The Inferno: Crac des Chevaliers – a Crusader castle caught in conflict zone

Hall of Knights, Crac des Chevaliers: Latin Inscription

As Dante [1265-1321] penned his Commedia and ventured into Limbo, the fictive realm of Homer, Aristotle and Saladin, the noble pagans of the first circle of the Inferno, another journey was underway. The Knights Hospitaller, the Crusader Order of St John of Jerusalem, abandoned their seat in Cyprus and set sail for Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean waters of the Carpathian Sea. The year was 1208.

It had been a long journey, two years in the planning, and one which had driven the Hospitallers further from their once-held establishment of Jerusalem. Decades before the Council of Clermont and the reputed “Deus Vult”, “God wills it” of Pope Urban II, the catch phrase that would spearhead the first of many penitential wars and pilgrimages we term Crusades (1095), a collective of merchants from the Marine Republic of Amalfi set about founding a church, convent and hospital to care for Jerusalem‘s pilgrims and the sick.

In the following decades, and after Urban II’s battle cry, the Amalfian hospital would be tended to by a new monastic order associated with the patron Saint John the Baptist. In origin the Order of St John of Jerusalem was a spiritual community bound by the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Yet in the mid 1130’s the brethren would take a fourth vow: a call to arms to defend the Holy Land and evolve into a military order.

The concept of a warrior-monk, a novel fusion of military and monastic ideals, would define the Knights Hospitaller and their Templar rivals who were similarly tasked with the defence of Jerusalem. This fusion stemmed from De Laude Novae Militae, the preaching of the canonised Bernard of Clairvaux [1090 – 1153]. At its simplest it was a scholarly justification: a call to arms. It was to define the Cistercian monk and papal advocate who would ultimately shape the course of mediaeval history. Later Bernard too would explore unknown territory; not as his followers, the Hospitallers or the Templars did as they traipsed across Jerusalem, but rather as the immortalised guide to Dante through Paradiso, the conclusion to the poet’s epic voyage.

Within a few decades of their establishment both the Templar and Hospitaller Order would become immensely powerful. Via a series of papal bulls, the Orders gained their independence from the yoke of the local churches and soon amassed extreme wealth. By 1180 the Hospitallers had received (through endowment and donations) 18,000 manor houses in Europe. Overseas in Outremer (lit. Beyond the Sea), a designate for the 4 Crusader States of the Levant, the Hospitallers’ fortunes fared no worse. Not only were they among the chief landowners in their Levantine outposts but they were also the beneficiaries of two dozen or more strategically-placed castles to include Crac des Chevaliers (Qal’at al Hosn), Saône (Sayhun or Qal’at Salah el Din) and Margat.

te_lawrence_--Qal'at Sayhun (Saone, Saladin)
T.E Lawrence’s sketch of Qal’at Salah el Din (Sayhun, Saone) 1909

Yet despite such riches neither the Hospitallers nor the Crusaders could escape the fate that would befall in the guise of Yusuf ibn Ayyubid, otherwise known as Salah el Din (Saladin): Rectifier of the Faith. In under a century the Crusaders had rescued the Constantinople of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus [1056- 1118], from Muslim aggression. The Crusaders had marched on the Holy Land, which they conquered and governed, all the while the Islamic world lay fragmented between the Seljuk Caliphate in Baghdad, the rival Fatimids of Cairo and the Syrian warlord, Nur Al-Din. Come 4 July 1187 all was to change.

By virtue of a series of opportune deaths, Saladin would found the Ayyubid dynasty and drive a stake through the heart of Christian domination in the Levant. If Christian interference in Holy Land was a consequence of Muslim aggression, Christianity’s ultimate demise was the result of its own belligerence and that of its adherent, Reginald of Chatillon, (Prince of Kerak, Jordan). In 1186 Reginald saw fit to defy the truce of 1180 and attack a large Muslim caravan. Saladin’s responded and the redress was Jihad. On 4th July 1187 Christians and Muslims confronted each other at the battle of Hattin. Saladin’s troops were victorious. Two months later on 2 October 1187 Jerusalem fell as a matter of course.

