Krak des Chevaliers

It is almost 1,000 years since crusaders roamed the halls of the Krak des Chevaliers (fortress of the knights), but this hilltop castle remains as just impressive and majestic as it did in the days of the holy wars. The best preserved of all crusader castles of Syria, the Krak des Chevaliers stands over 2000 feet above sea level, commanding a valley east of Tripoli, Lebanon, that in the Middle Ages was the only route between the ancient cities of Antioch and Beirut. Today, this shining exemplar of crusader architecture is perhaps the most popular of all Syria tourist attractions.

The earliest walls of the Krak des Chevaliers date at least as far back as the early 11th century, when it was the headquarters of the Arab Emir of Aleppo. Raymond of Toulouse captured it in 1099 during the first crusade, but soon abandoned it to continue his march to Jerusalem. It was retaken by crusader Tancred of Hauteville in 1110 and given to the monk-knights the Hospitallers in 1142.

The Hospitallers greatly expanded the Krak des Chevaliers, building a 10-foot thick outer wall and seven imposing guard towers. Under the Hospitallers, the Krak des Chevaliers became the most formidable castles of Syria and the largest crusader fortress in the Holy Land.

Several famous crusaders from France, England, and elsewhere in Europe stayed here on their conquest, including King Edward I of England, who was greatly impressed by its imposing design. The defensive design inspired European castles for centuries to come, and its influence can be seen in the wall at Carcassonne France, Stirling Castle in Scotland, and elsewhere.

Several attempts were made to seize the Krak des Chevaliers. Muslim warrior Nur ad-Din laid siege in 1163 and Saladin, the respected nemesis of Richard the Lion Heart, led a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful onslaught in 1188. After a bloody fight, Saladin captured the leader of the Hospitaller forces and demanded that he give the order to surrender. According to legend, the commander gave instructions in Arabic, so that Saladin’s troops could hear, to give up the castle; and told his men in their French tongue to fight to the last man.

The most impregnable of all crusader castles of Syria was only captured in 1271, when Arabic Baibers tricked the Hospitallers into believing that they had been ordered to surrender by their leaders in Tripoli. In the centuries to come, the Muslim conquerors further strengthened the defenses of the Krak des Chevaliers; it never again fell in arms.

Today, the Krak des Chevaliers is one of the most popular of all Syria tourist attractions. It is a stop on any pilgrimage to the Christian sites of the Holy Land. Unlike at other crusader castles of Syria, the Christian frescos at the Krak des Chevaliers have remained relatively undamaged, making this fortress a major attraction for admirers of medieval art.

Like other Syria tourist attractions, Krak des Chevaliers is an easy day trip from the Syrian cities of Hama, Homs, or Tartus. There are also several adequate hotels in the area that cater to pilgrims and tourists. Laurence of Arabia described the Krak des Chevaliers as “the finest castle in the world.” French author Paul Theroux thought it was like a fortress of childhood dreams. Little wonder that this medieval wonder continues to attract visitors from around the world.

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