"Web of Gold"

Guy Patton & Robin Mackness

Chapter One

• The Jerusalem Treasure • Romans and Visigoths •
• A Pyrenean Kingdom • Rhedae •

A little less than forty years after the brutal crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Messiah, the streets of Jerusalem echoed to the insistent tramp of legions of the Roman army. Exasperated by the continuous guerrilla warfare waged by the Zealots Jewish militants dedicated to the liberation of their ancient homeland) the Roman general, Titus, led his troops in a wholesale attack on the city.

The former governor, Pontius Pilate, arguably the mall responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, had long since been replaced. According to some reports he was sent back in disgrace to his family lands in the south of France; he had not handled the political situation competently. From AD66, the Romans had been effectively at war with the Jews, and by AD70 the Emperor Vespasian and his Roman hierarchy had had enough.

The principal focus of this attack was the magnificent temple that dominated Jerusalem from its position straddling the hill of Mount Moriya, to the south of which is Mount Sion. The Temple of Jerusalem was less of a military target than a symbolic one: it represented the heart of the Jewish nation itself. The building under seige had been erected on the command of King Herod, who had reigned over Judaea immediately before the birth of Jesus. But it had been constructed on the foundations of a much older temple, which in turn is alleged to have replaced the legendary Temple of Solomon, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the symbolism of the ancient Temple is still in evidence today, as thousands of orthodox Jews pray in front of the Wailing Wall, its oldest surviving part.

Yet there is some confusion over the reality of what actually was Solomon's Temple. Out of what remains today the only account of its construction comes from the Old Testament. But in addition even from that, it is clear that the story of the building is intertwined with something else. For the account of 2 Chronicles ch. 9 also mentions the presence of the most incredible treasures of gold, silver and precious gems, much of which was supposed to be a gift of the Queen of Sheba. However, like the stones and mortar, most of this was to disappear in the sackings of Jerusalem by the Egyptian pharoah Rameses in about 930BC and later, in 5tA6fBC, by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. 2 Chronicles ch. 36 also reports that at that time all the city's residents were taken into captivity in Babylon. Great emphasis is placed on the fate of the treasure, and in verse 18 it is recounted that, 'all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon'. Before leaving the city, the Babylonians broke down its walls, and set fire to the Temple and all the royal palaces.

'Three score and ten' years later however, the Jews were to return to Jerusalem. In Ezra, chapters 1, 2 and 3, it is reported that under the direction of Cyrus, King of Persia, not only was the Temple reconstructed, but also an enormous quantity of treasure was returned to its precincts.

Around 35BC, dissatisfied with the existing temple, Herod, on his accession, decided to build a more splendid replacement intended to rival Solomon's Temple of legend. Though little now remains, the dimensions of Herod's Temple are impressive; the temple buildings were built on a platform approximately 470m long and 300m wide, about nine and a half times the area of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. But Herod's Temple no longer housed, in its Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, that most symbolic of all the ancient Jewish artefacts. This disappears from all accounts sometime between 750BC and 650BC. Nevertheless the temple did, as expected, contain the sacred and priceless treasure that had been amassed by the Jews over the previous centuries. This included what is now a well-known symbol of the Jewish faith, the seven-branched candlestick called the menorah, as well as other sacred articles, together with a large quantity of gold and silver.
The archaeology of the Temple itself aside however, confirmation of the existence of a huge treasure, deposited in and around it, was found in 1952 during the excavations of an important religious settlement by the Dead Sea. In a cave at Qumran, researchers discovered a scroll of rolled copper upon which had been engraved an inventory of the nature and locations of this treasure. The exact sites were not easily identifiable to modern researchers, but a considered estimate of the actual quantity of treasure revealed some sixty-five tons of silver and twenty-six of gold. These were secreted within and around the precincts of the Temple, just prior to the Roman invasion.

With ruthless efficiency, Titus and his legions devastated and pillaged the Temple. The holy treasure was duly transported back to Rome. A record of this survives to this day in Rome, in the form of the Arch of Titus, built in AD81 by the Senate in pride of place at the top of the Via Sacra near the Forum and the Colosseum. On the right-hand vault of the Arch is a bas-relief depicting the return of the triumphant General Titus, his troops bearing this symbolic and priceless treasure. Clearly shown is the massive seven-branched candlestick, carried on the shoulders of Jewish prisoners.

