9. In praise of the ancestral spirits—part one

Following in the wake of Heritage Day—when freedom-seeking exiles and heroes of the liberation struggle were given precedence over peacemakers—Chris Thurman reviews A Living Man from Africa.

With his usual splendid skill, Thurman (BusinessDay, 4 October) draws our attention to one of the neglected “freedom fighters” of South Africa’s long and troubled history: Jan Tzatzoe was a brilliant intermediary between Xhosa chieftains and British colonial forces and sought both peace and prosperity during a period of tumultuous change on the world stage. Levine’s book is worth reading for its finely-crafted historical narrative, yes certainly, but it seems all the more pertinent when set against the current political stage in South Africa—where China takes a leading role and the Dalai Lama gets relegated to the dressing room. Today, however,  I wish to use this blog to remark on the neglected tradition between our leadership and their ancestors.

Across our continent, from the Eastern Cape to West Africa, the man closest to the ancestors is the chief or family head who, in turn, lends his leadership to their work among the living. As a son of the amaNtinde royal household, Tzatzoe (1792–1868) was aware of this traditional role and, despite his own conversion to Christianity, knew that men lived closer to the ancestors than to the all-powerful god—albeit Thixo or Jehovah. Moreover, he knew the ancestors would only be reborn if the living remembered them. Describing himself as “a living man from Africa” Tzatzoe not only challenges Eurocentric perceptions of a static culture but presents his people as those who will see justice done in future—whether it be generations later or in another country—just as we’ve seen Mandela, Tutu and Steve Biko do in their time. Today’s leadership will have to reckon with this too.

As discussed in the Heritage Day post below (Dalai Lama: new visas and past lives, 25 September), we are dynamically linked to our ancestors through birth, death and the life to which we all shall return. According to traditional Bantu belief, the ancestors can return to incarnate through their descendants. A living man may thus be related to those who have gone before and to those not yet born to his family. Karmically speaking, this eternal recurrence has both personal and political significance for us all—for men like Jacob Zuma as much as for myself.

As a narrative, Roger Levine’s  A Living Man from Africa is itself an act of memory. Herein Levine shows not only how Tzatzoe struggled with his own disparate beliefs but, simultaneously, tried to merge different cultures on the frontiers of history. In doing so Levine, like Tzatzoe before him, positions Africans as agents of cultural and intellectual change in our world. In turn, let us not only remember our ancestors or forefathers, but also honour and praise them for their guidence and protection.

Nicolaas Vergunst

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9. In praise of the ancestral spirits—part two

“You’re giving us the skulls, but where is the flesh?” asks political activist Ueriuka Tjikuua as twenty ancestral skulls in Berlin return to Windhoek for a memorial service on 5 October.

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For Festus Muundjua, patron of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee (OGC), returning skeletal remains of one’s ancestors belongs to the “decolonisation process of Namibia and signifies one more step in the repatriation process between our two countries”. According to Muundjua and fellow activist Tjikuua, such acts of repatriation are both political and personal (TimesLive, 1 October).

However real or symbolic this “homecoming” may be, not all people share their point of view. For some a skull is just a skull and—like ash left after the fire—it tells us nothing of the passion that once burnt within. For an agnostic, the soul has departed and a skull thus serves no more purpose. For a reincarnationalist, the skull is merely the temporal vessel since we return to live in other bodies and with other families, even among other races and other religions. The skull is not the ancestor.

Historically, there are also those who believe the soul dwells within our head; giving rise to the age-old cult of the skull as trophy, chalice or talisman. They believe that possession of a skull empowers the devout and victorious. And then, too, there are those who see skulls as relics and those who view skulls as specimens; for them a skull either focuses belief or promotes scientific knowledge. Alas, it can seldom be both.

But what of the families left behind—albeit Herero, Khoekhoen, German or Portuguese? How do they feel about the skulls of their ancestors? In most traditional societies a skull proposes a relationship between the living and the dead, between our present and their ancestral past. This relationship has been most memorably demonstrated by Shakespeare and explains why Adam’s skull is such a powerful symbol in the Abrahamic religions. Likewise, a skull is an important symbol among the diverse and widely distributed Bantu in Africa.

