Monday, April 8, 2013

This Day in History: Apr 08, 1271: In Syria, sultan Baybars conquers the Krak of Chevaliers.

Krak des Chevaliers, also Crac des Chevaliers, is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by a settlement of Kurds; as a result it was known as Hisn al Akrad, meaning the "Castle of the Kurds". In 1142 it was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, to the Knights Hospitaller. It remained in their possession until it fell in 1271. It became known as Crac de l'Ospital; the name Krak des Chevaliers was coined in the 19th century.

The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170 when an earthquake damaged the castle. The order controlled a number of castles along the border of the County of Tripoli, a state founded after the First Crusade. Krak des Chevaliers was amongst the most important and acted as a centre of administration as well as a military base. After a second phase of building was undertaken in the 13th century, Krak des Chevaliers became a concentric castle. This phase created the outer wall and gave the castle its current appearance. The first half of the century has been described as Krak des Chevaliers' "golden age". At its peak, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000. Such a large garrison allowed the Hospitallers to extract tribute from a wide area. From the 1250s the fortunes of the Knights Hospitaller took a turn for the worse and in 1271 Krak des Chevaliers was captured by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars after a siege lasting 36 days, and then purportedly only by way of a forged letter claiming to be from the Hospitallers' Grand Master that caused the Knights to surrender.

Renewed interest in Crusader castles in the 19th century led to the investigation of Krak des Chevaliers, and architectural plans were drawn up. In the late 19th or early 20th century a settlement had been created within the castle, causing damage to its fabric. The 500 inhabitants were moved in 1933 and the castle was given over to the French state, under which a programme of clearing and restoration was carried out. When Syria declared independence in 1946, the castle left French control. Krak des Chevaliers is located approximately 40 kilometres (25 mi) west of the city of Homs, close to the border of Lebanon, and is administratively part of the Homs Governorate. Since 2006, the castles of Krak des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din have been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.[1]


According to Arab documents, the site of the later castle was first occupied in 1030 by a group of Kurds; it was from this settlement that the site derived its name.[9] When building castles, Muslims often chose high sites such as hills and mountains that provided natural obstacles.[10] While journeying towards Jerusalem in January 1099, the company of Raymond IV of Toulouse came under attack. The garrison of al-Akrad harried Raymond's foragers.[11] The following day he marched on the castle and found it deserted. The Franks briefly occupied the castle in February but abandoned when they continued their march towards Jerusalem. Permanent occupation began in 1110 when Tancred, Prince of Galilee took control of the site.[12] The early castle was very different from the extant remains. No trace of this first castle on the site survives.[13]

The origins of the Knights Hospitaller are unclear, but the order probably emerged around the 1070s in Jerusalem. It started as a religious order which cared for the sick, and later looked after pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the success of the First Crusade in capturing Jerusalem in 1099, many crusaders donated their new property in the Levant to the Hospital of St John. Early donations were in the newly formed Kingdom of Jerusalem, but over time the Order extended its holdings to the Crusader states of the County of Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch. Evidence suggests that in the 1130s the order was becoming militarised:[14] in 1136 Fulk, King of Jerusalem, granted the newly built castle at Bethgibelin to the order[15] and a papal bull from between 1139 and 1143 may indicate the order was hiring people to defend pilgrims. There were other military orders, such as the Order of the Temple, which offered protection to pilgrims.[14]

Between 1142 and 1144 Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, granted the order property in the County.[16] According to historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, the Hospitallers effectively established a "palatinate" within Tripoli.[17] The property included castles with which the Hospitallers were expected to defend Tripoli. Including Krak des Chevaliers, the Hospitallers were given five castles along the borders of the state. The order's agreement with Raymond II allowed them to dominate the area; if Raymond II did not accompany the Knights on campaign, the spoils belonged entirely to the order, and if he was present it was split equally between the count and the order. Raymond II also could not make peace with the Muslims without the permission of the Hospitallers.[16] The Hospitallers made Krak des Chevaliers a centre of administration for their new property. The work they undertook at the castle would make it one of the most elaborate Crusader fortifications in the Levant.[18]

After acquiring the site in 1142, they began building a new castle, replacing the Kurdish fortification. The work lasted until 1170, when an earthquake damaged the castle. An Arab source mentions the quake destroyed the castle's chapel. It was replaced with the present chapel.[19] In 1163 the Crusaders were victorious over Nur ad-Din in the Battle of al-Buqaia near Krak des Chevaliers.[20]

