In Marqab there is a huge glowering fortress situated on a top of a hill with terraced gardens on its slopes. It is enormous : there are no less than fourteen square and round towers jutting from the curtain wall that encircles the hilltop to form a triangular bastion. Its southern corner, sharper than the others and bristling with defense, has a keep rising above it like the prow of some great ship. Glowering : from the massing of these great blank walls which looks as if they are good for a few centuries yet, but glowering above all because of the funeral black basalt stone of which it is built. The outline of the fortress follows the convex line of the hillside just here and one has an excellent view of the best preserved and strongest section of the castle's defenses. After the capture of the Crac des Chevaliers in 1270 AD, the Crusaders surrendered Marqab to Sultan Qualon in 1285 AD
Whether he approaches from Lattakia or from Tartous, the traveler, even if he pressed for time, can not stop as he nears Banias and sees before him a tall hill with terraced gardens on its slopes and at the top a huge and glowering fortress.
It is enormous: there are no less than fourteen square and round towers jutting from the curtain wall that encircles the hilltop to form a triangular bastion. Its southern corner, sharper than the others and bristling with defenses, has a keep rising above it like the prow of some great ship.
Glowering: from the massing of these great blank walls which look as if they are good for a few centuries yet, but glowering above all because of the funereal black basalt stone of which it is built. These roughly dressed stone were dug from the hillside, itself an extinct volcano. The outline of each stone is heightened by the use of white mortar; weeds now grow lustily from cracks in the walls themselves and in the glacis - emphasizing still more the contrast between this grim fortress and the infinite gradations of blue and green in the setting all around - the scrub, the gardens and orchards, the distant mountains, the huge sky and the sea for away. Such is impression made by Qalaat Marqab.
A narrow tarred road now leads up to the base of the fortress, on the western side of the ramparts. Gently sloping steps lead up to a bridge which leads in turn to an entrance postern half-way up the wall, protected by a barbican. The outline of the fortress follows the convex line of the hillside just here and one has an excellent view of the best-preserved and strongest section of the castles defenses. Yellow gorse and red-flowered pomegranates in the ditches below seem to be launching a peaceful attack on the great black walls.
The affable keeper who, like some watcher of old, has seen us coming a long way off, will greet us, offer us tea, post-cards and souvenirs and press us to sign an impressive Visitors Book. Only then shall we be let in to explore the ruins.
Given that there is far less left standing inside the castle at Marqab than at Crac Des Chevaliers the tour does not take long. After having accompanied us to the chapel and the keep, pointed out the gothic arches and the crenellations, the passageways and the tall narrow slits, and after having given us a summary of the history and explained the lay-out of the fortress, our amiable guide leaves us free to wander through the great vaulted halls and over the grass-grown and windswept rampart walks. Time passes swiftly as we dream in these evocative surroundings. The sun is now setting low over the sea, lighting up the stones of Marqab with its last fiery rays.
The site of Marqab had caught the attention of strategists well before the Crusaders. Byzantines and Arabs had fought over it throughout the 11th century.
This fortified lookout post was ideal for keeping watch over the coastal plain, it commanded one of the routes across the coastal range.
The original castle changed hands several times before 1140. That year saw the beginning of its major fortification by the Crusaders. The years that followed were the hey-day of Magat - especially when it was in the hands of the Hospitallers, that rich, enterprising, intelligent and courageous order of knights. Even Salah al Din himself avoided encounters with them during his campaign to re-conquer the Syrian coast in 1188.
A contemporary chronicler estimated the permanent population of the fortress at "a thousand persons, apart from the garrison". "They have provisions," he said, "to withstand five years siege". Around 1240 the Bishop of Valenia (present day Banias) took up residence within the walls of the fortress.
But the days of Christian strongholds were numbered. Sultan Beybars redoubled his attacks. In the spring of 1271, Crac itself fell, as well as satellite forts such as Safita. However, it was not until 1285 that the troops of the Re-conquest under Sultan Qalaoun defeated the last of the knights at Margat. The surviving Hospitallers were granted "the honors of war" and allowed to withdraw under safe conduct to Tortosa (Tartous) and Tripoli.
There is an inscription commemorating the final victory of Islam, carved on a band of white limestone at the top of the "Tour de lEperon" under the keep. The name of Qalaûn is to be found there, as well as that of Balbaan al Tabbakhi, Governor of Crac, to whom Margat - now Marqab once more - was entrusted also.
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