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The Krak des Chevaliers: Can this Crusader Fortress Survive the Current Syrian Conflict?

The Krak des Chevaliers: Can this Crusader Fortress Survive the Current Syrian Conflict?

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The Krak des Chevaliers, located in modern day Syria, is one of the best-preserved examples of European medieval military architecture done in the Gothic style. It is a massive fortress that was built during the first Crusades. The Krak was constructed on a strategic defensive position on top of a hill known as Jebel Kalakh, in the middle of the Syrian desert on the route leading to Antioch, Beirut, and the Mediterranean. It guarded what was the only major pass between Antioch in Turkey and Beirut in Lebanon. Perhaps the Krak is better known today from its description by T.E. Lawrence in 'Lawrence of Arabia".

The Krak des Chevaliers and surrounding landscape.

The Krak des Chevaliers and surrounding landscape. ( CC BY 2.0 )

A Short History

Built by the Emir of Aleppo in 1031, the fortress was large enough to accommodate a military troop of 2000 soldiers, the stables could keep up to 1000 horses, and the inner protective wall is over 3 meters (9.85 ft.) thick. The Krak was built to be a massive, long lasting, defensive fortress. Inside the castle, an elegant Crusader cloister has an inscription carved in Latin saying "Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest."

The Latin inscription.

The Latin inscription. (Michel Benoist/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Krak des Chevaliers resisted many attacks from Muslim forces, including a siege by Saladin, who lead the Muslims against the Crusaders in 1188. It was captured by Raymond IV of Toulouse during the First Crusade in 1099. But the Krak was abandoned when the Crusaders continued their journey to Jerusalem. During the Crusades, the fortress was known to be the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller.

Tancred, Prince of Galilee, occupied the fortress in 1110. He was one of the four major seigneuries of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In Christopher Deeks' words, "the Hospitallers were a religious and military order that had its own charter in which they were in charge of caring for as well as defending the Holy Land. After Prince of Galilee, in 1142, the fortress was handed over to the Hospitallers by the Count of Tripoli who once used the castle to defend borders. The castle then came to be known as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller. After renovations, it eventually became one of the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land".

After rebuilding and strengthening the fortress, it was a massive citadel which would eventually become known as the Krak des Chevaliers, or the Knight's Fortress. From that point onward the Krak served as the Hospitallers’ headquarters, and was often home to the order’s headmaster.

Grand master and senior Knights Hospitaller.

Grand master and senior Knights Hospitaller. ( Public Domain )

Amazing Art

Because the siege that finally took the castle left it relatively undamaged, the Krak des Chevaliers preserved some of the most important Christian artwork and artifacts from the Crusader period in the Middle East. Its inventory includes a mosaic depicting versions of Paradise with beautiful buildings surrounded by trees and gardens. This mosaic has been repaired by Syrian authorities after damage caused by the country's internal wars. However, many frescoes have been lost due to deterioration.

(Top) Chapel (CC BY SA 3.0) and (Bottom) frescos in the Krak des Chevaliers Chapel, Syria. (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY SA 3.0)

(Top) Chapel ( CC BY SA 3.0 ) and (Bottom) frescos in the Krak des Chevaliers Chapel, Syria. (Bernard Gagnon/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Fortress’ Fall and Future

"After its fall, the Krak des Chevaliers was turned against the surviving pockets of Crusaders in the Holy Land.  Afterwards the mighty fortress passed through a succession of Egyptian and Turkish rulers, ultimately coming under the dominion of the Ottomans, but was not again a major factor in the wars of the Levant. It is for this reason and others that the castle remains in such excellent condition today", as Howard Kramer has stated.

The Krak is one of six Syrian sites on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in danger.  "Few countries can match Syria in the richness of its historical remains; there is practically no era not represented," writes Ross Burns, an Australian authority on Syria's archaeology.

However, recent attacks in Syria mean that many of their world heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed. This is a loss beyond measurement as they will never be able to be studied again, and most of them are beyond repair.

Smoke coming from the castle in 2013.

Smoke coming from the castle in 2013. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: Crac des Chevaliers, Syria. Source: Public Domain

By Marina Sohma

References:

Christopher Deeks, 'Krak des Chevaliers'  http://staff.kings.edu/bapavlac/knightsandcastles/krak.html

UNESCO, 'Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din' http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1229

Howard Kramer, 'KRAK DES CHEVALIERS' (2014) http://thecompletepilgrim.com/krak-des-chevaliers/

Jean Shaoul, 'Reports reveal scale of destruction of Syria’s world historic heritage' (2014) https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/12/29/syri-d29.html

Diana Darke, 'How Syria's ancient treasures are being smashed' (2014) http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191181

Chris Ray, 'Last stand at Syria's Krak des Chevaliers' (2015) http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/last-stand-at-syrias-krak-des-chevaliers-20150828-gjadi5.html

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