The Knight Templar Order and the City
Tomar is a historically outstanding town in the Ribatejo region of central Portugal. Straddling the banks of the River Nabão, Tomar has narrow cobbled streets and a whole host of appealing buildings. It is also home to one of the most important architectural and religious monuments in the country – the Convento de Cristo, former headquarters of the Knights Templar. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this magnificent monastery and its associated castle sit in a commanding position on a wooded hill overlooking the town.
The Knights Templar was an elite fighting force and semi-religious order that was founded in 1119, during the Crusades. Under the guidance of Gualdim Pais, the visionary Grand Master of the Portuguese Knights, the order began construction of a castle on the hill overlooking Tomar around 1160. The design of the castle’s famous ‘rotunda’ church was inspired by similar structures in Jerusalem. Each knight took a vow of poverty and chastity and wore a white coat emblazoned with a red cross. Over the years, the Templars spread across Europe, gaining extraordinary wealth in the process – and also many powerful enemies!
By the early 1300s, amid accusations of heresy, the order was finally suppressed. However, in Portugal, the Templars re-emerged again in 1320, reincarnated as the ‘Order of Christ’, but now under the control of the throne. It was thanks to the wealth of this new order that Prince Henry the Navigator (who was Grand Master from 1417-1460) was able to fund Portugal’s legendary maritime voyages. The order’s proud symbol – the Cross of Christ – became the distinguished banner for the country’s great age of exploration and discovery. From the 13th to the 17th century, the Convento de Cristo underwent continuous expansion to become the superb monument it is today.
But there is much more to Tomar than the Knights Templar Order…
Tomar has many other noteworthy attractions and we began our exploration on the east side of the river at the Santa Maria do Olival, a simple church dating from the 12th century and constructed for the Portuguese Masters of the Knights Templar Order. It is home to many Templar tombs, notably Gualdim Pais, the Grand Master himself. Santa Maria do Olival was the Pantheon church of the Portuguese Masters. It was chosen, during the Portuguese Discoveries, as the mother church of all the churches of Africa, Asia and the Americas.
The medieval heart of Tomar lies nearby and we wandered through its cobbled lanes to visit Portugal’s oldest surviving medieval synagogue. Many Portuguese have Jewish ancestry and Tomar was once the home of a thriving Jewish community. This 15th century Hebrew temple has variously been used as a prison, a hayloft and a grocery warehouse during its long history, but has now been splendidly renovated and is home to an interesting small museum.
The spacious Praça da República, surrounded by attractive 17th century buildings is at the very heart of the old town, and overlooked by the lovely Igreja de São João Baptista. The church has an octagonal spire and two superbly ornamental Manueline doorways. The handsome city hall lies directly opposite and between the two, in a befitting place in the middle of the square, stands an imposing statue of the city’s illustrious founder, Gualdim Pais.
A secure supply of water to the city was provided in the early 17th century by means of a six-kilometre aqueduct. It has two magnificent 30m high tiers of arches and there is a tempting high-level walkway along the top of the conduit.
From Roman times onwards, waterpower was used to drive mills, oil-presses and water wheels for irrigation and industry. The Roda do Nabão is a modern and much-admired water wheel, constructed of pinewood and it’s a perfect example of how the force of the River Nabão was used for local economic benefit.
Every four years, the square becomes the centre of activities for Tomar’s most famous cultural event – the Festa dos Tabuleiros. This ancient celebration, associated with the Feast of the Holy Spirit, is actually thought to have its roots in earlier pagan fertility rites. Its highlight is a procession of hundreds of local girls (traditionally virgins) carrying tall ‘tabuleiros’ on their heads. These unusual headdresses are built from loaves of bread, decorated with flowers, and have a white dove at the top to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
The Castle and Convent Of Christ
We entered the castle grounds through the main gate and stopped to admire the outside of the circular 12th century church. After entering the monastery, we realised that there was a surprise around every corner. We counted eight cloisters, the largest of which is regarded as a renaissance masterpiece. There are charming terraces with great views over the countryside, an infirmary, a pharmacy and some gloomy monks’ living quarters.
The interior of the beautiful round church, known as the charola, is the chief attraction. The aisle is circular with a high altar enclosed within a central octagon, and the surrounding walls are decorated with murals of sacred art from the 16th century. This was the knights’ private oratorium and they attended services here whilst seated on horseback!
Just outside the church, the tiny Santa Bárbara cloister has a grandstand view of the chapter house’s amazing ornate Manueline window. This bizarre masterpiece is structured around two carvings of ships’ masts, adorned with knots, cork, coral and seaweed.
The castle and the Convent was transferred to the Portuguese Order of Christ in 1357 until the abolition of religious orders in 1834. In 1933 as the private residence of the Marquis and Count of Tomar, it was required by the state and in 1983 classified as a UNESCO World Heritage monument along with the Templar castle.
But there are reasons for further visits in the vicinity, such as Castelo de Bode, one of the largest reservoirs in the country, where you can go on a pleasant cruise or to one of the many river beaches ideal for swimming or diving or canoeing. In summer the water temperature reaches 27C and there is no salt and no chlorine in the water. You can also choose going to Almourol Castle located on an islet on the River Tagus, or the riverside town of Dornes for those who seek a better knowledge about the region’s Templar sites.
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