Castle of the Week 47 – Krak des Chevaliers

For the first Castle of the Week venturing outside Europe, we had to go for the best … and the best is Krak des Chevaliers in the mountains of north west Syria. It was described by TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as ‘the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’ and by Paul Theroux as ‘the perfect storybook castle that you have always known existed somewhere.’ It is the furthest east of a chain of five castles built to defend the Homs Gap, which was the route between the Mediterranean & inland cities. It stands on a hill of about 2300 feet with a sheer drop on three sides. It was never taken by siege or storm and is considered to be the strongest and greatest castle built by the Crusaders.

It’s not known when the first castle on the site was built except that it was many centuries BC. There was certainly a castle which was given to the Kurds under the Emir of Homs by the Emir of Aleppo in the early 11th century. It was then called Husn Al Akrad (Castle of the Kurds). In 1110 it was captured by the Crusaders under Tancred, Prince of Antioch. The garrison numbered 2,000 soldiers and extra fortifications were built as and when necessary. In 1142 it was given to the Knights Hospitallers, a military and religious chivalrous order, who held it until 1271. Within the strong fortifications they rebuilt and extended it into a home with stables, warehouses and a windmill. The internal buildings were built to be beautiful and this helps make it a wonderful example of castle architecture.

In 1163 it was attacked by Nur ed-Din, Sultan of Damascus and a battle was fought in the Buqai’ah valley below. Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf) was going to besiege it in 1188 but, after looking at the defences, decided to march on north believing it to be invincible. It was rebuilt in its final form in the 13th century.

During the spring of 1271, King al-Zaher Baibars with an Egyptian army besieged it for a month. The castle was undermanned with only 300 knights instead of the former 2,000+, but when it finally fell, it was only by trickery. Baibars forged a letter, supposedly from the Crusader commander, that no reinforcements were available and they should surrender. He rebuilt the damaged parts and built some new towers, including a strong bastion on the vulnerable southern side, which meant that it kept its importance as an Arab castle.

The Kurdish castle had a single ward and surrounding wall. This wall became the inner wall of the Crusader concentric castle. There was only a small gap between the outer and dominant inner walls, with a moat all the way round it. The outer curtain wall has eight round towers on the north and west sides and machicolations to drop rocks on invaders. The inner wall was sloped at 80 degrees and was 80 feet high.

Two square towers frame the northern barbican. The entrance has a ramp and a vaulted passageway that leads to the outer wall and then a bridge to the inner part. The passages were built in a zigzag which would make invaders very vulnerable to defenders’ fire. There was a small chapel to the east of the entrance which was changed into a mosque by Bairbars. Opposite are 3 large towers in the south wall, with a spiral staircase in one which leads to the Grand Master’s elegant room. The strongest of the three towers was linked to the keep by a thick heavy wall on which much defensive equipment was placed. There was enough space to store food to feed the whole garrison for a year and an aquaduct which brought water to caves under the castle during sieges.

In 1934 it became a tourist site and these are the impressions of one of those visitors, otherwise known to us as Jayhawk:

On a rock in a green valley lies a stronghold, like a monster waiting to pounce. Pale walls, pale towers. Covered hallways and narrow passages. Sudden, breathtaking views through arrow slits and murder holes. Seemingly endless panoramas from the towers. A castle out of a fairy tale, but a violent fairy tale.

We have lunch in the Tower of the King’s Daughter. A good lunch, familiar ingredients but the location makes up for that. It takes only a small flight of fancy to picture myself here, 700 years ago. Fire burning bright, wind howling through holes in the wall sounding like a tormented soul. Strange. Why do I picture winter and not the coolness of the hall in summer?

After lunch we race up the last towers and enjoy the view. The wind chases dust around us and white clouds chase each other high overhead. From here Lebanon fills one half of the world, Syria the other half.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of Jayhawk.

Download Krak des Chevaliers for Crusader only by Wraith