When I was a child, the name Crac des Chevaliers conjured up an image of knights and chivalry that embodied the little figures of men in chainmail with white tunics that I had at the time. As I got older, I learned more about the remarkably more complex world of the Crusades, and how the European knights at the time were far from as good and wholesome as the image that may have been portrayed to a seven year old me, and I also learned about the brave and canny actions of Salah Ad Din Yusuf bin Ayyub , who had been limited to only a passing role as “Saladin” in the tales of my youth. However, Crac fell into my mind as one of those places in the world that I had to see, although I often thought that given its location – between Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest settlements in the world, in rural Syria, that it would be unlikely that I would get a chance to see this. Luckily, I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in Syria, including seeing this wonderful place.
The castle, also known as Krak des Chevaliers or Hisn al Akrad (the Castle of the Kurds) is in Western Syria, not too far from the Lebanese border. The area was settled by Kurds in 1030, when the first fort was built. In 1099, Raymond IV of Toulouse took control. The Knights Hospitaller took possession of it in 1142, and it finally fell in 1271. At its peak, it housed 2000, and as recently as the beginning of the twentieth century, there were still about 500 people living in it. It ceased to be home to them in 1933, and restoration on the castle began. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006.
The castle is entered through a great gate and portcullis that is the stuff of legend, and looks just like a child’s drawing of a castle entry might. There are inscriptions in Arabic as you enter the castle, as this is, of course, in Syria.
The entrance had been fortified over the years, as has the rest of the castle, and built up and improved, with the passage into the castle including a series of murder holes in the ceiling.
The castle is wonderfully preserved on the inside, giving at least an idea of what this fortress must have been like in its prime.
The passages and tunnels through the castle are generally in good shape, and there is access available to most of the building.
The inner ward is recognisable, and provides access to the core of the castle.
Equally so, the outer ward, complete with arrow slits and defensive positions, is in place, and walking around the walls not only gives a great view of the fort, but a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside, showing why this hill was chosen for such a fort, in a commanding position elevated from most of the local area. I could almost hear the sounds of the twelfth century, and see into history in my mind’s eye.
The view from the outer ward includes the water channel that was used for the fort.
The frescoes inside the castle had been damaged over the years, but remarkably, given that it had been used for residential living until the early twentieth century, some parts are still visible.
You will notice from the pictures that there are very few tourists to be seen. Even before Syria’s current conflict, there were few tourists to be seen in the great destinations in the country like this and like Palmyra, and some of the truly wonderful but less well known other locations in the country were completely devoid of tourists. We walked through one ancient castle, not far from the Euphrates, near the Iraqi border, with no one to be seen. We eventually heard some noise and went to investigate, only to find a goat herder passing by, looking as curiously at the two of us standing in the ruins in the desert as we were looking at him.
There are many wonderful sights to be seen in Syria, and for those who like these sorts of buildings, then others like the citadel in Aleppo itself are a wonder to behold.
Of course, our thoughts and concerns must be with the people of Syria who are living through terrible times at present that I could not begin to imagine, but I do also hope that much of their rich history escapes the conflict.