Syria’s Crac des Chevaliers is the best preserved Crusader castle in the world. Its fortifications foiled one of the most capable military leaders in history and have thus far survived the current war in Syria.
Crac des Chevaliers is located atop a volcanic mound along a pass between the port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, and Homs, Syria. The first fortress on the site was built by the Kurds in about 1031 to protect Homs from a sea-borne attack. That fortress was captured in 1110 during the First Crusade and then anchored Tripoli County, a Crusader State. In about 1142, the Count of Tripoli donated the castle to the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian order that arose to assist pilgrims in the Holy Land and evolved into a fighting force to retain the lands taken during the Crusades.
The Hospitallers converted the original Kurdish fortress into the most elaborate of their many castles in the Middle East, calling it “Crac de l’Ospital.” The central living and administrative buildings, including a large chapel, were separated from a massive outer wall by a wide moat. Areas for storing grain, olive oil and water were designed to enable a garrison of 2,000 soldiers and their horses to withstand a five-year siege. Visiting Crusaders returned to Europe with novel ideas for their own castles.
By 1187, Saladin, the great Muslim ruler, had retaken most of the lands occupied by the Crusaders, including Jerusalem. He then turned his attention to recapturing the territory controlled by the Knights Hospitaller from their base at Crac des Chevaliers. After viewing what he considered the castle’s impregnable fortifications, Saladin did not even attempt an attack. The castle finally fell to Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan, in 1271 after a siege that reportedly ended with a forged directive telling the Hospitallers to surrender. The conquerors turned the castle’s chapel into a mosque.
Crac des Chevaliers, near the contested city of Homs, has been shelled by both sides in Syria’s civil war. The castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has sustained damage but remains largely intact, a tribute to the Knights who designed and built it.