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Stones That Did the Work of Men

Stones That Did the Work of Men

by William Tracy

Say "crusader" and "castle" follows on the tongue like a reflex. The two words sound right together, and with reason.

For nearly two centuries�from 1096 until 1291�successive waves of European Christians struggled to gain and maintain control of Jerusalem and the rest of what they called the Holy Land�some 650 kilometers (400 miles) of coastal plain and mountain spine at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The motives which compelled the nobles, knights and, eventually, tens of thousands of peasants to make the arduous journey to the Holy Land often went beyond religion. And few of those who set out on their crusades gave any thought to the fact that the Muslims they would face in battle�like the local Christians, who had not suffered under the status quo�also called Jerusalem holy.

From the beginning, the invaders were vastly outnumbered, although the first wave, driven by its passion, managed to take Jerusalem (See Aramco World, May-June 1970). In the years that followed, however, there never seemed to be enough knights or foot soldiers to protect the coastal cities and the countryside from the unending series of counterattacks from the Muslim hinterland. For all the 200 years they held on, the crusaders looked to the West for reinforcements.

In the meantime, they built castles. Even today, 700 years after the last boatload of retreating crusaders set sail for Europe, crusader fortresses stand forlorn guard beside harbor entrances and atop windswept ridges in the region of Jerusalem, in southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and on the island of Cyprus. Historian Robin Fedden, co-author of Crusader Castles, wrote, "The desperate shortage of manpower encouraged every device by which stones might do the work of men." In the beginning castles were a defensive refuge, "strong points from which control could be resumed over the surrounding country when the invader had retired. Castles were the key to the land."

For a while, the strategy worked, as two examples from the life of the great Muslim general Salah al-Din bear witness. On one occasion, Saladin, as he is called in the West, rode out to inspect the defenses of a mighty crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, before attacking it.

The Krak des Chevaliers, or Castle of the Knights, was owned and manned by knights of the military-monastic Order of Hospitalers. It dominated a strategic pass between the Mediterranean and the inland cities of Horns and Hama, on the Orontes River. Called Hisn al-Akrad, or Fortress of the Kurds, by the Arabs, it was built on the foundations of an earlier Muslim castle. Perched on a windswept mountain spur which drops away abruptly on three sides, the Krak was by far the strongest of the crusader castles. T.E. Lawrence called it "perhaps the most wholly admirable castle in the world." Saladin examined the defenses on the vulnerable southern side, where the Krak faced a relatively flat plateau.

The Muslims' general inspected the triangular outer bulwarks, its outer ditch and the stone wall with round towers pierced by loopholes and surmounted by overhanging machicolation. Inside the wall, he knew, was a deep, water-filled moat. Beyond it he could see the mighty sloping talus of carefully fitted stones�25 meters (80 feet) thick at the base�referred to by the Arabs as "The Mountain." Lastly, he contemplated the castle's massive rounded keep, which towered over the entire mass and was linked to two equally impressive towers. Then, deciding that a general could find a better use for his army than committing it to a siege of indeterminate length and uncertain outcome, Saladin withdrew.

On the other hand, when Saladin was able to lure the crusaders out of their near-invulnerable castle shells to face him head-on, his forces had them vastly outmanned. This happened in 1187, at Hattin near the Sea of Galilee. There, on a parched plain, when Saladin cut the crusaders off from any source of drinking water, he outfoxed them as well. The defeat which the crusaders suffered was irreversible, and crucial. Building on it, Saladin went on to liberate Jerusalem itself just five months later.

My own first visit to the Krak des Chevaliers was with a busload of high-school classmates from Beirut's American Community School in 1954. We were the only visitors on a breezy spring day. Imagine how we boys explored the narrowest, darkest passageways and scrambled to the highest parapets to impress the girls. A dozen Errol Flynns swashbuckled atop the battlements; a dozen princesses leaned from tower windows; cameras clicked; chaperons held their collective breath. Our teenage spirits soared like the falcons that hovered on unseen currents overhead.

