Extraordinary remains of the mysterious medieval order at the heart of the Da Vinci Code are discovered in Israel where they fell uring the Crusades by Jonathan Wynne-Jones
The first proven remains of the Knights Templar - the mysterious religious order at the heart of The Da Vinci Code - have been found by archaeologists near the river Jordan in Northern Israel.
Tom Asbridge, senior lecturer in medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London, told The Mail on Sunday last night that while many remains from the Crusades have been found before, these were the first that could be proved to belong to members of the Knights Templar.
The warrior knights grew from humble beginnings in the 11th Century to become the most powerful and wealthy fighting force of the Crusades.
But fears of their seemingly limitless dominance and influence, and the group's highly secretive nature, meant that 200 years later, on the orders of Pope Clement V, the Templars were accused of heresy, and their leaders rounded up, tortured and killed. The group than passed into history.
Until now it has been difficult to prove conclusively that skeletons found near Templar strongholds were those of the almost mythical knights, but these remains were found at Jacob's Ford, a ruined castle dating back to the Crusades, which had been lost for centuries. They can be dated to the precise day - August 29, 1179 - that they were killed y Saladin, the feared Muslim leader, their bodies having laid undiscovered beneath the fallen fortress's ruined walls. Saladin was said to have ripped out the foundation stones with his own hands.
Jacob's Ford was home to around 150 Knights Templar, whom king Baldwin IV - "the Leper King" - had positioned in Northern Israel to protect Jerusalem from the advance of Muslim warriors. "Never before has it been possible to trace their remains to such an exact time in history", Mr Asbridge said.
"I don't know anything that compares to this. This discovery is the equivalent of the Holy Grail to archaeologists and historians. It is unparalleled."
"The site is so perfectly preserved that it gives us a real insight into what it was like at the time and helps us to understand the horrific nature of the violence of the fighting."
The skull of one of the skeletons has been cleaved in two, while another has had an arm scythed off, making it likely that they were among Templars involved in fighting Saladin. Only five skeletons have been found to date at the site, but archaeologists may soon be able to start examining the bodies of 800 slain defenders who where thrown into the castle's cistern.
They hope this will give them an unparalleled insignt into the world of the Templars. Saladin's success in taking the garrison, which had been proclaimed as impregnable by Christian and Muslim chroniclers alike, had remained a mystery to historians until it was discovered by a team led by Professor Ronnie Ellenblum, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The site had been used as an Israeli compound in the sixties, before Prof Ellenblum began excavations in the late Nineties.
A documentary for the BBC Timewatch series, to be shown on Friday, will reveal his major finding that the castle was not fully completed when Saladin and his army arrived to battle the Templars who had been entrusted with defending Jerusalem.
The loss of the castle is regarded as precipitating the eventual fall of Jerusalem to Muslim forces. Mr Asbridge, who is one of the country's leading experts on the Crusades, said that he was aware of other castles that had been discovered, but had not heard of any examples that placed the Templar Knights in such a definite context.
The Order of the Knights Templar founded the Old Temple in London in 1128 and moved in 1184 to the new site in the heart of the city's legal district which is featured in The Da Vinci Code as the novel's hero, Robert Langdon, races with Sir Leigh Teabing to find the Holy Grail.
Mr asbridge said :"I'd be surprised if there aren't Templar tombs with their bodies somewhere across Europe. But what is unique about Jacob's Ford is the finding of bodies in situ in a battle situation.
The find has also excited archaeologists because the Templar bodies are so well preserved, as are many of their day-to-day belongings, from their weaponry - swords ans maces - to their board games.
Source: The Mail on Sunday, April 9, 2006