41 km west of Homs; as the Parthenon is to Greek temples, so is the Krak des Chevaliers to medieval castles, the supreme example, one of the great buildings of all times. Many superlatives have been spent on this monument but few do it full justice. No matter how many times you visit the great fortress, it never presents the same face.
The Krak is certainly the supreme example of Crusader castle building, showing the full flowering of the Hospitables’ style which went far beyond the stolid adaptations of Byzantine models that had previously influenced the castles of the first half of the 12th century.
The site lies on a hill called Jebel Kalakh (or Tell Kalakh), part of the Mount Lebanon/Jebel Ansariye range near the famous gap that lead to Homs from the sea. This position had long been an important defensive site before the Crusaders arrived. There is some evidence that the Egyptians of the 18th dynasty took an interest in it during their struggle with the Hittites for domination of Syria.
The Crusaders first reached here in February 1099 when Raymond de Saint Gills, Count of Toulouse, resumed his journey south to Jerusalem after the bloody taking of Maarat al-Numan. The site was reoccupied by the Emir of Homs when the Crusaders passed on. It was not until 1110 that it was retaken by Tancred, Regent of Antioch. The castle was given to the Count of Tripoli.
The rationalization of the crusaders’ resources came in 1144 when Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, transferred the Krak along with his other dependant castles to the Knights Hospitaller. Founded possibly earlier than the 12th century, its presence was extended to other Crusader principalities as its influence grew and as the need for an organization devoted to the common defense of the Crusader states became more evident.
The crusader castle survived two major Muslim challenges in the late 12th century. She’s still standing to witness all events that passed. Nūr al-Din was beaten beneath the castle in 1163 by a strong coalition of Christian forces from Tripoli and Antioch. In 1188, moving up the coast after his great victory over the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Hattin, Saladin united the Muslim forces of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and by-passed the castle after a one day trial siege but ravaged the rest of the Count of Tripoli’s territory.
In 1267, the Mamelukes under Sultan Baybars began a concerted effort to assert Muslim supremacy in Syria. He invested the Krak on 21 February 1271. Baybars bottled up the Hospitallers in the inner defenses. He forced them to surrender on favorable terms on 7 April.
Gradually as the foreign threat disappeared, it fell into disuse as a military strongpoint, Muslim villagers settled in it and remained there until cleared out by the French antiquities administration in 1934. The French arrested the damage that the centuries of civilian occupation had brought, even declaring the building a “monument of France”. Considerable work has been done since 1946 to continue the work of restoring and safeguarding the fabric of the building.
The Krak has two district lines of fortifications: the outer, a curtain wall protected by round towers; and the inner ring which clusters tightly on the south side around the innermost keep, protected by its great sloping base. The western outer ring with its five beautifully balanced and evenly spaced towers along the 150 m stretch of wall that Deschamps has described as “an architectural perspective based on perfect harmony”.
It dates from the first phase of the Hospitaller fortress (1142 – 70) when Romanesque influence was still evident. The nave, divided into three bays, ends in an apse roughly oriented towards the east. On the southern side are three roughly-carved niches. These result from the conversion of the chapel to a mosque following the Mameluke occupation and are intended to orient the faithful towards Mecca during prayers. The chapel is bare of decoration except for the barrel vaulting, a plain cornice and the slender support pilasters. The original doorway to the chapel was largely covered over by a staircase probably built during the final siege.
There are 11 towers and 2 bastions on the curtain wall (the outer ring), and 5 tower, 1 bastion and 1 chapel (mentioned) on the inner ring. Two of the towers are distinguished with names for some stories.
The tower of the King’s Daughter: The lower part of this tower is 12the century but the upper (with machicolations) is Arab. From the tea room on the upper floor a beautiful view including Safita and the coast can be seen.
The Tower of the Windmill: it is one of the five half-round towers on the outer ring of the defenses. It used to house a windmill and so it earned its name.
Qalaat al-Hosn (قلعة الحصن), more famously known as Krak des Chevaliers, is arguably the best preserved and most impressive Crusader castle surviving today. It is one of the highlights of a visit to Syria, and should be considered a must on any itinerary. The castle was been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2006.
More details on this site will be added within the coming days.
Getting There: Qalaat al-Hosn (قلعة الحصن) is located on the hilltop above the village of al-Hosn (الحصن), which can be reached directly by microbus from Homs (حمص). The trip takes roughly one hour, though these microbuses are not particularly frequent. If coming from Hama (حماة), it is necessary to transit through Homs (حمص). If coming from Tartus (طرطوس), take any microbus headed towards Homs (حمص) and get out at the turn-off, from where the castle is about ten kilometers to the north. If there is not already a microbus waiting at the turn-off, one should pass by. Public transportation to/from al-Hosn (الحصن) becomes infrequent in the late afternoon, though it shouldn’t be difficult to find a microbus to Homs (حمص) from the highway late into the evening.
Note that Deir Mar Jerjes (دير مار جرجس) is located in the valley below Qalaat al-Hosn (قلعة الحصن), about three kilometers to the west. It is a very pleasant hike between them on a quiet farming road. Allow about 45 minutes going down and an hour going up. Qalaat al-Hosn (قلعة الحصن), locate the school to the north of the castle. The road which passes by the school continues west in the direction of the monastery. If starting from Deir Mar Jerjes (دير مار جرجس), the road to the castle is the first right as you head east from the monastery, then an almost immediate left at the fork in the road. Microbuses traveling between Homs (حمص) and Marmarita (مرمريتا) pass by Deir Mar Jerjes (دير مار جرجس), making it easy to visit both sites in the same day and only hike one direction.