Drought conditions between 1175 and 1180 prompted the Crusaders to sign a two-year truce with the Muslims, but Tripoli was not included in the terms. During the 1180s raids by Christians and Muslims into each other's territory became more frequent.[21] In 1180, Saladin ventured into the County of Tripoli, ravaging the area. Unwilling to meet him in open battle, the Crusaders retreated to the relative safety of their fortifications. Without capturing the castles, Saladin could not secure control of the area, and once he retreated the Hospitallers were able to revitalise their damaged lands.[22] The Battle of Hattin in 1187 was a disastrous defeat for the Crusaders: Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, was captured, as was the True Cross, a relic discovered during the First Crusade. Afterwards Saladin ordered the execution of the captured Templar and Hospitaller knights, such was the importance of the two orders in defending the Crusader states.[23] After the battle, the Hospitaller castles of Belmont, Belvoir, and Bethgibelin fell to Muslim armies. Following these losses, the Order focussed its attention on its castles in Tripoli.[24] In May 1188 Saladin led an army to attack Krak des Chevaliers, but on seeing the castle decided it was too well defended and marched on the Hospitaller castle of Margat, which he also failed to capture.[25]

Another earthquake struck in 1202, and it may have been after this event that the castle was remodelled. The 13th-century work was the last period of building at Krak des Chevaliers and gave it its current appearance. An enclosing stone circuit was built between 1142 and 1170; the earlier structure became the castle's inner court or ward. If there was a circuit of walls surrounding the inner court that pre-dated the current outer walls, no trace of it has been discovered.[26]

The first half of the 13th century has been characterised as Krak des Chevaliers' "golden age". While other Crusader strongholds were under threat, Krak des Chevaliers and its garrison of 2,000 soldiers dominated the surrounding area. It was effectively the centre of a principality which remained in Crusader hands until 1271 and was the only major inland area to remain constantly under Crusader control in this period. Crusaders passing through the area would often stop at the castle, and probably made donations. King Andrew II of Hungary visited in 1218 and proclaimed the castle was the "key of the Christian lands". He was so impressed with the castle he gave a yearly income of 60 marks to the Master and 40 to the brothers. Geoffroy de Joinville, uncle of the famous chronicler of the Crusades Jean de Joinville, died at Krak des Chevaliers in 1203 or 1204 and was buried within the castle's chapel.[27]

The main contemporary sources relating to Krak des Chevaliers were written by Muslims. They tend to emphasise Muslim success and overlook setbacks against the Crusaders, but they suggest that the Knights Hospitaller forced the settlements of Hama and Homs to pay tribute to the order. This situation lasted as long as Saladin's successors warred between themselves. The proximity of Krak des Chevaliers to Muslim territories allowed it to take on an offensive role, acting as a base from which neighbouring areas could be attacked. By 1203 the garrison were making raids on Montferrand (which was under Muslim control) and Hama, and in 1207 and 1208 the castle's soldiers took part in an attack on Homs. Krak des Chevaliers acted as a base for expeditions to Hama in 1230 and 1233 after the amir refused to pay tribute. The former was unsuccessful, but the 1233 expedition was a show of force that demonstrated the importance of Krak des Chevaliers.[25]

In the 1250s, the fortunes of the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers took a turn for the worse. An army estimated to number 10,000 men ravaged the country around the castle in 1252. After this, it seems the order's finances were badly affected. In 1268 Master Hugh Revel complained that the area, which had previously been home to around 10,000 people, was deserted and the order's property in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was producing little income; he also noted that by this point there were only 300 of the order's brothers left in the east. On the Muslim side, a new Sultan, Baibars, seized power in 1260 and united Egypt and Syria. One of the effects was that Muslim settlements which had previously paid tribute to the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers were no longer intimidated into doing so.[28]

Baibars ventured in the area around Krak des Chevaliers in 1270 and allowed his men to graze their animals on the fields around the castle. When he received news that year that King Louis IX of France was leading the Eighth Crusade, Baibars left for Cairo. Louis died in 1271 and Baibars returned north to deal with Krak des Chevaliers. Before marching on the castle he captured the smaller castles in the area, including Chastel Blanc. On 3 March, Baibars' army arrived at Krak des Chevaliers.[29] By the time the Sultan arrived the castle may already have been blockaded by Mamluk forces for several days.[30] There are three Arabic accounts of the siege; only one, that of Ibn Shaddad, was by a contemporary although he was not present. Peasants who lived in the area had fled to the castle for safety and were kept in the outer ward. As soon as Baibars arrived he began erecting mangonels, powerful siege weapons which he would turn on the castle. According to Ibn Shaddad, two days later the first line of defences was captured by the besiegers; he was probably referring to a walled suburb outside the castle's entrance.[31]

