Castle of the Week 55 – Saladin’s Castle

Qalaat Saladin also known as Saladin’s Castle or Saone is in an almost impregnable position on a wedge-shaped 150m high ridge between two deep valleys, about 25km from Latakia in Syria. The third side of the wedge was protected by a 28m man-made ditch, cut into the rock. It sprawls along the top of the ridge, covering 12 acres and, in Saladin’s time, had room for 10,000 men to live. It was an important castle as it guarded the trade route between Latakia and Aleppo.

The strategic position was first used by the Phoenicians a thousand years BCE and they were still there when Alexander the Great from Macedon in Greece invaded in 333 BCE. It’s known that the Romans also had a presence there but there are no remaining signs of their occupation. There is then a gap in our knowledge until the Byzantines returned in the 10th century AD and the basis of the castle we can see now was built.

At the beginning of the 12th century it was taken by the Crusaders and in 1119 was given by Roger, Prince of Antioch, to Robert of Saone although it remained under Byzantine jurisdiction rather than the Templars or Hospitallers. In 1188 Saladin succeeded in taking it after a 4 month siege when he was encamped on a nearby and overlooking hill. He bombarded it with huge boulders and eventually wore down the Crusaders’ resistance. The family of emir Nasr al-Don Manguwiris controlled the castle until 1272 when they ceded it to the Mamluk Sultan Baibars. In 1280 Sonquor al-Ashgar, the ex-governor of Damascus, occupied the castle but seven years later the Mamluk sultan took it back after a siege. As peace returned, the castle fell into disuse and is now in ruins, much of it overgrown with vegetation.

The hand dug ditch was probably started by the Byzantines and finished by the Crusaders. It runs for 156m on the eastern side, is about 20m wide and was full of fast-running water after rain. It contains a 28m high ‘needle’ left when the stone was being cut which supported the drawbridge. The top of this pillar was cut down and built up with a temporary top which could be collapsed when under siege.

There is a crusader bastion on one side of the entry and another a little further in. The rectangular keep has 5m thick walls and covers nearly 24m² with the entrance on the second floor up 208 steps on the outside. Other ruins of buildings still visible are a crusader church, 2 Byzantine chapels, stables and 2 huge water cisterns cut from the rock with terracotta pipes which drew water from the valley below. Arab additions included a mosque and a palace. The ‘Arab Baths’, a domed courtyard surrounded by marble paved vaulted rooms, had separate ducts for cold water and steam and were added by the Mamluks. One of the towers can be climbed and it’s possible to walk around the ramparts.

In 1957 it was renamed Saladin’s Castle in memory of his feat of taking it.

Jayhawk wasn’t quite so impressed on his visit:

Saladin’s castle is next. The road there is pretty spectacular, one hairpin turn after another. Fawaz (the driver) twists the bus through the tight turns and conquers the gorge as if he’s done it all his life. Several people inside the bus get a bit nervous, though, especially when parts of the bus occasionally stick out over the edge of the road.

When we get up there, we receive a standing ovation from other tourists already at the castle. Victor (our guide) explains ours is the first bus ever to get to the castle from that side. *gulp*

From the outside the castle looks pretty spectacular, but the inside is a bit disappointing. Adri and I are done with it well before the rest of the group returns. Barbara explains they had finished earlier, but that the guide decided it was necessary to tell them some ‘Homsi’, the local Irish, jokes.

I hope Crac de Chevalier is more impressive.

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