Underground tunnels found at Templar’s ‘Vatican’ stronghold

Underground tunnels found at Templar’s ‘Vatican’ stronghold

In the city of Tomar stands the Church of Santa Maria do Olival, built in the second half of the 12th century by the provincial master of the Order of the Knights Templar in Portugal, Gualdim Pais. Though small in size, this place of worship was also used as a burial place for the Knights and is believed to have served as an important site for underground Templar initiation rituals over the centuries.

After Tomar helped launch Portugal’s 15th-century maritime expansion, spearheaded by Henry the Navigator, the church became the inspiration for all Portuguese churches built overseas – leading some to declare it the “Vatican” of the Templars.

Historian and author Paulo Alexandre Loucao explains why it was key to the ancient order: “We can say that when it comes to symbolic meaning, we are in the important place for the Templars in Portugal.

“We can relate it to the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem, which is still a sacred place today.

“This became a place to get inspiration from the ancestors as the masters were buried here.

“And certainly it would be a place where the Templars would perform not only funeral rituals but also initiation rituals.”

The expert went on to explain how the Templars’ secret underground tunnels were uncovered. 

He said: “Outside this church, on the left, there is the top of what could have been a cistern. 

“Citizens of Tomar once told me that, when burning tires there, smoke came out here - so there was an underground corridor here that, as far as I know, was closed in the 20th century. 

“Local legends say there are underground connections between Tomar’s castle and the church.” 

In 2008, construction work around the church appeared to confirm their suspicions.

Some of the routes were closed up, but other tunnels can still be found in the forest that surrounds Tomar’s fortress.

They are believed to have been of strategic importance for the Templars to escape when they came under siege.

Local tour guide Aurelia Madeira explained in 2020: “We know that where there were Templars, there were tunnels.

“In the 12th century, 1190, during the second Arab invasion, Almanzor conquered all the Portuguese territory until he reached Tomar.

“Once in Tomar, he was stopped by Gualdim Pais.

“Pais came down through one of the castle’s tunnels and got out right here.”