After the fall of Jerusalem (1187) Saladin permitted the Hospitallers to take with them their archives, relics and church treasures, under escort across the northern frontier of the Kingdom into the County of Tripoli. The most important properties left to the Order of St John were now in the north centered on the great castles of Crac des Chevaliers in the County of Tripoli and Margat in the Principality of Antioch. With the loss of Jerusalem the Order had to find a new location for their Convent or headquarters. Tyre, the only city still in Christian hands was out of the question, because it was under siege. Crac was an isolated frontier fortress whose garrison was on a permanent state of active duty. So the acting leader of the Order, Grand Commander Fra' William Burrel had little choice to establish the Convent at Margat. Not only did Margat offer spacious accommodation but importantly from its position on the coast it offered secure lines of communication with Europe.
Margat is one of the largest and most impressive castles in the Middle East. It was held by the Order of St John from 1186 until 1285. The site that dominates the coastal road was first fortified by the Arabs in 1062. They held al-Marquab (the Watchtower) until the Crusaders captured it in 1140. The Prince of Antioch bestowed Margat, which controlled the southern frontier of his principality and the valley that ran inland to the mountain strongholds of the Assassins, on the Constable of the new principality. The Constable's family held it until 1186 when Bertrand le Mazoir ceded the castle to the Order of St John.
Even though the le Mazoir family had struggled to afford the upkeep of Margat the Hospitallers were so keen to acquire such an important lordship they were prepared to pay a heavy price for the privilege. The Knights were to pay Bertrand le Mazoir, his heirs and successors an annual rent of 22 000 Saracen bezants and a further 8 000 bezants to the prince and 1 000 to each of his sons; this even though the prince of Antioch wanted the Order to take over the defence of his southern frontier, principally against the Assassins.
To help defray the considerable upkeep of these castles they were accompanied by great privileges that made the burden of military responsibility worthwhile. With Margat came vast estates in southern Antioch where the Hospitallers were to enjoy rights of lordship over their vassal knights and serfs. In addition with the lordship of Margat came the outlying castles of Branin, Papos, Ericium, the nearby town of Valenie (Banyas) and theoretical rights over al-Qadmus (Cademois), al-'Ullaqah and al-Moniqah which were in the hands of the Assassins. These castles were added to the others, Beada, Belda and Corveis that the Hospitallers already held in the south of Antioch. The castle was an important administrative centre from where the brethren oversaw their domains and supervised the collection of taxes and dues which were brought to the castle to be handed over to the treasury.
The defence and maintenance of castles was one of the most important tasks that the Hospitallers performed in Syria in the 13th century. Possession of a castle was vital in the control of the country. They were an insurance against conquest, because no matter how strong an invading army was, the possession of one or two strong castles could seriously hold up its progress. They also served as a place of safety and refuge. But in frontier districts they also performed an important attacking function when used to launch raids into neighbouring territory; to weaken the enemy or to exact tribute.
Within the boundaries of their estates at Margat the Hospitallers enjoyed a state of virtual independence for which they owed no service to the prince and neither did they have to share with him any booty they captured as spoils of war. All existing agreements and understandings between prince and Order were amended in favour of the brethren who were free to make peace or war with their neighbors as they saw fit, without reference to the prince, while he on his part bound himself and his successors to honour any treaties made by the Order. The historian of the order J. Riley-Smith described these great frontier lordships centered on Margat and Crac in neighbouring Tripoli as 'palatinates'.
On taking over Margat in 1186 the Hospitallers appointed a senior brother to the new office, Castellan of Margat. The Castellan ranked as one of the Conventual Bailiffs who under normal circumstances was only answerable to the Master or the General Chapter of the Order. Like all castellans and commanders in the east, the Castellan of Margat was provided with three horses and was accompanied on expeditions by two grooms and a turcopole. The Castellan presided over a number of administrative departments within the castle comprising the clergy who served the garrison chapel, the chancery, treasury and the military departments.
