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Image by Wil Kinghan. Used with permission.
I've been searching for the Grail for many years. I have visited a dozen or more places where it is supposed to be found. The Blue Bowl in Glastonbury, the Antioch Chalice in the New York Metropolitan Museum, the Valencia Chalice in Spain, the Nanteos Cup in Wales, and many more. I discovered that all of these are Grails, but none of them are the Grail. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a the Grail—and this is part of its fascination. It remains almost as mysterious now as it did when I started my own quest many years ago. And yet…I keep looking. The Grail is illusive. It leaps into focus on the road ahead, then vanishes again. But some of the roads that are thus opened lead to some very intriguing places.
Over the last five years I have been searching for the places where the Grail was believed to be kept—its home, if you will. All of the great stories that have been told about it agree that it has a home, a place towards which seekers could travel. Many would say Glastonbury, or Montségur in France, or any number of other places. But two years ago, I happened upon two medieval books that told a different story. One of these, written in Medieval French, had never been translated into English, but it told a remarkable story of a forgotten hero named Sone de Nansay (which is also the title of the text). It contained a very detailed description of a place where the Grail was kept, on a mysterious island on which stood a remarkable building—a Temple of the Grail. Then I found another, even more obscure text: The Later Titurel, written in German by a man named Albrecht in the 13th century. This, too, described a building, even including measurements. I set about the task of getting the parts where the Grail Temples were described. In this I was helped by my old friend and teacher Gareth Knight, who knows a great deal about the Grail, and we ended up writing Temples of the Grail together.
Here is a brief excerpt from the text of The Later Titurel:
"When he was fifty years of age, an angel emerged from the Grail and spoke to Titurel. It made known to him that all of his life from this point should be devoted to its service. With celestial music the angel guided him through a deep and seemingly impenetrable wilderness—the Forest Salvasch, in the land of Salvaterre…Here Titurel resolved to build a temple to house the Grail, which still hovered above the mountain. No wood was to be used except for the seating, where aloe wood was used; all else was constructed of pure gold and precious stones that brought warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Titurel sought counsel from those learned in the virtues of such stones, as they had once been taught by Pythagoras and Hercules. Thus he learned of the fire-stone known as abestus, which sends forth constant fire; also the water-stone elitropia, which has healing properties and is good against lies, deception and poison. These he chose to be the basic materials of the temple.…
The description continued for another dozen pages in astonishing detail. It was very clearly the description of an actual building. But what building, and where was it? There were clues hidden in the text, and we began to follow them. At first, we got nowhere; then I remembered an essay, written years previously by an American scholar named Arthur Upham Pope. In this he described how, having, like myself, come across the Titurel story, he had found an actual site, hidden deep within the country now called Azerbaijan, that sounded strangely like the description on the book. He organized an expedition to the place, and there he found the ruins of a building that matched the description by Albrecht in the 13th century to an extraordinary degree.
This was just the beginning of the trail Gareth and I followed, which lead us to one of the most mysterious characters ever to emerge from the middle ages: Prester John, a mystical king said to rule over a kingdom at the furthest edges of the known world. This man was both a priest and a king (as his title "Prester," told us) and he had written a letter to the crowned heads of Europe in the 13th century, describing his kingdom in terms that we immediately recognized as being almost identical to the writings of Albrecht and the anonymous author of Sone de Nansay. In the end we were not at all surprised to find that towards the end of the Titurel manuscript we found Prester John taking over the guardianship of the Grail when Titurel himself dies, aged 500 years.
With all of these texts now before us, and armed with the work produced by Arthur Upham Pope, we had all we needed to identify what we believe to be the mysterious Temple of the Grail. As it turned out, the building in Azerbaijan was just one of several buildings, built during the middle ages to act as places of initiation. To visit one of these places was to come as close to the Grail as one could. Many of them are still there; still inviting pilgrims to enter and walk within them and, possibly, discover the place where the Grail was, and is, still hidden.
John Matthews (Oxford, UK) is a New York Times bestselling author who has written more than one hundred books on myth, faery, the Arthurian Legends, and Grail Studies. John has appeared on the History Channel and Discovery ...