Knights Templar and the Much-Traveled Head of John the Baptist

Among Holy Relics, This One Stands Out

During the Crusades, the Templars earned a reputation for bringing home treasures that had been hidden away in both Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon and Constantinople. No one denies the Templars were fierce in battle, often facing enemies vastly superior in size, yet they were often plunderers on land and pirates at sea; and they brought back jewels, bullion, and spices. The Templars uncovered, some believe, the so-called Copper Scroll, which listed sixty-four treasure stashes, but it was the sacred plunder that may have been the most important.

It has been claimed that the Templars returned to France with the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Mandylion—which may have been the Shroud of Turin—and possibly the most significant treasure of all, the skull of John the Baptist.

John had played a most important role for the order. And he also played an important role in the Christianization of the area of Israel and Jordan. The Bible claims John was the cousin of Jesus and teaches that he launched the mission of Jesus by baptizing him. Others believe there may have been rivalry between the two teachers.

Some sects that have survived, claim John to be the Son of God and Jesus a failed prophet. The Mandaeans are one such group. Before the Iraq war they numbered approximately 70,000, yet in recent years as a result of their persecution, their numbers have dwindled. The Mandaeans are not Christian, Jewish, or Islamic but, indeed, have more ancient roots. Their holy book, the Ginza Rabba, declares John to be their greatest prophet.

During the Crusades the Templars were, at least, exposed to the teachings of numerous Middle Eastern sects. John’s feast day of June 24 was adopted as very important to the organization. Notably the Freemasons also adopted June 24 as their most important day.

 

The Voice in the Desert

There is certainly more to the story of John the Baptist than is discussed in Christian literature.

In fact, many believe that John the Baptist was the most important preacher of the first century. As the holy man preaching in the desert he attracted thousands from far and wide. He is the prophet who introduced baptism, a new rite that would be instrumental in bringing Gentiles to the new covenant. He was to some the Son of God. When Jesus asked in Matthew 13:13: “Whom do men say that the son of man is?” The answer 13:14 “Some say John the Baptist.”

John the Baptist’s feast day is one of only two important birthdays celebrated by Christians. Most feast days of the saints are on the date of their death. The other significant birthday so revered by Christians is that of Jesus himself. (The date of his martyrdom is remembered also, as is Good Friday.) Clearly there is more to John than meets the eye.

Matthew began the story of the ministry of Jesus in Chapter 3, with the meeting of Jesus and John. As Jesus was baptized, the spirit of God as a dove descended from heaven. The dove is also a symbol of enlightenment. Mark began his Gospel with the same meeting. Luke begins his Gospel with the announcement of the forthcoming birth of John, who is to be a cousin of Jesus. The Gospel of John the Evangelist also starts with John baptizing Jesus. It is clear that John was a very important figure at the time.

Just which sect John belonged to is hard to say. The Essene group is often considered a candidate, although John’s rite of a one-time initiatory baptism was not to be confused with a regular ritual cleansing common to that sect. Essenes believed they were the Temple and did not need to be in Jerusalem. They were a closed group that required a lineage comparable to that of Jesus. It is believed they numbered four thousand. There were two hundred living at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls would be found. They instituted a regular meal of bread and wine that Jesus would imitate at the Last Supper. But neither Jesus nor John were members. Jesus was not strict enough; he repudiated the harsh judgment of the Essenes, their uncompromising attitude towards the law and the overall omnipresent discipline. The men of the Essene sect had very little to do with the women and would certainly not travel or dine with a member of the opposite sex, as Jesus did regularly. On the other hand, John may have been too ascetic even for this sect. He lived and preached in the desert reputedly eating only honey and locusts.

There is, however, evidence that Jesus and John were exposed to Essene thought, though both stopped short of membership. John was also not a Zealot. That group was known for violent anti-Rome activity and today would be portrayed as terroristic.

John was a threat, nonetheless. He irritated Herod, the tetrarch, by publicly condemning as illegal, the ruler’s second marriage to Herodias. Herod had abandoned his lawful wife, who was the daughter of the neighboring king, Aretas. For a number of reasons, that would prove to be a serious mistake. Why a solitary voice crying in the desert would so threaten Herod is unclear, unless John’s following was much greater that any of the four Gospels let on.

 

The Beheading of John

While John was in Herod’s Machaerus prison, the tetrarch threw a party for his new daughter Salome. In appreciation of her dancing before him, he promised that he would give to her anything she would ask. Even “half of my kingdom.” No doubt influenced by her mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist—on a dish. Herod soon regretted his promise as he had no intention of killing John out of fear of the repercussions. Nevertheless, the promise made, John was beheaded. Though the feared uprising on behalf of John’s followers did not happen, misfortune did fall on Herod and family as a result of the sacrilege.

Daughter Salome, legend has it, would perish by falling into the frozen Sikoris River. Crushed by flowing ice her head and body were separated but not before her legs danced frantically under the ice.

