Three Syrian Castles; Krak de Chevalier, Qal'at Salah El-Din and Qalat' at Ja'abar

UPDATE: This post was penned in the Spring of 2011 following our visit to Syria in March. We had no idea the direction the conflict would take. When we planned our trip Syria had been undergoing an opening up to tourism. Yes, there were protests while we were there but it seemed like the beginning of an Arab Spring. We naively hoped it might be a positive transformation rather than a descent into chaos. 
The inner and outer defensive walls can be seen clearly

Visiting Krak de Chevalier is like seeing the perfect Boy's Own magazine image of a Crusader castle. We stayed at the modest Beibers Hotel and awoke to a perfect view of the castle from our room. We were close enough to stroll over to the castle after breakfast. Arriving on foot gave us an immediate sense of the scale of the building.

View from the Beibers Hotel
Walking between the inner and outer walls
We call them Crusader castles because it's the term we know, and our history is defined by our ethnocentric memory. If there was one over-riding principle that seemed to define our experience on this trip, it was that none of the historic sites we visited were purely one thing or another. The history and geographies are layered and contested throughout the region, with cities and forts sequentially built, rebuilt and adapted for changing cultural and religious requirements.
Malmuk modifications in the darker stonework
Walking on the ramparts at Krak de Chevalier

The most memorable of the forts we saw in Syria and Jordan, Krak de Chevalier is considered the quintessential architectural representation of the Crusader castle.   Built in a defensible, strategic location, it was designed to secure trade routes and house military personnel. When you are there, it's easy to imagine thousands of men and horses crowding into the cavernous halls.

Passing through different hands, stages and styles, Krak (know as Qalaat el Hosn in Arabic) was  originally built by the Emir of Aleppo but remains famous as the headquarters of the crusading Knights Hospitallers. The austere military architecture is broken by the later addition of gothic windows and vaulting in the cloister, which provides a surprising decorative element when you arrive inside.

While we walked the ramparts we could hear the call to prayer from the nearby town. However, this area - like the history, is both Christian and Muslim. One particular Christian village is a popular summer holiday resort filled with vacation rentals and another is well known for the large homes, built with remittence dollars flowing from migrants in the United States.
Gothic architectural details inside 
Unconquered by siege, the castle eventually fell into Beiber hands and the chapel was repurposed as a mosque,  modifications which can be seen today.

In visiting Krak de Chevalier and  Saladin's Castle I realized how little I knew beyond the glorifying Christian narrative of conquest.

Who were they conquering and who were the barbarians? I know I need to broaden my understanding of the area and I'm planning to read The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf.

Recommended by Abdul Ibrahim, who drove us through Syria, the book reframes the narrative and I'm looking forward to it. Abdul's a great guy and I blogged about him here or you can contact him directly.
Krak de Chevalier,  on  the top it was very windy
After visiting Krak de Chevalier we headed up to the mountains past Saladin's Castle, known as Qal'at Salah El-Din in Arabic. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (someday we must map out the ones we have visited) the fortification is fascinating because of the way in which they carved the castle out from the hillside, creating a defensive island connected by a single drawbridge over a stone needle.
As the sun set over Qal'at Salah El-Din
Saladin's  Citadel in the background, with its extensive defensive wall 
Drawbridge support, with castle on the right
Here you can see, between the left and the right, the area that was carved out to create the fortress island or hill. In the middle the  stone tower was left to support a retractable draw bridge that could be lowered up or down as needed. They carved an enormous area out of the rock face, hundreds of feet long and high, to isolate the fortress and protect it from siege. As you can see below, the road follows the carved rock face with the drawbridge support behind.

We arrived too late and nobody was home!
I can't resist describing one final castle, the ruined Mesopotamian Qalat' at Ja'abar which is worth mentioning  because its situation is so dramatic. Originally built near the bank of the Euphrates, the castle is now surrounded by the scenic backdrop of the Lake Assad reservoir. The caretaker and his family are Shia and have posters of Iranian figures, as well as Hassan Nasrallah - the Hezbollah leader, in the ticket office. After we said we had visited Iran and enjoyed our visit, he were proffered sweets with a shy smile.
The family run Hotel Beibers is modest but functional. Our room had a gorgeous view of the castle and we enjoyed a dinner of mezze and roasted chicken. They also serve wine which was much appreciated after our busy day in Lebanon. The border crossing went smoothly as Assad had just announced a 20% pay rise for civil servants, which made everyone very amenable!

Order the fresh fish at the small cafe next to Qalat' at Ja'abar. They will grill it while you wait, it's delicious.


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