It was a beautiful spring day in Paris and I was on the terrace of Café Charlot in the French capital’s chicest district, the Marais. Sipping an Aperol spritz, I watched the parade of Parisian glitterati sashay past me. At this time of year, Paris loves to celebrate the end of the dreary winter months, and nowhere can the famous Parisian joie de vivre be felt more strongly than in this Rive Droite centre of frivolity.
On that day, however, I wasn’t interested in the surface-turned-runway of the Marais – but rather what lay below these designer-clad feet. Because, incongruously, under the district’s cobblestoned streets lie the remnants of the mysterious Knights Templar’s mightiest stronghold.
From Indiana Jones to The Da Vinci Code, the legendary figures of the Knights Templar loom large in the modern imagination. Behind the legends, however, is an epic tale, spanning centuries and continents – one that ends in Paris where the traces of the Knights Templar’s final years can still be seen by those who know where to look. And I was in the Marais on that beautiful spring day to find them.
The story of the Knights Templar began in 1099 when Catholic armies from Europe captured Jerusalem from Muslim control during the first Crusade. European pilgrims flooded into the Holy Land as a result, but many were robbed and killed while passing through Muslim-controlled areas during their journey. To combat these attacks, French knight Hugues de Payens created a military order consisting of eight other soldiers called the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon – later known simply as the Knights Templar – around the year 1118. The elite order of knights set up headquarters on Jerusalem’s sacred Temple Mount vowing to protect all Christian pilgrims to the city. The Knights began amassing a great fortune, with grateful pilgrims showering them with riches in exchange for their protection.
The power of the Knights Templar grew exponentially in 1139 and spread well beyond Jerusalem, when Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull that gave the order extraordinary protections, including an exemption from paying taxes or tithings anywhere in the world and the retention of all the gifts they received from grateful pilgrims travelling through the Holy Land.
The same year, King Louis VII donated an estate to the Templars on the north-eastern edge of the Parisian city walls where a group of Knights settled. Though non-exclusionary with members and chapters throughout Europe, the Knights Templar was a French organisation with a French founder. Furthermore, nearly every Grand Master or supreme leader in Templar history was French, thereby making France the seat of Templar power in Europe.
“Paris has preserved their memory in its toponymy: Square du Temple, boulevard du Temple, rue du Temple, rue Vieille-du-Temple, rue des Fontaines-du-Temple, carreau du Temple…” said Thierry do Espirito, host of the Knights Templar in Paris tour and author of The Knights Templar for Dummies.
Their original estate has long since succumbed to the great march of history, but you can still visit the site on which it once stood on rue de Lobau, located just behind the Hôtel de Ville.
Back in the day, surrounding the mansion were miles of uncultivated marshland. In order to make the land arable, the Knights Templar set about drying the marsh – a feat that they were able to fully achieve circa 1240. But though the wetlands have long since disappeared, the area is still referred to as ‘le Marais’ or ‘the Marsh’.