Krac de Chaveliers: the finest castle ever built

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

After a fine stay in Damascus it was time to move northwards and explore some of the premier attractions that Syria has to offer, and in particular one that exemplifies an especially turbulent period in the Middle East's long and brutal history - Krak de Chaveliers of Crusader times.

From the end of the 11th century AD, waves of ravaging Christian Crusader armies swept through the region from Turkey all the way to southern Palestine for almost 200 years. Initially successful in re-taking many major centres from Islam, including the prized goal of Jerusalem, a natural response was the attempt to cement their gains by building a string of strategic castle fortifications along the fertile valleys to support their armies' ongoing control and administration.

I travelled past a number of these in Jordan (such as Karak) but decided not to stop as I knew I'd eventually arrive at the epitome of the castle-building art once I reached the Krac. In the end it was a good choice because, as TE Lawrence simply stated, it is 'the finest castle in the world' in every regard - a masterful example of military architecture that still stands almost complete as a solemn monument to those bloody times.

I was hoping to arrive in the village that surrounds the castle in the late afternoon so I could watch the sunset on the walls. Like most taxi drivers world-wide mine didn't know where he was going so that desire was dashed and I arrived to pitch darkness, which in hindsight worked out pretty well. For sunrise happens to be the time for watching as I found out early the next morning...

The alarm didn't wake me in time to witness the crack of dawn but what I managed to see after rubbing the sleep from my eyes was absolutely spectacular. Naturally I hadn't seen the castle or its surrounds at all the previous night so the magnitude of it and the rugged terrain around was slowly revealed as the sun's first rays beamed through the battlements and then crept into the valleys that the castle looms forebodingly over.

This section of the Orontes Valley, about 30km from the coast, is fertile territory as far as the eye can see, meaning sizable agrarian settlements have sprung up around the castle on north, west and eastern sides in the valleys hundreds of metres below. It was to this backdrop that I marched toward the castle for the 9am opening, and had my first true taste of how monumental it is. At 30,000 square metres, the floor plan is astronomical - consisting of two distinct parts - the outer wall and the innner castle. The outer wall contains no less than 13 towers and some say it used to have a moat ringing its external face (though I doubt it). The inner castle is massive in its own right and was also protected by a moat cut from the rock between it and the outer wall.

Built by the Hospitaller Knights, the result was one of the most perfect military bases ever conceived, designed to withstand a siege for up to five years. It was besieged a number of times as the tables turned on the Crusaders, but it was never taken - in the end the Crusaders just gave it up in 1271 in return for safe passage.

To access the castle's main entrance you must walk from the southern end along the 100 metre long west wall to the northern face, which certainly would have been running the gauntlet with archers firing mercilessly down upon you. Into the gates and a network of broad passageways lead you into the outer walls or the inner keep depending which way you turn. These nicely mood-lit passages would have been heavily protected too, with defenders ready to pour boiling oil and tar or molten tin onto the heads of attackers below if they made it that far.

Once inside I passed through a bathing area and then into a 60 metre long stable which had the capacity to comfortably house up to 200 horse. Another interesting feature of the stable was its secret passage to the outside of the castle, no doubt used by messengers and scouts in the event of siege. By the end of the stable you can scale the south western towers of the outer wall, which results in great views of the inner castle walls and the only remaining section of moat at the foot of its southern face.

Walking along the outer wall, restored by the French in 1936, gives you great views of the terraced valleys and ragged settlements below. Like most castles of the time, there would have been a settlement outside the castle walls and this motley collection of housing probably doesn't look a great deal different to those back then - except that it is now a little more concrete and permanent.

After circumnavigating the inner castle I attacked the inner sanctum, first marvelling at the massive walls that protected the central castle. If (on the off chance) that you managed to breach and take the outer walls attacking this would have been even more formidable - even if you could get siege machinery into good position on the outer battlements to pummel it.

Arrow slits provided higher views of the landscape below and long, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels connected these defensive positions of the inner castle around its perimeter, making for an interesting but slightly dangerous walk in the tarry darkness.

Before long I emerged in a large storage hall behind the massive kitchen and oven areas. Adjacent to this is a spacious Knight's dining hall decorated in the vaulted gothic design which was the fashion of the time. Intricate carvings at the base of the vaults complete the picture and there's even small examples of Latin and Frankish text carvings if you look closely enough - possibly ruminating on the dire circumstances the inhabitants came to literally imprisoned in the castle during the final siege.

Outside the Knight's Hall is a courtyard where you can see further examples of the more elaborate decoration found in the complex. The pious need not despair either - a large chapel can be found nearby too, complete with a sizaable rock-hewn pulpit that has managed to survive the ages (probably because it was used by subsequent Muslim inhabitants for the same purpose).

I kept stumbling from room to massive room for a while - the place seems more monumental on the inside due to the sheer number of rooms and the broad open spaces that they lead off. However considering that it was designed to house 2,000 and their stores it was all necessary and utilised no doubt. By now though I was keen to tackle the last and highest of the castle remains, so up to the Command Tower I went.

Crusader commanders surveyed their domain from this point, approximately 750 metres above sea level, and could see all the way to Tripoli on the Lebanese Mediterranean coast on a good day. This panorama would have covered every inch of a great swathe of the contested grounds in north, south and westerly directions so the castle is pretty well positioned indeed. To the east, a range of snow-capped mountains can also be seen faintly in the distance. Not sure if there's any snow-sports available up there but would be interesting to find out!

Time and the heat was pressing by this stage so I had to abandon my attack and retreat to the comfort of the hotel room across the first small valley. Taking the long route around the east and south paths I was able to see more clearly the only possible weaknesses of the whole complex - the exposed southern face with relatively flat ground leading to it, and the small aqueduct that funnelled water into the castle from somewhere off in the distance.

Still, the battlements on the southern end are particularly solid and even if the attacker managed to cut the narrow water supply under withering fire from the defenders, the inner moat water and endless foodstuff stores would have maintained the fighting populace for years. So neither Nuraddin nor famed son Saladin ever managed to make a dent on this amazing 'dream castle of childhood fantasy' (Paul Theroux).

The final result is a monument of Roman proportions and probably one of the only buildings of our contemporary civilisation that will survive the ravages of time as long and as nobly as Egyptian or Roman structures have. Get here if you can - awesome!

Next entry -> more classic Roman remains at Palmyra

Words from the Wise #19

"He who lives will see."
French Proverb
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