Krak des Chevaliers

Mark des Chevaliers from the SouthWest.
Mark des Chevaliers from the SouthWest.

Also known as Crac des Chevaliers, is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by a settlement of Kurds; as a result it was known as Hisn al Akrad, meaning the “Castle of the Kurds”.

In 1142 it was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, (born in about 1115 he was the son of Pons of Tripoli and Cecile of France a daughter of King Philip I of France), tothe Knights Hospitaller. It remained in their possession until it fell in 1271. It became known as Crac de l’Ospital; the name Krak des Chevaliers was coined in the 19th century.

Seal of Raymond of Tripoli.
Seal of Raymond of Tripoli.

The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170 when an earthquake damaged the castle. The order controlled a number of castles along the border of the County of Tripoli, a state founded after the First Crusade. Krak des Chevaliers was amongst the most important and acted as a centre of administration as well as a military base. After a second phase of building was undertaken in the 13th century, Krak des Chevaliers became a concentric castle. This phase created the outer wall and gave the castle its current appearance. The first half of the century has been described as Krak des Chevaliers’ “golden age”. At its peak, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000. Such a large garrison allowed the Hospitallers to extract tribute from a wide area. From the 1250s the fortunes of the Knights Hospitaller took a turn for the worse and in 1271 Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured Krak des Chevaliers after a siege lasting 36 days, supposedly by way of a forged letter purportedly from the Hospitallers’ Grand Master that caused the Knights to surrender.

The castle sits atop a 650-metre-high (2,130 ft) hill east of TartusSyria, in the Homs Gap.On the other side of the gap, 27 kilometres (17 mi) away, was the 12th-century Gibelacar Castle.The route through the strategically important Homs Gap connects the cities of Tripoli and Homs. To the north of the castle lies the Jebel Ansariyah, and to the south Lebanon. The surrounding area is fertile, benefiting from streams and abundant rainfall. Compared to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the other Crusader states had less land suitable for farming; however, the limestone peaks of Tripoli were well-suited to defensive sites.

The area between the inner and outer walls is narrow and was not used for accommodation.
The area between the inner and outer walls is narrow and was not used for accommodation.

After acquiring the site in 1142, they began building a new castle to replace the former Kurdish fortification. This work lasted until 1170, when an earthquake damaged the castle. An Arab source mentions that the quake destroyed the castle’s chapel, which was replaced by the present chapel. In 1163 the Crusaders emerged victorious over Nur ad-Din in the Battle of al-Buqaia near Krak des Chevaliers.

Drought conditions between 1175 and 1180 prompted the Crusaders to sign a two-year truce with the Muslims, but without Tripoli included in the terms. During the 1180s raids by Christians and Muslims into each other’s territory became more frequent.In 1180, Saladin ventured into the County of Tripoli, ravaging the area. Unwilling to meet him in open battle, the Crusaders retreated to the relative safety of their fortifications. Without capturing the castles, Saladin could not secure control of the area, and once he retreated the Hospitallers were able to revitalise their damaged lands. The Battle of Hattin in 1187 was a disastrous defeat for the Crusaders:Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, was captured, as was the True Cross, a relic discovered during the First Crusade. Afterwards Saladin ordered the execution of the captured Templar and Hospitaller knights, such was the importance of the two orders in defending the Crusader states.After the battle, the Hospitaller castles of Belmont, Belvoir, and Bethgibelin fell to Muslim armies. Following these losses, the Order focused its attention on its castles in Tripoli.[ In May 1188 Saladin led an army to attack Krak des Chevaliers, but on seeing the castle decided it was too well defended and instead marched on the Hospitaller castle of Margat, which he also failed to capture.

The east end of the castle's barrel-vaulted chapel
The east end of the castle’s barrel-vaulted chapel
The west end of the chapel
The west end of the chapel

Another earthquake struck in 1202, and it may have been after this event that the castle was remodelled. The 13th-century work was the last period of building at Krak des Chevaliers and gave it its current appearance. An enclosing stone circuit was built between 1142 and 1170; the earlier structure became the castle’s inner court or ward. If there was a circuit of walls surrounding the inner court that pre-dated the current outer walls, no trace of it has been discovered.

The south face of the inner ward with its steep glacis
The south face of the inner ward with its steep glacis

The first half of the 13th century has been characterised as Krak des Chevaliers’ “golden age”. While other Crusader strongholds came under threat, Krak des Chevaliers and its garrison of 2,000 soldiers dominated the surrounding area. It was effectively the centre of a principality which remained in Crusader hands until 1271 and was the only major inland area to remain constantly under Crusader control during this period. Crusaders who passed through the area would often stop at the castle, and probably made donations. King Andrew II of Hungary visited in 1218 and proclaimed the castle the “key of the Christian lands”. He was so impressed with the castle that he gave a yearly income of 60 marks to the Master and 40 to the brothers. Geoffroy de Joinville, uncle of the noted chronicler of the Crusades Jean de Joinville, died at Krak des Chevaliers in 1203 or 1204 and was buried in the castle’s chapel.

