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Crac Des Chevaliers

Every European child struggling to build a sandcastle on the beach tries instinctively to copy this marvelous castle, which he knows from picture in his history books. Perhaps he does not know that Crac Des Chevaliers is called Qalaat al Hosn today - but it is still the paragon of castles.

If he had the chance to see it as it really is he would find it bigger, more beautiful, more complete, than he had ever dreamed. Other castles may be more dramatically situated or their ruins may be more romantic - in Syria itself there are Marqab and the castle of Saladin, to name only the most famous - but none evokes as well as Crac those two countries of implacable warfare. Elsewhere battles may have been bloodier, sieges more dramatic; but Crac by its size, its technical perfection, the bitter struggles it witnessed, remains the symbol of an entire epoch. In its very stones it demonstrates the will of the invaders to hold on to their distant possession and also the stubbornness of the forces of Islam as they fought for their land and heritage.

Tribute must be paid to the skilled work which has gone on since 1934 to restore the castle to its former beauty and power. The visitor would get a very different impression with heaps of rubbish which used to litter stairways, courtyards and chambers. But fortunately the restoration has not been overdone. Accessible right to the most places within its three enclosures, Crac remains a vast empty tomb without even "Sound and Light" to bring it back to life.

The wind whistles through its galleries, the sun beats down on the high walls, grass grows between the stones and the damp is slowly causing the sides of the twenty-one great water tanks to flake away. But yet there are vast areas of passages, rooms and access ramps covered by vaulting that is still perfectly intact and extremely beautiful. The steep stone glacis from which the great ramparts rise will obviously see out many more centuries. The windows of the great chamber, with their simple delicate pointed arches and slender columns are almost like a smile at the very heart of this austere fortress. And if the towers have lost most of their crenellations yet it is still possible to climb to the top and take in a vast and splendid view of the green countryside around, over which so much blood was shed.

To the north of the Coastal Range are steep inaccessible cliffs on the Orontes side, and a mass of valleys and ravines running straight down to the sea.

To the south the Lebanon Range is even more impressive, with the 3,088 meters Kornet as-Saouda - its snow-covered peak glittering in the summer sunshine.

Thus between Antakia (Antioch) and Beirut, a distance of 250 kilometers, there is only one place at which the mountain barrier can be easily crossed all the year round. This is the Homs Gap, cut by a coastal river, the nahr al Kabir, in whose fertile valley lies the frontier between Syria and the Lebanon.

Its is through this passage that inland Syria communicates with the Mediterranean world. Of course such geographical accidents are not so important in an age of air transport, tunnels, diaducts and mountain motorways. However it seemed quite natural to use the Homs Gap to take the oil pipeline linking the wells of Mesopotamia with the Mediterranean ports.

In ancient times the importance of this strategic corridor was immense. To control the Homs Gap was to control Syria by isolating its hinterland from its maritime outlets. It was of crucial importance to the Christians in their conquest of the coast, and rather more. Crac Des Chevaliers was its most important stronghold.

Built on the side of an ancient fort called the "castle on the slope", later renamed "the Kurdish castle" (a Kurdish garrison was built there in 1031 by the Emir of Homs), Crac stands on a hilltop some distance from the main road from Homs to Tartous and Tripoli - 27 kilometers away down a narrow winding road. It is not dramatically situated and disappoints perhaps at first view, specially if the visitor has just been to Marqab. Halfway up the hill lie the village of Al Hosn which used to serve and furnish Crac with provisions.

The fertile plain of la Boquée which connects with the upper part of the Kabir valley served to maintain a garrison of two thousand, their servants and horses and an enormous reserve of provisions. Somewhat away from the "Gap", but at an altitude of 650 meters, Crac served as an entrenched camp, commanding outlying posts and visible from the castle at Akkar in the Lebanon foothills opposite and whose ruins can be clearly seen from the top of the keep at Crac. There were also almost permanent links with Marqab and the Safita keep.

Before entering the labyrinth of courtyards and passageways it is a good idea to get an overall view by climbing to the top of the hill, taking the metal road which winds round it on the south side. See from this height, on a level with the highest parts of the building, Crac does indeed look like one of those childhood sandcastle. There it stands on its leveled hilltop, sloping sown steeply on three sides, with its high walls, its round towers, bigger at the corners, its machicolated galleries, its groups of artisans and the fine lines of its arrow-slits.

The south side of the castle faces onto what one is tempted to call "terra firma" so much does the whole resemble a little peninsula. Here are the most massive defenses. A square tower just out from the outer rampart to cover, it would seem, a narrow and delicately-arcaded bridge, which is in fact an aqueduct.

An inner enclosure with great blank walls rises impressively above the outer one. Its gigantic towers (the southern one again the most massive) spring from a glacis steeper than the pyramids of Egypt and made of perfectly-fitting blocks of stone. These high towers rising higher than the rampart walk of the inner castle, but communicating with the building inside it (which are not visible from the observation point on the hill) virtually from a third system of defenses

Tow hours is the minimum time that should be allowed for a visit accompanied by one of the official guides (they are friendly, competent and speak French and English). The tour is so fascinating that it more than makes up of all the dark corridors, steep steps and uneven passageways.

The following are some of the highlights.

An ordinary gangway, replacing the former drawbridge, leads to a postern gate high on the eastern side of the outer rampart. There is a long inscription in the Kufic lettering on the wall above the entrance, extolling the Sultan Beybars who captured Crac after a comparatively short and skillful siege ( 3 March - 8 April 1271 ).

