Templar legacy lives on in Cyprus

Templar legacy lives on in Cyprus

Fables of the Knights Templar are legend, but deep beneath a castle on Cyprus -- an island once owned by the Crusader brotherhood -- lies a legacy historians say still resonates today.

Down steep, narrow and uneven stone stairs in the fort of Limassol is a low-vaulted room lined with tombstones of medieval knights.

This is the chapel where England's King Richard the Lionheart is believed to have been married, en route to the Holy Land in 1192.

"The architecture and the artefacts here reflect the broad history of Cyprus," said Elena Stylianou, a government archaeologist, brandishing a long Crusader-era sword, rusted and chipped but still sharp.

"Cyprus was a place that many outsiders wanted to capture and own."

Richard, the first of so many British visitors to the sunny island, celebrated his wedding night downing sweet red wine -- before spending his honeymoon laying waste to the countryside, burning, looting and adding Cyprus to his possessions.

After the defeated Cypriot ruler surrendered -- reportedly on condition he was not bound in iron chains, so Richard used silver shackles instead -- the English king swiftly sold Cyprus to the Templars.

'European orientation'

The Cyprus Medieval Museum, now housed in the Mediterranean port city's fort, says that while the main castle walls date from the 16th century Ottoman period, they sit on far older foundations.

The vault is "probably a chapel of the primary fortifications of the Knights Templar" on Cyprus. The Templars, an international army of elite warriors set up to guard European pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem, used the island as their headquarters to fight military campaigns authorised by the pope in the Holy Land, just over 100 kilometres (65 miles) to the southeast.

Cypriot medieval historian Nicholas Coureas said the Crusades were a key step in forging the island's national character. "The most lasting consequence of the conquest of Richard is that although Cyprus would change hands several times, it still has a European orientation...and most Cypriots identify more with Europe than say they do with Asia and Africa," Coureas said.

"Thanks to its geographical position, and its population, Cyprus is on the edge of Europe, but with strong links to the Middle East," he added.

Coureas works with the government-backed Cyprus Research Centre, which focuses on national history and sociology. He argues that for the most easterly member of the European Union, history is not just about dusty schoolbooks, but about how citizens see themselves today -- part of Europe, far into the past.

'Base of operations'

That view matters today. The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of Cyprus in response to an Athens-sponsored coup seeking to annex the island to Greece.

A UN-patrolled buffer zone runs between the Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian-majority south and the breakaway Muslim-majority Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara.

British military bases, which remain sovereign UK territory, cover three percent of the former British colony.

"The Crusades are very relevant today, because there are a lot of parallels," Coureas said. "What also started in the Crusade period... was the importance of Cyprus as a base of operations for Western forces operating in the Middle East and North Africa."

He noted that the 2011 NATO-backed overthrow of Moamer Kadhafi was supported from a British airbase near Limassol.

And the echoes of Crusader history even stretch to wine: the island's sweet "Commandaria" red, named by the knights, is the oldest manufactured wine and "protected designation of origin" certification, according to the Guinness World Records. Its label bears the word "Crusaders".

While the Templars owned Cyprus outright for only eight months before selling it to French Guy de Lusignan, the order maintained castles on the island.

And, after they were chased out of the Holy Land, the Templars made Cyprus their headquarters in 1291.

Myths tell of how the Templars hid their wealth -- including, according to novels and films, the Holy Grail -- when the order was damned as heretical in 1307 and the knights burned at the stake.

The Templar fortune may have long vanished, but Stylianou hopes the ancient sites might help draw visitors back to Cyprus.

Cyprus is dotted with castles and ruins left by the Crusaders, including the castle of Kolossi, once a key base of the Knights Hospitallers, and the dramatic fortress of Saint Hilarion.