Carcassonne, France – 1209-1244
Ten thousand of Pope Innocent III’s most feared Crusaders had already swept through the Cathar stronghold of Béziers, killing twice that many men, women, and children as the Albigensian Crusade ravaged its way through the Languedoc region of southern France. The next major assault would take place in the ancient fortified city of Carcassonne, the jewel of the Occitanie province.
Word of the Pope’s troops drawing close to the city reached the ears of Raymond-Roger Trancavel, Viscount of Carcassonne, and in haste he put into motion several defensive strategies. First, he sent all of the city’s Jews away, knowing certain death awaited them at the hands of the Catholic army. Then he alerted the Cathars, a small influential mystic order considered heretics by the Catholic Church, urging them to flee the city. Few did, preferring to take their chances behind the strong defenses of the heavily walled city.
Long a discreet supporter of the peaceful Cathar movement, Trancavel tried to make accommodations with the approaching army to spare his city and its people, but the Pope’s commanders refused a meeting. His lands, indeed, his very life, were now at stake. But there was one last mission he had yet to accomplish in fulfillment of an oath taken years before.
Accompanied by loyal bodyguards and a small cadre of regimental troops, Trancavel arranged a secret visit with a trusted friend, Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, carrying with him a small wooden box containing the legendary treasure of the Cathars. The ornately carved box was a sacred reliquary which itself had been handed down to him for safekeeping by Godfroi de Bouillon, conqueror and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Lord of Bouillon, France. Godfroi was of Merovingian descent, a bloodline traced directly back to Mary Magdalene, from whom the reliquary had been acquired after she personally carried it from Jerusalem to France as she and other apostles fled the Romans. After entrusting the reliquary back into Godfroi’s hands, Trancavel returned to Carcassonne to stand with his people—and die with them—as the Crusaders waged their bloody war.
After Trancavel’s death and the fall of Carcassonne, Raymond VI mounted several resistance campaigns against the Crusaders, only to lose Toulouse and suffer excommunication by the Church in the process. Years later he was able to regain his lands, but before he died he passed on the sacred reliquary to his son, Raymond VII, who succeeded his father as Count of Toulouse in 1222.
Like his father, Raymond VII was sympathetic to both the Jews and the Cathars, and for his failure to suppress both factions, he too fell into disfavor with the Church. But war was again at hand, as the King of France sought to restore his rights in the Languedoc. Raymond VII lost his battles with the king’s forces and was ultimately forced to sign the Treaty of Paris, ceding much of his property to the crown. To ensure that the holy reliquary entrusted to him not be acquired by the king, Raymond made secret provisions to transfer it to the Cathar leaders, devout followers of Mary Magdalene. The fabled sacred treasure was now in the hands of its final guardians.
In the ensuing years the heretical Cathars continued to endure one defeat after another in the wake of the Pope’s Crusades, and the last of the movement’s survivors, some four hundred souls, eventually resettled themselves in the mountaintop castle at Montségur, a fortified peak at the foot of the Pyrenees some fifty miles south of Toulouse. But their own days were numbered, as the Albigensian Crusaders blockaded the base of the mountain waiting for their moment to put an end to the scourge of this heresy once and for all.
After ten months of relentless sieges, in March 1244 the Cathars finally acceded to discuss the terms of their surrender with the Pope’s commanders waiting below. Unbeknownst to the Crusaders, however, four of the most capable Cathar soldiers known as parfaits had secretly descended the mountain, taking with them the sacred reliquary, which they eventually hid in a cave near Périllos, a day’s journey east of Montségur.
Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, had by now been informed by one of the brave escaped parfaits of the secret whereabouts of the reliquary. To ensure its location would be known to future faithful collaborators, yet still protected, Raymond had enlisted the services of one of the renowned mapmakers of the day, Pietro Vesconte. He also dispatched a small trusted group of soldiers to accompany Vesconte and the parfait to the cave site, and while the troops set up their base for a few days’ encampment, Vesconte used the time to explore the entire cave and lay down on paper an intricate design of the cave system and the exact location of the concealed reliquary.
His mission accomplished, Vesconte returned to his workshop to complete the map on sturdy parchment and prepared it in the form of a shrewd puzzle so as to prevent the casual observer from understanding its solution without substantial effort, much less what its purpose was.