The sacking of Jerusalem, and the removal of the sacred treasure from the Temple, tore the heart from the Jewish nation. All organized conflict with the Roman Empire finally collapsed three years later, with the destruction of the mountain fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, and the mass suicide of its heroic defenders. This tragedy was to find a parallel with another religious sect, nearly 1200 years later, in the mountainous region of south-western France.

The most important source of information about this early period comes from the writings of Josephus, a former Jewish Commander who had been arrested in Galilee in AD67. A shrewd and persuasive man, he managed to gain the confidence of the Emperor Vespasian and even became a military adviser to the Roman commanders given the task of overseeing the destruction of Jerusalem. Taken to Rome after the fall of Masada, he spent his days compiling detailed histories of the times. In his "Jewish Wars Against the Romans", Josephus confirms the pillaging of the Temple treasure: 'Among the great quantity of spoils, the most remarkable being those that had been taken from the Temple of Jerusalem, the Table of Gold that weighed several talents and the golden Chandelier made with such skill to make it worthy of the use to which it was destined'.

For the next 350 years this treasure remained (along with wealth looted from all over the Roman Empire) in the Imperial Treasury. But as it lay there, the might of Rome moved into decline. By this time, the burden of defending its vast borders was immense and costly; it was becoming vulnerable to the powerful forces emerging from the east. Finally, in AD410, Rome fell to the might of the Visigothic king, Alaric, heralding the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

The Visigoths (West Goths), one of two divisions of a group of Germanic peoples, had separated from their cousins the Ostrogoths (East Goths) in the fourth century. Becoming agriculturists, they had settled in what is now Romania, until attacked by the Huns and driven across the Danube River into the Roman Empire. At first living harmoniously within the Empire, the increasing demands of taxation from their Roman overlords was to provoke a violent reaction. From minor revolts and skirmishes, tension escalated into outright war, and on 9 August 378 they utterly defeated the army of Emperor Valens on the plains outside Adrianople. Valens himself was killed. The Visigoths wandered the region for four years until settling at Moesia in the Balkans, entering into an accord with the new Roman emperor, Theodosius I, who charged them with defending the frontier. During this time it also appears that the Visigoths converted to Christianity, although to the Arian sect, the doctrine of which did not accept that Jesus was the actual son of God.

Within a short time the Roman army included barbarian generals who were wielding considerable political power, and seeking to expand their own lands. They moved south into Greece, and thence, after an initial failure, into Italy. It was thus that Alaric was to arrive at the gates of the city of Rome itself.

The sack of Rome was mild, and almost respectful. The Visigoths admired the civilization achieved by the Romans although this respect did not prevent Alaric from plundering the treasure. However, his death within the same year, 410, was to prevent hint from enjoying the spoils. It was to be under the command of his successor, Ataulphus, that the Visigoths set off further west, through a virtually defenseless Gaul, eventually establishing a Visigothic kingdom that occupied most of modern Spain and the south-west of France. They continued to maintain a fragile 'détente' with the Romans, at times supporting them and at other times attacking them.

Visigothic artefacts clearly show their admiration for the advanced cultures they encountered: they had absorbed Roman and Grecian-Byzantine influences and, combined with Germanic metal-working skills, created exquisite jewellery and ornamentation; a magnificent collection of jewelled crowns and crosses, known as the Treasure of Guarrazar, can be seen in Madrid's National Archaeological Museum. Visigothic architecture also demonstrates a sophistication with excellent masonry and stone vaulting. These people were far from being 'uncivilized' barbarians; perhaps this popular image arose largely as a reaction to their adoption of Arian Christianity, which had been declared heretical by the Roman Catholic Church.

Having settled in their new kingdom, straddling the Pyrenees, the Visigoths established their capital at Toulouse, and created well-fortified centres of power at Toledo, Carcassonne and Rhedae, now the little hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. Evidence that the Visigoths had possession of an immense treasure is borne out not only by the Guarrazar artefacts, but from commentators and historians including Procopius, El Macin, Fredegaire, and the Englishman, Gibbon. That this included the spoils of Rome is confirmed by their references made to the Missorium, a magnificent jewel-encrusted golden plate weighing about 100 pounds, and also to the Emerald Table with its gold stands and pearl inlay.

Meanwhile, the Frankish tribes, having crossed the Rhine border (from their homeland in what is now Belgium and Germany), were pushing into northern France (then called Gaul). Within 100 years, united under the rule of Clovis, the first Frankish king, they had established their own kingdom in northern and central France. The Visigoths were thus contained from expanding much further north than the Pyrenees; the northernmost territory of the Visigoth kingdom now occupied an area known as the Languedoc. This status quo existed for the best part of 200 years until an unwanted and aggressive intrusion appeared in the south of Spain.

