acts – their usual method was to get up close and personal with a dagger, and if they were to die in the attempt then so much the better. They believed it would bring honour upon them and their brothers. And as one reads these tales of brutal assassinations, one can’t help but compare them to the awful modern day suicide bombers in the middle east – one wonders (although the author does seem somewhat loath to say such a thing) if the actions of the Ismaili assassins serve as a blueprint for such modern day horrors.

It must be noted that this book covers centuries of history in not a huge amount of pages and therefore serves as more of an introduction to an incredibly vast and complicated subject. However the author does a fantastic job of explaining the complex history of this mysterious sect of people and bringing their world to the fore. I honestly could not put this book down and it really has made me hungry for more information on these mysterious, violent people and the mindset behind what they did.

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword/Frontline books for providing me with a review copy of this book. The Ismaili Assassins can be found on Amazon and in all good book stores.