The city of Tomar is dominated by the UNESCO World heritage site, the Convento San Cristo, the Convent of Christ. The Convent is contained within the site of the Castle which dates from 1160. This magnificent building dominates Tomar from the hill above the city.
The Convento was the Headquarters of the Knights Templar of Portugal for nearly 900 years.
In 1190 the Christian Knights were fighting to free Portugal from Islamic domination. An Islamic army crossed the River Tejo, captured the nearby castle at Torres Novas and put Tomar under siege.
The town was besieged by the Muslim army for six days but never surrendered to them. Despite the overwhelming odds, Gualdim Pais, Grand Master of the Knights Templar who was over 70 years old at the time, successfully defended Tomar along with the knights that he led. He had demonstrated, yet again, his military prowess and his religious calling as a fighting monk.
This victory underscored the military strength of the Templar Order and the part it had to play in defeating the Moors. Gualdim Pais founded Tomar and his statue dominates the main square in the town’s historic centre.
Gualdim Pais also supervised the building or restoration of several other frontier castles for the Templar order including the Castles of Almourol, Monsanto and Pombal. He also founded the city of Pombal. He built and repaired castles and granted land to new settlers as Christians started to move into the lands freed from Muslim rule. He was a remarkable man and a gifted and visionary leader.
From this victory the Knights Templar along with other Portuguese nobility gradually re-Christianized the whole of Portugal. Over the following centuries the power and wealth of the Order grew substantially. Then in the early part of the 14th century it all came to a tragic and violent end. The King of France, jealous of the Order, persuaded the Pope that the Knights Templar Order should be destroyed.
The Templars had their land and their wealth taken from them and the Order was finished. Except in Portugal.
The King of Portugal, Dinis, did not believe the accusations made against the Order. Dinis offered the Order protection by persuading the Pope to agree to his forming a new Order, the Order of Christ. He transferred the Templar holdings to it and moved its headquarters away from Tomar. The Order was then dedicated to the re-conquest of Iberia from the Muslims and wars against Muslim states in Africa.
King Dinis had to disguise the fact that he was keeping the banned Knights Templar Order. So he moved the headquarters of the new Order of Christ to the fortress at Castro Marim, near the border with Spain.
Tomar was no longer the Headquarters for the Knights Templar under their new name. But 100 years later it was restored by one of the most remarkable men of his time. Prince Henry the Navigator.
It was Henry the Navigator, who restored Tomar as the headquarters for the Order of Christ. He had living quarters made for himself and his wife within the Castle. He had two new courtyards built for the brothers, the ‘Laundry Cloister’ gallery above the original Templar cloister where the lay brothers did their chores and washed their clothes in the large water tanks. The ‘Cemetery Cloister’ where the friar knights were buried.
Prince Henry the Navigator was determined to use the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry and numbers inherited from the Jews and Arabs to discover new lands. These sciences were all brought together to develop ways of calculating the position of a ship at sea. Until this had been achieved no sailor could tell with any degree of accuracy the position of a ship at sea. The Knights Templar castle at Tomar was at the centre of these discoveries.
One group of people who benefited from their connection to the Order were the Jews. During the 15th century Spain was expelling Jews, confiscating their estates and wealth. But Portugal was doing its utmost to conserve them in their country. Jews enjoyed a privileged situation in Portugal, choosing their own quarters and occupying the most desired places. The nobles in Portugal took beautiful Jewish maidens as mistresses and recognized their offspring, making them Knights and having their illegitimate sons join the Order of Christ. This is reflected in the synagogue in Tomar which dates from the 15th century and is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe.
Over the following centuries the power of the Order declined in Portugal and eventually ceased to exist except for some of the ceremonial titles held by the head of the Portuguese state.