Last spring, nearly 40 years after that first visit, I journeyed again to that enchanted castle with my wife. In the cool dimness of the vaulted entry we met a mixed cluster of Syrians and foreigners who made a point of greeting us. "G'dye," said a tall Australian in walking shorts. Yes, he was Australian, he explained, but originally from these very parts; now, he was a proper foreign tourist, exploring the castle that, as a boy, he had seen only from afar. On their tour of the Krak, he, his Syrian-born wife and their two thoroughly Australian children were being accompanied and feted by the aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews of any Syrian's extended family.

More than 50 meters (55 yards) and two sharp turns up the inclined, cobbled passage, we walked through a second gate and emerged into a sunny courtyard. A covey of girls from a school in a nearby village whispered and giggled under the watchful eyes of nuns. On the next level, the smell of shish kebab grilling over charcoal drifted from a small room, where a cook from a nearby village had been installed by the Department of Antiquities to prepare a simple menu for visiting tour groups. Next door, in a sunny hall with an expansive view down over the castle's outer wall into the valley, a group of spry retirees from England awaited lunch amid the echoes of a dozen conversations.

The still-modest stream of visitors drawn to the Krak des Chevaliers from abroad has not discouraged casual visits from the villagers whose houses cling to the steep slope below its eastern walls. On a paved terrace at the top of a flight of stairs we met two local women in colorful scarves and long embroidered skirts. They chatted together and with us as their dexterous fingers cut stalks of fennel and sprigs of mint from the moist cracks between the stones of a shaded wall. As we climbed higher in the castle, we found quiet nooks and private vistas in plenty in this "most wholly admirable castle in all the world." Author Peter Theroux has called the Krak "the perfect storybook castle that you have always known existed somewhere."

From the top of the keep the views to the four points of the compass are stupendous. Eastward, the low green hills stretch like moorlands toward the distant desert's edge. South, beyond the castle moat and outer wall, a few new houses of concrete block and stucco have crept close to the edge of the castle's outer ditch and an ancient graveyard. Thin cypress trees in their yards grow bent by the constant wind, and beyond them, in May, the distant peaks of Lebanon are still crowned with snow.

To the west, the hills roll toward the Mediterranean, clumps of oaks nestled in their folds, gray-green olive groves in terraced rows upon their slopes. Dwarfed by distance, Lego-like villages are scattered in the valleys and up the hillsides. Some are punctuated by a slender minaret, others by the open bell tower of a church. North, across the deep break of a stream-cut valley, the mountain range continues. Late-season thunder-heads pile high above its ominous dark ridge. Farther north, the crusaders built other castles to guard the mountain's westward flank. Their distant outlines are too far away to be seen, even from the top of the crusader keep, but in the following days we would visit two. Margat, on a triangular hilltop, dominates the coastal plain north of Tartus; Saone, inland east of Latakia, perches on a desolate ridge where two rocky gorges meet as they cut toward the sea.

Although the crusader castles were originally conceived and built to serve as defensive retreats, as time passed modifications in their design allowed the knights within to use them as bases for offensive sorties. As siege operations improved in efficiency and the numbers of defenders continued to dwindle, the stones were assembled in ever more imaginative ways. As Robin Fedden wrote, it was as though the crusaders "produced in the very business of living, like coral, cell on cell of stone."

For the besieging Muslim forces, famine could be an important ally, although without careful preparation the besiegers were equally susceptible to hunger. The attackers also called on engineering and ingenuity to help them accomplish their task, assembling or building an impressive range of specialized weapons and war engines based on two principal strategies. Simply put, these were assault�scaling the walls�or battery: forcisig a way in.

Saone, in the north of Syria, is one of the many crusader castles which fell to Salah al-Din after the battle of Hattin. In 1188 Saladin's army brought up before Saone six massive, catapult-like war engines called mangonels. They were able to hurl stone balls weighing up to 270 kilos (600 pounds) against its walls. When the castle finally fell, it had been in crusader hands for almost a century, and it was never recaptured. Today, as an example of how history is often written by the victors, Saone is identified on Syrian tourist maps by its subsequent Muslim name, Saladin Castle. A small minaret stands among several other ruined structures inside the walls.

