Crusader renovations

The First Crusade set up Christian kingdoms: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principalities (i.e. ruled by a Prince) of Cilicia and Antioch, and the Counties (i.e. ruled by a Count) of Edessa and Tripoli. The most famous Crusader castle ruin was located in the County of Tripoli, along the coast of Syria but inland. The hills around the castle are so arid that there has been little erosion and no modern development. It is now called the Crac des Chevaliers (Knights’ Castle).

The site had been a Kurdish fortress; under the Count of Tripoli, it became a castle of the Knights of the Hospital. The Hospitallers renovated the existing castle to meet the new, modern standards of defense. The ruins as we have them today had one last building renovation under the Seljuk Turks, but we can identify clearly what the Hospitallers did.

The original tower sat on a leveled-off limestone mountain. The Hospitallers built a square keep with a curtain wall, to start. We don’t have all of their original work because after 30 years of building, an earthquake damaged it, and after they rebuilt that, another earthquake struck. By the time they got serious about rebuilding in the 1200s, post-quakes, they designed a concentric plan that was a fighting machine.

The Inner Court had four round towers with residential quarters for about 60 knights. It also had a hall, a chapel, kitchens, and stables. A long, semi-open corridor, the esplanade, was decorated with Gothic arched windows and carved tracery. The hall and chapel had vaulted roofs and fresco-decorated inner walls. But the wall around the Inner Court was tough on the outside; it sloped out, reinforced by earth and natural rock, so that it was thicker at the base. This is called a glacis; it helped too with earthquake damage.

The Outer Ward was built later in the 1200s. It turned the castle from an average fortress into one that, at least once, would make Saladdin turn away in search of an easier target. The builders leveled off a shelf of the limestone mountain all around the inner castle, and built a thick wall with about ten towers projecting out. Some of them were round, some square. This outer wall had machicolations, those holes for dropping rocks or boiling oil, in addition to arrow slits. The machicolations were boxes designed for archers to sit in; you can see them in pictures as oblong rectangular shapes along the tops of walls.

On the side where the road approached the castle, the defensive towers were particularly large and round. They loomed over the single entrance, which was approached only by a narrow stone bridge spanning the gully. Once inside the gate, a traveler had to follow a corridor that led to the gate of the Inner Ward. The road wasn’t straight; it made a right turn, then turned a sharp corner left and uphill to the gate. It was a covered walkway, but between the two turns, it was fully exposed to attack and also had murder-holes, places where things could be dropped, built in. The alternative to using this road was to hike out across stony outcroppings overlooked by the Inner Ward’s towers. This space between the two walls was no-man’s land and completely exposed, as well as steeply uphill.

There may have been more defensive layers on the approachable side; the steep hills suggest some engineering work. There may have been a timber palisade or a triangular outbuilding for the first defense.

Unlike the early Norman castles, most of this castle’s walls were purely defensive, not residential. There was no question of windows in the Outer Wall, nor in the Inner Wall except as places for archers to stand. This permitted the cluster of residential buildings to be more comfortable with better light. The Crak, as it was known, was the Hospitallers’ administrative center. It was the last fall-back point for their line of castles.

In its heyday, the Crak overlooked a busy farming valley, but by the end of the Christian kingdoms’ time, the residents had been harried out by attacking armies. Sultan Baibars of Egypt was now the chief Arab invader. When the 8th Crusade, led by St. Louix IX, ended with the king’s sudden death in 1271, the Sultan moved in with a full assault. With mangonel siege machines, and miners and sappers, he took down each layer of defense. A tower of the Outer Ward was mined and collapsed. The Hospitallers retreated to the Inner Ward, and the Sultan’s army moved in for the next assault. But the castle was spared more damage; a forged letter persuaded the Hospitallers to surrender.


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