Archive | history RSS feed for this section

Otto Rahn

6 Dec

Otto Rahn was a German medievalist best known for his expertise on the works of Wolfram von Eschenbach. In studying Wolfram’s writings, in particular Parzival, he became convinced that the poem’s Grail Castle of Munsalvaesche was the castle of Montsegur, in the south of France. Rahn therefore began a series of visits, each one lasting longer and longer, to the south of France in the hopes of proving his theory.

His presence there, specifically in the department of the Ariege, is first attested in the middle of 1930. A year later, in November 1931, he established a more permanent base as a tenant or lodger of a Mademoiselle Bernadac, in the village of Ussat-les-Bains (which is not too far from Rennes-le-Chateau). A few months later, in March of 1932, the local newspaper, La Depeche du Midi (the same newspaper which would first publicize the story of Rennes-le-Chateau two decades later: see Priory of Sion, November) ran an article speculating on the presence of many amateur archeologists, especially Germans, in the area around Ussat-les- Bains, and mentioned Rahn’s name. The paper claimed they were looking for the Cathar treasure allegedly hidden in the local caves of Ornolac and Lombrives . Rahn’s presence was defended by Antonin Gadal, an esotericist and local historian who would guide him in his research. Whether Rahn met Gadal as a result of the article or knew him before is uncertain, but within a short time he befriended a large number of locals, in particular one Countess Pujol-Murat, whose salon was a focal point for esotericists and devotees of Cathar history.

Rahn’s first book, Crusade Against the Grail, came out in 1934 and attracted the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who urged him to join the SS. He did so in 1936, but soon ran afoul of his superiors and resigned in 1939. Shortly thereafter, he was found frozen to death on an Austrian mountainside.

That,at least, is the official story. In his book Le Mystere Otto Rahn (The Otto Rahn Mystery), French writer, Ussat-les-Bains native and relative of Rahn’s first landlady Christian Bernadac draws on his family background and connections to reconstruct a much more detailed picture of Rahn’s activities. He unearths police reports which had mentioned Rahn and his associates, among them one Nat Wolff, invariably called Karl (as well as various other aliases) a German spy living in the area under a fake American passport. Karl Wolff was also the name of an SS general and close associate of Himmler’s, who would end his career as military governor of northern Italy during the Second World War and secretly negotiate the surrender of German forces with OSS envoy  (and later CIA director) Allen Dulles. Bernadac also notes that there were reported sightings of Otto Rahn in Beirut as late as 1945, long after his supposed death. He speculates that Rudolf Rahn, German ambassador to Italy during the war, was in reality Otto Rahn after extensive plastic surgery. This, however, is unlikely.

In Stone of the Goddess, Rahn plays a peripheral background role in Ermengarde’s history of the Priory of Sion. He is alleged to have met Anthony Blunt during the early thirties, when they were both staying in the south of France, and to have conspired with him to smuggle the Grail to a location of safety. He may also have been in Beirut at the same time as either Kim or St.John Philby (see Cambridge Five,November), and this might also have had to do with the occultation of the Grail.


The Cambridge Five

15 Nov
The Cambridge Five were, as their name suggests, five Cambridge alumni found guilty of spying for the Russians during the Cold War and before. Only two of them concern us here: Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby.

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt, who would reach the position of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was an art historian who specialized in Nicolas Poussin, an artist who plays a mysterious but significant role in the mythology of the Priory of Sion. Blunt was born in Britain 1907, but grew up mostly in Paris when his vicar father was appointed chaplain to the British embassy there. This allowed him to grow up fluent in French and with a keen interest and knowledge of French art and architecture. On going to Cambridge, he soon took an interest in Nicolas Poussin and in 1933 was allowed to take a sabbatical to Rome to study his works. He also made some trips to the south of France and to Germany during this period, occasionally going to the same places and at the same time as Otto Rahn. Sometime earlier he had met Tomas Harris, a dealer specializing in Spanish art, described by Blunt’s biographer as “a secretive and charismatic character who might not be absolutely honest.” Harris worked for MI5 and would run one of the most successful espionage and disinformation networks of World War II.

It was shortly after his return to Cambridge from Rome that Blunt would be recruited as a Soviet agent. At the outbreak of war he joined the British army, and in 1940 was recruited to MI5. At the end of the war, in August 1945, he performed a delicate but rather odd mission to Germany. Supposedly on behalf of the Royal Family, he and another agent, Owen Morshead, travelled to Friedrichshof, the seat of the Landgrave of Hesse near Frankfurt, to retrieve some 4 000 letters. The official version of the story says that these were letters from Queen Victoria to her eldest daughter, and that the Royal Family thought they would be safer in England. Another version states that they were, in fact, correspondence of the Duke of Windsor which might prove highly embarassing (the Duke had often expressed Nazi sympathies.)  Whatever the truth, Blunt and Morshead flew to Frankfurt on August 3, locked themselves in the Friedrichshof library on the 4th to peruse the mysterious papers, and by the end of the day had a signed agreement by the Dowager Landgravine of Hesse to release the documents into their possession. On August 5th, Morshead flew back to England while Blunt stayed behind another day on `military business.’  The ‘letters’ would eventually be returned to the Landgrave in 1951.

It is not clear when exactly Blunt met Kim Philby, though it seems certain that Blunt was recruited to

Kim Philby

theSoviet cause earlier than Philby, and may have recruited the latter. Other versions of Philby’s recruitment state that he went over to the Soviet cause during a 1934 trip to Vienna, and this seems more probable. Whatever the case, Blunt and Philby’s shared condition as Soviet agents, their many mutual friends and their permanence at Cambridge created a bond between them.

