Wednesday 4 December 2013

Crac des Chevaliers

Crac des Chevaliers has been called the supreme example of  medieval military architecture and it is one of the iconic buildings of the world. In 1909, when T.E. Lawrence, before Arabia, was a 20 year old student at Oxford he went on a summer's walking tour of  Crusader castles. In a letter  he described Crac as 'the finest castle in the world: certainly the most picturesque I have seen - quite marvelous.' What struck him  was that it was 'neither a ruin nor a show place...and were Baibars to reappear he would think it as formidable as of old.'

The castle was built by the Order of St. John, and held by them from 1142 until 1271. While the Knights Hospitaller had build the world's  first concentric castle at Belvoir, Le Crac, in its adaption to the contours of the site is considered the finest example. Le Crac had survived with remarkable completeness, (at least until  it was bombed by the Syrian air force in July and August 2013, the damage is unknown.) Crac es Chevaliers  had been  one of the few crusading castles to have been been excavated and restored using modern archaeological methods. The original fortress known as  Qalaat al-Husn, or the Fortress of the Kurds was occupied briefly by the crusaders on their march south in 1099, but  not occupied by them permanently  until 1110, as a dependency of the county of Tripoli. But the county of Tripoli, without any of the great religious sites was struggling to recruit immigrants from Provence, the heartland of the crusaders, where the Cathar heretics, were already undermining support for the crusade.

 To make up for  his deficiency in manpower, in 1142 Count Raymond invited the Order of St John  to take up the defence of his  northern border. The Arab counter attack was threatening to drive through  to the coast which would have cut his county in two and divided it from the Principality of Antioch to the north. So Raymond made over five castles to the Hospitallers, Mardabech, Lac, Felice, Chateau Boquee and Le Crac des Chevaliers itself, together with a vast frontier march in what amounted to an autonomous palatinate, the count bound himself not make make peace with the Arabs without the consent of the Hospital.  He also made over to them Rafaniyah and Montferrand  which were already in Muslim hands.

Crac des Chevaliers occupied a vital strategic position on an isolated summit, a spur of the Ansirayah Mountains, lying just to the north of the plain known to the crusaders as La Bocquee and to the Arabs as the Bekaa valley. The fortress commanded the whole area between the important Muslim towns of Hama and Homs and nearly intersected the route between Damascus and Aleppo. What think you of a town wrote Ibn-Jubair when he visited Homs, that it is only a few miles from Qalaat al-Husn, the stronghold of the enemy, where you can see their fires and whence each day the enemy may raid you on horseback. The plain was the main channel of communications between the coast and the Orontes valley to the east. The narrow entrance to the plain, the Homs gap  became the scene of some of the most desperate fighting between the Franks and the Muslims. To the south of the plain cliff wall of the Akkar Mountains are the northern extremity of the Mount Lebanon massif and the Hospitallers also held a small castle there. .

Le Crac did not actually block the Homs gap as it lay eleven miles to the north. The castle's strategic function was to provide a fighting force whenever one was needed and to act as a forward base for raids or razzias into Muslim territory. The chronicler Ibn al-Athir called the fortress a bone stuck in the throat of the Muslims. Both sides recognized  Crac des Chevaliers as a site of the greatest importance. There could have been no permanent Muslim reconquest while Le Crac remained in Christian hands.

It is unclear how much of the Arab castle had been rebuilt by the time Le Crac was handed over to the Hospitallers in 1142. But it seems that the inner enceinte was built  by the Order soon after they occupied the castle. In plan it is an irregular polygon the shape, dictated by following closely the contours at the end of the steep promontory. The curtain walls are rounded on the north side but have an obtuse angle on the south side, they are strengthened by square towers and enclose the  courtyard.

The second half of the twelfth century was a period of high seismic activity in the region, and considerable damage to the fabric of Le Crac was reported after an earthquake in 1170. But as Saladin left Le Crac  unchallenged  during his march north in 1188, the walls must have been rebuilt by then.

Around the turn of the thirteenth century the outer enceinte was added to provide a second concentric line of defence. The new outer line of defence was protected by 12 projecting semi-circular towers. Inside, these towers had rectangular halls at ground level, each provided with three loop holes, one in the center, and one each at the junction of the tower and wall, commanding the base of the wall on either side. The walls of the new enceinte also considerably enlarged the scale of accommodation within the fortress, providing more space to afford protection to the villagers and their livestock from the surrounding estates.

Once the outer enceinte was added it was possible to undertake considerable rebuilding of the original castle. The central tower of the west wall was converted to a semi-circular tower by being embedded in the massive walls. A huge  talus was piled up against the curtain wall on the west and south sides making it virtually indestructible.

Rising from the southern wall are great three towers, rounded on the external face and beautifully joined onto the masonry of the talus. These towers provided the knights with their  accommodation.Below the  south talus is a great water tank, providing a moat and a bathing place for the garrison and a watering place for the horses. Drinking water was obtained from wells in the central courtyard. The stables were built against the south wall of the outer enciente, convenient for access to the water tank and the horses' gate onto the ramp.