The Arabian King Aretas went to war with Herod. His army quickly overwhelmed Herod’s and the peace was brought by removing Herod as tetrarch by Rome. Exiled to Gaul, then Spain, Herod and his wife perished in an earthquake.

It is believed that John was buried under the fortress at Machaerus. John’s head became the most revered part of his remains and it was claimed to be buried at Herod’s Jerusalem Palace. Mark describes the head being delivered to Salome who gave it to her mother (Mark 6:28). The mother, Herodias, took the head and, after piercing the tongue with a needle, ordered it buried in an unclean place. The wife of Herod’s steward, secretly a devotee of John, took the head and put it in a clay vessel and buried it on the Mount of Olives where Herod owned land.

During the reign of Constantine, relics were moved, and removed, everywhere. Sometime before the Crusades, the head of St. John is believed to have been brought to Constantinople. Constantinople had been accumulating the relics of Christianity since the mother of Constantine traveled there. The sacred relics were protected and preserved in that city from that time and great churches were built to house them. The city would enjoy peace and a higher degree of culture than anywhere in Europe, but this attracted the envy of other trading cities. The Fourth Crusade was diverted by the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo. The Doge had the army of French crusaders attack the Christian city of Constantinople. After three days the butchery that left very few survivors turned to looting. The sacred Santa Sophia cathedral was ruined as soldiers on horseback entered to steal anything they could find.

It was said that over one hundred churches were destroyed and their sacred and precious relics stolen. The True Cross, the crown of thorns, and heads and bones of other saints were plundered. It was at this time the Turin Shroud disappeared. While the knights looted the city, one cleric recognized the skull as being St. John’s and returned to France with it.

St. John in Amiens

It is believed by many that the Templars brought the skull of the Baptist to the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Amiens. This Cathedral, while less famous than Notre Dame in Paris, is the largest in all of France. The Cathedral notably has an octagonal baptistery, a feature in Templar and Cistercian structures from Tomar in Portugal to Bornholm.

Amiens is a town in Picardy about ninety miles from Paris. Crusading knights and holy men of Picardy are credited with bringing home at least their share of Christian booty from the crusades. In this case it was the Canon, Wallon de Sarton, who carried home the head of the saint. Already ancient during the crusades, Amiens had a church dedicated to the first bishop, Saint Fermin, from the early fourth century. This early church of the town was burned during the fourth crusade, and it was decided that the head of St. John merited a cathedral. In fact, France’s largest cathedral in terms of area was built for John’s head and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It is called the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and it is also France’s tallest. It can be seen from anywhere in the otherwise drab textile city. Inside, the soaring piers and pointed arches draw attention toward heaven. The floor was once a maze that had pilgrims crawling on the floors. In the sixteenth century choir stalls were added with four hundred Biblical scenes carved into the oak. The most holy relic, however, was the head of St. John. Today the skull of John is said to be in an area of the cathedral called the Treasury. On June 24 of each year the skull is brought out on a pillow and exhibited.

 

Middle Eastern Connections

The Templars spent more time in the Middle East learning than they did fighting. Exposed to the texts of the ancients, they brought home knowledge of science, medicine, astrology, and architecture. They were also exposed to the religions of the people among whom they lived.

The Arameans had a sun god Hadad comparable to Zeus or Apollo. He was a god who was considered the fertilizing deity. Women prayed to him to become pregnant. Those who adhered to the cult of this sun god had a huge temple built to him about nine hundred years before the ministry of John and Jesus. In the temple were ancient carvings of another era. A basalt bas-relief shows a winged sphinx, possibly an influence of both Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion. It also depicts the head of a bearded man with a double crown. Before the temple of Hadad could somehow transfer devotion to John’s bearded head, the Romans intervened.

On the site sacred to the Syro-Phoenician god Hadad, the Romans brought their own very similar god, Jupiter, and re-dedicated the temple. After Rome gave way to early Christianity, a church was built here and dedicated to John the Baptist. He looked like the bearded Jupiter and the bearded Hadad, and to some who worshipped in the church, it is possible he was. Despite whatever amalgamation of faiths were blended in the holy site, the church contained the body that was said to be that of John the Baptist.

Later, Islam grew to become the dominant religion; it was decided to change the site where Hadad, then Jupiter, then John were worshipped into a mosque. And not just any mosque. Under a tolerant Islamic leadership the magnificent Umayyad Mosque was built. Consent was given by the city’s Christians who in exchange were allowed to build a grand St. John church of their own. It took ten years to build the mosque, and it became a centerpiece to the modern city of Damascus. It contains an expansive courtyard decorated with sacred mosaics. The courtyard contains a huge fountain of ablutions and several domes. The builders allowed a prominent spot for the body of John, who as a major prophet was important to the Moslem faith as well. This mosque is very important today as an Arabic pilgrimage site. In size it is grand and one of the few with three minarets. One of those minarets is dedicated to Jesus.

Women still visit the site in hopes of being blessed with a child.

By Steven Sora