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Syria's Crusader Castles

posted on: Nov 16, 2016

Syria's Crusader Castles

Crac des Chevaliers, Crusader Castle, Syria

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

ALEPPO, Syria’s second largest city with its massive citadel which had withstood the fiercest onslaughts of the Crusaders, was behind us as we made our way through man-planted forests edging the four-lane-highway. A few years back, I had travelled the same road and all one could see was bare countryside. Now, trees and stunning villas, many under construction, kept us company far beyond the environs of the city.

At the town of Saraqab, surrounded by rich farmland, we turned westward on our way to explore the Crusaders’ castles along the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Driving through a land which has been intensively farmed since the dawn of civilisation, we soon reached the Ghab, a rich agricultural valley which had once been marshland. In about fifteen minutes we passed Jisr al­ Shougour with its huge sugar beet factory and entered the green Syrian mountains. After having driven through the desert land in the eastern part of the country, it was as if we were in another world.

At al-Qusatil, a roadside open air restaurant about 28 miles before Latakia, we stopped for lunch. The cool air carrying the perfume of the surrounding trees soothed us as we feasted on a huge tasty meal of barbecued chicken. lamb and kabab with their accompanying appetizers and salads. The mountain breezes opened up our appetites and we stuffed ourselves. I could not believe it when we were handed the bill. The huge feast came to about $20. U.S. for our group of four – and that included a large tip.

About six miles past the restaurant, we almost missed a partially hidden sign indicating Qalat Salah al-Din (Saladin’s Castle). Turning on a fairly good mountain road edged by pines, we made our way to the beautiful clean town of Haffah (edge) – a name derived from its location atop a cliff. In the middle of the village. we turned and drove on a narrow winding road towards Saladin’s Castle.

From a high hil l. across a ravine, it loomed before us, appearing to be a heap of massive ruins overgrown with vegetation – a sight of savage beauty. As we moved down into the ravine the sharp curves on the road were frightening. A wrong turn and we would have tumbled into oblivion.

Up the other side we were soon in a part of the castle’s incredible moat. 66 feet wide. 82 feet deep and 5 I 2 feet long. which the Crusaders cut entirely by hand through solid rock. Parking at the bottom of what appeared to be a quarter mile of steps, we laboured up to almost the point of exhaustion until we reached the gate of what one writer described as the greatest Syrian monument in terms of human effort.

Once known as Sahyoun or Saone. Saladin’s Castle is of ancient origin. It was first built by the Phoenicians, became an important Byzantine stronghold , then was taken i n the twelfth century by the Crusaders. Erected on a rocky spur. I .345 feet high , it is triangular-shaped and protected on two sides by vertical mountain inclines at the junction of two ravines.

The third side was made secure by the hand hewn channel through which we had driven. To remove approximately 85.150 cubic yards of hard stone must have been a Herculean task. Only a solitary rock needle was left to support a wooden draw-bridge which once joined the edging town and the castle.

The Salloum Files: Syria's Crusader Castles

Crac des Chevaliers, Crusader Castle, Syria

Yet, all the Crusaders’ work was to no avail. This prestigious medieval fortress fell to Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, in 1188 after a four-month siege. He added a mosque and bath-house inside the confines of its 12 acres’ area which could hold up to 10,000 men. In 1957, in remembrance of Saladin’s feat. the castle was given his name.

Soon we were revived by the fresh mountain air as Muhammad Ali Bitar, our guide who had been born inside the castle, related the history of the fortress. We toured the huge stables, mosque and school , king’s palace and a number of other parts of the citadel. Muhammad pointed out a secret escape spiral staircase before our exploration ended. We were astonished at how well preserved the castle was inside, in comparison to our first view from outside. In less than half an hour we were in Latakia, Syria’s main seaport. Here in the luxurious Cote d’Azur Cham Palace Hotel, overlooking the best beaches in any Mediterranean country, we spent the night dreaming of Crusaders and their wars.

Early next morning we were in Ras Shamra, ten miles north of Latakia. where the ruins of Ugarit are located. An ancient port whose origin is lost in the mist of history. it reached its golden age between the sixteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C. under the Phoenicians. During this period it gave the world the first alphabet. Its remains, through which we had wandered. have yielded a rich collection of objects, filling in much of the empty spaces in the history of the ancient world.

