Syria: The Krak of Chevaliers under Siege
The Krak des Chevaliers, one of the world’s best preserved, and more impressive monuments of the military architecture of the Crusaders, conquered by the Muslim warrior Saladin nearly 900 years ago after a long siege, is in danger, a victim of the chaos pervading Syria.
Recently gunned men of an unknown faction entered the castle, praised by Lawrence of Arabia for its beauty and still now visited by many tourists every year.
According to Bassam Jammous, general director of the Antiquities and Museum Department in Damascus the invaders threw out the staff and began excavations to loot the site.
What’s happening reminds us of Iraq’s chaos in the wake of Saddam Hussein‘s 2003 fall, when Baghdad‘s major museum was looted, and more recently of Egypt, where looting has reportedly increased at archaeological sites around the country after the fall of Mubarak regime.
The Krak of Chevaliers is in danger
The gallery of the hall of the Knights, which probably dates from the 1230s, with its fine Gothic architecture. Photo james.gordon6108, December 2007.
Krak des Chevaliers (French pronunciation: [kʁak de ʃəvaˈlje]), also Crac des Chevaliers, is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.
The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by a settlement of Kurds; as a result it was known as Hisn al Akrad, meaning the “Castle of the Kurds“. In 1142 it was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, to the Knights Hospitaller. It remained in their possession until it fell in 1271.
It became known as Crac de l’Ospital; the name Krak des Chevaliers was coined in the 19th century.
Hall of the Knights. Photo Bernard Gagnon, April 2010.
The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170 when an earthquake damaged the castle. The order controlled a number of castles along the border of the County of Tripoli, a state founded after the First Crusade.
Krak des Chevaliers was amongst the most important and acted as a centre of administration as well as a military base.
After a second phase of building was undertaken in the 13th century, Krak des Chevaliers became a concentric castle. This phase created the outer wall and gave the castle its current appearance. The first half of the century has been described as Krak des Chevaliers’ “golden age“.
At its peak, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000. Such a large garrison allowed the Hospitallers to extract tribute from a wide area.
From the 1250s the fortunes of the Knights Hospitaller took a turn for the worse and in 1271 Krak des Chevaliers was captured by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars after a siege lasting 36 days.
The inner and upper courts seen from the south. Photo Bernard Gagnon, April 2010.
Renewed interest in Crusader castles in the 19th century led to the investigation of Krak des Chevaliers, and architectural plans were drawn up. In the late 19th or early 20th century a settlement had been created within the castle, causing damage to its fabric.
The 500 inhabitants were moved in 1933 and the castle was given over to the French state, under which a programme of clearing and restoration was carried out.
When Syria declared independence in 1946, the castle left French control. Krak des Chevaliers is located approximately 40 kilometres (25 mi) west of the city of Homs, close to the border of Lebanon, and is administratively part of the Homs Governorate.
Since 2006, the castles of Krak des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din have been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
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