A parable from West Africa
We all know the Yoruba folktale wherein a man finds a skull mounted on a pole outside a neighbouring village. To his astonishment, the skull speaks and so he asks why it is there: “Because I talked too much.” Appalled, the man enters the village and asks to speak with the chief. Taken to the royal enclosure, the man describes the abomination he has seen—a talking skull—until the chief replies: “Show me this marvel or regret your lies!” The man is escorted back to the pole but now, of course, the skull remains silent. So the chief has the poor interloper beheaded and mounts his head in place of the skull. (KoS p.239)

Well, if that’s what happens when we interfere in the affairs of others, then I’d better confine myself to the skull of Francisco d’Almeida, former Viceroy of Portuguese India, and an unfortunate victim of the first recorded battle (murder?) in South African history.

Skulls in Knot of Stone
As a murder mystery, Knot of Stone begins with the chance discovery of a mass grave below Table Mountain. Among the buried remains is a severely scarred skull, identified as belonging to Almeida, and showing signs that he was struck below the chin by a steel-bladed sword or lance. 
This dramatic discovery sets off a chain of events with disturbing consequences.

The book’s long and complex narrative deals with several skulls: First, the relic skulls of Saint Lazarus and the Virgin Mary in France. Secondly, the skull of Chief Hintsa kaPhalo, killed in British custody during the Cape Frontier Wars of 1835 and, thirdly, the skull of Muhammad Ahmad which Lord Kitchener kept as a war trophy in Khartoum. Fourth and fifth are the stuffed heads of Badu Bonsu, an Ashanti king, and El Negro the “Bechuana Bushman” whose body was stolen after burial and taken to the Cape Colony—both from the 1830s. Sixth, but not least, is Sarah Baartman, the spectacular African Venus whose remains were repatriated to her homeland admid much controversy. While only some of our ancestors have made the long journey home, thousands more remain in scientific-medical collections across Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

To whom does a skull belong if the dead don’t own their bones?

But the converse is also true. Many a skull was left behind to protect territories acquired through conquest and possession. At the time of Almeida’s own death, King Manuel of Portugal refused to repatriate the bodily remains of his governors. The king was superstitious and declared: “as long as their bones are there, all India is safe”. Yes, skulls do seem to bring out the more bizarre side in us.

Whatever our reaction—devotional, superstitious or scientific—the one question these skulls all pose is: “To whom does a skull belong when the dead don’t own their own bones?”

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“South African museums must be decolonised,” says President Jacob Zuma on news24.

Nicolaas Vergunst

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10. Exploring past and present lives—Dalai Lama

Heritage Day—Saturday 24 September—while South Africans recognise the heroes of their liberation struggle and commemorate their own years in exile, the pending visit of the Dalai Lama struggles for recognition.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, addresses the Biannual Conference of Tibetan religious leaders on 24 September 2011 in Dharamsala, India. He spoke about his own reincarnation, past and future lives, and how rebirth takes place.

Recent developments around the Dalai Lama have prompted this post. The first is the pending visit of His Holiness to South Africa for the 80th birthday celebrations of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The second is the Dalai Lama’s own statements about his reincarnation. While the former was well covered by the Mail&Guardian (28 August), it is the introspective article in the Daily Maverick (20 September) that drew my interest. Here Guy Lieberman asks the question we’ve all wondered about:

“What’s behind the friendship between Tutu, Mandela and the Dalai Lama—beside them all being Noble Prize laureates?”

First Encounters
Reporting on the Dalai Lama’s first-ever meeting with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, back in August 1996, Lieberman says: “I asked the Dalai Lama if he would comment on that encounter. He was silent for a few moments, considering the question, and then responded by saying that he had had the good fortune to meet some of the world’s greatest leaders; kings, spiritual notables, presidents, social icons, his fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, luminaries from the sciences, as well as captains of industry and human rights activists. In preparing to meet with all of these people, he would study their stories in-depth and take into account the nature of their reputations.”

