a crusader castle in a conflict zone: syria’s crac des chevaliers

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Syria is one of my very favorite travel destinations, and, given the current conflict there, it may be a few years before I have the opportunity to get back. Despite what may be transmitted to the general public through a media that only tells a one-dimensional story of the country, Syria is in fact a place of incredible history, and when the conflict settles down, I highly recommend a visit.

Among the layers of history: Biblical sites, Hellenic sites, Roman Sites, Crusader sites, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world [Damascus] and the modern middle east, can be found several archaeological gems. One of the stand-outs is the Crusader castle and UNESCO world heritage site, the Crac des Chevaliers.

The Crac des Chevaliers Crusader fortress was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem beginning in the 12th century. With further construction by the Mamluks in the late 13th century, it ranks among the best-preserved surviving examples of a Crusader castle. Located on a high 650 meter ridge for defense, the Crac des Chevaliers was originally known as the Castle of the Kurds, as the location was first inhabited by a settlement of Kurds in the 11th century.

The fortress was built during the First Crusade on a strategically important spot approximately 40 kilometers from city of Homs where much of the current conflict is centered. Early in the 12th century the location was captured by Tancred, Prince of Galilee and one of the most famous Crusaders. Thereafter the fortress later became the home of the Knights Hospitaller, one of the most powerful religious-military orders of the Crusades. As the fortress was expanded by the Knights Hospitaller it served as their base of operations in the Middle East for centuries.

The Crac des Chevaliers withstood numerous attacks by Muslim forces, including a siege by the Saladin in 1188, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria who led Muslim and Arab opposition to the Franks and other European Crusaders in the region.

The structure could house up to two thousand soldiers, shielded by walls three meters thick. The inner castle is protected by seven towers, each ten meters in diameter. The storeroom is one hundred twenty meters long and could hold supplies that would permit the defenders to withstand a siege for five years, with stables that could house a thousand horses.

I know of no better example of fortified architecture from the Crusader period, and this site is truly spectacular. This fortress has seen many conflicts in its day. Let’s just hope the current conflict doesn’t keep this site out of the reach of travelers for that much longer.

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