24 km east of Lattakia, lies a huge solid fortress upstanding on the edge of the gigantic fosse. While its defenses are less intact than studied symmetry of the Krak des Chevaliers and it is less somber and brooding in its aspect than Marqab, this is an example of Crusader castle-building at its most romantic. The castle represents the flamboyance of the Crusader enterprise – perhaps folly is a better word – in a raw and beautiful location, softened today by the peaceful setting and on a spring day, the profusion of wildflowers that cover the scene.
Long before the Crusaders, the site was chosen for its defensive properties. Its commanding location protected the sweep of the broad plain behind Lattakia, the reason which probably led to the earliest fortification by the Phoenicians (early 1st millennium BC) who were holding it when Alexander reached Syria around 333 BC.
When the Byzantines moved back into Syria in the second half of the 10th century, the Emperor John I seized this site from the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo and began the first substantial defensive works after 975. It is not known precisely when the Crusaders took it over, probably in the first two decades of the 12th century. By 1119, the castle was endowed from Roger, Prince of Antioch, to a local seigneur, Robert of Saone.
In 1188, the castle fell to Saladin, the first major casualty of the Crusader’s fundamental problem, the lack of sufficient manpower to protect their far flung positions.
Confident after his major victory over the Crusaders at Hattin in Palestine in 1187 which resulted in the Arab recovery of Jerusalem, Saladin took his army on an expedition to the north to probe Crusader defenses and block the prospective access route for a fourth Crusade bent on re-liberating Jerusalem. On 23 July 1188, Lattakia surrendered.
He moved on the next day to Saone, arriving on the 26th and beginning his siege on 27 July. Saladin’s forces pounded the castle from the plateau to the east while his son, al Zaher Ghazi, moving in from Aleppo, took up position across the north ravine. The Crusaders resisted fiercely but two days later the walls were breached by bombardment from the mangonels of Ghazi. Muslim soldiers stormed the breach, gained the lower court and from there swarmed over the narrow and incomplete ditch into the upper fortress. And that was a new victory for Saladin.
Unlike the major fortresses seized by the Arab leader, Saone did not lapse back into Crusader hands. It was again occupied in 1280 by a Governor of Damascus but was regained for the Mameluke Sultan Qalaun in 1287. There were, as a result of continuous occupations, a few additions to the fortress of Mameluke and Ayyūbid periods, including a mosque built by Sultan Qalaun. The small town that was in the lower enclosure was gradually deserted in favor of more convenient locations once the security of the area assured.
The outer line of walls show the transition from Byzantine to Crusader work. The three relatively slender round towers in the eastern walls are Byzantine in origin, adapted and strengthened in the Crusader rebuilding of the 11th century. In the massive square towers to the south, the stone is laid in large blocks finished with neat boscage detailing in a typically precise Crusader style.
The courtyard flanks the main donjon and one finds the cistern and the stables in it. In the lower courtyard is the charming Byzantine chapel. In other parts, there are the Crusader church and another Byzantine chapel. But the important building to inspect is the mosque with the minaret that probably date from the time of Sultan Qalaun and the palace baths that were restored by the end of the 20th century. The palace entrance is marked by a superb gateway in stalactite carving of the 12th century.
The most impressive historical monument in the region of Lattakia (اللاذقية) is the magnificent Crusader castle of Qalaat Salah al-Din (قلعة صلاح الدين). Known as Saône to the Crusaders, this site should be considered a must-see if visiting the coastal region. Not only is the castle itself spectacular, but the surrounding countryside provides some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Syria.
Getting There: Getting to Qalaat Salah al-Din (قلعة صلاح الدين) is relatively easy, though public transportation can only get you within four kilometers of the site. The first step is to take a microbus from Lattakia (اللاذقية) to the friendly and predominantly Sunni village of al-Hafeh (الحفة), a trip which takes about 30 minutes. Any microbus traveling between Lattakia (اللاذقية) and Slenfeh (صلنفة) will also pass through al-Hafeh (الحفة) and the road leading to Qalaat Salah al-Din (قلعة صلاح الدين).
Once you have arrived in al-Hafeh (الحفة), there are two options: hiring a driver, or hiking. Motorbike drivers will take you to the castle at a low rate, while taxi drivers will likely charge two or three times more. Expect to pay at least double if you want them to wait and drive you back.
Alternatively, it is an extremely pleasant and highly recommended hike from al-Hafeh (الحفة) to the castle. From the center of the village (generally the final microbus stop), continue heading east out of the village in the direction of Slenfeh (صلنفة). Just beyond al-Hafeh (الحفة) a sign points to the right (south) for Qalaat Salah al-Din (قلعة صلاح الدين). From here, it is about four kilometers to the entrance of the castle. Stick to the main road and after about one kilometer you’ll enter a small village, where another sign will point the way (left) to Qalaat Salah al-Din (قلعة صلاح الدين). After a short distance the castle will come into view across the valley; follow the road which winds down into the valley and then up the other side. Note that there is a freshwater spring in the small (and apparently abandoned) restaurant alongside the stream at the bottom of the valley.