Tomar is an old castle town built as the headquarter of the Knights Templar and the Convent of Christ (Convento de Cristo) in Portugal in the middle of the 12th century. The imposing castle rising above the current town is of great historic value and is an enticing and well-preserved defensive construction to visit.
A large part of Portugal was ruled from Tomar Castle until the 16th century. The temple was improved by Henry the Navigator, who became governor of the order, and he therefore used the Knights Templar cross as a symbol on the sails of his caravels and on his sea voyages out into the world.
Construction of the castle began in 1160 with the intention to establish a military defence that could protect the town. The castle complex was founded by the crusader and grand Master of the Knights Templar, Gualdim Pais, and financially supported by King Afonso Henriques. The castle and its surrounding walls soon became an integral part of the defence – and is today one of the most significant examples of defensive constructions in Portugal.
The Romanesque Charola, or Rotunda, is the oldest part of the military complex, which was built with inspiration from the Holy Land, the Mesquita da Rocha, the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Its church is characterised by its open bell tower and domed shape. Inside the octagonal structure, the sculptural decorations and paintings are in a late-Gothic, as well as a Manueline style – the latter due to generous donations by King Manuel I around 1500.
In stark contrast to other countries, who at the time didn’t welcome the Knights Templar any longer, the King of Portugal saw an advantage in keeping them in Tomar to help protect the country against Moorish invaders. When the Knights Templar was dissolved in 1312, a new Military Order of Our Lord Jesus Christ was born, also with the aim to defend the Christian regions in Portugal against the Moors. From 1357 its seat and headquarters became the former Knights Templar’s headquarters in Tomar.
The new order helped fund the seafarers in Portugal’s discovery period, among others Henry the Navigator, who was taking the lead of the Discoveries. The Order of the Christ remained in power until the 18th century.
A novel architectural design, introduced by the Knights Templar, is the round towers rising from the outer walls. This approach of constructing round towers was used, since experience abroad had shown that such towers would be more resistant to attacks.
From an early time Tomar’s residents lived inside the castle walls, and therefore there were both military houses and typical villas within the thick walls.
The Convent of Christ, the main cloister and Manueline place of worship, is a real masterpiece of fine Renaissance architecture. An esplanade of colourful flowering bushes marks the way to the stair leading to the outstanding Convent of Christ. Due to being built over many centuries, the temple features an interesting mix of both Manueline, Gothic and Renaissance styles – with an interesting Arab touch. In addition to the spectacular main cloister, highlights include the Renaissance portal with skillful depictions, as well as the Manueline Window of the Chapter Hall.
Mysterious monastery gardens, beautiful vaults supported by slender columns, corridor ceilings elaborately designed and decorated in an intricate pattern, as well as crosses of the Knights Templar can be found everywhere around the Convent of Christ. It is not difficult to imagine how Knights of the Order moved around the temple area in the past.
If you follow the Knights Templar cobblestone crosses through the streets of Tomar, you will end up in the Praça da República in front of the 18th-century town hall, Paços do Concelho, and the Church of St John the Baptist.
The Praça da República is a spectacular square, set with the Castle and the Convent of Christ in the background atop the hill. Surrounding the famous black and white-tiled plaza, there are small shops and cafés with local pastry specialities. In the middle of the square there is a statue of the Knight Templar Gualdim Pais, who in the 12th century founded the castle above.
Tomar is known for its special festival Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festival of the Trays) in the whole of Portugal, an event that takes place every four years in July in the charming castle town (2023, 2027…). Those years the streets are filled with colourful paper flower decorations and the girls in long white dresses carry an amazing tray headdress of flowers (tabuleiro) on their heads. Brocade quilts decorate the balconies flanking the processions. It is an ancient tradition that attracts people from near and far – including from other continents.
The eye-catching tabuleiro is made up of 30 loaves of bread and more accessories, topped with the Cross of the Order of Christ or the Cove of the Holy Ghost, as well as paper flowers. The girls are part of the Procession of the Tabuleiros, which is led by the Banner of the Holy Ghost, as well as the three Crowns of the Emperors and Kings. Accompanying boys in the procession wear stylish white shirts with rolled-up sleeves, a cap, and a matching tie.
The festival with origin in the worship of the Holy Spirit, that dates all the way back to the 13th century, features several other traditional processions such as the Procession of the Crowns, the Procession of the Boys, and the Arrival of the Bulls of the Holy Spirit.
Explore the Knights Templar Castle in Tomar, Portugal
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Explore the Knights Templar Castle in Tomar, Portugal:
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