Pilgrims from all over Christendom arrive at Rosslyn Chapel with the same book tucked in their bags. It's not the Bible that brings them by the bus load to this ancient church seven miles south of Edinburgh. It is The Da Vinci Code, the best selling novel by Dan Brown.
Legions of readers are retracing the path taken by the book's protagonists, a Harvard professor and a sexy French cryptographer, as they dash across Europe in search of the Holy Grail. Rosslyn Chapel, scene of the novel's dramatic climax, is now a major stop on the so-called "Da Vinci Code Trail."
You don't have to be a Grail hunter to fall under the Rosslyn spell. Set on the edge of a wooded gorge, high above a churning river, the chapel overlooks fields dotted with stone farm houses and lazy sheep. The ruins of a medieval castle peep through the trees below.
The chapel itself is a Gothic masterpiece. Gargoyles, pinnacles, flying buttresses, and canopies adorn the exterior. The inside is blessed with one of the most extraordinary collections of stone carvings in Europe: plants, animals, pyramids, and angels jostle with Masonic seals, Jewish stars, Biblical scenes, and pagan symbols such as the Green Man. Poets, from Lord Byron to Robert Burns, have thrilled to the haunting beauty of Rosslyn. William Wordsworth was astounded by the chapel's "sumptuous roof."
Dan Brown chose Rosslyn not for its looks, but for its starring role in so many myths. Built in the middle of the 15th century by William St. Clair, the chapel is the spiritual home of the Knights Templar, the warrior monks who protected pilgrims on the road to the Holy Land until the Knights were arrested and tortured in 1307 by King Philip of France. Rosslyn has the same layout as Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon, rumored to be the original home of the mysterious Templar treasure.
Conspiracy theorists believe that Rosslyn, with its suspected vast, sealed underground vault, is the resting place of the world's most elusive icons - the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, scrolls of early Gospels, fragments of the crucifixion cross, even the mummified head of Christ. Experts call the chapel the "Bible instone," its lavish, symbolic carvings a code waiting to be cracked.
Rosslyn certainly has a whiff of the other worldly about it. Some say it rests on ley-lines - imaginary straight lines connecting ancient sites - that lead to Stonehenge and other sacred sites. Many think it is haunted. Staff hear children's voices echoing through the sacristy when the chapel is empty. Visitors have seen a phantom monk shuffling across the floor or kneeling to pray at one of the altars. Psychics, clairvoyants, and ghost hunters are always nosing about.
With its dim lighting and smell of ancient masonry, Rosslyn can send a shiver through the most hardened skeptic. Everywhere you look there is a riddle rendered in stone.
Although finished by 1492, the chapel contains carvings that resemble American plants, such as maize and cactus, which begs the question: Did the Templars journey to the New World before Columbus?