Saladin Castle is representative of early castle design. All but three of its towers have a square ground plan, rather than a more defensible round one, and they protrude very little beyond the walls, a fact which limits their usefulness for flanking fire. Also, the towers, walls and even parapets are very sparsely provided with loopholes. Nonetheless, Saladin Castle remains an impressive fortress with a number of remarkable features. Its narrow main gate, situated on the sheltered side of a large rectangular-plan tower, is a very early example of a bent entrance. Water is stored in two rock-carved subterranean tanks, the largest of which is spanned by a stone barrel vault more than 30 meters long and 15 meters high (100 by 50 feet).

But the most unusual feature of Saladin Castle is its moat, a little-known monument which deserves a place on any list of historic engineering wonders. The fortress is a long, narrow triangle atop a rocky ridge; on the side where it touches the mountain the crusaders hewed a deep channel, 18 meters (60 feet) wide and nearly 140 meters (450 feet) long. The sheer rock-cut walls of this ditch rise 27 meters (90 feet) before touching the base of castle, and the castle's battlements tower higher still. To create the moat, which Robin Fedden calls "heroic, triumphantly ambitious," workers carved out aft estimated 170,000 tons of solid rock. And that rock was put to good use, for the moat doubled as a quarry, its stones making up the castle's walls and towers.

More extraordinary still, a rock needle thrusts up out of the bottom of the cleft like an Egyptian obelisk. The monolith is a part of the mountain itself, left in place by the carvers. Once a narrow wooden bridge balanced atop this slender shaft of solid stone, spanning the gap from a postern in the castle walls to an exposed plateau, where in times of peace villagers tilled their fields in the shadow of the castle. Without the bridge, no one�friend or foe�could cross the hand-hewn chasm.

Mining�tunneling�was another technique attackers used to break through a castle's walls. It wouldn't have helped at Saladin Castle, built on solid rock, but it was put to dramatic use when the Muslims besieged Margat a century later in 1285. Margat, with its concentric fortifications of black stone, was the largest of all the crusader castles. Its vast cellars were habitually stocked with enough provisions to last a thousand men over a siege of five years. When the great war engines that Sultan Qala'un had brought up in the final siege were destroyed by the defenders, he sent sappers below ground to completely undermine the foundations of the circular tower-keep. But when the work was done, the sultan was reluctant to destroy such magnificent defensive work, so he invited a delegation of defenders to inspect the extent of the mines. Recognizing that they were defeated, the knights surrendered the castle and withdrew, under a promise of safe conduct, to the port of Acre, far to the south.

The mighty Krak had fallen only a few years before. The crusaders had held the Castle of the Knights for a century and a half, withstanding enemy sieges on no less than 12 occasions. But while in its heyday the Krak maintained a garrison of 2000, by the latter half of the 13th century, it and Margat� by then the only other important fortress in the area still in crusader hands�could together muster only 300 knights. In 1271, many years after Saladin's death, the Mamluk sultan Baybars, leading an Egyptian army and contingents from three local rulers, laid the last and final siege. After nearly a month of attacks the Krak's fourth, seemingly impregnable, inner line of defense was still holding. The stones still did their job, making up for the lack of defenders inside.

Then a letter arrived from the crusader commander at the port of Tripoli, in today's Lebanon, advising that there was no hope of raising reinforcements; the knights, he wrote, should negotiate a surrender. Defeated by their meager numbers, they did so, abandoning the castle to the Muslims under an offer of safe conduct to the coast. Only after the knights had reached Tripoli did they discover that the letter was a forgery. Trickery had breached the stones which force had failed to topple in 160 years. The castle remained intact.

At the Krak, at Margat, at Saladin Castle, more than seven centuries later, the bravest of the stones still stand, square-cut, sun-scorched, still fit together with the fineness of a blade. Probing roots pry other blocks fractionally apart, one season at a time. Where stones have fallen, wild flowers and thistles grow among them. In succeeding years the visitors who pass this way leave as little trace as wavelets lapping against a shore. Among the ancient stones the wind whispers of dedication, ingenuity, determination, boldness, futility and honor. The breezes speak of the warriors who fought both behind these mighty walls and before them: on both sides, noble spirits. Now only the stones remain.

William Tracy, for many years assistant editor ofAramco World, is editor of corporate publications for Aramco Services Company.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the November/December 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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