To which the Dalai Lama himself concluded: “In most cases, the reputation of that leader would always be very large. However, every time I would meet the individual, I noted that the reputation was always far bigger than the person. Now, as I was preparing to meet Nelson Mandela, I considered that his reputation was in fact larger than anyone else’s. But in only this case, was the individual much larger than his reputation.”

For Lieberman, the wisdom of His Holiness is too close in form and character to that of Tata Madiba for us to ignore: “We have to allow ourselves to see this obvious comparison, and all the related associations regarding the freedom struggles of both Tibet and South Africa.” Yes, this is both obvious and true: when they first met Madiba was an African leader with a moral code, a state president who expressed an intrinsically African integrity and political will.

New insights
But this was not their first meeting, at least not the first in their eternal past. According to their karmic biographies, Tenzin Gyatso and Nelson Mandela were among four feuding brothers in thirteenth-century China, being known to history as Kublai and Mongka—heirs of the notorious Genghis Khan, then their grandfather. Together they expanded the Mongol empire, politically and culturally, until Mongka (Mandela) died campaining with Kublai (Gyatsa) in China. Readers can pick up the karmic thread for themselves.

The extraordinary relationship between these great men has been eloquently described in Knot of Stone, wherein Kublai Khan (Gyatsa) says of Mongka (Mandela):

“It is not of these conquests that I, Kublai Khan, now speak, but of our contrasting temperaments and differing ideologies. Mongka believed that his destiny was to keep the Mongolian Empire united under his rule and to bring the world under one dispensation. He believed law and order was the way to create political conditions necessary to unite all peoples under a common welfare of peace and prosperity. He practised no racial or religious discrimination… He believed in one God, but in no particular form of worship. He attended religious ceremonies of all the great faiths—Buddhist, Christian and Muslim equally—and religious freedom was well tolerated by him. But he never could tolerate dissension and was ruthless with those who pitted themselves against him.”

Clairaudient message cited in KoS, pp.423-424.

Left to Right: His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

As for the two other brothers—Boka and Hulagu—these are allegedly Thabo Mbeki and Mangosuthu Buthelezi today. Desmond Tutu, it seems, was with then them too. So, seen from a karmic perspective, any visit to South Africa by the Dalai Lama is an auspicious affair. Looking at the matter realistically, his proposed visit next month is unlikely to be sanctioned.

Future scenarios
However, today Jacob Zuma plays a pivotal role, as he did in the thirteenth-century under the name of Ahmed Uzma—then a misplaced minister at court. As a corrupt court official renowned for his many wives, Uzma was charged for capitalizing on arms-deals during Kublai-Boka’s civil war. And herein lies the real test of integrity for South Africa.

For more background to Nelson Mandela’s past lives, please see General Horemheb and Mongka Khan. For more on Jacob Zuma’s past lives, see Jacob Msimbiti.

Whatever happens, I believe we need not despair over South Africa’s future as we all have to prove ourselves again in other lives.

Nicolaas Vergunst

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10. Exploring past and present lives—Dag Hammarskjöld

TodaySunday 18 Septemberwe commemorate the extraordinary life of Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–1961), diplomat, economist and author, killed on a ceasefire mission to the newly independent Congo.

Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, photographed in 1959. This picture appeared in the Guardian on 19 September 1961, the day after his fatal plane accident. Courtesy of MPI/Getty Images.

“Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.”
                                                                   Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 1963.

No honeymoon lasts half a century. Now, fifty years later, Dag Hammarskjöld is still the focus of publicity, albeit as the victim of a Cold War conspiracy. Nevertheless, he survives in our memory and is remembered today, 18 September, by countless people around the world. It is as if we can’t let go of the event or, more importantly, of the man himself. However, most people are preoccupied by his death rather than with his life; by his grim murder rather than his greatness as a modern, forward-looking individual.

Marcus Aurelius
Death comes to us all, Hammarskjöld knew, but not necessarily at the time of our own choosing: “Do not seek death. Death will find you,” he reflected in his still unpublished diary, Markings. Two thousand years earlier, Rome’s wisest emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote virtually the same lines in his Meditations: “It is not death that a man should fear. You will meet it.”

