10 examples of castles in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, founded or occupied during the Crusades.
1 – Krak des Chevaliers – Syria
Krak des Chevaliers is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by a settlement of Kurdish troops garrisoned there by the Mirdasids; as a result it was known as Hisn al-Akrad, meaning the “Castle of the Kurds”. In 1142 it was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, to the Knights Hospitaller. It remained in their possession until it fell in 1271. It became known as Crac de l’Ospital; the name Krak des Chevaliers was coined in the 19th century.
The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170 when an earthquake damaged the castle. The order controlled a number of castles along the border of the County of Tripoli, a state founded after the First Crusade. Krak des Chevaliers was among the most important, and acted as a center of administration as well as a military base.
During the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011, UNESCO voiced concerns that the war might lead to the damage of important cultural sites such as Krak des Chevaliers. It has been reported that the castle was shelled in August 2012 by the Syrian Arab Army, and the Crusader chapel has been damaged. The castle was reported to have been damaged in July 2013 by an airstrike during the Siege of Homs, and once more on 18 August 2013 it was clearly damaged yet the amount of destruction is unknown. The Syrian Arab Army recaptured the castle and the village of al-Hosn from rebel forces on March 20, 2014, although the extent of damage from earlier mortar hits remained unclear.
2 – Kerak Castle – Jordan
Kerak Castle is a large Crusader castle located in al-Karak, Jordan. It is one of the largest crusader castles in the Levant. Construction of the castle began in the 1140s, under Pagan and Fulk, King of Jerusalem. Pagan was also Lord of Oultrejordain and Kerak Castle became the centre of his power, replacing the weaker castle of Montreal to the south. Because of its position east of the Dead Sea, Kerak Castle was able to control bedouin herders as well as the trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca.
In 1176 Raynald of Châtillon gained possession of Kerak Castle after marrying Stephanie of Milly, the widow of Humphrey III of Toron (and daughter-in-law of Humphrey II of Toron). From Kerak Castle, Raynald harassed the trade camel trains and even attempted an attack on Mecca itself. In 1183 Saladin besieged the castle in response to Raynald’s attacks. The siege took place during the marriage of Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella I of Jerusalem, and Saladin, after some negotiations and with a chivalrous intent, agreed not to target their chamber while his siege machines attacked the rest of the castle. After the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Saladin besieged Kerak Castle again and finally captured it in 1189.
3 – Montreal – Jordan
Montreal is a Crusader castle on the eastern side of the Arabah, perched on the side of a rocky, conical mountain, located in the modern town of Shoubak in Jordan. The castle was built in 1115 by Baldwin I of Jerusalem during his expedition to the area where he captured Aqaba on the Red Sea in 1116. Originally called ‘Krak de Montreal’ or ‘Mons Regalis’, it was named in honour of the king’s own contribution to its construction (Mont Royal). It was strategically located on a hill on the plain of Edom, along the pilgrimage and caravan routes from Syria to Arabia.
It remained property of the royal family of the Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1142, when it became part of the Lordship of Oultrejordain. It was held by Philip de Milly, and then passed to Raynald of Châtillon when he married Stephanie de Milly. Raynald used the castle to attack the rich caravans that had previously been allowed to pass unharmed. This was intolerable to the Ayyubid sultan Saladin, who invaded the kingdom in 1187. After capturing Jerusalem, later in the year he besieged Montreal. During the siege the defenders are said to have sold their wives and children for food, and to have gone blind from “lack of salt.” Because of the hill Saladin was unable to use siege engines, but after almost two years the castle finally fell to his troops in May 1189.
4 – Sidon Castle – Lebanon
Sidon’s Sea Castle was built by the crusaders as a fortress of the holy land in the modern day port city of Sidon. During the 13th century, the Crusaders built the Sea Castle as a fortress on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow 80m long roadway. The island was formerly the site of a temple to Melqart, the Phoenician version of Heracles.
It was partially destroyed by the Mamluks when they took over the city from the Crusaders, but they subsequently rebuilt it and added the long causeway. The castle later fell into disuse, but was again restored in the 17th century by Emir Fakhreddine II, only to suffer great damage.
5 – Byblos Castle – Lebanon
Byblos Castle in Byblos, Lebanon was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century from indigenous limestone and the remains of Roman structures. It belonged to the genoese Embriaco family, whose members were the Lords of Gibelet (as Byblos/Lebanon was called during Middle Ages).
