Castle of the Week 60 – Margat Castle

Lying on the site of an extinct volcano, Margat overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and commanded an important trade route at the southern edge of the Principality of Antioch. It was the sister castle of Krak des Chevaliers and, similar to Krak, it took on the role of an administrative centre, covering vast areas of land in the process. One of the most imposing aspects of Margat is its size, giving an air of rugged domination across the surrounding lands.

Founded in 1062 by Muslim Arabs, it was taken over by the Byzantines at a later point, although the exact date is unknown. However, in 1186 the Hospitallers bought the castle along with the small seaside town of Valenia and some patchwork lands. Margat was rebuilt to the latest Frankish standards of architecture and incorporated many of the features that saw Krak des Chevaliers gain its reputation as an impregnable fortress. Standing on a hill commanding extensive views of the Mediterranean and the narrow coastal plain to the North and South, the architects saw Margat as a site with enormous potential. The long walls that run around the edge of the plateau where Margat stands are flanked with numerous towers, predominantly round, and date from the Hospitaller takeover. It was split into two separate sections, the fortress and the ‘castletown’. The defences of the castletown aren’t as formidable as that of the fortress, but the main entrance to the castle area shadows that of Krak, with passages allowing access to various sections, but with numerous 90 degree turns that offered no advantage to the attacker. What is noticeable about Margat is that the architecture reflects the continuous building by the Franks, rather than specific periods of construction and explains the somewhat erratic layout of the castle.

The fortress of Margat, known as Qalaat Al Marqab in Arabic and meaning ‘Castle of the Watchtower’, wasn’t just a military stronghold. By the beginning of the 13th century the bishop of Valenia had abandoned the village and transferred to the castle, where the chapel doubled as his modest cathedral. The knights ensured revenue not only from the surrounding lands, but also by blocking off the route near the coast with a tower and wall that extended from the castle. Documents indicate that everyone had to pay to pass through the gate and this proved to be quite profitable for the Hospitallers.

Margat saw some significant military action, none more so than that attack by the Sultan Kalaoun in 1285. The siege engines employed by the Sultan were quickly destroyed by the garrison within the castle walls and many of the Muslims were killed by the defenders’ arrows and siege engines mounted on a grassy plateau within the castle. The battle was ferocious and recent investigations have found arrowheads still stuck in the mortar around the arrow slits, showing where the attackers had tried to shoot in at their stubborn opponents. At this point, the Sultan opted to mine the outwork defences, which succeeded in bringing down sections of wall. The main attack on the stronghold failed miserably though and it was evident that an unconventional approach may be required. Continuing with the efforts on mining, sappers spent eight days below ground and completely undermined the circular tower-keep at the southern end of the castle. Wisely, the Sultan didn’t wish to destroy the remarkable defences of the castle and invited the Hospitallers to view the extent of their work. They did so, and at once realised that further resistance was useless. With further mines suspected, the castle capitulated and the knights retired to Acre, armed with their belongings and a sum of gold.

Margat was the last crusader castle to endure a major siege and the fall of the mighty fortress is a reflection that for all the ingenious defensive work, excellence in craftsmanship and courage in defence, nothing would eventually compensate for lack of men and money.

Write-up by Sulis.