One of the greatest castles in the world, Krak des Chevaliers was built in the middle of the 12th century by the Crusaders. Having captured Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims, they required strong bases from which to defend their newly won territories. The largest of a string of such fortresses, Krak des Chevaliers withstood countless attacks and sieges, but the Crusaders abandoned it after their defeat at the hands of the Arabs in 1271. Villagers settled within the walls and remained there until the 1930s, when the castle was cleared and restored.
INSIDE THE CASTLE
Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Knights) crowns a 2,133-ft (650-m) high hill at Homs Gap, commanding the route from Antioch to Beirut. The crusading Knights Hospitallers undertook a massive expansion program in the mid-12th century, adding a 100-ft (30-m) thick outer wall, seven guard towers, and stables for 500 horses. An inner reservoir, filled with water from an aqueduct, supplied the 4,000-strong garrison. Storerooms were stocked with food produced by local villagers, and the castle had its own olive presses and a bakery. The later Muslim occupants converted the Crusaders’ chapel into a mosque and also added refinements such as baths and pools.
THE FINAL CONQUEST
The Crusaders continued their campaigns in the Middle East throughout the 12th and into the 13th centuries, but Krak remained secure.
In 1163, the Knights successfully fought off Nuradin, the sultan of Damascus. In 1188, the Muslim leader Saladin attempted to lay siege to the castle, but finding it impenetrable, withdrew his forces. Finally, in 1271, the Mameluk sultan Baibars I, devised a scheme. He forged a letter, purportedly from the Crusader commander in Tripoli, instructing the army at Krak to surrender Baibars’ forces succeeded in taking the Crusaders’ bastion without so much as a fight.
TANCRED, PRINCE OF ANTIOCH
In 1096, Tancred of Hauteville (1078-1112) set out with his uncle, Bohemund, and other Norman lords on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. Their objective was to halt the advance of the Seljuk Turks, who were threatening the Byzantine Empire, and to claim Jerusalem for the Christians. Tancred made a name for himself when he captured Tarsus from the Turks. He played a major role in the siege of Antioch and led the march on Jerusalem (1099) and its occupation. A year later, when Bohemund was taken prisoner by the Turks, Tancred took control of the Principality of Antioch. He ruled supreme in northern Syria, mounting attacks on both the Turks and Byzantines. In 1110, he occupied the hilltop fortress that the Crusaders were to transform into Krak des Chevaliers.
This enormous sloping wall was designed to prevent attackers from undermining the inner wall.
Rainwater from the hills traveled along the aqueduct into the castle’s reservoirs.
Containing the guard master’s quarters, this was the castle’s innermost keep.
Tower of the King’s Daughter
The northern face of this tower has a large projecting gallery from which rocks could be hurled if the outer wall was breached. At ground level, the tower is decorated with three blind arches.
Built by the Crusaders and converted into a mosque after the Muslim conquest, its Islamic minbar(pulpit) can still be seen.
Running along one side of Krak’ s innermost courtyard, the loggia is a graceful Gothic arcade with a vaulted ceiling. It is decorated with carved floral motifs and depictions of animals. Beyond the loggia is the Great Hall, which functioned as a refactory.
A long stepped passage leads from the site of the former drawbridge to the upper. Small ceiling apertures throw light into the corridor, although they were also intended for pouring boiling oil over invanders. The passageways were high and wide enough to allow for mounted riders.
The passage doubled back on itself to confuse any invaders who managed to get this far into the castle.
THE PERFECT CASTLE
The British author T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) described Krak des Chevaliers as “the most wholly admirable castle in the world.” Indeed, the castle served as an i nspi ration for Edward I, king of England, who passed by on the Ninth Crusade in 1272 and returned home to build his own castles across England and Wales.
1031: The emir of Aleppo builds the original fortress on the site.
1110: Crusaders under Tancred, Prince of Antioch, take the bastion.
1142: The Knights Hospitalers occupy the castle and construct the outer wall.
1271: Baibars I, the Mameluk sultan, captures the castle and adds further fortifications.
2006: The castle s added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.