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The Krak des Chevaliers: The Impregnable Fortress

Posted in Castles, History on Tuesday, 15 March 2011

This edited article about The Krak des Chevaliers originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 920 published on 8 September 1979.

One of the most imposing and impregnable castles ever built was Le Krak des Chevaliers. After eight centuries its walls and towers still dominate the wild, mountainous country north of Homs in Syria. Of all the Crusader castles, it is the best preserved.

Le Krak Des Chevaliers castle in Syria. Illustration by Dan Escott

Le Krak Des Chevaliers castle in Syria. Illustration by Dan Escott

In 1142 the site was chosen by the Knights Hospitallers as a base to protect Outremer – the “Kingdom Across the Sea” – against the attacks of the Saracen leader Saladin. This kingdom was founded by Christian lords, mainly French, who remained in Palestine after the First Crusade. In the beginning it was controlled by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. They were warrior monks pledged to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem.

At first they were an austere, dedicated order, but as time went on they became corrupted by the wealth they accumulated. In the 12th century the Christian forces fought a campaign against the Egyptian Muslims in which they were badly defeated. With their numbers reduced, they decided to build huge fortifications like Le Krak des Chevaliers to protect the frontiers of Outremer.

Certainly the Hospitallers (another order dedicated to keeping Christian power in the Holy Land) could not have chosen a better place for their castle. The Krak stands high on a hill with steep cliffs on the east, west and north sides. The slope on the southern side is more gentle, and this was defended by a moat.

The top of the hill is protected by two lines of massive walls with towers rising from them. To reach the gate, which is situated on the east side of the outer wall, the enemy would have to pass almost the whole length of the fortification, which would give the Hospitallers plenty of opportunity to rain down arrows, boulders and boiling lead.

If the enemy managed to break through this outer gate, they would then have to fight their way along a rising, twisting passage, barred by four doors in succession. When they finally reached the inner gate, they would find it protected by a portcullis and a guardroom. Because the castle commanded desert country, water was very important, especially in the event of a long siege. A deep well was dug and nine huge rainwater reservoirs were hewn in the solid rock of the hill.

The Hospitallers believed that such a fortress could never fall to the enemies of Christendom. Yet in 1271 the great castle was captured by an ex-slave whose name was Baibars.

He began life as the son of a humble Turkish tribesman in the area between the Volga and Don rivers. As a youth, he was taken prisoner and put up for auction in a Syrian slave market.

When it was his turn to be sold, the slave merchants shook their heads. He was so frail that he did not seem to be capable of hard work, and finally he was sold to an emir, or local ruler, at a “knock-down” price.

The emir soon realised he had a bargain in the new slave. He may have looked a poor specimen in the market, but he proved to his master that he was highly intelligent. Soon he was promoted to serve as a member of the emir’s élite bodyguard.

In the emir’s service he rose to be a commander and led a highly successful campaign against the Mongols. On his victorious return, the emir regarded him as his most trusted general and liked to take him out hunting.

During one of these sorties Baibars rode up behind his master and stabbed him in the back. Following this assassination he seized the throne and set about making himself the mightiest Muslim ruler since Saladin.

He dedicated himself to the destruction of the Christians. Again and again his warriors defeated them. King Louis IX of France led a Sixth Crusade against him, but this failed. The whole army, including the king, was surrounded and captured by Baibars’ Muslims. (Louis was released after paying ransom.)

After this victory Baibars turned his attention to the Crusaders’ strongholds, and in 1271 he laid seige to Le Krak des Chevaliers.

For a month his troops stormed the outer walls. While the arrows of the defenders flew down upon them, they mined the walls and battered at the gate. When it was finally smashed open, the Hospitallers retired to their inner defences.

Here it seemed impossible for the Muslims to make any impression on them. Attack after attack was repulsed and Baibars began to despair of ever taking the fortress.

With plenty of water at their disposal, it seemed as though the Hospitallers would hold out for ever. Baibars called off his attacks and decided to try and take the Krak by a trick.

A forged letter was sent by a secret messenger to the Grand Master of the Hospitallers. It was supposed to have been written by a friend of the Order, informing them that Tripoli had fallen to the infidels and that it was now useless to continue defending the castle.

The ruse worked. The flag of the Hospitallers was lowered in surrender and the ex-slave led his soldiers into the Crusaders’ mightiest stronghold.

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