Both leaders were men of action and contemplation and kept a diary for their own self-improvement, addressing it ‘To Myself’. Both works are monuments to the principles of civil service and duty, and were published posthumously. Both men shared one desire: to be a wise and just philosopher-king. Both men shared a common greatness.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman, 2ndC CE; Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Headoffice, New York, 22 April 1959Marcus Aurelius c.180CE and Dag Hammarskjöld 1959. Courtesy Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia and UN Photo Archives.

As we have seen in Knot of Stone (KoS pp.308-312), great men course through history like an ocean wave toward some as yet unknown shore. Some men seem not to find their way, like Alexander on the endless Asian steppe. Others get lost, as did Columbus on the unknown Atlantic. But truly great men give momentum and direction to an entire epoch.

Dag Hammarskjöld was one such great man. Following his death, John F Kennedy said apologetically: “I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.” Hammarskjöld had set a benchmark for great leaders. With the publication of Susan Williams and Göran Björkdahl’s new-found evidence (Guardian, 17 August 2011), there may yet be more to say about his death.

But let’s not dwell on Hammarskjöld’s plane crash—whether by accident or design—or give any credit to allegations that he was shot by Theunis Swanepoel, aka Rooi Rus (Red Russian), a former South African sabotage squad member. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put this tragic matter to rest during his media briefing for the SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 19 August 1998. Perhaps we should let sleeping dogs lie. At least for now.

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter who gave the order or who shot the fatal bullet. Instead we should ask what Hammarskjöld achieved with his life and what he managed to fulfill before he died? Just before his death he’d written to himself: “Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.”

Hammarskjöld wanted Africa to have its second chance after colonisation. He wanted Africans to shape their own destiny, eventually. Europe had been through this process itself, three-or-four times before, ever since Attila the Hun came storming through.

He wanted to give Africa its heart back or, rather, to prevent Congo from being plucked in two. By 1960 the continent had become the great rift valley of the world, divided on the one hand by America and Russia, and on the other by the British, French and Belgians. Sometimes by them all. More than anything else, Hammarskjöld wanted stability, security, and freedom from fear, as well as an end to the Cold War in Africa. In short, world peace and universal order. Plus more silence and time to meditate himself.

But the ocean swell had picked him up and so he rose with it. Already in the 1950s, Hammarskjöld had intervened to settle conflicts around the Suez Canal, then a faultline between the West and the East. He also tried to stabilise matters between Israel and the Arab states.

A decade earlier, around 1947–48, Hammarskjöld played his part in the recovery of post-war Europe, helping the Marshall Plan keep capitalism and communism on separate sides of the Iron Curtain. The West brewed coffee, the East boiled tea while Hammarskjöld drank both, often alone, sadly.

Gustavus Adolphus
John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev shared a dislike for Hammarskjöld’s initiatives; for his ability to shape events beyond their reach. This was not new, of course, as world powers have never liked a Swede with attitude. Remember what happened to Gustavus Adolphus, the celebrated king of Sweden during the Thirty Years War? He resisted the Habsburgs and the conquering Catholics in Europe—and was eventually killed doing so. (KoS p.312) As Adolphus treated Vienna and Rome, so Hammarskjöld handled Moscow and Washington. He wouldn’t bow to either.

Curiously, Adolphus and Hammarskjöld share many attributes, both in life and death. They both died with the grass in their hands and, allegedly, a wound to the head. If these allegations are proven true, then both men may have been executed.

Portraits of Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) and Charlemagne (c.742-814).

However, beside their remarkable physical likeness, these two men saw themselves as representing the interests of both the nation and the individual; of the ruling elite as well as the common man: “I am born to live and die for the common good and well-being of my people. My destiny is knotted into theirs.” (Adolphus, Coronation speech, 1617).