Rain interrupted the siege, but on 21 March a triangular outwork immediately south of Krak des Chevaliers, possibly defended by a timber palisade, was captured. On 29 March, the tower in the south-west corner was undermined and collapsed. Baibars' army attacked through the breach and on entering the outer ward where they encountered the peasants who had sought refuge in the castle. Though the outer ward had fallen, and in the process a handful of the garrison killed, the Crusaders retreated to the more formidable inner ward. After a lull of ten days, the besiegers conveyed a letter to the garrison, supposedly from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli which granted permission for them to surrender. Although the letter was a forgery, the garrison capitulated and the Sultan spared their lives.[31] The new owners of the castle undertook repairs, focussed mainly on the outer ward.[32] The Hospitaller chapel was converted to a mosque and two mihrabs were added to the interior.[33]

After the Franks were driven from the Holy Land in 1291, European familiarity with the castles of the Crusades declined. It was not until the 19th century that interest in these buildings was renewed, so there are no detailed plans from before 1837. Guillaume Rey was the first to scientifically study Crusader castles in the Holy Land.[34] In 1871 he published the work Etudes sur les monuments de l'architecture militaire des Croisés en Syrie et dans l'ile de Chypre; it included plans and drawings of the major Crusader castles in Syria, including Krak des Chevaliers. In some instances his drawings were inaccurate, however for Krak des Chavaliers they record features which have since been lost.[35]

Paul Deschamps visited the castle in February 1927. Since Rey had visited in the 19th century a village of 500 people had been established within the castle. Renewed inhabitation had damaged the site: underground vaults had been used as rubbish tips and in some places the battlements had been destroyed. Deschamps and fellow architect François Anus attempted to clear some of the detritus; General Maurice Gamelin assigned 60 Alawite soldiers to help. Deschamps left in March 1927, and work resumed when he returned two years later. The culmination of Deschamp's work at the castle was the publication of Les Châteaux des Croisés en Terre Sainte I: le Crac des Chevaliers in 1934, with detailed plans by Anus.[36] The survey has been widely praised, described as "brilliant and exhaustive" by military historian D. J. Cathcart King in 1949[2] and "perhaps the finest account of the archaeology and history of a single medieval castle ever written" by historian Hugh Kennedy in 1994.[4]

As early as 1929 there were suggestions that the castle should be taken under French control. On 16 November 1933 Krak des Chevaliers was given into the control of the French state, and cared for by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The villagers were moved and paid F1 million between them in compensation. Over the following two years a programme of cleaning and restoration was carried out by a force of 120 workers. Once finished, Krak des Chevaliers was one of the key tourist attractions in the French Levant.[37] Pierre Coupel, who had undertaken similar work at the Tower of the Lions and the two castles at Sidon, supervised the work.[38] Despite the restoration, no archaeological excavations were carried out. The French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, which had been established in 1920, ended in 1946 with the declaration of Syrian independence.[39] The castle was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with Qal’at Salah El-Din, in 2006,[1] and is owned by the Syrian government. During the Syrian uprising which began in 2011 UNESCO voiced concerns that the conflict might lead to the damage of important cultural sites such as Krak des Chevaliers.[40] It has been reported that the castle has been shelled by the Syrian army, and that the Crusader chapel has been damaged.[41]


^ Kennedy 1994, p. 20
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 63
^ French 1997, p. 316
^ Spiteri 2001, p. 86
^ Boas 1999, p. 109
^ a b Nicholson 2001, pp. 3–4, 8–10
^ Barber 1995, pp. 34–35
^ a b Nicholson 2001, p. 11
^ Barber 1995, p. 83
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 146
^ a b c d Kennedy 1994, p. 150
^ Barber 1995, p. 202
^ Ellenblum 2007, p. 275
^ Kennedy 1994, pp. 146–147
^ Nicholson 2001, p. 23
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 145
^ a b Kennedy 1994, p. 147
^ a b Kennedy 1994, pp. 152–153
^ Kennedy 1994, pp. 147–148
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 148
^ Kennedy 1994, pp. 148–150
^ King 1949, p. 92
^ a b King 1949, pp. 88–92
^ King 1949, p. 91
^ a b Folda, French & Coupel 1982, p. 179
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 1
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 3
^ Kennedy 1994, pp. 5–6
^ Kennedy 1994, p. 6
^ Albright 1936, p. 167
^ Kennedy 1994, pp. 6–7
^ Director-General of UNESCO appeals for protection of Syria’s cultural heritage, UNESCO, 2012-03-30, retrieved 2012-04-16
^ "Robert Fisk: Syria's ancient treasures pulverised". The Independent. 2012-08-05. Retrieved 2012-08-05.

Taken from: [08.04.2013]

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