Testing the design, Vesconte assured himself that, by folding and refolding the panels in specific ways, it would require great thought and effort to eventually arrive at the solution—ultimately revealing the secret location of the legendary treasure of the Cathars.
Standing in the center of the sprawling Cathedral cavern of the Grotte de Lombrives, the three young men geared up for their descent, echoes of their jangling gear the only sounds in an otherwise silent underground chamber.
Two of the three, Karl Dengler and Lukas Bischoff, were already expert cavers, skills adapted during their rigorous training as elite Mountain Grenadiers, the Swiss Army’s equivalent of U.S. Navy SEAL teams. The third man, Michael Dominic, was new to the sport, and not a little intimidated by the massive subterranean labyrinth extending 24 miles deep into the earth below the Aude Valley. As a Jesuit priest working in the Vatican, the deepest he had ever been underground was in the basement of the Church’s Secret Archives.
“How far back in are we going?” Dominic asked his comrades, swallowing hard as pearls of sweat lined his brow.
Dengler, a blond, five-foot-nine, superbly conditioned athlete, sensed his friend’s hesitation, but couldn’t resist racking up the tension. “Not far, Michael. Only half a mile or so … deep, deep into the ground, beneath billions of tons of earth and granite and limestone. Exciting, isn’t it!”
Dark-haired Lukas, six foot tall and a solid 190 pounds, stood looking at Dominic for his expected reaction.
The priest just stared at Dengler with a curious mix of tension and disbelief. “Thanks for the daunting optimism, Karl.” He had accepted their invitation to try caving as a way to expand his horizons a bit, both of the natural wonders of the area as well as for a bit of needed exercise. Now he wondered if this fun excursion they had promised was a bit more than he had anticipated.
The largest and widest cave by volume in Europe, the Lombrives Cathedral is big enough to accommodate the entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and then some. But this wasn’t even the largest cavern in the extensive cave system snaking its way through the Languedoc region of southern France. That distinction belonged to the soaring Rule of Satan hall, which was four times larger than the Cathedral.
A vast pool of stagnant, emerald green water, brilliantly illuminated by shafts of daylight streaming in through open light wells in the roof of the chamber, formed a verdant natatorium for the pale salamanders and Iberian frogs native to the area.
Dengler and his partner, Lukas, double-checked Dominic’s gear before they made their way through the shallow underground lake and beyond the gallery, deep into the recesses of the cavern.
“I’ve checked the cave survey, and though this is mostly a horizontal vault, there are some tricky vertical passages. I’ll take the lead. Michael, you stay close behind me, and Lukas will take the rear guard.”
“Rear guard?!” Dominic asked with slight alarm. “What are we guarding against?!”
“Well,” said Dengler, impishly, “horizontal caves are often home to animals seeking shelter from weather and predators, like bats and raccoons and bears.”
“BEARS?!” Dominic cried out, the word echoing throughout the great chamber.
“Shh!” Dengler whispered. “You’ll wake them.”
Dominic took a deep breath, blushing as Karl and Lukas laughed.
“Don’t worry, Michael,” Dengler reassured him. “Cave bears are extinct in this part of France. You may find pictures of them on the walls, though, since these caverns once served as shelter for tribes in the Paleolithic era, some forty thousand years ago. And as for bats, well, nearly every cave has bats.”
Wading through the ankle-deep water, the three men stayed close to the walls, careful they wouldn’t crush any aqueous troglobites as their steps took them farther into the cave. Geological formations dating back millions of years struck the eye at every turn. Countless stalactites hung like massive icicles from the ceiling; tapering columns of stalagmites, formed by eons of calcified water dripping from above, rose intermittently from the floor bed; shimmering crystals and other minerals formed in nooks and crannies, beckoning those with an eye for natural treasures.
Emerging from the pool, their waders dripping with still water scum, the team slowly made its way to the rear chambers of the cave as the ceiling descended, narrowing their passage.
“You know,” said Dominic, making conversation to ease his anxiety, “this cave is among those rumored to contain the Holy Grail, hidden by the Cathars in the thirteenth century. If I have to put up with you two lovebirds harassing me in some bat-ridden cave, the least you could do is to help me look for it while we’re here.”
Dengler and Lukas looked at each other, adventure in their eyes. “Holy Grail?” Dengler asked. “Are you serious?”
