Castle of the Week 64 – Beaufort Castle

Of the dozen-odd Crusader castles in Lebanon none can compare in size, scenic grandeur, or close connection with Lebanese history down to modern times, with isolated Beaufort, perched on its cliff a thousand feet above the rushing Litani river. It controls the main route from southern Begaa to Damascus.

Interestingly, there is no direct evidence on the building of Beaufort. William of Tyre claimed that it was indeed constructed by Crusader forces, yet some scholars suggest that it is older. One line of thought is that work first commenced in fortifying the site during the late-Roman or Byzantine period, restored and enlarged by the Arabs some years later. What is known is that the Crusaders did restructure and refortify the site in the early to mid 12th century.

In characteristic fashion of mountain Crusader castles, the site is protected on the east by a sheer precipice, which falls to the river some 300 metres below. On the west side the ground slopes more gently to the village of Arnun (the castle is known as Shquif Arnun to Arab travellers, Shquif being a Syrian term for ‘high rock’) and it was here that the original builders concentrated their defences. To the north, a vast rock-cut basin protects the castle. The fortress lies on two main levels. A lower court lay to the east overlooking the river valley, however nothing of this earliest phase in construction exists today. There are areas of 12th century Frankish work that do remain in the upper bailey, the main feature being a donjon or keep, placed in the middle of the western wall (the curtain wall) where the castle was most vulnerable. A considerable length of the western wall remains today, protected at the foot by a small glacis of dressed stone. Also evident today is the entrance from the lower bailey to the inner fortification. The northern and southern ends of the castle are badly damaged due to siege engines in the 1190 campaign and were rebuilt by the Muslims.

In 1138 King Fulk of Anjou captured the fortified site known as Qal’ at al-Shaqif from the rulers of Damascus, which the Franks later called Beaufort. It was handed to the Crusader rulers of Sidon and Beaufort became arguably the most important castle in South Lebanon, seeing a turbulent history and changing hands many times during the process. It was the scene of Reynaud of Sidon’s resistance to Saladin, Reynaud surviving the massacre of the Crusader army at Hattin in 1187. Arabian records tell us that Saladin encamped at Marjayun, near Beaufort, in 1189. With Saladin preparing to siege the castle, Reynaud met with him, became friendly with the Muslim leader and even suggested that he was a Muslim sympathiser. He negotiated a three-month grace period, during which he repaired damage to the castle walls and brought in more supplies. Saladin lost patience with Reynaud when he duly approached Beaufort again, expecting Reynaud to leave the castle and travel to Damascus with his family. Reynaud wished for more time, his family trapped in Tyre by the crusading army. He did order his men to surrender; yet they refused, the garrison only finally capitulating in April 1190.

The castle passed into Muslim hands in 1190, back into Frankish hands in 1240 and then again into Muslim hands in 1268. At each stage the defences and accommodation were altered so it is not easy to reconstruct the 12th century work.

Write-up by Sulis.