In 1186 the Castellans's most pressing task was to strengthen and make improvements to the castle's defences. Two years later Margat's fortifications were so strong that Saladin preferred to take on an easier target even though his army marched passed along the coastal road virtually beneath the castle walls. So impressive were the fortifications that when he visited Margat in 1212 William of Oldenburg described the scale and strength of its towers which "seemed to support the heavens rather then to exist for defence". 700 years later T.E. Lawrence thought that the ruins of Margat exemplified "all the best of Latin fortifications of the Middle Ages in the East".
The site of Margat was well chosen for defense, occupying the summit of what is in effect the western spur of the Ansyirah mountains, at a point where the coastal plain is only a few hundred meters wide. It is an extinct volcano where the land falls away steeply except to the south where a gentler slope joins it to the main range. The Hospitaller's fortified the site in accordance with the latest precepts of French military architecture; the triangular site was enclosed behind two lines of defensive walls with fourteen square and rounded towers projecting from the outer line of fortifications. The outer walls enclose an enormous outer courtyard or ward which is separated by an internal wall from the inner stronghold of the castle to the south where the gentler slope made the site more vulnerable.
The main entrance of Margat is a gateway through the strong two storey square tower in the centre of the western wall. The tower is approached up a bent angle flight of steps which leads to a bridge across the moat dug at the base of the walls. Beyond the first gate, which was originally protected by a portcullis, two further gateways lead from the tower on either side that give access to the castle's outer line of defences.
The partially ruined chamber that occupies the upper floor of the entrance tower once presumably served as the guard chamber. At Margat, as in the other frontier castles of the Hospitallers the castle gates were shut at Compline and no brother was permitted to leave until the gates were opened again the following morning. Entry into the inner ward of the castle was through a further gate about twenty five metres to the south thus forcing any attackers who had managed to break through the outer gate to pass beneath the inner walls where they would be vulnerable to a counter attack by the castle's garrison.
At the heart of the inner fortress of Margat is a triangular shaped courtyard, which would once have been the focus of so much of the castle's activity. Along one side of the courtyard are storerooms and barracks that were most probably used by the mercenaries and turcopoles who would have formed an indispensable complement of the garrison.
Adjoining the inner gatehouse are the remains of the great hall. Now almost completely ruined, the broken capitals and remaining sections of vaulting constructed in white stone, to contrast with black basalt of the walls, give an indication of the former glory of this hall which would have been the scene of some of the castle's most important ceremonial occasions. A small rectangular doorway in the north wall of the great hall gives access to a small suite of rooms above the castle's inner entrance,one of which, known as the King's Chamber is said to refer to Issac Comnenus, Despot of Cyprus who was deposed by King Richard of England (the Lionheart) on his way to join the Third Crusade and who was imprisoned and died at Margat. Richard first came to Margat when he landed in Outremer from Cyprus at the outset of the Third Crusade.
The chapel at Margat is in a remarkable state of preservation. The chapel would have been at the heart of the communal life of the brethren at Margat and had a full complement of brother priests to administer to the spiritual needs of the garrison. The Hospitallers began work on the chapel in 1187 soon after they took over Margat and it is built in a transitional Gothic style which in some of its elements still refers back to the Romanesque. The main entrance is on the south side of the building. a flight of steps leads up to the pointed Gothic arch that rests on acanthus capitals once supported by slender columns (now missing). There is a similar entrance on the west side of the chapel where the columns are intact.
The interior of the chapel is as austere as the exterior. There are no aisles so the interior space is not divided by columns. The decorative restraint is only broken by three pointed arches, one deliminating the apse, one in the middle springing from acanthus capitals resting on engaged columns and one at the face of the building. Both of the side walls each have two Gothic arches and one pointed arch window as there is also in the centre of the apse at the end of the chapel behind where the altar would have been.
On the left of the apse is the sacristy decorated with remarkable frescoes depicting the Apostles, painted in the Byzantine style.