As they walked, LED headlamps on their helmets cast eerie shadows along their respective paths, giving the illusion of nebulous figures lurking in the dark. The perfect time for a story, Dominic figured.
He began to explain the historical heritage of the many caves in the Sabarthès region of France, renowned for their role in perpetuating oral traditions of the Holy Grail and other great treasures reputed to be buried here.
He told them about the legendary Cathars, a Gnostic sect of peaceful Byzantine settlers who opposed the Church of Rome’s dogma and established their own Christian dualist movement in the nearby French city of Albi—from which they became known as Albigensians.
In 1209, vowing to crush the heresy sweeping the Languedoc during a brutal Inquisition campaign, Pope Innocent III launched the twenty-year Albigensian Crusade, perpetrating what many believe was among the earliest acts of genocide instigated by the Catholic Church. The Crusaders ultimately wiped out Catharism, along with the lives of hundreds of thousands of its followers.
A later revival of the Crusade in 1244 had, by then, virtually obliterated all bastions of Catharism, driving the sect’s remaining adherents—a hardy settlement of some four hundred men, women, and children—to seek refuge in a high mountain fortress known as Montségur.
Of the remaining men, some 200 had submitted themselves to the Consolamentum, a sacred baptismal ceremony whereby ordinary souls became “perfect” in the eyes of their Cathar brethren. Known as parfaits, these perfecti renounced the normal trappings of the physical world, embracing spiritual wholeness tempered by unyielding austerity.
The Cathars were also known to possess a great fortune in treasure, which, as their number dwindled, had been passed on to surviving members with one single objective—to ensure that the trove would never fall into the unholy hands of the Inquisition. But the real treasure of the Cathars was believed to be much more than just the gold, silver, and precious gems they were known to have acquired over time. The true treasure was rumored to be something of great spiritual significance, not only to the Albigensians themselves, but to all of Christianity—a reliquary containing the bones of Jesus Christ. Such a heretical belief was certainly one more motive behind the Church’s efforts to wipe them out.
Straddling the summit of the impregnable mountain fortress presented a formidable challenge to the Pope’s Crusaders—an army ten thousand strong—and defeat of its well-defended peak proved nearly impossible. The Cathars had already withstood some ten months of unceasing assaults, but the tenacity of the Church’s troops eventually wore down Montségur’s defenders, and while terms of their surrender were being negotiated, under cover of darkness four of the most capable parfaits secretly descended one side of the mountain that was less guarded, taking with them the fabled holy relic. With the help of sympathizers waiting at the base of the escarpment, they carried the reliquary away from Montségur and hid it in one of the many caves of the region.
“This region,” Dominic repeated pointedly. “And very possibly, this cave.”
Dengler and Lukas were spellbound by Dominic’s tale, visions of Raiders of the Lost Ark swimming through their minds as they pushed their way deeper into the cave.
Lukas cocked his head and said, “But that just isn't possible. Jesus was resurrected.”
Michael knew that every priest, every Christian, would agree with this Swiss Guard. But Michael held silent. His discovery last summer of a papyrus manuscript secreted within the Church’s Secret Archives had him privy to information he kept to himself consistent with the Pope’s expressed wishes. Yet the public still traded in rumors of such a reliquary, and Michael’s compulsion for truth kept the fires of his desire for discovery alive. Others had speculated along these lines already, such as with the discovery of what was called the James ossuary which many believe to contain Jesus’ bones, or at least his family’s, in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. But that discovery was without the provenance to back it, such as he had found for the Magdalene manuscript. His Holiness had vowed Father Michael Dominic to secrecy and so it would stay.
Lukas squinted at the darkened corners. “But gold and gems, well, that alone would be worth burying in a cave.”
“You would think others might have found something by now,” Dengler said with a look of skepticism.
“Well, you don’t think the Cathars would have just left it out in the open, do you?” Dominic countered with a sly smile.
Approaching the first vertical pitch, Dengler free climbed up to anchor a traverse line. For Dominic’s benefit he rigged a ladder to prevent his novice friend from struggling too much on the climb, then extended the traverse out between the two walls before lowering the rope through a tight descending slot. As they made their way down, the pitch quickly widened to reveal the next rebelay point several meters lower, above a breathtaking shaft. A couple more rebelays completed the full descent, and they found themselves in another magnificent gallery, the light from their headlamps dancing off crystal formations jutting out from the gallery walls.
