Sunday, August 10, 2008
The Krak of the Knights
Once described as “the key of Christendom,” the concentric castle known as the Krak of the Knights stood on the 2,000-foot-high (611-meter) southern spur of the Gebel Alawi, commanding the strategic Homs Gap in the Orontes Valley between Syria’s Mediterranean coast and the hinterland. The easternmost in a chain of five castles, it was well placed to control the trade routes between Asia Minor and the Levantine Coast. The formidable fortress represented the height of achievement in medieval military architecture and was described by Lawrence of Arabia as one of the “best preserved and wholly admirable castles in the world.”
Medieval warfare was a cycle of conquest and consolidation. Builders were as important as soldiers to an army and throughout the religious wars known as the Crusades (1096–1291) both sides built scores of fortified strongholds, the ruins of which can be found throughout the Middle East. In 1095 Pope Urban II decreed that he would absolve anyone who fought to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom, a promise that ignited two centuries of conflict. On the face of it, there was a religious reason—pilgrims could not reach Jerusalem—but Urban II’s decision was also prompted by a combination of ulterior political motives. The Byzantine Empire was staggering in the face of Turkish expansion; European feudal lords were anxious to profit from their military strength, and some states wanted to exploit their naval might in the Mediterranean. And there was opportunity for the papacy to make the most of rising religious fervor to gain control of the mind of western Europe.
Kings and barons squandered the lives and the wealth of their subjects as they led all social classes against Islam. From time to time the Crusaders controlled parts of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, capturing Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks in 1099 and holding it until Salâh al-Dîn regained it in 1187. An earlier Islamic Castle of the Kurds on the site of the Krak was taken, albeit temporarily, by Raymond de St.-Gilles in 1099, and he again laid siege to it, without success, in 1102. Tancred of Antioch occupied it permanently from 1110, and thirty-two years later the Count of Tripoli gave it to the Knights Hospitallers. They invested a great deal of wealth and skill to develop it into “the most distinguished work of military architecture of its time.”
The Krak comprised almost 8 acres (3 hectares) and incorporated various buildings in an inner bailey with a high curtain wall. That was in turn surrounded by an outer bailey within a second, slightly lower curtain wall—a consistent feature of the concentric castles of the period. The inner bailey was built probably soon after 1110, but it was extensively repaired and refurbished in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries after a series of earthquakes after 1157. The later builders thickened the curtain wall and added a glacis and water-filled moat. They also reinforced the towers. The outer bailey, with a complicated, sharply angled (and therefore highly defensible) eastern gateway, was built in stages. The inner curtain, with rectangular towers that hardly projected from the wall, dominated the outer and stood quite close to it. The 16-foot-thick (4.9-meter) outer curtain had eight projecting round towers on the north and west sides, and their loopholes covered every direction. Two towers protected the north barbican, or fortified gateway, from which a narrow ramp led to the inner bailey. All the walls, inner and outer, had castellated galleries, and there were extensive machicolations. The portico of the inner bailey was added around 1250. If necessary, up to 4,000 soldiers and 300 knights with their horses and equipment could be garrisoned in the Krak, and enough provisions could be stored in its warehouses, stables, and cisterns to resist a five-year siege. But early in the thirteenth century only 2,000 men occupied it, with provisions for just one year. Throughout Crusader times, there was a dependent burgus (walled suburb) associated with the castle.
The castle was also used as base from which to harass the surrounding country held by Islam. Called by one Muslim writer “this bone in the throat of the Moslems,” it easily withstood attacks from Nûr al-Dîn in 1163 and 1164 and by Salâh al-Dîn in 1188. It finally fell in April 1271 after a siege of only a month by the Mameluke sultan, Baybars. He had breached the outer curtain but had no way of overcoming by force the second line of defense with its three massive towers and talus. It was through a forged document commanding the Hospitallers to surrender that the Krak of the Knights was finally taken—by treachery and not by power. In 1291 the Crusaders were expelled from Acre, their last stronghold, and they withdrew to several Mediterranean locations until Turkish expansion in the sixteenth century. The important positive result of the years of war was that cultural exchange with the more scientifically advanced Islamic world contributed much to the enlightenment of Western civilization.