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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Accessibility (and the Value of Making an Effort)

In the summer of 2002, my wife and I drove through south-eastern Turkey visiting a number of medieval fortresses, among them several that were built by the military orders with the aim of defending the mountain passes into what in the Middle Ages constituted the kingdom of Lesser Armenia. One morning, after a rather spartan breakfast in a rather spartan hotel in the little town of Osmaniye, we drove north-east on the old highway rising up into the Nur (Amanus) mountains. This was in the pre-Google Maps/Waze era when one had to rely on printed road maps and helpful English-speaking locals. Neither of these means proved very efficient. The former seemed to have been prepared either an underpaid malcontent who had never used these roads, or perhaps by some malicious person whose main pleasure in life was to intentionally confuse the innocent traveller. Perhaps he was in league with the person in charge of placing signposts along the roads, for these too, where they existed were at best vague and sometimes entirely misleading. The locals were almost always well-intentioned, but the language barrier often led to confusion. In any case, the landscape was attractive, greener than the plain with more trees and streams and the air less humid and heavy so that our expectations rose steadily in accordance with the topography. However, after taking a wrong turn and sensing that we had gotten off track (a particularly bald and ominous mountain rising ahead of us seemed to be a warning sign), our doubts were confirmed by an old man on a motorcycle. We took his advice and headed back the way we had come and indeed after several kilometres we found the road we had been looking for. An iron bridge over a wild mountain stream and a twisting route through the hills eventually led into the village of Haruniye. We drove on up to the village where I inquired of a group of lethargic men drinking tea on the roadside as to where the castle might be. They immediately came alive: "Ah.. the kale... the kale. Straight ahead. Come. I'll show you." and one of them got up and walked out into the street pointing ahead to the distant foothills. "There. You see? The kale. It's there." and indeed I could see it, dark and grey on a low hill in the distance, the mountains rising beyond. It didn't occur to him to mention that if we took a left turn and then a right, a metal road would take us all the way to the castle, and we followed his directions, driving down a dirt track between recently harvested fields. The castle was quite close by now but the road did not appear to approach it at all, but rather, turned away, and the castle remained elusive, disappearing and reappearing behind trees and houses. We entered another small and picturesque village where I got out of the car and took some photographs from beside a small brick schoolhouse. A teacher, cane in hand, was reciting to a class of about ten young girls out in the open, but I did not want to impose and ask him the way, so we drove on a bit and inquired instead of a group of children who clearly had no idea what we wanted. Eventually I managed to get a little dark-haired and deer-eyed boy of about thirteen to direct us down a path, sidestepping a crab-infested irrigation ditch that crossed the path and passing occasional houses with gardens full of walnut, apple and cherry trees we walked down to the base of the valley and up again to reach the castle gate.

When you have to make a great effort to achieve something you are often more appreciative of it when you succeed (and by the same token, more disappointed when you fail). So it is with many of these Cilician castles. The difficulty of accessing them is enhanced by the excitement and interest when it is obtained, so much more than those sites that one simply drives up to and enters. Of course, the difficulties of access for a traveller or scholar today often has little or nothing to do with the ability to reach and enter them when they were first built. There was a dilemma here for castle builders. On the one hand they wished to make the fortress difficult for an enemy to approach and enter, on the other hand to make it accessible to its garrison. In the Armenian castles one gets the sense that the former requirement outweighed the latter, and their efforts in making their castles safe included both difficult to access locations and complex defensive designs at the entrances. They made much of impassable locations, narrow ridges edged by steep cliffs or cut off by narrow necks, and increased the defensive qualities of the castles by cutting deep ditches and constructing massive ring walls. Crusader fortresses are rarely quite as inaccessible and the chief Armenian influence on crusader castle design was in the gateways and entrance passages themselves. The Frankish builders imitated their systems of man-made obstacles, ramps, bent entrances and multiple defensive mechanisms. The devises we encounter at Yilan (Snake Castle) near Adana, at Anavarza, are also to be found at the Templar fortress of Gaston (Bagras) on the eastern side of the Belen Pass on the road to Antakia (Antioch) and, often in even more advanced complexity in several castles, small and large, in the crusader states, perhaps most impressively at Belvoir, Bethgibelin, Saone and Crac des Chevaliers.

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