By 650, Islam, the religion created by the prophet Mohammed, had swept throughout the Middle East and Egypt, and was converting the Berber tribes of North Africa. It was only a matter of time before the eyes of the Islamic Berbers of Morocco turned towards the nearby Iberian Peninsula. Led by the Moorish commander, Jabel-al-Tariq, from whom Gibraltar takes its Anglicized name, they invaded Spain in 711, rapidly expanding throughout the whole peninsula. In the face of this relentless tide, the Visigothic king and his nobles were forced to leave their fortress town of Toledo and to retreat northwards with their possessions, until they arrived at their fortified city of Carcassonne. When Tariq arrived at Toledo, it is recounted that he demanded the legendary treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, of which he had full knowledge; but by this time the Visigoths had fled north taking it with them.

The Arabs appreciated the symbolic value of the lost treasure as well as its material worth, because Islam considers itself to be the half-brother of Judaism. According to the Bible, the Arab nations are descended from Ismael, the exiled son of Abraham and his Egyptian hand-maiden Hagar; he is therefore the half-brother of Isaac, the Israelite patriarch. Within the Islamic faith, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other biblical leaders are highly revered as prophets. To Tariq, this shared heritage can be seen to have extended to the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem.

It was the Franks, led by the able Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, who pushed the Islamic tide back into Spain. The Franks then turned their attention to the Visigothic fortress of Carcassonne. According to the Greek historian, Procope of Caesarea, in his 'De Bello Gothico', the Franks too were fully aware of the treasure, which they also believed to have come from the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. While at this point physical documentary record of the fate of the treasure becomes obscured, the prevailing legend supported by the historian Firmin Jaffus and the archaeologist Cros-Mayrevieille, affirms that the treasure was now removed from Carcassonne. Further, persistent local legend claims that, faced by the threat of attack, it was taken to the last Visigothic stronghold of Rennes-le-Chateau, to be carefully concealed in a number of locations nearby. And it is here, in the remote high valley of the Aude, that deposits of the ancient Temple treasure appear to have remained, largely undisturbed, for the past 1200 years.

But the spoils of the Temple may not be the only treasure to be concealed in the region. Although differing in their details, a handful of local stories share at their core a Queen Blanche, or Blanche of Castille, and a royal treasure. Perhaps these are inspired by the presence of a local fortress called Blanchefort, and by the linguistic coincidence between Rennes-les-Bains (or Reynes-les-Bains, as it was known by 1406) and Reine-les-Bains, which associates a Queen ('reine') and the baths ('bains') for which the valley is famous. But Blanche of Castille, the mother of St Louis IX, King of France, did become regent in the mid-thirteenth century, whilst her son was away on crusade, and as such, was in charge of the royal treasury. Concerned by the power and rebellious nature of some of her nobles, she decided to leave Paris and is said to have transported the royal treasure to Rennes (a fief which at the time belonged to the crown), before confronting the growing threat. Though she succeeded in defusing the situation, she died a little time after. Thus we have a second cache of hidden treasure.

The secret of its location could have been passed through King Louis, who was to die in Tunis, to his son, Philippe the Hardy, who, it is said, improved the defences of Rennes. But the secret appears to have died with him. His son and heir to the throne, Philippe the Fair, took drastic steps in an attempt to gain control of the wider region, by then in the grip of the Knights Templar. Yet despite his success at crushing Templar control, he was unable to recover the treasure.

So did the Templars become the guardians, not only of the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, but also that of Queen Blanche? This would have been to add to their own enormous wealth, amassed over nearly two centuries. What's more, Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier, local Rennes-le-Chateau researchers with old family ties to the village, state in their book "L'Héritage de Abbe Sauniere", that they believe this treasure of the Templars was buried in the region too.

Another long-time Rennes researcher, Tatiana Kletzky-Pradere, notes that the nineteenth century priest of Rennes-le-Chateau, Abbe Sauniere, named his dog, 'Pomponnet', and his Monkey, 'Mela'. Could it be mere coincidence that a first century Spanish geographer and writer, called Pomponius Mela, refers to an ancient treasure deposited ill the mines of Pyrene, located exactly south of Carcassonne? Could Sauniere have known of both these writings and have had access to the treasure? The researches of Rennes writer Gerard de Sede do state that a Mme. Baron, a villager who knew Sauniere, told him that there were in fact two dogs, Pomponnet and Faust, and two monkeys, Capri and Mora. Yet as with the other aspects of this story that are to become linked with Sauniere, these are perhaps clues not to be discarded lightly.