Crac south profile-Dirk_Osseman
Crac des Chevaliers, south profile. Courtesy of Dirk Osseman

Crac des Chevaliers and the Basalt fortress of Marqat may have dissuaded Saladin’s sword, after Hattin, but the die had nonetheless been cast. With Jerusalem in Muslim hands St. Jean d’Acre (Akko) became the administrative capital of a vastly reduced Kingdom of Jerusalem [see map]. The Crusaders were now confined to a slender coastal strip; itself a protection afforded by a carefully construed truce with Saladin.

Map of Four Crusader Kingdoms

Close to a hundred years later that truce was in tatters. The Mameluk Sultan Baybars (d. 1277), a trickster par excellence, took many Frankish possessions to include Antioch [1268] and Crac des Chevaliers [1271]. Subsequent Mameluk rulers built upon these triumphs. Margat was seized in 1285 and Tripoli 4 years later in 1289. Sultan al Ashraf (d 1293) conquered the remaining Crusader strongholds and sacked Acre (Akko) on 18 May 1291. The Hospitallers fled to Cyprus, where this tale begins; and although the Crusader Kings of Cyprus dreamed of reclaiming Jerusalem, in practice these were mere pipe dreams as the focus was now on other crusades: campaigns in Iberia, the Baltic and Southern France, to name just a few.

Fast forward 900 years and the Order lives on. In Malta, Hungary and Western Europe the white cross emblazoned on black endures, albeit far removed from its mediaeval past. In the Crusader Kingdoms of yesteryear the Order’s military legacy reveals itself in the monumental castles which still enthral. For the pioneering travel writer H. V. Morton [1892-1979] the Hospitaller Crac des Chevaliers was “the castle of every fairy tale.” For the young T. E. Lawrence, the latter day “Lawrence of Arabia”, a no less sombre response ensued. Saone (Sahyun, Qal’at Salah el Din) may have been “the finest example of military architecture in Syria” but Crac des Chevaliers was altogether different story, one which held pride of place in the Oxford undergraduates’ thesis, “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the XIIth Century”. Crac des Chevaliers was “a finished example of the style of the [Hospitaller] Order and perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.” It “form[ed] a fitting commentary on any account of Crusader building in Syria”; and it is here where I take my lead.

Crac des Chevaliers, to give it its 19th Century name, began as a Kurdish fortress. In 1031 CE the Emir of Homs built Hosn al-Akrad, Fortress of the Kurds, upon a 650 metre elevation over-looking the Homs Gap and the fertile al-Bouqaia plain. For millennia control of the Homs Gap was paramount. From Antioch in the north to Beirut in the south there was but one break in the 250 kilometre Jebel Ansarieh-Lebanon mountain range that would permit year-round passage. Control of the Gap was de facto, control of Syria. It was the gateway from the Mediterranean to the hinterland and beyond. The ancient Mittani, the Hittites and the New Kingdom Egyptians had fought for its dominance. The Kurds, Arabs, Ismalis and Franks (Crusaders) equally sought hegemony over the pass and marked this landscape with their respective fortifications.

By the time of the first Crusade in 1095 (1097) Hosn al-Akrad had been abandoned; but as tales of the Crusader massacre at Marrat al-Numan emerged, the local population sought refuge within the stronghold. Two years later Count Raymond IV of Toulouse (Raymond St. Gilles) [1041-1105] besieged the castle for its provisions but did not establish a presence. With the site free from European occupants the stronghold was re-settled by the Emir’s followers until Tancred, Regent of Antioch [1075-1112] placed Hosn al-Akrad under the watchful eye of the Count of Tripoli in 1110 CE. 34 years later in 1142 Raymond II ceded control of the castle to the Hospitaller order. It would be under the Hospitaller’s custodianship that Crac de l’hopital, as it was known to the 12th Century Crusaders, would undergo its most extensive architectural programme in its near 1000 year existence.

Crac -plan
Plan of Crac des Chevaliers

In practice the Hospitaller’s legacy was the result of two phases of construction. The first phase was from [1142-1170] and the second phase during the fortress’ halcyon day of the early 13th Century when it served as an administrative headquarter for the Order and could accommodate 2000 men. It was during this latter period, after the devastating earthquake of 1170 CE, when Crac des Chevaliers evolved into the legendary war-machine of mediaeval chroniclers.

