Crusaders left the Holy Land after the fall of Acre (1291) ended almost 200 years of fighting, purging the Levante of Christian rule. Left behind were dozens of mighty fortresses that once guarded the trade and pilgrim routes of the Middle East. In this article, we’ll explore six impressive Crusader castles.
Kerak was built around 1140 and is known to history as “Karak in Moab”. Its strategic position east of the River Jordan allowed Kerak to control Bedouin herders as well as the trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. The north wall represents Kerak’s most notable surviving Crusader architecture. In it can be seen immense arched halls on two levels, formerly stables and living quarters, which also served as a fighting gallery.
(Image (right) public domain; left licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)
Kerak passed to Raynald of Châtillon (the villain of blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven) in 1176. True to form, Raynald used the stronghold as a base for harassing trade caravans and even an attempted attack on Mecca. Tired of Raynald’s attacks, Saladin besieged Kerak in 1183 during the marriage of Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem. Ever the gentleman, Saladin agreed to try and avoid their chamber while he was bombarding the rest of the castle. King Baldwin fought Saladin off, but the iconic Islamic leader finally captured the stronghold in 1189. Kerak later played a strategic role during the Ottoman period, due to its location on the crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Greater Syria.
Beaufort Castle, Lebanon
Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon was named “bel fort” or “beau fort” (meaning beautiful fortress) by the Crusaders who occupied it in the 12th century. Its Arabic name, Qala’at ash-Shqif, means Castle of the High Rock. Beaufort has the dubious honour of being one of the only Medieval castles to prove militarily valuable in modern warfare. Changing hands several times between Christians and Muslims, Beaufort Castle was sold to the mysterious Knights Templar in 1260. It was later used by the Ottomans until 1769.
Its vantage point above the plains of southern Lebanon and northern Israel has embroiled Beaufort in the ongoing Middle East conflict. During the Lebanese Civil War it was used by the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLO) to fire rockets into Israel, and was in turn shelled and captured by Israel during the Battle of the Beaufort in 1982. Having survived the Crusades, the castle was little more than a pile of rubble by the time Israeli forces withdrew in 2000. A yellow Hezbollah flag now flies from the ruins.
Kolossi Castle, Cyprus
Kolossi Castle is located several kilometers outside the city of Limassol, Cyprus. The majestic stronghold was of great strategic importance to the Crusaders who occupied it, and played a key role in the production of sugar – one of Cyprus’ main exports during the Middle Ages.
An older castle on the site is thought to date to around 1210, when the land that the castle was built on was given by King Hugh III to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers). The present castle was built in 1454 by the Knights Hospitaller, and has housed both Richard the Lionheart of England and that other omnipresent order of fighting monks, the Knights Templar.
Kyrenia Castle, Cyprus
Kyrenia Castle as it stands today was built by the Venetians during the 16th century, although the mighty ramparts incorporate the original Crusader fortress. Research suggests the castle was originally built by the Byzantines in the 7th century to guard against the Arab maritime threat. The usual suspects then begin to emerge, with King Richard the Lionheart capturing Kyrenia Castle on his way to the Third Crusade.
Throughout its history, Kyrenia has been at the epicenter of conflict, with a Genoese attack in 1373 almost reducing the castle to rubble. Following a four year siege in the 15th century, the Venetians took control of the castle and made significant changes, including thicker walls and embrasures for cannons. Kyrenia surrendered to the Ottomans in 1570, who made their own changes before the British later got their hands on the castle. Finally, by 1959, the Kyrenia Department of Antiquities had full custody of the stronghold.
Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, Syria
The Citadel of Salah Ed-Din dates to the Phoenician period, who were said to have surrendered it to Alexander the Great around 334 BC. Legend has it that Alexander prayed for help at the local temple of Hercules and, to cut a long story short, came into the possession of Hercules’ legendary club, which he then used to besiege the castle. Not much is known about what happened to Citadel of Salah Ed-Din between this period and the return of the Byzantines in the 10th century AD, although it fell to the Crusaders around the early 12th century. The fortress was one of the few not to be entrusted to the major military orders of the Hospitaller and the Templars.
Krak des Chevaliers, Syria
The Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevalier is one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. Built in 1031, Krak des Chevaliers was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades, and ultimately housed a garrison of 2,000 men. Saladin tried unsuccessfully to capture the stronghold in 1188, but unlike so many of its comtempories, the walls of Krak des Chevaliers did not fall.
The fortress was finally lost in 1271 when Mamluk Sultan Baibars used brain-power rather than brute force to trick the defenders. Baibars presented a forged letter from the Crusader commander in Tripoli ordering the occupants to surrender the castle. They did as they were told, leading to what must have been one of the easiest victories of the Crusades. Had they not surrendered, Krak des Chevalier would probably never have fallen. To be on the safe side, though, Baibars set about refortifying the ramparts and converted the Hospitaller chapel into a mosque.
To read about where the Crusaders (supposedly) drank their beer before departing to the Holy Land, check out this article from our archives: Drinking witk Kings: 5 Fantastic Medieval Pubs.