Philby was the son of St.John Philby, a British civil servant who had served in the colonial administration. St.John was also a noted Arabist who, shortly before his death, was considered the greatest living British expert on the Middle East. The elder Philby’s career in the colonial administration had been tumultuous, largely due to his insistence on going his own way. Early on, he had urged the British government to back ibn Saud against the Hashemites in their struggle for dominance over the Arabian peninsula, spotting (correctly, as it turned out) that without outside help the Hashemites could never have triumphed on their own. Unfortunately for him, this was not the position of the British government, and so led to considerable ill feeling between the elder Philby and his employers. St.John would eventually end up far closer to ibn Saud and a far better advocate of the Saudi cause than of the cause of his own government. In one of his many books, Arabian Jubilee, he would admit to having done his best to undermine the British cause by encouraging a Soviet presence in the Middle East. But his penchant for insubordination caused him to also quarrel with ibn Saud’s successor, and in 1953 he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. Some years before, ibn Saud had given him a slave girl as a present, and he now went to live with her in Beirut, a city which at that time was described as “crowded with improbable men and lurid events.”

It was here that Kim joined him in 1956. Kim did not share St.John’s enthusiasm for all things Arab,but he had fallen under a cloud of suspicion when two other members of the Cambridge Five, Burgess and Maclean, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. In order to pre-empt being fired, he resigned voluntarily from MI6, only to find himself without work and at loose ends. Wishing to keep him under surveillance, MI6 obtained for him the job of Beirut correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. So it was that Kim found himself living with his father in Lebanon, where his two noisy half-brothers and his father’s concubine grated on his nerves. Luckily for him, in his capacity as foreign correspondent he was able to travel extensively throughout the Arab world, including to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen.

In 1961 or 62, a Soviet defector finally confirmed MI6’s suspicion that Philby had been the `Third Man’ of the Cambridge spy ring. A friend of Philby’s was sent to confront him and elicit a confession, but before he could obtain a written declaration, on the night of January 23, 1963, Philby fled to Moscow, most likely on a Russian freighter.

In 1964, Tomas Harris, the art dealer and MI5 operative, died in a car crash in Majorca.


4 Sep

The Qarmati sect was a sect of Shi’ite Islam named after its founder, Hamdan Qarmat.

Qarmat was a carter from the village of Quss Bahram, which no longer exists, but which may have been located near the ruins of ancient Babylon. Sometime between 873-878 CE he was converted to Ismailism, a branch of Shi’ite Islam founded by a certain Abdallah the Elder a few years earlier.


Abdallah the Elder is himself an interesting character: little is known about his background, but all known biographies seem to believe that his family were either Bardesanites or Manicheans. Some sources also say that he was descended from the Arab tribe of Bahila, which was active during the Ridda Wars (Wars of Apostasy) against Islam.

Abdallah the Elder preached the coming of the Mahdi, and initially Qarmat and his brother-in-law Abdan did likewise. But by 899, after Abdallah and various descendants had succeeded each other at the head of the Ismaili movement, Qarmat grew suspicious. Matters came to a head when the leader of the movement (Abdallah the Elder’s great-grandson)declared himself Mahdi: at that point Qarmat and Abdan, as well as most of their followers in Iraq, lost all confidence in him. Abdan was murdered by followers onf the Mahdi who broke into his house one night, while Qarmat simply disappeared from the scene entirely: he is not mentioned in any source after 899. No one knows what happened to him, but his followers remained active. One group of Qarmatis seized Bahrain (which extended beyond the modern-day island of that name) and founded a short-lived millenarian state there. The self-proclaimed Mahdi, meanwhile, fled to Egypt with a group of followers: there he would found the Fatimid caliphate in the year 909 CE,  which would survive until the year 1171 CE.

The leader of the Qarmatis in Bahrain, one Abu Said al-Jannabi, had meanwhile proclaimed the coming of the Mahdi for the year 300 AH (i.e. of the Muslim calendar.) This would have been equivalent to the year 912 or 913 CE, but that date passed without the Mahdi appearing. This may have been the reason for al-Jannabi and some of his principal lieutenants being murdered. He was eventually replaced by one of his sons, Abu Tahir, who instituted a reign of terror,plundering cities and robbing pilgrim caravans. In 930, Abu Tahir seized the city of Mecca during the annual pilgrimage and massacred countless pilgrims, dessecrating the Ka’ba and carrying off the Black Stone to Bahrain, where it was broken in two and used as the steps to a privy. He then proclaimed a Persian slave as the Mahdi.

This Mahdi (who seems to have been named Abu l-Fadl) assumed power and instituted a reign of terror of his own. According to a reliable account, he ‘prescribed pederasty and incest with their own sisters for them, and he ordered that all beardless youths who refused should be put to death. But Abu Tahir and the people used to circle around him, completely naked, shouting: Our God, he is mighty and exalted!’

We should note the similarity between these accusations and the ones made against the gnostic sects (which influenced early Ismailism.)

But Abu Tahir eventually turned against the Mahdi Abu l-Fadl, for reasons that are unclear, and  had him killed. He himself died of smallpox in 944, whereupon his surviving brothers felt it expedient to surrender the Black Stone to the Abbasid caliph. In 952, it was finally returned to its place in the Ka’ba. The Qarmatis’ power dwindled thereafter, and the last reliable mention of them dates from 1050.

Further reading: The Empire of the Mahdi, by Heinz Halm, E.J.Brill, 1996