Syria's Crac des Chevaliers: Paragon of Castles
By Habeeb Salloum
On the beaches of North America or Western Europe, when children build their sandcastles, little do they know that they are instinctively copying the citadel of Crac des Chevaliers (Fortress of the Knights) - a paragon of castles.
Like others, during my youthful years, I had erected countless citadels in the sand, but had never dreamed I was building a prototype of this mightiest and best-preserved castle in the world.
In later years, I read about Crac des Chevaliers by travellers who described it as the most gigantic and beautiful citadel from the Middle Ages and this made me yearn to walk its ramparts.
Today my dream was about to come true and we were on our way to visit the archetype of sandcastles which, after Palmyra, is the most important tourist spot in Syria.
Leaving behind Homs, Syria's third largest city, we were soon driving westward on a four-lane expressway. In about half an hour, near Talkalakh, we turned northward and drove on a two-lane road through a lush green valley. A few minutes later, we could see, silhouetted on a high hill, the most extraordinary of all Crusader strongholds in the Middle East.
As we drove upwards through the town of al-Husn, the huge overshadowing fortress dwarfed our small auto and even the town itself. After we stopped our auto near the citadel's eastern entrance, I was amazed to see the massive walls towering above us and marvelled of how men, before the invention of gunpowder, could have breached its defences.
With steep sloping cliffs on three sides, Crac des Chevaliers, known in Arabic as Qalaat al-Husn or Qalaat Akrad - Crac was originally ‘Crat’, a corruption of Akrad, (the Bastion of al-Husn or Akrad), lies some 60 km (37 mi) west of Homs and 65 km (40 mi) from the seaport of Tartous.
Strategically perched atop a stone mountain 650 m (2,132 ft) above sea level, it was built to control the 'Homs Gap' which divides the rugged Alawi Mountains to the north from the higher Lebanese range to the south.
For thousands of years, the pass was Syria's pathway to the Mediterranean. When the Crusaders came they found that this corridor was crucial to their control of the coast. Hence, they made Crac des Chevaliers their most important stronghold in the Levant. From its ramparts and towers, they could see and control all movements from the coast to the inland cities.
The Arabs built the bastion one sees today in the 11th century on the site of previous fortifications. After its capture by the Crusaders, it was extended and strengthened by the Hospitallers - a warrior Christian monastic order. They controlled the castle for 127 years before it was recaptured in 1271 AD, through a military ruse by the Arabs under the Mameluk Sultan Baybars.
The construction of defence strongholds was not an invention of the Crusaders. When these religious warriors arrived in the Middle Wast, they found that fortifications in Syria were much more advanced than those in their homelands. In the subsequent centuries, they not only learned Arab techniques of castle building, but transferred this knowledge to Europe.
R.C. Smail in his book The Crusaders writes:
"Crusader castles have also often been regarded as a kind of intermediary through which the advanced principles of the science of fortification, long developed and applied in the Byzantine and Muslim East, was transmitted to the more primitive European West."
Crac des Chevaliers is the best-preserved evidence of military fortifications from the Middle Ages. Although it has most of the features common to other Crusader fortresses, its setting and the majesty of cloud-reaching walls and towers - the eyes of the castle - give it regal appearance and an aura of grandeur with which few other structures in the world can compare. Historians have stated that its completeness, setting, size and sheer magnificence make it the finest citadel on earth. One of the most admired castles, it is a symbol of the topmost defence creation by medieval man.
The fortress had the finest perfected defences of its age. Besides a moat filled with rain water by way of the castle aqueducts, there were two walls, the lower outer and the higher inner. An enemy could be engaged from both ramparts at one time. The steepness and heights of the walls gave the defenders a command over any surrounding area occupied by the attackers.
Rounded towers and thick bulwarks provided maximum protection against the seige engines of that era. The entrance through the outer ramparts was joined to the inner gateway by an ingeniously defended approach. Hairpin bends, arrow slits and openings in walls and ceiling covered all angles, making it almost impossible for an attacker to storm the bastion through the main doorway.
In the same fashion as all Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers was utilized for defence, as a marshalling centre for men and horses, as a monastery, as a control stronghold for the subject inhabitants; and as a storehouse for food, horses, water and other provisions. Enough supplies were stored to last a 2,000 to 4,000 men army for up to a five-year siege.
Inside, the citadel housed a small sized Spartan town. A church and chapel, aqueducts, cisterns, large halls, courtyards, stables, living quarters, and storerooms were crammed within its walls. In times of blockade, no one within the fortress walls would go thirsty or face starvation for years. The castle was an isolated island that did not need the outside world.
We walked through the entrance, which is called by the locals "Door of Richard the Lion-Hearted," to examine its barbicans, casements, towers, bastions and storerooms, much of which we found in excellent condition.
After wandering through these relics from the past, we watched two colorful Syrian dramas being filmed within its wall then had a meal in a chamber that, according to our waiter, was the abode of the daughter of Richard the Lion-Hearted. As we dined on succulent kababs, we had a fantastic view of the rich fig and olive orchards in the valley below.
The panorama was conducive to reminiscing about this mighty crusader castle and its former occupiers who came, conquered, but eventually were forced to withdraw in disarray. To the Europeans they were heroes; to the Arabs they were savage invaders. It all depends on who writes history.
IF YOU GO
Facts to Know When Travelling in Syria:
1) All foreigners entering Syria require a visa, which is best obtained from an embassy or consulate outside of Syria. Visas are valid for 15 days, but can be extended once inside the country.
2) Convert money only in banks - some located in hotels. New exchange rates have eliminated the once thriving black market. Currently $1. U.S. equals about 54 Syrian liras in banks.
3) Despite being depicted in some of the Western media as a land full of terrorists, Syria is very safe for travellers - one of the safest countries in the world. Even women travelling alone find few problems. Urban crime, which plagues most modern cities, is virtually non-existent in Syria.
4) For foreigners, all hotel bills must be paid in U.S. dollars - much more expensive than that charged for Syrians and Lebanese who can pay in Syrian liras.
5) Local products to buy in Syria: silk brocade, brass and silver inlays, mosaics inlaid with mother of pearl, hand-woven rugs, hand blown glass products, all types of delicious sweets and pictures of epic and folk heroes painted on glass or cloth.
6) Internet cafes are found in all the major cities in Syria. Many use DSL and are very up-to-date. In luxury hotels the price is from $6. to $7. per hour; in regular cafes from $1. to $2.
Good Places to Stay When Visiting Wadi al-Nadara:
The top places to stay in Syria are the Cham Palaces and Hotels - a deluxe chain covering the whole of the country. When visiting Crac des Chevaliers, the Ideal place to stay is Safita Cham Palace or one can stay in Hama at the Apamea Cham Palace Hotel. For prices and for reserving rooms in all the Cham Palace Hotels in Syria, check the Cham Palace website.
Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.
For more accommodation options, find unique Syria hotels and interesting tours in Syria.
For Further Information:
Syrian Embassy, Ottawa, 151 Slater Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3. Tel: 613-569- 5556. Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008 U.S.A. Tel: 202/232-6313. Fax: 202-234-9548. E-mail
Ministry of Tourism website: SyriaTourism.org
Habeeb Salloum is a travel and food writer, as well as the author of five books, who lives in Toronto Canada.
|Visit our Habeeb Salloum Page with links to all his stories
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Syria