The castle’s design reflected the dangers faced by the Hospitallers and the on-going advances in siege warfare, notably the mobile firing platforms or trebuchet (manjariq in Arabic), by their Muslim combatants. Today these developments reveal themselves in two distinct, though complimentary, defensive units: an inner ward and outer perimeter. A “castrum within a castrum”, as Denys Pringle, Professor in Archaeology at Cardiff University and Cardiff Centre for the Crusades, has so termed it.

In and amongst these limestone blocks, whose provenance can be traced to the quarry of Magharet al Dara’a two kilometres from the fortress, is a history of pragmatism, invention and lessons learnt. Contrary to the once-held belief, also maintained by T. E. Lawrence, Crusader architects were not solely dependent upon Western knowledge. They did incorporate Byzantine and Muslim techniques into their structures. The end result was an extraordinary synthesis of mediaeval workmanship and adaptation to local terrain.

The first phase of Crusader construction was restricted to the present inner ward and consisted of a classic tower keep (or donjon) as the main defensive body. By the early 13th Century a concentric arrangement now replaced the traditional plan as two rings, an inner and an outer wall, now encircled the Grand Master’s Tower and the other rectangular buildings. The outer wall, significantly lower than the inner wall but standing at 9 metres high and 3 metres thick, could boast 13 towers punctuated 150 metres apart, as a measure of its defence. Box machicolations*, arrow slits and a connecting chemin du ronde walkway for the bows men, completed the picture.

Concurrent with this re-design was an alteration to the main entrance, now located in the North East. At its widest it could accommodate two horsemen riding abreast but it veered sharply, as in the bent entrances of Byzantine fortifications, to deter access. Any would-be assailant would have to brave the vaulted corridors with hairpin bends, “murder holes” designed for pouring boiling pitch upon trespassers, siege gangways and portcullis. All the while the inhabitants could rely upon underground passage ways and hidden retreats.

Between the walls were further impediments and life-saving adaptations. An artificial ditch, a moat and a reservoir with aqueduct were embedded within the SW corner of the complex. Equally a 30 metre wide talus or glacis (escarpment), from which huge round towers emerged (and blended with fine stereotomy**), was also constructed with a dual aim: to prevent undermining and to provide structural reinforcement in the wake of frequent earth tremors.        

KrakdeChevalierGlacis (2)
Crac des Chevaliers: Glacis and Mote. (Author’s photograph)

In 1271 Crac des Chevaliers, long perceived as invincible, fell to the Mameluk Sultan Baybars. Although the three Arabic accounts of the sack of the citadel differ on dates and events, and are similarly hard to reconcile, it generally accepted that Baybars’ success was more on account of subterfuge than military might. After a sustained attack on the fortress, one which would last for 36 days, the outer walls in the South West corner were breached but the inner complex remained unaffected. Through trickery Baybars persuaded the Hospitallers to surrender on the basis of forged letter from the Grand Master in Tripoli. It ordered the Hospitallers to accede. Safe passage was afforded to the remaining few hundred inhabitants as they made their way to Tripoli for the last time.

Under the Mameluks Crac des Chevaliers was re-modelled. Much of the workmanship was in the southern enceinte and square tower where Baybar’s insignia, the panther, left its mark. The chapel, once fresco-laden, was converted into a mosque with mihrab. (A second mihrab was added in the 20th Century). Baths and defensive circular towers with innovative flat vaults were also added as part of the fourth and final phase of construction.

600 years after Baybars Crac des Chevaliers captured the imagination of the West with the publication in 1871 of “Etudes sur les monuments de l’architecture militaire des Croisés et dans l’île de Chypre” by Emmanuel Guillaume Rey (1837-1916): the first scientific study of Crusader castles. Interest in the Crusades was seen as both the patrimoine francais, given the fact that many of the Crusaders were French, and a burgeoning fascination with the Levant. Lawrence’s dissertation (mentioned above) was heavily dependent upon Rey’s plans, however inaccurate they proved to be. Come 1927, shortly after the establishment of the French Mandate in Syria, Paul Deschamp (1888-1974), together with Francois Anus and Frederic Lamblin produced one of the most enduring surveys of Crac des Chevaliers. Their labours resulted in the 1934 publication of “Les Chateaux des Croisés en Terre Sainte 1: le Crac des Chevaliers”, a year after the castle fell under French control.

