Krak des Chevaliers (Arabic: قلعة الحصن, romanized: Qalʿat al-Ḥiṣn), also called Hisn al-Akrad (Arabic: حصن الأكراد, romanized: Ḥiṣn al-Akrād, lit. 'Fortress of the Kurds') and formerly Crac de l'Ospital; Krak des Chevaliers or Crac des Chevaliers (French pronunciation: [kʁak de ʃ(ə)valje]), is a medieval 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 Kurdish troops garrisoned there by the Mirdasids. In 1142 it was given b...Read more
Krak des Chevaliers (Arabic: قلعة الحصن, romanized: Qalʿat al-Ḥiṣn), also called Hisn al-Akrad (Arabic: حصن الأكراد, romanized: Ḥiṣn al-Akrād, lit. 'Fortress of the Kurds') and formerly Crac de l'Ospital; Krak des Chevaliers or Crac des Chevaliers (French pronunciation: [kʁak de ʃ(ə)valje]), is a medieval 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 Kurdish troops garrisoned there by the Mirdasids. In 1142 it was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, to the order of the Knights Hospitaller. It remained in their possession until it fell in 1271.
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 among the most important, and acted as a center 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 exact tribute from a wide area. From the 1250s the fortunes of the Knights Hospitaller took a turn for the worse and in 1271 Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured Krak des Chevaliers after a siege lasting 36 days, supposedly by way of a forged letter purportedly 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 Alawite State, which carried out a program of clearing and restoration. When Syria declared independence in 1946, it assumed control.
Today, the village of al-Husn exists around the castle and has a population of nearly 9,000. Krak des Chevaliers is 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 World Heritage Sites. It was partially damaged in the Syrian civil war from shelling and recaptured by the Syrian government forces in 2014. Since then, reconstruction and conservation work on the site had begun. Reports by UNESCO and the Syrian government on the state of the site are produced yearly.
According to the 13th-century Arab historian Ibn Shaddad, in 1031, the Mirdasid emir of Aleppo and Homs, Shibl ad-Dawla Nasr, established a settlement of Kurdish tribesmen at the site of the castle, which was then known as "Ḥiṣn al-Safḥ". Nasr restored Hisn al-Safh to help reestablish the Mirdasids' access to the coast of Tripoli after they lost nearby Hisn Ibn Akkar to the Fatimids in 1029. Due to Nasr's garrisoning of Kurdish troops at the site, the castle became known as "Ḥiṣn al-Akrād" (Fortress of the Kurds). The castle was strategically located at the southern edge of the Jibal al-Alawiyin mountain range and dominated the road between Homs and Tripoli. When building castles, engineers often chose elevated sites, such as hills and mountains, that provided natural obstacles.
In January 1099 on the journey to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the company of Raymond IV of Toulouse came under attack from the garrison of Hisn al-Akrad, the forerunner of the Krak, who harried Raymond's foragers. The following day Raymond marched on the castle and found it deserted. The crusaders briefly occupied the castle in February of the same year but abandoned it when they continued their march towards Jerusalem. Permanent occupation began in 1110 when Tancred, Prince of Galilee took control of the site. The early castle was substantially different from the extant remains and no trace of this first castle survives at the site.
The origins of the order of the Knights Hospitaller are unclear, but it probably emerged around the 1070s in Jerusalem. It started as a religious order that 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 became militarised when Fulk, King of Jerusalem, granted the newly built castle at Beth Gibelin to the order in 1136. A papal bull from between 1139 and 1143 may indicate the order hiring people to defend pilgrims. There were also other military orders, such as the Knights Templar, that offered protection to pilgrims.
Between 1142 and 1144 Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, granted property in the county to the order. According to historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, the Hospitallers effectively established a "palatinate" within Tripoli. The property included castles with which the Hospitallers were expected to defend Tripoli. Along with Krak des Chevaliers, the Hospitallers were given four other castles along the borders of the state, which allowed the order to dominate the area. The order's agreement with Raymond II stated that if he did not accompany knights of the order on campaign, the spoils belonged entirely to the order, and if he was present it was split equally between the count and the order. Further, Raymond II could not make peace with the Muslims without the permission of the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers made Krak des Chevaliers a center of administration for their new property, undertaking work at the castle that would make it one of the most elaborate Crusader fortifications in the Levant.
After acquiring the site in 1142, they began building a new castle to replace the former Kurdish fortification. This work lasted until 1170, when an earthquake damaged the castle. An Arab source mentions that the quake destroyed the castle's chapel, which was replaced by the present chapel. In 1163 the Crusaders emerged victorious over Nur ad-Din in the Battle of al-Buqaia near Krak des Chevaliers.
Drought conditions between 1175 and 1180 prompted the Crusaders to sign a two-year truce with the Muslims, but without Tripoli included in the terms. During the 1180s, raids by Christians and Muslims into each other's territory became more frequent. 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. 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. After the battle, the Hospitaller castles of Belmont, Belvoir, and Bethgibelin fell to Muslim armies. Following these losses, the Order focused its attention on its castles in Tripoli. In May 1188 Saladin led an army to attack Krak des Chevaliers, but on seeing the castle, decided it was too well defended and instead marched on the Hospitaller castle of Margat, which he also failed to capture.