The western tower was used by  the castle's castellan or commander or perhaps even for the occasional visit of the Master and it contains a round vaulted chamber with four columns from which spring the arches that form the ribs of the vault, and a decorative frieze  that runs around the room at the level of the capitals. This lovely airy room is lit by a large Gothic window looking east across La Bocquee that is framed by a border of decorative roses. This windows size and decoration make a  contrast with the functionality of  the rest of the castles' openings.

On the inside,  these towers were separated from the main courtyard by a raised platform and were only connected to it by a stepped bridge. Because the knights were always a minority in a garrison comprised of  many races such means of isolation were probably a safeguard against internal mutiny rather than part of the defenses. Wilbrand of Oldenburg in 1212 reports that  the garrison of Crac des Chevaliers was  2000 combatants who would have been largely local Maronite or Syrian mercenaries, whereas the normal complement of knights would only have been between 50 or 60. In the thirteenth century the Order of St John never had more than 300 fighting men under vows in Outremer, but the force they controlled was  many times that number.

On the eastern face the most important work of the thirteenth century was the entrance ramp. The outer gate appears small and insignificant, perhaps to disguise its function as the main entrance to the fortress. The long ramp behind it leads eventually to the original entrance, after negotiating two hairpin bends, and it is alternately covered, then left open to the sky to better confuse any attackers with the contrast between dark shadow and bright sunlight. The defenses include features such as inward facing arrow slits and a portcullis chamber that could be used to lock any attackers out or trap them in. The ramp was designed with wide shallow steps to allow to easy passage of horses.

The chapel at Crac is large it opens off the small inner courtyard and was built at the end of the twelfth century. It has a simple plan of three bays with an apse at the end. The walls were once covered with paintings but these have now gone. Here the professed knights, sergeants and chaplains would have gathered every day, as the rule prescribed, for the singing of the hours. The steps in front of the chapel were thrown up in the desperate days of the final siege to make access to the ramparts easier.

The great hall of Crac des Chevaliers 90 feet long  dates from  the mid-thirteenth century and looks just like a Cistercian chapter house in France. The great hall was also presumed to have been used as a refectory by the castellan and the brethren.

The great hall opens out onto the cloister like loggia of seven arches which is the finest, and in a castle, most unexpected architectural feature of Crac des Chevaliers. Here the knights could walk talk,and enjoy the shade it provided from the Syrian summer sun.  In complete contrast to the military architecture of the rest of the castle, the cloister is monastic in style and had no parallels elsewhere in the castles of  the Holy Land.

A small inscription (in Latin) is carved in the loggia.
                                       Sit tibi copia, sit sapienta, formaque detur,    
                                        Inquinat omnia sola superbia si comitetur.
                   'Yours may all wisdom, wealth and beauty be. But pride the arch corrupter flee.'

This warning, that Pride corrupts all virtues, may have been particularly pertinent  within the walls of such a powerful fortress. The knights who were appointed to command Le Crac as its castellan were relatively young men, who then went on to hold high office within the Order. Only when age weakened a knights martial abilities would he be sent back to a Priory in Europe where his role would become to gather the revenues that would keep his brethren in the field.Two successive Masters of the Order had previously been castellans of Le Crac, Hugues de Revel (1242-47) and Nicholas Lorgne (1254-69)

Behind the great hall is a long windowless and  almost underground hall thought to have been the living quarters, latrines and communal dining room for for the soldiers and non-combatants. At one end is the bakery, the flour ground by the windmill that had been on top of the tower above.

The importance of Crac des Chevaliers was also economic.The fortified village on the north side of the castle provided protected accommodation for the agricultural workers who farmed the fertile plain below the castle. Contemporary descriptions mention several villages, olive groves, figs and many other sorts of trees. There were numerous small streams and water was plentiful. The soil was rich. The pasture was good. As the Muslim danger increased Le Crac was enlarged so that more people and animals could take safe refuge within the walls.

On several occasions the Muslims attempted to reduce Le Crac. Nur ed-Din, lord of Aleppo and Edessa, encouraged by the failure of the Second Crusade  had already tried to take it. He had destroyed the armies of Raymond, Prince of Antioch and of Joscelin of Edessa when he set up camp beneath the walls of Le Crac in 1163. The garrison was reduced to a token force and in an act of desperation they rode out and charged the Sultan's camp which was scattered, and pursued all the way to the lake of Homs. The battle of La Bocquee as it was called was one of the greatest feat of arms of the Hospitaller's at Le Crac.

In the aftermath of  his great victory at Hattin in 1187, when he annihilated the crusaders' army, Saladin  took one crusader fortress after another, until the  strength of Le Crac's defences deterred him from even making an attack.

 Le Crac proved to be impregnable, until April 1271. In February of that year Sultan Baibars had determined  to drive the crusaders out of the Holy Land and his set up camp outside the mighty fortress. On the last day of March his forces undermined the tower in the south west corner and fought their way into the outer ward, massacring the Hospitallers, taking prisoner their serants, but letting  the villagers go free, to maintain cultivation.

Baibars may well have been daunted when faced with the awesome prospect of the southern talus. According to some accounts the Sultan sent the remaining Hospitallers holding out inside the inner enceinte a forged letter from Tripoli, ordering them to surrender.. On 8th April, with the certain knowledge that no reinforcements were  going to come to their rescue, the Hospitaller garrison received a safe conduct and rode out of their most famous castle for the last time.

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