Behind the chapel are a series of great vaulted halls, which presumably provided the Hospitallers's with their accommodation. There would have been a refectory, dormitory, infirmary, arsenal, treasury and chancery.
One large two storied building has two large halls superimposed one on top of the other. The hall on the ground floor has two openings in the floor which give access to the cistern below while the hall on the upper floor has an internal window at one end which looks down into the chapel, suggesting that it may well have been the hospital. The patients would undoubtedly have gained spiritual succour from the sounds and smells of the liturgy below. A door at the other end of the chamber lead into the keep or donjon.
The great round keep of Margat is the most impressive building in the castle. Built from roughly hewn blocks of black granite it has a diameter of 22 meters and its walls are 5 metres thick. The keep has two storeys comprised of two square rooms, one above the other, with a small tunnel underneath leading to the outer line of defence, while an internal staircase gives access to the upper story and the roof from where there are magnificent view over the entire castle, the mountains, the coast and the sea. The architectural historian T.S.R.Boase described the keep at Margat as the finest surviving example of a French Medieval donjon, (especially after the Germans blew up the round tower at Courcy in 1918).
The cost of rebuilding of Margat must have been enormous. The Order was also faced with the cost of strengthening Crac des Chevaliers and the huge cost of maintaining a large military force in the East. This period of high expenditure coincided with a period when the Order was faced with a drastic reduction in its income, due to the loss of its estates in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The inevitable result was a financial crisis. So the brethren meeting at Margat chose a proven administrator and former treasurer, Fra' Geoffry de Donjon (1193-1202) as the new Master of the Hospital, in replacement of the late Fra' Roger des Moulins who fell at Sephoria just before the disaster at Hattin.
Two months after the election of Fra' Geoffry came news from Damascus that changed the political landscape of the Middle East. The death of the great Saladin on 3 March 1193. Worn out by a lifetime of fighting Christians he was interred in a simple but so beautiful tomb beside the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus. His empire divided among several heirs heralded the return of peace, while the Christians awaited the arrival a new Crusade. Acre as the largest city in Christian hands, and the most important seaport, became capital of the (second) Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the Order of St John now, by default, one of the most powerful institutions in the Holy Land it was necessary for the Convent to be at the centre of political power. So to be closer to the centre of events, Fra' Geoffrey moved the Convent from Margat to Acre in 1197.
Unfortunately for them, the Christians used the peace with the Muslims to settle scores among themselves. The two great military Orders (St John and the Temple) had a history of intense rivalry. An old dispute between the two orders in the vicinity of Margat flared up again and threatened to escalate out of control. A knight named Seguin who was a vassal of the Hospitallers for his lands between Valanie and Margat was evicted by the Templers who laid a claim on the estate. This led to the Castellan of Margat, Fra' Peter d'Esurau to ride out with the garrison, evict the Templers and reinstate Seguin on his property. But so much blood was shed that relations between the two orders deteriorated even further (if that were possible), to the extent that whenever young knights from the two orders ran into each other, the encounters often ended in violence. Only after the intervention of Almaric, Patriarch of Antioch and the bishops did the two orders agree to put their dispute before the Pope.
The Hospitallers sent Grand Commander Fra' Ogier to Rome to put their case before the Curia. The papal verdict was published in a bull dated 8 February 1199 in which he strongly condemned both orders for their violent conduct. But he went on try and settle the dispute in as tactful a way as possible, so as to to leave as little ill will as possible. The Hospitallers were required to quit the disputed land with immediate effect and hand it over to the Templers. The knight Seguin was given leave to commence legal proceedings against the Templers in front of a tribunal whose offices were acceptable to both parties. In conclusion, the pope urged both Orders to settle future disputes in accordance with the mechanism agreed by Roger des Moulins and St Arnoud back in 1179......... The verdict went against the Temple who were ordered to hand the land back to Seguin.