A ramp of wide shallow steps, up which cavalry could ride, leads into the heart of the fort. This long dark passage bristles with defenses; elbows and portcullises, a hairpin-bend covered by a gangway and a corner artisan, as well as many loopholes from which raking shots could come. Friendly portcullises and gateways with machicolations above them and guardrooms on either side give access to an irregularly-shaped inner courtyard several buildings overhanging.

Opposite the entrance five pointed windows and a gothic doorway lead into a fine gallery which in turn opens into the Great Hall, a magnificent room 27 meters long and 7.5 meters wide, composed of three vaulted aisles with pointed arches. The capitals and corbels are decorated with simple  carving. Two inscriptions can be made out: one, in French, on the south pillar, tells us that "this work (labor) was done in the time of Brother Jorgi…." (warden of Crac); the other, in Latin, on the north pillar, is a maxim: "Have riches, have wisdom, have beauty, but beware of pride which defiles everything it touches."

The Great Hall was used for military gatherings and also for meetings of the Chapter of the Hospitallers, the governors of Crac. The loggia served as a cloister as well as a passage from which the mere knights could follow, at a distance, the proceedings of the councils of the leaders of the Order.

The chapel, built into the rampart itself, lies on the right-hand side of the courtyard. Its plain and simple nave leads into a half-domed apse and is roofed with transverse-ribbed, slightly pointed, vaulting. The side walls are hollowed out into great pointed arches with rib vaults and arch moldings which lighten the building whose only decoration is a molded string-course at the base of the arches. A stone mihrab placed against one of the lateral pillars serves to recall the Chapel was immediately converted into a mosque after the capture of Crac by the Sultan Beybars.

On the same level as the chapel and the great hall, and communicating with the latter, a vast corridor a hundred and twenty meters long, down the western side of the fort links up with other rooms to the north and south. It is a marvelous construction with its vaulting coming right down to the ground. Light comes in through apertures at regular intervals along the top of the vault. This "Hundred and Twenty Meters Hall" (for such is its name) contained a well, four bread ovens, and served as a warehouse. Latrines were cut into its north wall.

On the same level, but on the other side of the central tower a similar but smaller room housed the castle’s stores of provisions which were considerable as they were calculated to sustain the garrison for five years. Enormous wine jars were found there, and the remains of an olive-press.

Another structure which is astonishing both in its proportions and its architecture is the so called "Hall of the Massive Pillars". It lies on the southern side of the courtyard and has a pointed vault which rests on massive square pillars.

It housed kitchens, refectories and store rooms. Light filters in through openings in the flat roof which forms an upper courtyard or esplanade linked to the lower on by a handsome flight of steps.

Overlooking and shading the esplanade, the three highest towers protect the south flank of the castle. They form a kind of complex keep which could defend itself independently. It is a colossal structure. The loophole in the first floor of the central tower is cut through a wall 8.5 meters thick. It is the most consummate achievement of 13th century fortress building.

The round tower on the south west corner contained the lodgings of the Grand Master of the order. From his vast rectangular bays he could survey the interior as well as the outside surroundings of the fortress. The roof of the chamber forms a perfect hemispherical dome.

In order to see the external defenses the visitor must make his way back down the entry ramp to the point where it runs. The fivefold system which controls this passageway includes, on the lower level, a gate and portcullis together, set in a wall five meters thick and opening onto the moat, full of water, which separates the inner and outer walls.

This stone-fa is dominated by the stone glacis on which the inner castle stands, and by the wall of a gallery, 60 meters long, which links the outside towers and ramparts of the southern flank. The moat was fed from the aqueduct which ran under the ways and by rainwater through drainage pipes; it served as part of the castle’s defenses if it was attacked and also to water the garrison horses.

The square tower, in the middle of this south face, as well as most of the surrounding structures were built by the Arabs, the brunt of the attack in April 1271 having been directed here. Inscriptions in Arabic recall the qualities of the attackers.

There is another inscription on the polygonal central pillar supporting the upper floors of the south-west tower. In beautiful calligraphy it records the name of the man who defeated the Hospitallers of Crac, the Sultan Al Zaher, or, more exactly and completely: "Al Malek al Zaher Rukn al Dunya wal din Abu al Fat'h Beybars". "Beybars" (the Panther) being only a splendid - and familiar - abbreviation. From the top of this tower there is a view over the whole castle.

From the rampart walk of the outer fortifications there are splendid views of the towering walls and slopes and general massing of the whole construction. It is essential to walk all the way round.

On the northern corner there is a structure quite different from the rest - an oblong tower, i.e. one whose faced is linger than its depth. It has indeed a magnificent facade with a triple range of three points arches supported by pilasters and concealing the machicolation. A wide abutment protects a small postern gate opening into the "hundred and twenty meter hall". Its base may well be a remnant of the 11th century primary castle.

11th, 12th, 13th centuries… confronted by this perfect construction and the scientific intelligence and skill of the men who built it, it is all too easy to forget the great age of Crac Des Chevaliers.

The inner castle was completed in 1170, more than eight centuries ago, despite two terrible earthquakes. By the year 1200 Crac looked very much as it does today except that than it was brand new, white and clear in all its lines and humming with life as a monastery, workshop and front-line fort.

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