A Sight of Savage Beauty: Syria's Crusader Castles
by Habeeb Salloum
In the 12th century, it had withstood the fiercest on-slaughts of the Crusaders. Now, the massive citadel and Aleppo were behind us as we drove along a four-lane highway edged by man-made forests.
Powerful sultans and valiant knights astride caparisoned horses must have known this route well eight centuries ago. And now, traveling by chauffeured car, we were going to visit the remains of several castles once occupied by Crusaders in Syria.
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II decreed that he would absolve the sins of anyone who fought to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom. His words sparked nearly 200 years of major military expeditions from Europe collectively known as The Crusades. All social classes took part -- from peasants to princes such as Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany.
At first, battles favored the Europeans, who captured Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks in 1099. But then the Muslims regrouped under astute leaders and began winning back territory. Saladin retook Jerusalem in 1187, and the Crusaders were finally expelled from their last stronghold, Acre, in 1291.
During the two centuries of warfare, both sides built mighty castles fortified with moats, battlements, and ramparts. Dozens of strongholds, in various conditions of preservation, are found throughout the Middle East. T.E. Lawrence -- better known as Lawrence of Arabia -- first visited Syria and Palestine as an Oxford College student and wrote his first book, Crusaders Castles. Now I would explore these relics of history for myself.
We first headed to Qalat Salah al-Din, or Saladin's Castle, once described as the "greatest Syrian monument," in terms of the human effort to construct it. Turning westward at the town of Saraqab, we were surrounded by rich land which has been farmed since the dawn of civilization. After crossing the Ghab, an agricultural valley, we entered the green Syrian mountains. Having driven through desert in the eastern part of the country, it was as if we were in another world.
We stopped for lunch at al-Qusatil, a roadside, open-air restaurant located about 28 miles before Latakia. Perfumed by surrounding trees, cool breezes soothed us as we feasted on tasty barbecued chicken, lamb and kebab, along with appetizers and salads. I could not believe it when we were handed the bill. The huge meal came to the equivalent of $20 for our group of four -- and that included a large tip.
Marked by a partially hidden sign (which we almost missed), the castle route took us on a fairly good mountain road edged by pines to the beautiful town of Haffah or "Edge" -- named for its cliff-top location. From a high hill across a ravine, Saladin's Castle rose before us, a heap of massive ruins overgrown with vegetation, and a sight of savage beauty. As we moved down into the ravine, the sharp curves on the road were frightening. A wrong turn and we would have tumbled into oblivion.
We drove through part of the castle's incredible moat: 66 feet wide, 82 feet deep and over 500 feet long, which the Crusaders cut entirely by hand through solid rock. Parking at the bottom of what appeared to be a quarter mile of steps, we labored uphill to the castle gate.
Called Sahyoun or Saone by the Crusaders, and Qala'at Salah al-Din by the Muslims, Saladin's Castle is of ancient origin. First built by the Phoenicians, it subsequently became an important Byzantine stronghold before being taken in the early 12th century by Robert of Saone, a vassal of the Frankish Prince of Antioch.
One of many Crusader-occupied castles serving as a beleaguered outpost to protect the small occupying force, Qala'at Salah al-Din was erected on a rocky spur 1,345 feet high and roughly triangular in shape. Two sides were protected by vertical mountain inclines at the junction of two ravines. The third side was safeguarded by the hand-hewn moat through which we had driven.
Over 85,000 cubic yards of hard stone were excavated -- a Herculean task. Only a solitary, rocky needle was left to support a wooden drawbridge, which joined the edging town to the castle.
Fresh mountain air revived us as our guide Muhammad Ali Bitar, who had been born inside the castle, related the history of the fortress. All the Crusaders' work was to no avail. The fortress fell in 1188 to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria. One of the most illustrious of Muslim generals, his skillful tactics almost completely routed Christians from the Holy Land. The castle was officially named to honor him in 1957.
Retaking the citadel after a four-month siege, the ruler did what most new homeowners do -- he remodeled. To the castle which could house up to 10,000 men, he added a mosque and bathhouse.
Although the exterior of the castle was ravaged by time, the inside was astonishingly intact. We toured the huge stables, mosque, school, king's palace and other parts of the citadel. Muhammad also pointed out a secret spiral staircase escape.
That night, we slept in Latakia, Syria's main seaport, at the luxurious Cote d'Azur Cham Palace Hotel. In our dreams, we saw images of the Crusaders and their wars.
