The build: Crac des Chevaliers was built by an elite order of Christian warrior monks in the 12th and 13th centuries. Called the Knights Hospitaller, these men designed the castle to dominate a key pass in what is now Syria and guard against Muslim attacks during the Crusades. Strategically positioned on a mountain spur, its steeply-sloped walls, hidden moat and deadly ramp entrance make it the crown jewel of Crusader castles.
The siege: This castle was besieged by Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan who rose from slavery to usurp a king. Armed with siege engines like the counterweight trebuchet, Baybars campaigned against the Christians in the latter part of the 13th century, determined to push them out of the Holy Land forever. In 1271, he came up against Crac des Chevaliers, challenging the castle – and its defenders – to a battle that would shift the balance of power in the Middle East.
- At their peak, Crac des Chevaliers and its sister castle, Margat, are estimated to have guarded over a combined population of 10,000.
- The castellans in charge Crusader castles often went on to hold high positions in the Knights Hospitaller. Two men who commanded Crac des Chevaliers went on to be Grand Masters – Hugues de Revel (castellan from 1242-47) and Nicolas Lorgne (castellan from approx. 1254-69).
- In medieval times, the Near East was affected by frequent earthquakes. Contemporary chroniclers note no less than seven seismic events while the Crusaders were working on Crac des Chevaliers – in 1157, 1163, 1170, 1178, 1202, 1204 or 1205, and 1269.
- At Crac des Chevaliers, the most heavily-fortified area is a stretch along the south end of the castle. Here, the wall is more than 30 metres thick.
- Sultan Baybars first made a name for himself when he defended Egypt against an invasion attempted by Louis IX, King of France. This offensive was part of the Seventh Crusade (1248–54).
- Crac des Chevaliers is in northern Syria, but Crusader fortifications can be found across this region of the Middle East – near the city of Jerusalem, in southern Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and on the island of Cyprus.
- In 1244, just before the second loss of Jerusalem, the number of castles held by the Knights Hospitaller at the same time reached what was perhaps its peak of 29. The Order is believed to have held at least 56 different castles at some point or other during the Crusades.
- Crac des Chevaliers’ high castle features a cloister-like stretch of seven Gothic arches where the knights could escape the mid-day sun. No parallels are found in any other castles in this region.
- A postern gate on the north end of the castle can be dated to the mid-13th century, thanks to an inscription that says it was the work of Nicolas Lorgne, who was castellan before being promoted first to Marshal of the Hospital in 1269, then to Grand Master in 1278.
- Many historians have debated fine details of the siege of Crac des Chevaliers. This is largely due to the ambiguous transition of two Arabic words: ‘quella’, which can mean a tower, a peak, or a castle; and ‘bashura’ or ‘bashuriya’, which may indicate a gateway, barbican, outerwork, bent entrance … or advanced line of defence.
Featured Structure: Machicolations
Machicolations are built to allow a garrison to attack besiegers who manage to make it past longer-range defences to the base of the castle walls. These structures are a more advanced form of earlier hoardings, which were constructed out of wood. Sometime in the 12th century elements of these sheds, which cantilevered beyond castle walls, began to be replaced by stone. Machicolations project from the battlements beyond the face of the wall and create holes through which a castle’s defenders could shoot down arrows or crossbow bolts, throw hard objects such as stones, or dump scathing liquids such as boiling water or quicklime.
Crac des Chevaliers’ machicolations offer a striking example of the cultural diffusion of military architecture. The castle boasts two distinct types of these structures: groups of three machicolations, believed to be distinctly Crusader, and continuous machicolations, which are thought to have been of Muslim origin. Though the exact builders remain a mystery, explanations for this defensive duality include the possibility that knights imitated Eastern engineering, or that the same group of masons were working for both Christian and Muslim factions during this period.