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.
The first half of the 13th century has been characterised as Krak des Chevaliers' "golden age". While other Crusader strongholds came under threat, Krak des Chevaliers and its garrison of 2,000 soldiers dominated the surrounding area. It was effectively the center of a principality which remained in Crusader hands until 1271 and was the only major inland area to remain constantly under Crusader control during this period. Crusaders who passed 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 the "key of the Christian lands". He was so impressed with the castle that he gave a yearly income of 60 marks to the Master and 40 to the brothers. Geoffroy de Joinville, uncle of the noted chronicler of the Crusades Jean de Joinville, died at Krak des Chevaliers in 1203 or 1204 and was buried in the castle's chapel.
The main contemporary accounts relating to Krak des Chevaliers are of Muslim origin and tend to emphasise Muslim success while overlooking setbacks against the Crusaders although 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 neighboring 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.
In the 1250s, the fortunes of the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers took a turn for the worse. A Muslim army estimated to number 10,000 men ravaged the countryside around the castle in 1252 after which the Order's finances declined sharply. In 1268 Master Hugues Revel complained that the area, previously home to around 10,000 people, now stood deserted and that the Order's property in the Kingdom of Jerusalem produced little income. He also noted that by this point there were only 300 of the Order's brethren left in the east. On the Muslim side, in 1260 Baibars became Sultan of Egypt, following his overthrow of the incumbent ruler Qutuz, and went on to unite Egypt and Syria. As a result, Muslim settlements that had previously paid tribute to the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers no longer felt intimidated into doing so.
As for Hugues Revel, some of the castellans of this castle are identified: Pierre de Mirmande (Grand Commander) and Geoffroy le Rat (Grand Master).
Baibars ventured into 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 of the Eighth Crusade led by King Louis IX of France, Baibars left for Cairo to avoid a confrontation. After Louis died in 1271 Baibars returned to deal with Krak des Chevaliers. Before he marched on the castle the Sultan captured the smaller castles in the area, including Chastel Blanc. On 3 March, Baibars' army arrived at Krak des Chevaliers. By the time the Sultan appeared on the scene, the castle may already have been blockaded by Mamluk forces for several days. Of the three Arabic accounts of the siege only one was contemporary, that of Ibn Shaddad, although he was not present at the siege. 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 erected mangonels, powerful siege weapons which he would later turn on the castle. In a probable reference to a walled suburb outside the castle's entrance, Ibn Shaddad records that two days later the first line of defences fell to the besiegers.
Rain interrupted the siege, but on 21 March, immediately south of Krak des Chevaliers, Baibar's forces captured a triangular outwork possibly defended by a timber palisade. On 29 March, the attackers undermined a tower in the southwest corner causing it to collapse whereupon Baibars' army attacked through the breach. In the outer ward they encountered the peasants who had sought refuge in the castle. Though the outer ward had fallen, with a handful of the garrison killed in the process, 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, (aman), for them to surrender on 8 April 1271. Although the letter was a forgery, the garrison capitulated and the Sultan spared their lives. The new owners of the castle undertook repairs, focused mainly on the outer ward. The Hospitaller chapel was converted to a mosque and two mihrabs (prayer niches) were added to the interior.Later history
During the Ottoman period (1516–1918), the castle housed a company of local janissaries and was the centre of the nahiye (tax district) of Hisn al-Akrad, attached first to the Tripoli Sanjak and later Homs, both part of the Tripoli Eyalet. The castle itself was commanded by a dizdar (castle warden). Several Turkmen and Kurdish tribes were settled in the area and in the 18th century the district was mainly controlled by local notables from the Dandashi family. In 1894 the Ottoman government considered stationing a company of auxiliary soldiers there, but revised its plans after deciding the castle was too old and access too difficult. As a result, the capital of the district was then moved to nearby Talkalakh.
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. Emmanuel Guillaume-Rey was the first European researcher to scientifically study Crusader castles in the Holy Land. 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.
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. The survey has been widely praised, described as "brilliant and exhaustive" by military historian D. J. Cathcart King in 1949 and "perhaps the finest account of the archaeology and history of a single medieval castle ever written" by historian Hugh Kennedy in 1994.
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. Pierre Coupel, who had undertaken similar work at the Tower of the Lions and the two castles at Sidon, supervised the work. Despite the restoration, no archaeological excavations were carried out. The Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, which had been established in 1920, ended in 1946 with the declaration of Syrian independence. The castle was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with Qal’at Salah El-Din, in 2006, and is owned by the Syrian government.
Several of the castle's former residents built their houses outside the fortress and a village called al-Husn has since developed. Many of the al-Husn's roughly 9,000 Muslim residents benefit economically from the tourism generated by the site.
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, prompting UNESCO to raise concerns that the war might damage cultural sites including Krak des Chevaliers. The castle was shelled in August 2012 by the Syrian Arab Army, damaging the Crusader chapel. It was damaged again in July 2013 by an airstrike conducted by the Syrian Arab Air Force during the Siege of Homs, and once more on 18 August 2013. The Syrian Arab Army captured the castle and village of al-Hosn in March 2014. Since then, UNESCO has published periodic reports about the state of the site, reconstruction and conservation measures.