En route to Marqab, our next castle stop, we visited the ruins of Ugarit, located 10 miles north of Latakia. An ancient port whose origin is lost in the mist of history, Ugarit reached its golden age under Phoenician rule between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. The world's first alphabet originated here.
Citrus orchards divided by cypress trees lined the four-lane highway as we drove south. In the distance, green mountains were dotted with villages -- a scene which recalled a southern European landscape. Perhaps this similarity made the Crusaders feel at home.
A huge bulk of gloomy basalt rock loomed a short distance before Banyas-Marqab, one of the great Crusader fortresses. Black ramparts contrasted dramatically with pastel hills and the brilliant backdrop of blue sky.
One of the great Crusader fortresses, Marqab covers 12 acres and has 14 towers. Perched on the edge of an extinct volcano, it overlooks both the coastal plain and Mediterranean Sea. Lookouts could monitor all movement along the coast, from Antioch into Palestine.
Erected by the Muslims around 1062, Marqab was seized by the Frankish Prince of Antioch around the same time as Saone, between 1120 and 1140. Occupied first by the influential Masoirs of France and then by the Knights Hospitallers, the castle underwent impressive upgrades which made it so impregnable that even Saladin passed it up in 1188. Nonetheless, Marqab was eventually seized in 1285 by the Mameluk Sultan Qalawan, after a four-week battle.
From Marqab, we continued on to Tartous, once the Crusaders' main supply port and today Syria's second largest port. For decades a base for the Templer Knights, it was lost to the Crusaders in 1291.
We drove into the medieval heart of this fast-expanding seaport, amazed to see homes built atop what must have been wide Crusader walls. Its cathedral, a jewel of Romanesque art now serving as a museum, contained six newly discovered sarcophagi which could have easily come out of Egyptian tombs.
Olive fields accentuated with prosperous-looking villages surrounded us as we continued to the mountain town of Safita, less than an hour's drive from Tartous. A community with tiled roofs, flowering trees and olive groves, Safita was built on the site of a Crusader castle called the White Fort.
We climbed the White Fort's remaining burj (tower), from which we could survey the countryside for a great distance. This visibility proved useful for the Crusaders who were constantly under attack. In times of danger, smoke signals were relayed between Saladin's Castle, Marqab, Safita and Krak des Chevaliers, our next stop.
Perhaps the most famous medieval citadel in the world, the Krak des Chevaliers (Fortress of the Knights) towered in the distance as we drove the 40 miles from Tartous. Our spirits were high in anticipation of exploring this masterpiece of 12th-century military architecture.
Remarkably well preserved, the castle stands 2,132 feet above sea level and has 13 huge towers. It was built to control the "Homs Gap," the only passage between Syria's coastal plains and the hinterland. Within its fortifications, it could hold up to 4,000 soldiers and 300 knights with their horses, equipment and provisions for up to five years. After withstanding a century of sieges, it fell to the Mameluk Sultan Baybars in 1271, lost through a military ruse.
Walking through the entrance locals call the "Door of Richard the Lion-Hearted," we examined the castle's barbicans, casements, towers and bastions -- a fantastic collection of defensive devices. After wandering through the many rooms, we had a meal in a chamber once occupied by Richard the Lion-Hearted's daughter, according to our waiter.
As we dined on succulent kebabs, we had a fantastic view of the rich fig and olive orchards in the valley. The view stirred reflections about the mighty fortifications and the Crusaders 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.
(Additional research done by Mary Dell Lucas)
Travel Tips: The best way to explore the Crusader castles is by having a tour operator arrange travel by chauffeured car with an English-speaking driver. Cost for a car and driver in Damascus is $100. Outside of Damascus --$150 a day, which includes the driver's accommodation and meals.
Several tour operators can organize trips to the Crusader castles and to Syria, including:
Far Horizons Archaeological & Cultural Trips offers "The Hidden Splendors of Syria, Forgotten Land," an extensive exploration of Syria priced at $3,695 per person (double occupancy). The group is led by Dr. Phillip Stanley, a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at San Francisco State University for over 20 years. Participants visit historical sites such as the Roman-era oasis of Palmyra, the ancient city of Qanawat, and the Valley of the Tombs. Contact Far Horizons, P.O. Box 91900, Albuquerque, NM 87199-1900. Phone: (800) 552-4575; Fax: (505) 343-8076; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.farhorizon.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see Activity Index under "Cultural Expeditions--Syria."