The magnificent Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ) in the historic town of Tomar in central Portugal is one of the most impressive religious complexes in the whole of southern Europe.
Surrounded by the walls of Tomar Castle, it was founded by Gualdim Pais, grand master of the Knights Templar, in 1160 and today ranks as one of the top Portuguese sites on UNESCO’s coveted world heritage list.
Crowning a hill on the edge of town, it was inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and its star feature is without doubt the octagonal-shaped Charola, the original rotunda church where the world-famous Knights Templar attended mass on horseback.
Founded by nine knights under the leadership of Hugh De Payne, the Templars emerged from the Christian Crusades of the 11th century as a group of fighting monks with the aim of recovering Jerusalem from the Moors and keeping the roads safe for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land.
Portugal’s King Dinis (1279-1325) transformed the Order of the rich and powerful Templars into the Order of Christ since they had played such a vital role in expelling the Moors from his territory.
In the 15th century, the Grand Master of the Order was Prince Henry the Navigator and the Order financed the risky expeditions that were to make the Age of Discovery possible and hence help establish the great Portuguese Empire.
The Order’s bevelled red cross on a white background was borne on the sails of the fleets of Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Gil Eanes, Bartolomeu Dias and Afonso de Albuquerque as they traversed the globe in search of new horizons.
To express his gratitude, King Manuel I (The Fortunate) ordered a sumptuous Manueline-style church to be built around the Charola and his successors never grew tired of embellishing and enriching Tomar’s remarkable Convent of Christ (located on the Google map below).
Its seven cloisters and courtyards offer today’s visitors a fine display of the best Portuguese art and architecture from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Of all the cloisters, the loveliest is arguably that of the Felipes, a great two-storey Palladian structure built in 1557 by Diogo de Torralva.
Glittering with gold in the Byzantine style and ‘worthy of housing the Holy Grail’, the Charola is very much the centrepiece of the entire complex and the part most tourists have come to see.
With its fine frescoes and gilded statuary below the cupola, it is a masterpiece of ancient architecture and a lasting legacy of one of the earliest chapters in Portugal’s long and chequered history.
Located in the heart of the Ribatejo wine-growing region, Tomar is the perfect base from which to explore one of the most interesting parts of the country, which includes Santarém, (the region’s ancient capital) and the Tagus Estuary Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo), one of the most scenic parts of central Portugal.
Tomar is also within easy striking distance of Almourol Castle (a fairy-tale fortress located on a rocky island in the middle of the River Tagus), Ourém and the important catholic shrine of Fátima where three young shepherds saw visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917.