Visitors to Rennes-le-Chateau, now with only a few dozen permanent residents, will find it difficult to appreciate that this is the site of the ancient Visigothic stronghold of Rhedae. The diminutive medieval chateau at the heart of the village is built on Visigothic foundations, as is the church adjacent to it, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. It is this building which has become the centre of the so-called mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau, with which Sauniere is so intimately associated. Archaeological excavations in the village and the neighbouring fields have revealed extensive Visigothic remains and artefacts. Only about 2.5km north of Rennes, behind the village of Coustaussa, in a place called the Grand Camp, are the remains of some substantial dry-stone walls 2m-3m high and over 2m wide. In the neighbouring valley of Rennes-les-Bains are extensive stone walls buried within the undergrowth that have more in common with defensive structures than agricultural terracing. Yet astonishingly, in view of the rich history and visible remains, neither the village of Rennes nor its surrounding area has been properly excavated by archaeologists. Indeed, excavations of any kind have been vigorously opposed. What is it that the authorities wish to remain undiscovered?

Languedoc, the area which forms the backcloth to this unfolding story, extends from the valley of the River Arriège in the west to the Mediterranean coast in the east, and from the towns of Albi, Millau and Nîmes in the north to the mountains of the Pyrenees in the south. For administrative reasons, the French government has joined the Catalonian area, Roussillon, to the Languedoc to form a region, which has as much Spanish cultural influence as French. The name Languedoc derives from 'language of the Oc', which refers to Occitan or Provençal, a dialect with Spanish connections. This unique mix of French and Spanish culture, and its geographical isolation from centres of political power, has helped to form its distinctive and remarkable history.

The Languedoc is further divided into smaller departments, one of which, the Aude, encompasses the dramatic Corbières with its craggy peaks, vineyards, and river valleys with densely wooded slopes and rocky outcrops. Here is to be found the village of Rennes-le-Chateau and its surrounding countryside, the Razes. Lying at the north-west corner, on the River Aude itself, is the fairytale city of Carcassonne, with its high turreted walls and sturdy towers.

Modern geophysical maps reveal the presence of a diversity and abundance of metal ores, including significant deposits of gold and silver. The Romans appear to have been the first to have fully appreciated, and exploited, these extensive mineral deposits, and evidence of their mining activities are known. The restored Roman baths at Rennes-les-Bains, utilizing the natural hot springs, and the existence of original Roman roads, gives some indication of the esteem in which this valley was held.
With such evidence of significant Roman occupation in the area and its strategic and easily defendable position, it is quite easy to understand why the Visigoths, admirers of Roman culture and their military ability, should have chosen Rennes-le-Chateau to establish the major stronghold which was to become their final refuge in the face of Frankish dominance.

Among the region's extensive cave networks, two in particular are worthy of mention. Right in the heart of the Hautes-Corbières is to be found the tiny village of Auriac, a name that recalls its association with ancient goldmines (the French for gold being 'or', coming from the Latin 'aurum') as does the hamlet L'Auradieu, and the little stream the Aurio. Close to the village is another stream, the 'Rec de L'Érmita', which emerges from a cave network around which are ancient mines, one of which is called L'Hérmita (possibly derived from L'Ermite), 'the Hermit'. The church at Rennes-le-Chateau, renovated in the late nineteenth century, is decorated with many symbols that refer to both caves and hermits. Just south of Rennes-le-Chateau is called the Grotte du Carla.

Like many of the other cave networks both of these have proved difficult, dangerous, or even impossible, to explore fully from their known access points. It may well be that some of these caves are more safely accessible from other ways yet to be popularly discovered. Interestingly, the words 'carla' and 'aven' (cave) appear in a message decoded from a cryptogram found at Rennes-le-Chateau after the death of its priest in 1917. It is a curious message containing direct references to the Hautpoul family, the Visigoths, the Templars, treasure, and a dead king. These are all to appear as motifs throughout this story.

So, as our starting point, we have a remote area encrusted in history and legend, and probably containing the secret of a great hidden treasure. Over the course of history it has witnessed and possibly inspired the naked aggression of forces both temporal and spiritual, in an insatiable quest for power and wealth.

End of Chapter One

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