Although that (local) dispute was settled, rivalry between the Orders led them (inevitably) to support rival claimants to the throne of Antioch that fueled a bitter civil war lasting more than twenty years. That was the situation when Geoffrey de Donjon died in 1202. The Christians of Syria were on the brink of civil war and the armies of the Fourth Crusade were gathering at Venice.
In choosing Alfonso of Portugal (1203-1206) as the new Master of the Hospital, the brethren made an unprecedented choice. He was said to have been the illegitimate son of Alfonso Henriques, King of Portugal and hero of the Reconquista. Alfonso may not even have been a member of the Order at the time of his election. It appears that Alfonso was concerned greatly by the deterioration in discipline shown by the brethren and his chief concern was to restore the Order to its earlier (high) standards. The outbreak of violence between the orders was an indication of how far earlier standards of discipline had fallen. One of the consequences of the wars against Saladin had been that the military brethren were now in a majority and so controlled all positions of power within the Order of St John. But with the brethren on almost continual active service, their numbers augmented by hired mercenaries and adventurers it became more and more difficult to maintain the former standards of discipline. The high level of casualties meant a rapid turnover of brethren serving in the East who were not exposed to communal life.
One of Alfonso's first concerns as Master was to make a distinction between the professed knights and those visiting knights who fought under the Order's banner on Crusade, making a donation for the privilege and later known as donats. While anxious not to deter them from fighting, Alfonso wanted to make it clear that they were only auxiliaries and not members of the Order. When the fighting stopped they were required to stop wearing the dress of the Order and were no longer to be subject to it's discipline.
Under the guidance of Alfonso the General Chapter of 1206 passed a comprehensive raft of legislation covering many aspects of the Hospitaller's conventual life, government and provincial legislation. However it seems that opposition to Alfonso built up during the General Chapter and eventually forced his resignation.
The brethren assembled at Margat for the General Chapter of 1206 chose Fra' Geoffrey Le Rat, Castellan of Crac des Chevaliers as the new Master of the Hospital. Fra' Geoffrey had been a Syrian bailiff of long standing, having previously been a Commander of Antioch and then Castellan of Crac since 1202. Fra' Geoffrey's was however a short rule, he died in the summer of 1207. While opposition to Alfonso's disciplinary agenda might have been strong enough to force his resignation it was not strong enough on the death of Le Rat to prevent the election of one of Alfonso's strongest supporters, Fra' Garin de Montaigue (1207-28), who went on to become one of the Order's longest rulers.
In 1267 the Hospitallers renewed their peace treaty with the Mamluks covering Margat and Crac des Chevaliers. But in 1269 Sultan Baibars abandoned the treaty and launched an expedition against Margat, but bad weather forced him to turn back (to Damascus). With the loss of Crac des Chevaliers in 1271, Margat was the only major castle left in the Hospittaller's hands.
In the event it was the Hospitallers who broke the treaty, by fighting alongside the Mongols at Homs. Qwalawun responded by ordering the governor of Crac to attack Margat, however this force was ambushed and routed before it could reach the castle. The Moslems made another attempt in 1282, but a violent snowstorm drove them back to Hama. These setbacks did not deter the Sultan. On 17 April 1285, he appeared before Margat with his army..
The Sultan set up his camp on the slopes of the mountains to the South. He began his assault on the South East ramparts where the approach was easiest, even though there was a large dry ditch. After several days bombardment the Saracens entered the ditch and the military engineers began undermining the walls. On 15 May the Tour de l'Esperance at the spur of the castle collapsed. An assault was mounted immediately but was beaten back after heavy losses. The Arabs resumed mining and after eight days succeeded in excavating tunnels under the great keep. Qwalawun however was anxious to capture the castle rather than destroy it so he summoned the Castellan and permitted the knights to inspect the tunnels. They saw that the castle was indefensible and so after a siege lasting 38 days on 25 May the Castellan surrendered 'impregnable' Margat.
The garrison were allowed to march out to Tripoli with their belongings, carried on 55 mules, together with 2000 pieces of gold.