Concurrent with Deschamp’s work was the evacuation of several hundred residents from within the castle. Whether these locals were the same individuals who “withstood a siege on the part of a neighbouring district with complete success”, as Lawrence writes, or “the governor of the province…his harem and divan” (or their descendants), remains unknown. Irrespective, their presence may account for the second mihrab in the converted mosque which was omitted from Duschamp’s plan.

In 1949 the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) resumed responsibility for Crac des Chevalier and in 1950 commenced a program of repair and maintenance. Today it is part of Homs province and the regional DGAM. The castle was inscribed, together with Qal’at Salah El-Din (Saône), in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006 under criteria (ii) and (iv) respectively: “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design” and “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war the town of Al Hosn, which lies to the west of Homs province, has endured an 18 month blockade. Movement has been restricted in and out of the town. It is surrounded by 73 pro-regime villages although the town itself has been in rebel hands since the uprising. Many residents have been displaced and have sought refuge in Lattakia or on the coast. The town is a poor farming community. Yet its location at one of the highest altitudes in the Homs Gap makes it sought after by rebel and regime command alike. The Gap is not only the thoroughfare through which Hizbullah fought alongside the regime at the battle of Qusayr, but it is also the route for the oil and gas pipeline from Iraq. It is highly strategic.

The castle has been targeted by the regime on at least seven occasions. It has rightly been placed on the World Heritage’s Danger List. The video footage indicates damage to the southern wall. A vault of the South-Eastern highest tower has collapsed and the main tower of the Grand Master has sustained some damage to its masonry and battlements.

Crac Glacis-damage
Recent Damage to Glacis

In 2012 the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums stated that the castle had been looted by armed gunmen. However, as the site is first and foremost architectural with no finds on display, the statement should be read with caution. Equally the headline-grabbing claim of damage to the castle’s mosque (former chapel), which formed part of the DGAM’s annual report to the World Heritage Committee and was similarly cited by Patrimoine Syrien and Robert Fisk “Syria’s ancient treasures pulverised” The Independent, (5 August 2012) , needs verification. None of the video footage indicates damage to the mosque within the castle; and there has been no opportunity for the DGAM to ascertain the extent of the damage at this time, the castle remaining inaccessible for nearly three years. (There is however footage of damage to a mosque within the town of al Hosn yet the report specifically cites the mosque at the heart of the castle complex).

The Crusader Chapel, later Mosque with Minbar on right (photo: Dirk Osseman)

As of last Thursday (20 March 2014) regime forces occupied the castle and ousted rebel opposition. Whether this is a turning point, one which may lead out of the inferno or a vehicle for further surveillance and bombardment of other low-lying regions, remains to be seen. Crac des Chevaliers, the most strategic war machine of old, has still not lost its might.



The piece above was commenced well before the recent events of Thursday 20 March 2014. Much of the information regarding the damage had been reported to ICOMOS. Extensive discussion of the most recent damage can be found in an Agence France Presse article 23 March 2014 entitled al-Hosn, Syria’s Krak des Chevaliers Crusader fortress charred and battered in war, in the South China Post (in English). The BBC’s article Syria Krac des Chevaliers has war scars includes before and after photographs of the damage to the inner cloister (or loggia)  renown for its fine masonry and carvings.

Machicolations *an opening in the gallery floor through which stones or boiling oil could be dropped on would be assailants

Stereotomy ** the art or science of cutting stones into certain shapes or sections

The author would like to thank Professor Benjamin Kedar, Dirk Osseman and Dr. Emma Cunliffe for their assistance and photographs.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. @blitz_adam on Twitter

About the Author
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He is a member of PEN International. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. Twitter @blitz_adam
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