Hammarskjöld too was a man who bound rulers to their citizens and, like Charlemagne, wove their desitiny into a single inseparable knot. Charlemagne not only united the isolated peoples of Europe, albeit brutally, but also stabilised East-West relations in a medieval world. Likewise, Hammarskjöld strove for this in a modern context and today his legacy survives through the Council of Europe. Uncannily, legend has it that both men were found seated after death and in possession of a book. Moreover, by some unusual coincidence, Dag Hammarskjöld’s three middle names are phonetically similar to that of Charlemagne = Carl Hjalmar Agne.

Be that as it may, on 24 August 1961, a mere three weeks before his death, Hammarskjöld made his last entry in Markings. As usual, it was a poem. The first stanza reads:

Is this a new land,
in a different reality
from today’s?
Or have I lived there,
before this day?

However brief, Hammarskjöld’s final words echo those immortalised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Sudden Light, 1863:

I have been here before
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond my door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sight, the sound, the lights around the shore.

As a man of action and contemplation, Hammarskjöld pursued the Platonist ideal of a wise and just philosopher-king. He may not have been a ruler, or even “the greatest statesman of our century”, but he was essentially a leader and a philosopher. A great man, nevertheless. (KoS p.344)

Why mention him on this blog? Firstly, Hammarskjöld died 50 years ago, Almeida 500 years further back in history. Both deaths are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Moreover, both men play an important role in unravelling Knot of Stone

Nicolaas Vergunst

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11. Why South Africa isn’t Brazil

The 1510 massacre of Francisco d’Almeida and his sixty compatriots was, until recently, seen as “one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Portugal”.1 Yet today the event receives scant attention since most historians are quick to overlook it, journalists tend to dismiss it, and the public have all but forgotten it. If and when the tragedy is mentioned, it invariably serves two ulterior motives. First, to demonstrate all the violent dangers faced by the early explorers: “Hottentots stove in Almeida’s head on some obscure South African beach.”2 Or, secondly, to show that Almeida had to pay for his arrogance.3 Indeed, for the last five centuries, no one ever stopped to question the event—or the historical records? Moreover, to commemorate its fifth-centenary, the entire saga was framed as South Africa’s first racial confrontation.4

Ironically, the Portuguese themselves propagated this tragedy as an act of retribution: “The Cape of Storms shall be his hasty, final tomb. Those killed by him will measure out his just doom.”5

Whichever way one wants to frame it, one fact remains: Portugal never colonised the Cape. “This brush with the Hottentots in 1510 decided the fate of South Africa, which would probably [certainly?] have been a Portuguese colony. As it was, thereafter, the Portuguese avoided the Cape and refuelled on the west or east coast, settling at Angola and Mozambique instead.”6

Portugal could thus have controlled the entire African sub-continent, from the mouth of the Congo River to the Mozambique Channel, and for the next four hundred and fifty years—that is, until the mid-1970s, making of southern Africa a second Brazil. Potentially.

I have no doubt that the history of South Africa and the destiny of its inhabitants would have followed a different course—but for this tragic event. We need only glance back to see how different the circumstances were after South Africa submitted to the influence of pragmatic Dutch Protestants, displaced French Huguenots (themselves anti-Catholic) and entrepreneurial English industrialists. The sudden discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 1800s helped to consolidate Britain’s colonial possessions and was used to bolster the British Commonwealth. Had it, instead, been a Portuguese colony, all its wealth would have been drained curbing a crisis of mass emigration and bankruptcy in Lisbon.

The origin of the name Brazil remains uncertain and could mean either “land of the palm trees” or, after the brazilwood, “red like an ember”. Neither of which grew at the Cape.

1. Victor de Kock, By Strength of Heart, 1953:28.
2. Ronald Fritze, The Great Voyages of Discovery 1400–1600, 2002:239.
3. Andrew Smith & Roy Pheiffer, The Khoekhoe at the Cape of Good Hope: seventeenth-century drawings in the South African Library, 1993:11.
4. Iziko Museums, 5oo-year Commemoration Symposium of the 1510 Khoi-Almeida Confrontation, press release, 25 September 2010.
5. Luís de Camões, The Lusíads, 1572, Canto 5:45.
6. Jose Burman, Safe to the Sea, 1962:15.

Nicolaas Vergunst

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Why tie a knot in stone?

