The Knights Templar did exist. They still do - sort of.
In dwindling numbers and drastically modified form, the Knights Templar are alive and well and meeting at the Masonic Temple on North Broad Street across from City Hall - a structural wonder of majestic turrets and spires.
They wear uniforms with shiny badges and ribbons, carry swords, and whisper secret passwords. And they bear impressive titles.
Thomas Hopkins, 59, is generalissimo in one Knights Templar commandery and king in another York Rite chapter.
As generalissimo, Hopkins wears a plumed hat, and as king he wears a felt crown with embroidered "jewels."
Neither role calls for saving damsels in distress, Hopkins laments. No protecting Christian pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, as the 11th-century Knights did. And certainly no espionage associated with any alleged offspring of a sacred bloodline.
Today's Templars rest largely on ceremony. They march at parades with banners and swords, and pledge to further the cause of truth, morality and brotherly love.
And not unlike the Lions Club, whose broader mission is to end blindness, today's Templars are do-gooders, raising money to fund research and treatment for people with eye problems.
Admirable, but a far cry from the adventure and intrigue imagined in The Da Vinci Code.
Their annual dues, too, are modest: $28.
Still, the fact that the Knights are an appendant body of the Free and Accepted Masons and that they conduct elaborate private rituals fuels conspiracy theories about what happens behind their closed doors.
As a fraternity, the Masons boast a lofty history: nine signers of the Declaration of Independence, Winston Churchill, 14 U.S. presidents - all were members. John Wanamaker was a Mason, too, and Paul Revere went on to become a Knights Templar.
Nonetheless, it's hard to believe a man such as 92-year-old Robert Detweiler, dependent on a walker and unable to get into his Knights uniform without assistance, could be plotting world domination. But that's one of many myths found online and in texts.
Such myths are addressed by the official Masonic Academy of Knowledge. Neither Knights nor Masons claim there is any evidence linking today's Templars - who date their history from the 18th century - with the 11th-century Crusaders who guarded the path of Christian pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land.
Those original Knights were warrior monks whose order was sanctioned by the pope. According to legend, along with treasures from the Temple of Solomon, they possessed the Ark of the Covenant, and the Holy Grail.
But in the 1300s, the Knights were accused of heresy and ordered to disband.
Still, many of today's Templars like to think a connection does exist.
William Hartman stumbled upon the Knights Templar in 1972, when he was made pastor of a Methodist church in Schuylkill County, Pa., and learned that nearly every man in the congregation was a Mason.
Members of the Free and Accepted Masons, Hartman learned, could be from any monotheistic religion. But the only Masons who could go on to become Templars were Christians.
(No women allowed, except in auxiliaries. And well into the 20th century, Masons directed African American applicants to the separate Prince Hall Lodges. Mayor Street is a member there.)
Intrigued by the Templars' history, Hartman, 66, embarked on an arduous journey of ritual and research to become first a Master Mason, and in time, a Templar.
This month, he will be installed as Grand Commander of the Knights Templar for all of Pennsylvania. And so he is more than qualified to lead us to the inner sanctum of the Masonic Temple on North Broad.
Through the iron gates, past sphinxes and shields, past the museum where sits George Washington's Masonic apron and Benjamin Franklin's Masonic sash, past lodge rooms decorated in the Oriental, Corinthian, Renaissance, Ionic, Egyptian and Norman periods, and upstairs to Gothic Hall.
This being an organization with many secrets (handshakes, passwords, symbols and signs), no visitors can enter while a Knights' meeting is in session.
So Hartman knocks a particular number of times on the heavy oak door and Jerry Richards, a fifth-generation Mason who grew up in the Harrowgate section of Kensington, responds from the other side with another pattern of knocks and a call that must be returned in just the right way.
The room is massive - 87 feet long, 50 feet wide, with 26-foot ceilings. A Cross and Crown, emblem of the Sir Knights, hangs above the commander's throne on a lofty platform.
The focal point of the room is an altar framed by poles forming a right angle, a symbol of Masonry's greatest heritage - geometry. And on the altar is laid a well-worn Bible and tools of the Masons' trade - a compass and square.
This is where an initiate kneels in the ceremony that makes him a Knight.
I tell Hartman what I've read on one of many anti-Mason Web sites: that in the ceremony to become a Master Mason (a prerequisite for knighthood), the initiate is partially stripped, blindfolded, knocked unconscious, then wakes up in a coffin.
Hartman gets a chuckle out of this. So much misinformation is out there.
"At no time are we naked," he says. "And in Pennsylvania, we don't use coffins."
Hmm. "We don't use coffins" could suggest "we do that, but with something other than a coffin." But Hartman is tight-lipped. The Masons, after all, were said to murder members who spill secrets.
The keepers of those secrets are dying out, however.
"We're losing Masons" to age, says Ronald A. Aungst Sr., Right Worshipful Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania, "at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a year." There are about two million nationwide.
Aungst and others are hoping The Da Vinci Code draws in potential members.
Hartman, who says he found the novel riveting, is eager to see the movie. He hopes it's as good as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which featured Templars and the Holy Grail.
Generalissimo/King Thomas Hopkins, however, won't be going to the movies this weekend.
"I'll wait," Hopkins said, "until it comes out on DVD."
Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or email@example.com.
Guided tours of the Masonic Temple, 1 N. Broad St., are conducted daily and Saturdays. Information: 215-988-1917 or www.pagrandlodge.org.
View more photos from inside the Masonic Temple at http://go.philly.com/knights