The one Castle to rule them all, ancient waterwheels, beehive villages and a sandstone palace
27.02.2010 - 28.02.2010 7 °C
The next day's outing with Jihad was to Qasr al-Hosn, better known as Krak des Chevaliers, and apparently the Crusader Castle of the Middle East, the epitome of childhood fantasies of jousts and armour. It truly was a magnificent castle, sitting on a huge hill, with rounded towers, a wide now-grassy moat and commanding views for about 10-15km over the valley and surrounding towns. It was built in 1031 and captured by the Crusaders in 1099 and became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, who expanded it into the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land to house a huge garrison of 2,000. The castle addressed the only significant break in the Jebel (Mount) Ansariyya. Any force who held this breach, known as the Homs Gap, was virtually guaranteed control over inland Syria by controlling the flow of goods and people from the port to the interior.
In 1271 after much wresting for power betweenm Saladin and the Crusaders, the fortress was captured by the Mamluk Sultan Beybars, with the aid of heavy trebuchets and mangonels (both catapulty things). However, to conquer the castle, Beybars used a trick by presenting a forged letter from the Crusader Commander in Tripoli, Lebanon, ordering the defenders to surrender the castle. Otherwise, this immensely strong castle would probably never have fallen. Beybars refortified the castle and used it as a base, and he also converted the Hospitaller chapel to a mosque. Inside the castle we spotted a wide pillar which had an Arabic inscription of the Beybars' full title: "The Manifest King, Pillar of the World and the Faith, Father of the Victory". Modest guy it appears.
Even though we'd been to two Crusader Castles previously, our enthusiasm for exploring didn't fade and we wandered through the whole castle - down dark and slippery stairs to eerie underground caverns and baths, up turrets to see the acrophobic views below, and also around the moat. Krak des Chevaliers is unique in that it has Gothic, Romanesque and Islamic aspects - we spotted some faint reddish Crusader frescoes in an old bare chapel that had subsequently been converted into a mosque. Curiously, the vaulted hall was decorated in Egyptian theme, with white plaster pillars with hieroglyphs placed over original pillars. The setting for a school ball or historically inaccurate movie set perhaps? We later spied some actors near the outter walls, dressed in early 20th century military clothing, and film crew on site, so perhaps the latter guess was correct. Again, we were lucky to be virtually the only visitors that day, although it was a chilly and windy day.
Krak des Chevaliers
The exterior of the Castle
Commanding views of the valley
Exploring the halls and Castle inner
Mamaluk sultan's pillar
The chapel converted into a mosque
A remaining Crusader fresco
Around the courtyard and outer walls
The remains of a Crusader church
Ancient pottery oil urns
Jihad next took us on a winding, 2-hour drive to the small town of Hama through some nice apple orchard scenery. We lunched in Hama and had views of the some of the famous old norias (waterwheels), which apparently date back to 1100 BC and were historically used for irrigation. We were lucky enough to see some guys turning the noria by hand, perhaps for maintenance and we also chuckled at a tourist wearing a Robin Hood green cape who was passing by and also captured the attention of the noria workers, who waved at him to come look at the norias up close. Hama was where Jihad was from, and he later disclosed to us that he unfortunately lost four brothers in the 1982 'massacre' by the Syrian Army who quashed a local revolt. Sadly, much of the town is featureless, contemporary building, as the majority of the old town was destroyed. We spent the afternoon and night in Hama and tried a local dessert, halawat al-jibn, which was a long roll of mild-tasting soft, chewy cheese dough, sprinkled with chopped pistachios. We tried two small pieces and it was pleasant, albeit a little bland to our tastebuds.
Halawat al-Jibn dessert
The next day Jihad took us towards the Roman ruins of Palmyra. We passed some conical mud 'beehive villages', and also kms and kms of olive groves and more apple orchards, then finally to desert. Interestingly after days of rain, the desert had been transformed from what is ordinarily dry and arid, to lush-looking, green fields.
We stopped in Qasr Ibn Warden, which is a 6th century Byzantine sandstone and basalt palace. It served many purposes and was a combined military base, palace and church, but in fact was probably built to impress the local Bedouin as to the strength and status of their overlords. We poked our head into the palace - it was largely empty but still had some carved stones in the remains of rooms, and flour mills in the courtyard. Jihad got talking to the caretaker, who shared some sweet chamomile tea with us as we sheltered from the cold and rain. The caretaker was a sweet guy and showed us his old school textbook with a map of NZ. Jihad loosely translated the text, which said something along the lines of us being a rich nation with tons of sheep. Jihad also had fun dressing us up in Bedouin garb, and got us to don very heavy leather and sheep-fur coats, and the traditional red-and-white-checkered headscarfs.
Our next stop - the epic Roman ruins of Palmyra!
Qasr Ibn Warden
The happy Bedouin couple