The four-lane highway south of this once proud city traversed a landscape of citrus orchards, divided by cypress trees. In the distance. the green mountains were dotted with villages – a scene which could very well have been from a south European landscape. Perhaps it was because of this that the Crusaders felt at home. The remains of castles. towers and look-outs have made this part of Syria a paradise for those who conti nue to find romance in the Crusades.

A short distance before Banyas, once a Phoenician port. 34 miles south of Latakia , we saw the enormous citadel of Marqab towering atop a mountain. Taking a side road , we quickly made our way up the terence mountainside to this huge bulk of glowering basal t rock .

One of the great Crusader fortresses. Marqab, J ,640 feet above sea level is an enormous fortress covering 2 acres with 4 square and round towers jutting from the curtain wall that encircles the hilltop, forming a triangular bastion . Its southern comer, sharper than the others and bristling with defences, has a keep rising above it like a prow of some fantastically huge ocean liner.

Commanding an important route across Syria’s coastal range. the site of the fortress of Marqab, whose name in Arabic means ‘lookout’. has been a strategic spot since Byzantine times. However. it was only during the Crusades that it became famous. After changing hands several times. major additions were made in A.O. J 140 by the Hospitallcer Knights to its fortifications. Salad in did not even try to breach its wall and it withstood the attacks by the Mamel uk Sultan Baybars. Thereafter the Crusaders believed it was impregnable, but in 1285. it fell to the armies of the Mameluk Sultan Qalaoun.

The Salloum Files: Syria's Crusader Castles

Crac des Chevaliers, Crusader Castle, Syria

Inside, the castle is in an advanced state of disrepair. Only a Gothic chapel and the keep are still in good condition. However, from is grass-grown and windswept outer battlements we enjoyed a breath-taking view of the mountainous landscape and the Mediterranean below.

Fifty-six m iles south of Latakia. we were i n Tartous. once the main supply port of the Crusaders and today Syria’s second largest port. For decades a base for the Templer Knights, it was lost to the Crusaders in 1291 . We drove into the medieval heart of the fast expanding seaport , amazed to see homes built on top of what must have been wide Crusader walls.

Our stop at the cathedral. a jewel of Romanesque art, now serving as a museum , was our farewell to the city. After examining the half dozen sarcophagi unearthed in nearby Amrit and an 800 B.C. stone carving of the god Baal, we left for the mountain town of Safita.

All around us as far as the eye could see were olive fields dotted with prosperous looking clean villages. In less than an hour we were in Safita   – a town of tiled roofs surrounded by flowering trees and olive groves. It is built on the site of a fortress the Crusaders called Castle Le Blanc (the White Fort). We climbed its still standing burj (tower) from which we could survey the countryside for a great distance. In times of danger, during the Crusades. smoke signals were relayed between Saladin’s Castle, Marqab, Safita and Crac des Chevaliers, our next stop.

As we drove towards this most famous medieval citadel in the world. 40 miles southeast of Tartous. we could see it towering i n the distance from many of the elevated parts on the road. Our spirits were high in anticipation of exploring this epitome of twelfth-century fortress buildings. A few minutes later, we could see clearly, silhouetted on a high hill , the most extraordinary of all Crusader strongholds in the Middle East.

On the beaches of North America or western Europe. when children build their sandcastles, little do they know that they are instinctively copying the citadel of Crac des Chevaliers ( Fortress of the Knights) – a paragon of castles. Like others. during my youthful years, I have erected countless citadels i n the sand, but had never dreamed l was building a prototype of one of the mightiest and best preserved castles in the world.

The Salloum Files: Syria's Crusader Castles

Crac des Chevaliers, Crusader Castle, Syria

In later years. I read about Crac des Chevaliers by travellers who described it as the most gigantic and beautiful citadel from the Middle Ages and this had made me yearn to walk its ramparts. Today my dream was about to come true and we were on our way to visit the archetype of sandcastles.

As we drove upwards through the town of al-Husn. our small auto and even the town itself were dwarfed by the huge overshadowing fortress. After we stopped our auto near the citadel ‘s eastern entrance, I am amazed to see the massive walls towering above us and marvelled of hmv men , before the invention of gunpowder, could have breached its defences.