Though it seems difficult to tie a knot in stone, it has been done by sculptors since antiquity—most notably in the tied sashes and knotted shawls of Roman statuary. The finest symbolic knots, however, are found in Portugal and were made around the time of Dom Francisco d’Almeida’s murder. His tragic death—sadly underestimated and misrepresented for five hundred years—is what ties my story together.

Manueline knotted rope Belem Tower Lisbon PortugalThe knot on the book cover comes from the same period and can still be seen at Belem Tower—a fort protecting the old entrance to Lisbon harbour. Over two centuries, while the Portuguese expanded their empire in East Africa and South Asia, outbound ships sailed passed this symbolic knot. I chose this knot because it represents relationships between East and West, mysticism and rationalism, and between an Old World and the New.

Manueline knots (so named for King Manuel I) reveal Portugal’s desire to follow in the footsteps of the Knights Templar. These knots represent a unity among military Orders—from as far afield as Tomar, Windsor, Bruges, Santiago de Compostela and Jerusalem—and the unbroken continuity between crusaders and seafarers, soldiers and explorers, and between the first defenders of the faith and those willing to explore new ideas.

To my mind the knot symbolises a long-standing relationship, as between couples in a marriage. One tied in stone reveals an enduring bond—a relationship made to outlast the living. A stone knot is made to survive long into the future. Knot of Stone relates the story of those who share such an enduring bond, interwoven through time, and how their lives changed the political balance of power and the course of world history.

Nicolaas Vergunst

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Legends of the Odilienberg

To celebrate the publication of Knot of Stone, we invite local friends on a walking tour of the Odilienberg on Sunday 26 June.

Le Mont Sainte-OdileWalk in the footsteps of the book’s two main characters, Sonja Haas and Jason Tomas, as they search for a long-lost Aristotelian manuscript in France (see under Synopsis/France). It is in the Vosges, on the Odilienberg itself, that they seek a woman supposedly killed for smuggling the text out of Catholic Spain, or so hearsay has it. And then there’s the legend of five Knights from the court of Charlemagne, their Camel, and a Holy Blood relic from Jerusalem.

Intrigued? If so, join us on Sunday as we unravel the origins of the Romanesque carvings and crypt in Andlau, its sacred spring, and the mountain-top sanctuary of Le Mont Sainte-Odile. We shall then descend via the ruins of the Abbaye de Niedermunster and its adjoining Saint-Nicolas Chapelle  (the camel may have gone, but the folklore lingers on). From there we’ll drive on to Obernai, birthplace of Odilia, for traditional Alsatian lunch. Please contact me at unravelling@knotofstone.com if you need practical information. Private transport essential, sensible shoes optional.

Le Monte Sainte-Odile, Jean Isenmann,2013Le Mont Sainte-Odile in winter, with the lights of Strasbourg on the horizon.  Photograph by Jean Isenmann.

Le Mont Sainte-Odile (founded c.690) is a medieval mountain sanctuary that served as an independent centre of learning for nuns, including women of nobility, until fire destroyed the monastery (1546) and its hospice (1572). Hearsay has it that a visiting woman was murdered in the hospice crypt (also known as the Niedermünster) for her part in smuggling an Aristotelian manuscript out of Spain. Like those who conspired to kill Francisco d’Almeida, her assassins shared an allegiance to the Knights of Santiago de Compostela, the same fraternity by which he first obtained this manuscript. These two murders—one at the Cape of Good Hope, the other in Alsace—bind the narrative behind Knot of Stone.

NIEDERMUNSTER-OCT07-1Ruins of Abbaye de Niedermunster. The crypt has long since disappeared. Photograph by Martine and Ralph.
Knot-of-Stone-Odilienberg-Walking-TourAn artist’s impression of the ‘Way of the Camel’. The legend is shown in three episodes with Le Mont Sainte-Odile (centre, atop the mountain) and the Abbaye de Niedermünster (to the far left). Note the depiction of romantised chevaliers instead of knights. Click to view the painting under a magnifying glass. 

Nicolaas Vergunst

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