This monumental city of the Templars is a true jewel. Here, the famed Order of the Knights Templar (followed by the Knights of the Order of Christ) built their headquarters in a massive castle, while a prosperous Jewish community grew in the 14th and 15th centuries in the town below. The Judiaria ran along the Rua Dr. Joaquim Jacinto, and the synagogue survived the centuries to become the Abraão Zacuto Museum. The complex ceiling and elegant columns of the synagogue’s worship area give it astounding acoustics. The Museum displays numerous ancient tablets, gravestones, texts, and artifacts from all aspects of Jewish life in old Portugal. Recent excavations have reveled a water heating system and ritual baths.
The Templars, meanwhile, were a monastic order of knights founded in 1112 A.D. to protect pilgrims along the path to Jerusalem. The Templars came to Portugal in the 12th century at the request of Portugal’s founding king, D. Afonso Henriques. They built a series of castles on the banks of the Tejo River to defend the new nation from the Moors. At Tomar, the order built their headquarters, a fortified monastery that is one of the most important medieval sites in Europe. The original church was patterned on the Church of the Holly Sepulcher in Israel. The massive door was so high that, according to legend, the knights attended mass on horseback. In 1307, Pope Clement V extinguished the order, but the Portuguese King D. Dinis made the secretive order a deal they could not refuse. He created a new religious order, the Order of Christ, and it took over all the lands and castles of the Templars. It also took on their symbols and their power. The Knights of the Order of Christ became, by the 15th Century, enlaced with the royal family. Under the leadership of Infante D. Henrique (Prince Henry), the knights began a new quest as ships with their distinct cross exploring the coast of Africa. The Age of Exploration had begun.
With the arrival of Da Gama in India in 1498, the riches of the east flowed into the castle at Tomar. King D. Manuel added a new cloister to the monastery in the uniquely Portuguese Manueline style, rich in symbols of the sea, coral, shell, and twisted rope. The rose of the Templars, as well as their cross, became the symbols of the monarchy.
Today, Tomar is a monument city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its great castle is a fascinating relic of the mysterious Templars, full of secret passages, symbolic paintings, and compelling art.