“So what happened to the Cathars after they surrendered?” Lukas asked as they took in the splendors of the vast chamber, their headlamps dancing across the glittering walls.
Dominic’s response was somber. “The Pope’s Crusaders had built a huge bonfire at the base of Montségur, demanding that all parfaits renounce their heretical beliefs when they descended the mountain. Prepared for martyrdom, those who refused voluntarily walked into the blazing pyre, unrepentant, assured of a divine afterlife. The few remaining Cathars were allowed to go free, thus keeping alive the legend of the reliquary through later generations.
“It’s been fairly well known, or at least widely believed among some scholars, that Mary Magdalene and her fellow disciples had spirited a reliquary, some say to be an ossuary containing Christ’s bones, out of Jerusalem as they fled the Romans. Regardless of the real contents, it is believed something was secreted away and hidden. For centuries people have tried and failed to find the reliquary in these caves.
“But it’s got to be here somewhere,” he added mischievously, “so keep your eyes open.”
Pointing to a large vertical crack between two giant boulders, Dengler led them forward. “Our route will take us up this chimney, which opens into a rift at the top. Just follow me.”
At first the crack proved easily climbable, but the rift soon led to an intimidating ten-meter drop, followed by a scramble down a descending passage. Dengler attached a rope to a couple of natural belays further up the rift, then placed two anchors over the pitch head to allow for a free-hang down the pitch. The others followed him dutifully.
The bottom of the pitch required a low, awkward crawl between two limestone slabs, and they squirmed through a few puddles along the way. After another ten meters the passage widened at a trench, followed by a four-meter climb down to the floor of a small enlargement in the cave, though still too narrow to accommodate them all. So, one by one they crawled forward through a tight passage bending left, then right, culminating with a tricky sideways wriggle leading to another short drop.
The situation was becoming formidably claustrophobic for Dominic, as it might for most people unaccustomed to the confining rigors of caving. Although he kept himself reasonably fit with a daily run, the cramped, joint-bending crawl was taxing.
“Guys,” he grunted as he struggled through the rift, the gear around his waist grinding against a sandstone wall, “this is a bit more than I expected. Are you sure we’ll be able to get out of here?”
“It won’t be a problem, Michael,” Dengler said cheerfully. “We’ll just go back out the same way we came in.”
“A pity I didn’t bring breadcrumbs,” Dominic replied.
They continued crawling, climbing, dropping, and squeezing through the cave for some time, until finally they came to an impressively large vault with several routes leading off of it—including an exit that led straight out into the lush forest from which they had originally come.
Seeing this easier path of escape from the tight confines of the earth, the expression on Dominic’s face turned from worried to optimistic.
“Hallelujah!” he whispered to himself, then in a louder voice, “That was great, guys—hours of exercise punctuated by moments of terror. Did you two really have to do much of this training to be Swiss Guards?” he asked.
“That was nothing,” said Lukas assertively. “Try rappelling down a rocky 300-meter cliff in a snowstorm.”
“Pass,” said Dominic simply, preferring his normal everyday challenges of translating ancient manuscripts in the civilized comfort of the Vatican reading rooms.
Coiling his rope and securing his gear, Dengler had a thought. “If you ever want to go looking for that Cathar treasure, Michael, count us in. It sounds like our kind of adventure, doesn’t it, Lukas?”
Catching his partner’s eye, Lukas nodded with a grin. “Let’s get a move on, we’ve got to be back in the Vatican by noon tomorrow. I’ve got gate duty.”
Their explorations done for the long weekend spent in France, the team made their way through the woods, around the mountain and back to Dengler’s Jeep Wrangler. Stowing their gear in the cargo bay, they all piled in for the twelve-hour drive back to Rome.
“No chest of gold or gems.” Lukas sighed as he sat back, reflecting on their day.
Michael smiled, inwardly grateful for no discoveries today. The existence of a reliquary of Jesus’ bones could be as damaging to both the Church and its legion of believers as his find last summer of the secreted scroll that stated it as existing. As much as he sought the truth, he also preferred his quiet life as an archivist, and not to face another such dilemma.
Karl then piped in with a grin, “At least not this time.”