Considered virtually impregnable, it was the largest Crusader castle in the Middle East.
By Mark Cartwright
Krak des Chevaliers (also spelt Cracs des Chevaliers, and known in Arabic as Hisn al-Akrad) is a castle in Syria originally built for the Emir of Aleppo in 1031 CE but acquired and extensively rebuilt by the Knights Hospitaller in 1144 CE. Considered virtually impregnable, it was the largest Crusader castle in the Middle East and a bulwark against the expansion of the Muslim states during the 12th and 13th centuries CE. The castle is today listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Location and Function
The castle, located on a natural citadel near the coast of southern Syria between Tartus and Tripoli, was originally built by the Emir of Aleppo in 1031 CE on the site of a much earlier fortification. After the defeat of the Emir, the stronghold was given to the medieval military order the Knights Hospitaller in 1144 CE by Raymond II of Tripoli (r. 1137-1152 CE), probably so that it could be sufficiently manned and thus provide a useful cover to the eastern frontier of the County of Tripoli, one of the Crusader-created states which comprised the Latin East in the Levant. The castle, one of around 25, was one of the most important held by the Hospitallers, whose headquarters was at Jerusalem and then from 1191 CE at Acre.
Extended and with a new outer defensive wall, Krak des Chevaliers became one of the region’s major strongholds. Perched on a steep-sided ravine above a vital pass giving access from the coast to the inland plains of Syria, the castle helped control the surrounding region. As the castle provided a permanent home to a garrison of Hospitaller knights, it posed a military threat to any army passing through the area. In addition, the territory under the protection of Krak des Chevaliers included that of the Muslim sect the Assassins, who, accordingly, paid an annual tribute to the Hospitallers.
At its peak, the castle housed some 2,000 people including infantry, crossbow specialists, and mercenaries, although the actual number of brother knights was as few as 60 according to records dating to 1255 CE. The imposing castle was crucial to the general defence of the Latin East in the 12th and 13th century CE. Krak des Chevaliers was not far from the Muslim-held cities of Hims and Hama, against which cities several raids were launched during the first half of the 13th century CE. The power of the Hospitallers to disrupt Muslim expansionist plans is exhibited in a description by the Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir of the castle’s commander or castellan in 1170 CE as:
A man who, through his bravery, occupied an eminent position and who was like a bone stuck in the throat of the Muslims.
(quoted in Nicolle, 21)
The castle was built according to the latest design technology of the 12th and 13th century CE to maximise its defence. The final Hospitaller version of the fortress thus had concentric walls consisting of an outer circuit wall with built-in round projecting towers and an inner wall, also with towers. The projecting towers provided a line of fire back onto the adjoining walls in case an attacking force ever got that close, and it was by now appreciated that round towers were much more stable and could better deflect missiles launched from catapults in comparison to square towers. The superior height of the inner wall compared to its outer counterpart likewise provided an excellent means to fire down upon the enemy, should they breach the first line of defence. On the south side, there was the additional protection of a wide moat between these two walls.
The exterior limestone walls of the castle were made as smooth as possible to make scaling them more difficult, and as the whole structure was built on a natural platform of solid rock, there was little danger of undermining by enemy sappers. Crenellated battlements and narrow arrow-slit windows provided extra protection for the defenders when they took aim at attackers with their bows and crossbows. Despite the formidable defences of the castles, the main battle tactic was actually offensive where heavily armoured cavalry made raids and sorties on the enemy, even when it was under siege.
One of the weakest points of any castle was its main gate, and much thought and effort were put into that of Krak des Chevaliers to ensure the castle’s defensive integrity. First, there was a lengthy approach corridor which was covered by walls with arrow-slit windows. Attackers then were slowed down by having to move up a slope which turned at right angles three times before coming up against a series of four gates protected by an iron portcullis. Smaller or postern gates, where only a single man could pass through at one time, were positioned around the castle as a means of escape, and these were positioned in unlikely corners of the circuit walls.
The inner courtyard or bailey of the castle had a large meeting hall, refectory, and an elegant cloister running along one side of the main courtyard. There were stables for the castle’s force of knights and fine private chambers for senior members of the order. The Master’s rooms at Krak, located high in one of the south-western inner towers, have ribbed vaulting and were painstakingly carved with friezes and decorative stone capitals. The castle’s chapels also received handsome decoration in the form of wall paintings. Dating to the early 13th century CE, the surviving fresco scenes show daily religious and knightly life for the members of the Hospitaller order.
An earthquake hit the region on 29 June 1170 CE, damaging many castles, including Krak des Chevaliers. Another quake hit in 1202 CE, and it was probably then that the Hospitallers took the opportunity to redesign it and add concentric walls and towers.
The castle resisted a brief siege by Saladin in July 1188 CE, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria (r. 1174-1193 CE), who then decided to withdraw his army and await the coming forces of the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). Although a secure base during the first half of the 13th century CE, the castle was, nevertheless, not immune to attacks. The Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil (r. 1218-1238 CE) launched a raid in 1228 CE in retaliation for Hospitaller raids on Hama.
In 1271 CE, the castle and the region, in general, fell to the Muslim leader of the Mamluks, Al-Zahir Baybars, Sultan of Egypt and Syria (r. 1260-1277 CE). Baybars arrived at Krak des Chevaliers on 21 February and attacked the fortress from 3 March. After an initial delay caused by heavy rain, the Sultan then set about pounding the castle’s walls with his catapults from 18 March. The Muslims in this way severely damaged and breached one of the outer towers, but such were the castle’s defences, it took a further two weeks to break through the inner walls. Once inside, the attackers slaughtered the remaining knights, but even then a small force held out for another ten days in the largest tower of the inner wall. Finally, on 8 April 1271 CE, the last defenders surrendered, perhaps after receiving a forged letter from the Hospitaller Master at Acre instructing them to do so. Those who surrendered were promised safe passage to Tripoli. Mighty Krak des Chevaliers was at last in Muslim hands. The Knights Hospitaller shortly afterwards left the Middle East and relocated to a new headquarters on Cyprus in 1291 CE. Meanwhile, Baybars rebuilt the damage his own forces had done to Krak des Chevaliers and made it into his command headquarters in Syria. The Sultan also made full use of its weaponry, taking a huge catapult called ‘Victorious’ with him to Acre on his continuing campaign to dominate the Levant.
The later history of the castle is obscure, but it seems to have been largely neglected. More recently, the castle suffered unspecified but seemingly limited damage during the Syrian civil war from 2011 to 2014 CE, and it remains one of the finest surviving medieval castles anywhere, as the historian T. Asbridge here summarises:
The castle is arguably the most spectacular monument of the Crusader age. Hewn from limestone, possessed of an elegant beauty of proportion, its unparalleled craftsmanship speaks of the same dedication to flawless precision and architectural excellence witnessed in the massive Gothic cathedrals that were constructed in Western Europe at this same time. (545)
- Asbridge, T. The Crusades. (Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2012).
- Maalouf, A. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. (Schocken, 1989).
- Nicolle, D. Knight Hospitaller –1565. (Osprey Publishing, 2001).
- Phillips, J. The Crusades, 1095-1204. (Routledge, 2014).
- Riley-Smith, J. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. (Oxford University Press, 2001).
- Runciman, S. A History of the Crusades. (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
- Tyerman, C. God’s War. (Belknap Press, 2009).
- Wise, T. Armies of the Crusades. (Osprey Publishing, 1978).
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 09.07.2018, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.