The inner court seen from the south
The inner court seen from the south
Hall of the knights
Hall of the knights

The main contemporary accounts relating to Krak des Chevaliers are of Muslim origin and tend to emphasise Muslim success whilst overlooking setbacks against the Crusaders although they suggest that the Knights Hospitaller forced the settlements of Hama and Homs to pay tribute to the Order. This situation lasted as long as Saladin’s successors warred between themselves. The proximity of Krak des Chevaliers to Muslim territories allowed it to take on an offensive role, acting as a base from which neighbouring areas could be attacked. By 1203 the garrison were making raids on Montferrand (which was under Muslim control) and Hama, and in 1207 and 1208 the castle’s soldiers took part in an attack on Homs. Krak des Chevaliers acted as a base for expeditions to Hama in 1230 and 1233 after the amir refused to pay tribute. The former was unsuccessful, but the 1233 expedition was a show of force that demonstrated the importance of Krak des Chevaliers.

In the 1250s, the fortunes of the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers took a turn for the worse. A Muslim army estimated to number 10,000 men ravaged the countryside around the castle in 1252 after which the Order’s finances declined sharply. In 1268 Master Hugh Revel complained that the area, previously home to around 10,000 people, now stood deserted and that the Order’s property in the Kingdom of Jerusalem produced little income. He also noted that by this point there were only 300 of the Order’s brethren left in the east. On the Muslim side, in 1260 Baibars, became Sultan of Egypt following his overthrow of the incumbent ruler Qutuz, and went on to unite Egypt and Syria. As a result, Muslim settlements that had previously paid tribute to the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers no longer felt intimidated into doing so.

The west end of the chapel
The west end of the chapel

Baibars ventured into the area around Krak des Chevaliers in 1270 and allowed his men to graze their animals on the fields around the castle. When he received news that year of the Eighth Crusade led by King Louis IX of France, Baibars left for Cairo to avoid a confrontation. After Louis died in 1271 Baibars returned to deal with Krak des Chevaliers. Before he marched on the castle the Sultan captured the smaller castles in the area, including Chastel Blanc. On 3 March, Baibars’ army arrived at Krak des Chevaliers. By the time the Sultan appeared on the scene, the castle may already have been blockaded by Mamluk forces for several days. Of the three Arabic accounts of the siege only one was contemporary, that of Ibn Shaddad, although he was not present at the siege. Peasants who lived in the area had fled to the castle for safety and were kept in the outer ward. As soon as Baibars arrived he erected mangonels, powerful siege weapons which he would later turn on the castle. In a probable reference to a walled suburb outside the castle’s entrance, Ibn Shaddad records that two days later the first line of defences fell to the besiegers.

Sit tibi copia, sit sapientia, formaque detur ; Inquinat omnia sola superbia, si comitetur. Translation: Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy, but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest.
Sit tibi copia, sit sapientia, formaque detur ; Inquinat omnia sola superbia, si comitetur.
Translation:
Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy, but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest.

Rain interrupted the siege, but on 21 March, immediately south of Krak des Chevaliers, Baibar’s forces captured a triangular outwork possibly defended by a timber palisade. On 29 March, the attackers undermined a tower in the southwest corner causing it to collapse whereupon Baibars’ army attacked through the breach. In the outer ward they encountered the peasants who had sought refuge in the castle. Though the outer ward had fallen, with a handful of the garrison killed in the process, the Crusaders retreated to the more formidable inner ward. After a lull of ten days, the besiegers conveyed a letter to the garrison, supposedly from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli, which granted permission for them to surrender. Although the letter was a forgery, the garrison capitulated and the Sultan spared their lives.The new owners of the castle undertook repairs, focused mainly on the outer ward.The Hospitaller chapel was converted to a mosque and two mihrabs were added to the interior.

Remains of medieval frescoes in the castle's chapel
Remains of medieval frescoes in the castle’s chapel

After the Franks were driven from the Holy Land in 1291, European familiarity with the castles of the Crusades declined. It was not until the 19th century that interest in these buildings was renewed, so there are no detailed plans from before 1837. Guillaume Rey was the first European researcher to scientifically study Crusader castles in the Holy Land. In 1871 he published the work Etudes sur les monuments de l’architecture militaire des Croisés en Syrie et dans l’ile de Chypre; it included plans and drawings of the major Crusader castles in Syria, including Krak des Chevaliers. In some instances his drawings were inaccurate, however for Krak des Chavaliers they record features which have since been lost.

Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers
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