Wednesday 8 September 2010

Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries - A Book Review

BOOK REVIEW by Rafal Heydel-Mankoo

Title: Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries:
Subtitle: Uncovering Mysteries, Sights, Symbols and Societies.
Authors: Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie.

Hardcover: hb; pp. 272; Language: English; ISBN-10: 1402762070; ISBN-13: 978-1402762079

Publisher: Sterling; 1 edition (US Release: November 3, 2009; UK Release: Feb 7, 2010)
Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches


Curiosity, as the impetus fuelling scientific, intellectual and industrial endeavour, is a driving force of human civilisation. But why does our sense of curiosity compel us to delve into mysteries and to investigate secrets which carry no obvious evolutionary, or personal, benefit? Our fascination with secret societies and forbidden locations is one example. What motivates us to ponder upon ancient myths? What causes us to peer into the windows of exclusive clubs? Why are we fascinated by the rituals of Masonic and other secret societies?

Our curiosity is undoubtedly fuelled by the truth underlying the age-old epithet: “knowledge is power”. Secrets are powerful and their knowledge is empowering. The romantic myth all too frequently belies a prosaic reality, yet that is comparatively unimportant for, by gaining access to an exclusive world, even if only through the pages of a book, we not only satisfy our curiosity but, by so doing, we become part of the secret; this in turn feeds another universal human trait: the desire for inclusion (to the exclusion of others). The compelling force of curiosity and the allure of exclusivity perhaps best explain our fascination with the secret and the forbidden.

Fortunately for their readers, the authors of Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries, though themselves possessed of a seemingly unquenchable curiosity (not to mention impressive skills of research), are unfettered by the constraints of exclusivity and through their lively, and at times opinionated, tome we are granted privileged armchair admission through some of the world’s most closely guarded doors.

Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries is an eclectic cornucopia of the elite, the elusive and the esoteric. In just over 250 pages the authors have been able to collate and succinctly detail some of the most fascinating secretive sites from around the world. Ranging from ancient shrines to top secret military bases, we are taken on a tour of a wide variety of locations; some so secret that many readers will be reading about them for the first time.

Here we learn about Ethiopia’s Chapel of the Ark, perhaps the most secret of all locations, entry denied to all save the priest-guardian of the Ark, the Chapel’s sacred treasure “too dangerous” for the spiritually unprepared. Not even the late Emperor Haile Selassie, we are told, was allowed inside. We are also guided around various other religious sites, including the possible location of the Holy Grail (Valencia Cathedral in Spain), the world’s smallest autonomous Orthodox Church (the Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai, of which HRH The Prince of Wales is a patron), a self-governing monastic state within the sovereign borders of Greece which as a monastery—and to the great annoyance of European Union equal opportunists—is a female “no go” zone (the Autonomous Monastic Republic of Holy Mount Athos), and the headquarters of an ancient organisation which is not only a religious order and the world’s oldest order of knighthood but also a sovereign entity which boasts its own legal and postal system (the Magistral Palace of the Order of Malta in Rome). By comparison Vatican City State seems positively gargantuan!

Given recent trends in popular culture, any discussion of the Grail, the Ark, exotic monasteries and ancient crusading military-religious orders would be incomplete without some reference to the Knights Templar and their myths. The authors do not fail and we are treated to a short but splendid exposition on Templar history which shines the bright light of scholastic truth into the murky world of conspiracy theories, thoroughly debunking the outlandish and wholly laughable claims of Dan “Da Vinci” Brown and friends. Opus Dei, the much misunderstood Roman Catholic organisation so harshly maligned in recent works of fiction, also emerges from these pages as a decidedly ordinary society of devout Christians most of whom appear to hold unexciting day jobs. Facts are funny things.

The broad scope of Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries carries us from the ancient and mediaeval to the present day. We are presented with fascinating accounts of secret military installations such as the infamous Area 51, with its alleged extra-terrestrial life-forms, England’s RAF Menwith Hill and Virginia’s Mount Weather, the ├╝ber-verboten location to which the Speaker and members of the House of Representatives were rushed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and which houses a complete and permanent duplicate of the United States government, including a stand-in President, Vice-President, Cabinet Secretaries as well as replicate structures for various federal departments and institutions.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book details the chilling but little-known history of Wewelsburg Castle (“the Black Vatican”), the centre of Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s quasi-religious cult, founded to provide a spiritual dimension to the Third Reich. The demented ideology, the bizarre rituals and the cruel suffering associated with Wewelsburg beggar belief and provide a horrifying glimpse into the heart of the abyss which almost engulfed western civilisation.
Not everything is so serious. Entertaining chapters bursting with amusing anecdotes take us on a whirlwind tour of the world’s most famous and exclusive gentlemens’ clubs, private banks and university societies.

Monarchists will enjoy the broad selection of royal topics, ranging from the story of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen of Hungary, to the Holy Ampoule of the Kings of France to the amazing tales of the Canadian travels of the British and Polish Crown Jewels (the former unconfirmed). The authors’ remarkable erudition is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than through their examination of two virtually unknown royal peculiars: Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal of the Mohawks in Ontario.

The authors of this highly readable and informative book are clearly well-connected, well-travelled and well-read. Others have attempted to tackle this subject but no one commands the broad field with as much authority, knowledge or style. Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries is the much-needed popular introduction to a world which some readers may inhabit and to which some may aspire, which some will envy and others will despise but about which we will never cease to be fascinated.

The book has its own web page and blog which may be accessed here:

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