Castle of the Week 53 – Kerak

Kerak in Jordan is situated about 3,500 feet above sea-level on the King’s Highway, the ancient route for caravans travelling from Egypt to Syria. It towers over the surrounding plains on an isolated hilltop with magnificent views all around, particularly towards the Dead Sea 10 miles away.

The earliest evidence of habitation on the site is from the Iron Age in about 1200 BCE and it has been known by many names in its past including Kir Hareseth, Kir Heres and Kir of Moab. During the crusading period it was known as Crak des Moabites or Le Pierre du Desert and was the capital of Oultre Jourdain.

The castle was built in the 1130s for Baldwin I, king of Jerusalem, one of the great line of Crusader castles from the Egyptian border to Turkey. It had five strong square towers linked by a thick curtain wall and stood on top of a stone glacis with a large artificial dry moat on two sides which separated it from the town. The original access was from below through two man-made tunnels in the rock, although nowadays entrance is easier up a winding path. The only thing that could have made it less impregnable was the water supply. There are springs immediately outside the city, but for a siege huge cisterns were constructed.

Most of what can be seen now is from the Mamluke period of Sultan Baibars in the late 13th century, when a lot of the Crusader castle was rebuilt, shortly after which three towers collapsed in an earthquake. The ruined Crusader chapel is still there but the three-storey keep is Mamluke. The keep is at the southern end of the courtyard opposite high ground across the valley from where Saladin would have attacked the castle with siege engines.

It passed down through the family until the death of Baldwin III. His heir was only 13 so a regent was appointed. The regent died and was replaced by his widow, Stephanie. Not long after, Reynaud de Chatillon, who had arrived in the Holy Land with the 2nd Crusade, heard about this powerful and wealthy woman and married her.

De Chatillon was a cruel man, known for such behaviour as throwing his enemies off the battlements so his castle was a prime target of Saladin. He besieged it twice in 1183 and 1184 and there are several legends about these sieges. One is that Saladin stopped firing on the keep as it was occupied by his stepson and his new bride, Isabelle; another is that the defenders ‘sold’ their wives and children in exchange for food. Baldwin IV relieved both sieges by marching with soldiers from Jerusalem. The castle finally was taken in 1188 after a year’s siege and Saladin was so impressed by the courage shown by the defenders that he freed them without asking for ransoms, except for Reynaud who was executed.

The Muslims were followed by the Mamlukes who, in their turn, were replaced by the Ottomans. The castle continued to be used as a home and administrative centre until 1840 when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt took it, greatly damaging the defences.

As with so many other castles, the government of its country (in this case Jordan) is trying to prevent any further decay and sympathetically restoring it where feasible.

Our seraphic traveller didn’t have quite so much to say about Kerak:

Kerak is the next stop. Adri, Arno and I play tag through the underground corridors, halls and portals. We climb on every pile of masonry we find and try to outdo each other in taking the best pictures. In its heyday this must have been quite an impressive castle.

Later I hear Els’ reaction on our antics: “Every time I stopped to take a picture, I saw these three little figures crawl out of a hole again!”

Together with Barbara and Mahamed, I make a brief visit to the catacombs. An underground hall, 300 feet long disappears into the distance.

Most impressive.

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