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Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Finest Crusader Castle - Crac de Chevaliers

Crac (also Krak) de Chevaliers is arguably the most famous and most iconic of all remaining crusader castles. It is a World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive medieval castles still visible today, despite recent damage in the Syrian civil war. It seemed the fitting end to my short series on crusader castles.

Crac de Chevaliers is located in what is now Syria near the Lebanese border. It sits at an elevation of 650 meters or 2,100 feet, atop a hill in the so-called “Homs Gap.” The latter is the most accessible route between the crusader city of Tripoli and the then important Muslim city of Homs, just 54 miles away. It dominates a fertile valley with abundant rainfall (for the region), which gave it double importance as a bulwark against invasion and a defensive structure to protect the local farmers.

The first fortification on this site was constructed in 1131 by the Kurdish Emir of Homs as a defense against the Shiite Fatimids. It was known as Hosn al-Akrad, the Castle of the Kurds. During the first crusade, Raymond of Toulouse’s foragers came under attack from the garrison of fortress. The next day Raymond’s main force drove the attacks off and briefly occupied the castle itself before continuing south toward Jerusalem.

The crusaders did not attempt to establish their own fortification here until 1110, when Tancred, Prince of Galilee, took control of the site. Although we know a castle of some sort was constructed at this time, nothing remains of it. The castle passed at from Tancred to the Count of Tripoli at an unrecorded date.

 Copyright Stephan Reinsch

In 1144, the Count of Tripoli, recognizing his vulnerability to Saracen attack and the limits of his own purse, made the strategic decision to what we would now call “out-source” a large part of the defense of his county to the Knights Hospitallers. He transferred to them four castles on the borders of his county, Felicium, Castellum Boschee, Lacum, and Crac de Chevaliers. The Hospitallers were in a far better position to construct, maintain and man these castles because they could draw on immense resources donated to them from across Christendom as opposed to being dependent on the revenues of a single, vulnerable county in the Holy Land.

The Hospitallers made Crac de Chevaliers their principal base for the defense of the north of the crusader states, and construction began at once on a much more extensive castle. Unfortunately, serious earthquakes in 1157 and again in 1170 badly damaged these early structures. Nevertheless, they were each time able to rebuild successfully. By 1187, when disaster struck at the Battle of Hattin, the Hospitallers had a castle so strong that Salah ad-Din by-passed it altogether, making no attempt to even besiege it. Yet this castle was not yet the castle as we see it today.

 Copyright Stephan Reinsch

The Hospitallers continued to expand Crac de Chevalier’s defenses and its interior throughout the 13th century. At its height it a garrison of 2,000 men including 60 knights, and one of the towers was designed as the residence of the Hospitaller Master. It had an aqueduct filled reservoir. Particularly impressive are the chapel and the Hall of the Knights. Both are beautiful examples of crusader architecture. In addition, fragments of wall paintings highlight the degree to which its interior was decorated and the high quality of the workmanship.

Copyright: Stephan Reinsch                                                     Copyright: CC BY-SA 3.0

 Hall of the Knights. Copyright: CC by 3.0 DE

Yet it was less the beautiful finishing of the interior than the power of the defenses and harmonious and effective layout of the castle that has impressed tourists, archaeologists and historians alike. Even Thomas Edward Lawrence (more famous as “Lawrence of Arabia”) who was highly critical of crusader castles generally loved Crac de Chevaliers. He claimed it was the “most wholly admirable castle in the world.”[i] Hugh Nigel Kennedy, the modern British medieval historian, concluded that Crac was "the most elaborate and developed anywhere in the Latin east ... the whole structure is a brilliantly designed and superbly built fighting machine.”[ii]

Plan of Krak des Chevaliers from Guillaume Rey Étude sur les monuments de l'architecture militaire des croisés en Syrie et dans l'île de Chypre (1871). North is on the right.

Crak represented the incorporated the very best military architecture of its day. On the one hand, it made the most use of the natural topography by being sited atop a hill. But it added man-made defenses to those given it by nature to an extraordinary extent. These included two complete and concentric walls reinforced by towers that provided overlapping fields of fire to any salient of the wall. The use of round towers is particularly noteworthy as they were a comparatively new “invention,” first employed by Richard the Lionheart in his innovative castle Chateau Galliard, which was built between 1196 and 1198. The entire castle was surrounded by a moat up to 27 meters wide.

The outer wall was 16 meters high and 6.5 meters thick. There were two firing levels inside the wall as well as on the top, giving a total of three levels from which defenders could hurl missiles at attackers.  The outer wall was situated somewhat higher up the hill and was over 30 meters high and 12 meters thick. Defenders on this wall could shoot over their own colleagues to reach the enemy. The distance between the two walls was furthermore small enough so that should any enemy manage to breach the outer wall, they would come under fire from remaining defenders on both the inner and outer walls simultaneously. Interior walkways enabled the reinforcement of any sector under attack.

After the failure of Louis IX’s ill-fated Seventh Crusade and the rise of the Mamlukes, the situation around Crac began to deteriorate. The resurgent Saracens made frequent raids that caused the bulk of the peasants to abandon their land, leaving the countryside around the castle largely deserted. In 1270, the Mamluke Sultan Baybars brought a large force to reduce Crac but abandoned the siege on receiving word that King Louis IX was again on his way to attack Egypt. However, Louis died while still in Tunis, and in March 1271 Baybars returned. The Hospitallers had too few defenders for the dimensions of their great castle. The siege began March 3 and by March 29 the Mamlukes had succeeded in undermining the corner tower in the southwest and breaching the outer wall.  The garrison retreated into the inner ward and a lull of ten days followed, after which the Sultan conveyed a letter to the garrison allegedly from the Hospitaller Master authorizing the surrender of the garrison at their discretion. Understanding that no relief was on the way, the garrison negotiated a surrender of the Hospitaller’s proudest castle and abandoned it without a real fight. The letter was a forgery.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

[i] T.E. Lawrence quoted in Boas, Adrian. Crusader Archaeology. Routledge, 1999, p. 112.
[ii] Kennedy, Hugh. Crusader Castles.  Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 153

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