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Volume 44, Number 6November/December 1993

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Stones That Did the Work of Men

Written and photographed 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.

The Fall of al-Marqab

An important source for the biography of the Mamluk sultan al-Malik al-Mansur Qala'un, and for his role in combating the crusader invasions, is the anonymous work Tashrif al-Ayyam wa l-'Usur bi-Sirat al-Sultan al-Malik al-Mansur (Honoring the Years and the Days of the Life of Sultan al-Malik al-Mansur), of which there is a manuscript in the collection of the Caetani Foundation for Muslim Studies in Rome. It includes an account, abbreviated here, of the siege of Margat Castle—known lo the Muslims as al-Marqab—that differs in its details from the version passed on by Christian sources.

This is a great and mighty castle, which had long been a challenge to our lord the Sultan al-Malik al-MansurGod grant him victory. He studied every means of securing it for Islam and supported every plan or method for conquering it and overcoming it.... The Franks believed that it was unassailable by any combination of force and cunning, and that no one was clever enough to get the better of it. So they went on with their haughty ways, broke their oaths, and ... committed every possible crime and perfidy, rapine and robbery. But our lord the Sultan al-Mansur lay in wait for them like a man-eating lion....

He brought siege-engines from Damascus without anyone knowing where they ... were destined for; armies were mobilized from the various countries in uncountable number, with their stores, equipment and commanders.... The Sultan had sent for a great arsenal from Egypt, with great bundles of arrows and other arms, and issues of arrows were made to the amirs and troops to carry with them and use when given the word; iron implements and flame-throwing tubes were procured, such as exist only in the royal magazines and arsenals.... A number of experts on the art of siege and the techniques of blockade were also enlisted. The catapults of the neighbouring forts were requisitioned and mobilized.... Catapults and fighting gear were carried on men's shoulders. Eventually, our lord the Sultan left his camp at 'Uyun al-Qasab and by forced marches arrived to besiege al-Marqab on Wednesday April 17, 1285.

Immediately the catapults were brought up,... and the fort was surrounded by a murderous circle of weapons.... [There were] three of the great 'Prankish' type [of catapult], three 'qarabughas' and four 'devils'.... These began a formidable, murdurous assault with stones, while excavations were started on each side to undermine the walls. The 'Prankish' catapults broke up those of the enemy, ... but the Franks repaired their catapults, aimed them at the Muslims and smashed some of theirs, killing some of the Muslims who operated them. It is incontestable that the fortunes of war ebb and flow and that not everyone can save his skin.

When the Sultan's tunnel under the wall was finished the wood was put into it and set on fire on Wednesday May 25; the fire reached mid-tunnel under the tower at the angle of the bastion and the Muslims moved in to attack the walls themselves, but after violent fighting the attacking force proved insufficiently powerful to scale the wall. At sunset [however] the tower collapsed [due to the undermining], which in the opinion of our army increased the difficulty of gaining a foothold in the fortress. Thus the night passed in great confusion, for the use of catapults was made impossible by what had happened, and everything that could be done with mines had been done. Now God alone could exterminate the enemy.

On the following Friday God made the Franks think that the tunnels under the entire wall were all equally far advanced, that they ... were undermining the walls themselves. In fact the tunnels, travelling in conduits under the moats, had reached [only] as far as the towers, but the Franks were unaware of this. When they did discover it they lost their courage and presence of mind and gave themselves up for lost.... [The Sultan] agreed to grant them pardon and amnesty, and they, in the faith that our Sultan's word was worth more than any oaths, sent their leaders to the tent of victory and asked only for their lives and nothing more.... Safe-conducts were issued for them and they ... surrendered the fort in its entirety at the eighth hour of Friday May 25 [sic]....

The Muslims went up [to take possession of the fort] and from the heights of the citadel the call to prayer resounded with praise and thanks to God....

Reprinted by permission from Francesco Gabrieli's Arab Historians of the "Crusades, Selected and Translated from the Arabic Sources, translated and edited by E. J. Costello and published in the United States by the University of California Press. Translation copyright © 1969 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.

Terms of Engagement
Written by William Tracy

Battlement: A parapet, with crenelation, atop a fortress wall, from which defenders could fire down on attacking troops.

Bent entrance: An entrance passage into a castle that makes an abrupt turn. The turn inhibited the use of a battering ram, confused and slowed down the attackers and might make them vulnerable to missiles or fluids from machicolations overhead. The long entry passage in the Krak had three such turns.

Cisterns: Rainwater from paved roofs and courtyards urns channeled into underground cisterns, some hewn from solid rock. A large water supply was essetitial for withstanding an extended siege, and cisterns were valuable even if a castle had its oxon well or spring.

Communications: Castles were often built on ridge lines within sight of each other so that signal fires could be used at night to pass on an alarm. Both the Arab armies and the crusaders also used carrier pigeons.

Concentric fortifications: Whenever the site permitted, castles had two lines of defense, the inner wall on higher ground being always taller than the outer wall. Towers and loopholes were arranged so that those in the inner wall were never directly behind or above similar features in the outer wall, doubling their effectiveness.

Crenelation: In battlements, which alternate open and solid spaces, the notches are crenels and the solid intervals merlons. Merlons were sometimes furnislied with loopholes.

Embrasure: An opening in a wall, such as a loophole or a crenel; especially an opening whose sides flare outward, providing defenders shooting through the opening with both the widest possible field of fire and the maximum protection against incoming missiles.

Keep: Usually the highest and innermost tower, often built to overlook and thus strengthen the most vulnerable sector of the castle's defenses. It was also the point from which the commander might direct the defense.

Loopholes: In later castles, walls and towers were pierced at every level by loopholes or slits through which arrows or other missiles could be fired. The slits were often widened at the bottom into a stirrup shape to broaden their fields of fire, and set so that none was directly above another.

Machicolation: An opening between the corbel stones of a projecting roof through which missiles or hot fluids, like molten lead, could be discharged on assailants below. From the French mache-col, or "neck-crusher." A box machicoulis added the further protection of a projecting, vertical parapet above the openings between tin corbels.

Moat: A deep, wide trench, often filled with water, that served as a barrier around a fortified castle.

Parapet: A low wall or breastwork that protected the edge of a platform or the walk along the top of a larger wall.

Postern: A small gate at the side or back of a castle, usually in a concealed spot, such as a recess in the angle of a square tower. The postern, also called sally port, permitted small offensive sorties and allowed messengers to come and go inconspicuously.

Portcullis: A heavy grating hung above a fortified gateway; it could be lowered, sliding in stone grooves, to block the entry.

Stores: Vast, cool underground chambers were stocked with enough dried or preserved food to see a large garrison through a lengthy siege. The defense strategy might include equipping a castle with a windmill, granaries, oil presses and dovecotes.

Talus: The much thickened lower portion of a castle's curtain wall, designed to prevent attackers from getting too close to the base of the wall, or directly beneath towers and battlements, where they might be hidden from the line of fire. The talus gives the lower half or third of the walls a distinct outward slope.

Towers: Set at intervals in both outer and inner walls, towers were strong-points from which fire could be concentrated. In early fortresses they were placed at corners or turns in the wall; later structures had more towers, spaced more frequently and protruding from the castle walls to permit flanking fire along them. Square towers gave way to cylindrical ones, again improving the field of fire and making the tower less susceptible to battering or undermining. There are also a few examples of towers with horseshoe-shaped plans, combining the best features of square and round towers.

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


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