The Krak—another victim of Syria’s very uncivil war
The Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle and one of the world’s finest medieval castles, is one of many victims of Syria’s civil war.
Almost two years ago, the BBC did a story (with pics) about the Krak being damaged, but no one knows the full extent of destruction.
It makes me so sad. This castle is one of my favourite touristic sites in the whole world—someday I’ll do a post on my top 10 favourites. Poor John and I visited frequently when we lived in Syria in the early 1980s.
I was keen to visit again in 2009 when we were on our year-long overland trek through Africa, as well as some of the Middle East and Europe.
It was at the Krak, back in the 1980s, when Poor John first explained the intricacies of medieval castle construction.
I’ll start from the beginning. As you enter the Krak there are several hard and upward turns to the left.
So imagine this. You are an invader and most probably right-handed. Your sword sits on your left thigh. Your horse is climbing and turning left against a wall. Your sword is trapped, but the castle residents are descending with their swords already drawn. Heck, they saw you coming.
If you were there and new to Poor John’s insights (he’s got lots of them), he’d probably go on to explain why Australia, the UK and other parts of the world drive on the left side of the road.
But you aren’t there and he doesn’t have a blog, so I’ll share the details here.
Driving on the left
Let’s start with the fact that the vast majority of people are right-handed. So centuries ago you’re riding along on your horse with your sword resting on your left thigh. It’s close to hand and easy for you to draw if the oncoming horseman or pedestrian is a threat or an enemy.
You mounted your horse from the left (as is the custom to this day) because your critter isn’t all that keen to have you to swing a sword-laden left leg over his right side.
Hope all this makes sense so far. But what might not make sense is why traffic in many countries now travels on the right side of the road.
That’s mostly down to Napoleon. He decided that the countries he conquered should change the side of the road on which they travelled—bringing on a move from left to right.
Napoleon never conquered the UK. He also never conquered the USA, but they changed sides—perhaps to show they were breaking away from the UK’s control.
Burma (Myanmar), where we lived for several years in the mid-1980s, wasn’t ever conquered by Napoleon, but they switched sides of the road many decades ago to defy the English. And that made for a real mess of Burma’s road system and a lot of blind corners and driveways.
Such a lot of bother about today’s driving rules.
But I started this post to talk about the Krak des Chevaliers. So on with the show.
A bit more about the Krak itself
As part of the Crusades, the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem built the Krak between 1142 and 1271. About 30 years after construction began, an earthquake ruined parts of it. In its heyday, the Krak housed about 2000 people.
By 1250, the Hospitaller knights were falling on hard times, and the Mamluks captured the Krak in 1271. The new ‘owners’ did more construction in the late 13th century.
This amazing collection of buildings sits on a 650-metre (2130-foot) high ridge and covers 2.5 hectares (6 acres). It commands a key defensive position in Syria’s west, between the city of Homs and the Mediterranean Sea.
It showcases the best and most advanced ideas about fortification in the early 13th century. As one of the first fully concentric castles (with two or more inner and outer walls for defence), it had a massive influence on subsequent castle design.
For starters, the Krak’s concentric design allowed defenders to protect themselves equally on all sides. The outer wall is overlooked at all points by inner walls, and the space between the two walls was within easy and accurate bowshot.
In addition to its sophisticated design, the Krak has great physical and visual strength, with its enormous stone walls, top-notch construction and innovative defensive systems. Many would-be conquerors, such as Salah al-Din, gave up all thought of taking on the castle when they saw it. Instead they moved on to easier prey.
As a castle/fortress, the Krak has been a remarkable success. I read that ‘Any fortification that can deter a potential attacker by its appearance alone must be counted a success, and in this respect Krak is supreme.’
The Krak has also been home to many locals over the years. Our guide in 2009 remembered living at the Krak as a child, and even pointed out blackened ceilings in ‘rooms’ in which his mother cooked meals.
I can no longer remember why he and his family were living there, but have read that some of the Krak’s former ‘residents’ established the village of al-Husn at the foot of the Krak.
After visiting the castle, we had a meal in small restaurant nearby. The food was amazing—some of the nicest dishes we had on this visit to Syria. The restaurant owner said most of the recipes were from his mum.
I wonder if the restaurant is still there? I’m guessing that in spite of the damage the Krak has suffered during the civil war, it probably still ranks among the best examples of a Crusader castle.
Such wonderful memories, even if they are scarred today. Here’s hoping we can visit it again one day, and revisit the restaurant too.