With steep sloping cliffs on three sides, Crac des Chevaliers, known in Arabic as Qalat al-Husn (the Bastion of al-Husn ), lies some 37 miles west of Homs and 40 miles from the seaport of Tartous. A masterpiece of military architecture, it covers 3.588 square yards and from its walls loom 13 huge towers. Strategically perched atop a stone mountain 2,1 32 feet above sea level, it was built to control the ‘Homs Gap’ which divides the rugged Alawi Mountains to the north from the higher Lebanese range to the south.

For thousands of years, the pass was Syria’s pathway to the Mediterranean. When the Crusaders came they found that this corridor was crucial to their control of the coast. Hence, they made Crac des Chevaliers their most important stronghold in the Levant. From its ramparts and towers, they could see and control all movements from the coast to inland cities.

The bastion one sees today was built by the Arabs in the eleventh century on the site of previous fortifications. After its capture by the Crusaders, it was extended and strengthened by the Hospitallers. They controlled the castle for 127 years before it was recaptured in A.D. 1271 , through a military ruse, by the Arabs under the Mameluk Sultan Baybars.

The construction of defence strongholds was not an invention of the Crusaders. When these religious warriors arrived in the Middle East. they found that fortifications in Syria were much more advanced than those in their homelands. In subsequent centuries, they not only   learned Arab techniques of castle building. but translated this knowledge to Europe. R. C. Smail in his book The Crusaders writes: ‘Crusader castles have also often been regarded as a kind of intermediary through which the advanced principles of the science of fortification, long developed and applied in the Byzantine and Muslim East. was transmitted to the more primitive European West.’

Crac des Chevaliers, is the best preserved evidence of military fortifications from the Middle Ages. Although it has most of the features common to other Crusader fortresses. its setting and the majesty of its cloud-reaching walls and towers – the eyes of the castle – give it regal appearance and an aura of grandeur with which few other structures in the world can compare. Historians have   stated   that   its   completeness,   setting,   size   and sheer magnificence make it the finest citadel on earth . One of the most admired castles, it is a symbol of the topmost defence creation by medieval man.

The Salloum Files: Syria's Crusader Castles

Crac des Chevaliers, Crusader Castle, Syria

The fortress had the finest perfected defences of its age. Besides a moat filled with rain water by ,way of the castle aqueducts, there were t,vo walls, the lower outer and the higher inner. An enemy could be engaged from both ramparts at one time. The steepness and heights of the walls gave the defenders a command over any surrounding area occupied by the attackers.

Rounded towers and thick bulwarks provided maximum protection against the siege engines of that era. The entrance through the outer ramparts was joined to the inner gateway by an ingeniously defended approach. Hairpin bends, arrow slits and openings in walls and ceilings covered all angles, making it almost impossible for an attacker to storm the bastion through the main doorway.

In the same fashion as all Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers was utilized for defence, as a marshalling centre for men and horses, as a monastery. as a control stronghold for the subject inhabitants, and as a storehouse for food , horses, water and other provisions. Enough supplies were stored to last 4,000 soldiers and 300 knights with their horses, equipment and provisions for up to a five-year siege.

Inside, the citadel housed a small-sized spartan town. A church and chapel, aqueducts, cisterns, large halls, courtyards, stables, living quarters, and storerooms were crammed within its walls. In times of blockade, no one within the fortress walls would go thirsty or face starvation for years. The castle was an isolated island which did not need the outside world.

We walked through the entrance which is called by the locals ‘Door of Richard the Lion-Hearted’ to examine its barbicans, casements. towers, bastions and storerooms, much of which we found in excellent condition. After wandering through these relics from the past, we had a meal in a chamber which, according to our waiter, was the abode of the daughter of Richard the Lion-Hearted. As we dined on succulent kababs, we had a fantastic view of the rich fig and olive orchards in the valley   below.

The panorama was conducive to reminiscing about this mighty crusader castle and its former occupiers who came, conquered, but eventually were forced to withdraw in disarray. To the Europeans they were heroes, to the Arabs they were savage invaders. It all depends on who writes history.

Habeeb Salloum is a freelance writer and author who lives in Canada. 

Contemporary Review; Jan 2000; 276, 1608; ProQuest Research Library