Saladin captured the town and castle in 1188 and dismantled the walls in 1190. Later, the Crusaders recaptured Byblos and rebuilt the fortifications of the castle in 1197.
6 – Belvoir Fortress – Israel
Belvoir Fortress is a Crusader fortress built by Gilbert of Assailly, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in 1168 in northern Israel, on a hill 20 kilometres (12 mi) south of the Sea of Galilee. Standing 500 metres (1,600 ft) above the Jordan River Valley, the plateau commanded the route from Gilead into the Kingdom of Jerusalem and a nearby river crossing.
It withstood an attack by Muslim forces in 1180. During the campaign of 1182, the Battle of Belvoir Castle was fought nearby between King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Saladin. Following Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin, Belvoir was besieged. The siege lasted a year and a half, until the defenders surrendered on 5 January 1189. An Arab governor occupied it until 1219 when the Ayyubid ruler in Damascus had slighted.
7 – Bagras – Turkey
Bagras is a castle in the İskenderun district of Turkey, in the Amanus Mountains. The castle was erected c. 965 by the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who stationed there 1000 footmen and 500 horsemen under the command of Michael Bourtzes to raid the countryside of the nearby city of Antioch.
It was then rebuilt about 1153 by the Knights Templar under the name Gaston (also Gastun, Guascon, Gastim) and held by them or by the Principality of Antioch until it was forced to capitulate to Saladin on 26 August 1189. It was retaken in 1191 by the Armenians (under Leo II), and their possession of it became a major point of contention between them and the Antiochenes and Templars.
After much negotiation, it was finally returned to the Templars in 1216. According to the Armenian chronicles, it withstood a siege by the forces of Aleppo at about this time. After the fall of Antioch to Baibars in 1268, the garrison lost heart and decided to destroy what they could and surrender the castle.
8 – Margat – Syria
Margat, also known as Marqab is a castle near Baniyas, Syria, which was a Crusader fortress and one of the major strongholds of the Knights Hospitaller.
According to Arab sources, the site of Margat Castle was first fortified in 1062 by Muslims who continued to hold it within the Christian Principality of Antioch in the aftermath of the First Crusade.
In the 1170s it was controlled by Reynald II Mazoir of Antioch as a vassal of the count of Tripoli. The fortress was so large that it had its own household officials and a number of rear-vassals. Reynaud’s son Bertrand sold it to the Hospitallers in 1186 as it was too expensive for the Mazoir family to maintain. After some rebuilding and expansion by the Hospitallers it became their headquarters in Syria. Under Hospitaller control, its fourteen towers were thought to be impregnable.
In 1188, Saladin marched on Margat having left Krak des Chevaliers in search of easier prey. According to Abu’l-Fida, “Recognising that Maqab was impregnable and that he had no hope of capturing it, he passed on to Jabala”. It was one of the few remaining territories left in Christian hands after Saladin’s conquests.
9 – Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles – Lebanon
The Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, also known as Qala’at Sanjil in Arabic, is a citadel and fort in Tripoli, Lebanon. It takes its name from Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the Count of Toulouse and Crusader commander who started its construction on a hilltop outside Tripoli in 1103 in order to lay siege to the city.
Later, Raymond enlarged the fortress, which he named Mont Peregrinus (Mt Pilgrim).
Pharaoh’s Island – Egypt
Pharaoh’s Island or Jazīrat Fira‘wn refers to an island in the northern Gulf of Aqaba some 200 meters east off the shore of Egypt’s eastern Sinai Peninsula. The island is 350 meters long north-south, and up to 170 meters wide. The area is 3.9 hectares.
Crusaders defending the route between Cairo and Damascus controlled by the nearby city of Aqaba, in Jordan, built a citadel on the small island, which they called Ile de Graye, referred to as Ayla or Aila in Arabic chronicles of the era, which also referred to a town of the same name on an island on the opposite side of the gulf.
In December 1170, Saladin conquered the island and reconstructed the citadel and left a garrison of men there. In November 1181, Raynald of Châtillon raided the Arab-held Aila and attempted to set up a naval blockade against the Muslim troops there during the winter of 1182 to 1183. The blockade consisted of only two ships and was not successful. By the time of the 13th century, when the pilgrim Thietmar passed the island in 1217, the entire place was inhabited by a fishing village and populated by Muslims and captive Franks. By the winter of 1116, the island was almost deserted.