On Crac of the Hospitallers
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
In 1941 while on leave in Tripoli, my father, then serving in the Royal Australian Artillery in Syria, ran into his brother who took him up into the hills to see the huge Hospitaller fortress of Crac des Chevaliers. I recall from my childhood seeing the tiny black and white images of the castle which I sadly can no longer trace. My father never spoke much about this experience, except to recall that at the castle my uncle, a captain in the 2/23 Infantry battalion, got him intoxicated on the strong local beer, though apparently not to a degree that prevented him from taking the photographs. But I wonder how much of an impression the castle made on him. Less perhaps than other places that he frequently spoke about, though that may have been due not only to the Syrian beer, but the excitement of war, and the delight in having run into his adulated oldest brother in a most extraordinary manner thousands of miles from home. I imagine nonetheless that this vast fortress must have made an impression on him, as it must for anyone who visits it.
Asked recently if there was any downside in being an archaeologist of the crusader period in Israel (there are mainly upsides), I mentioned the inability to visit some of the finest castles built by the Franks; and of those, most would agree, Crac des Chevaliers is the finest. It is also the most intact, having been among the few that the Mamluks chose not to dismantle, and having through fortune avoided the fate of many of those that did survive but subsequently fell victim to earthquake, stone robbing or war damage. Crac suffered badly at the hands of Syrian rebels in the recent conflict, but that damage was minor compared to the centuries of ruin and neglect that has rendered most other castles, shattered hulks. And Crac benefited from French colonial aspirations. The French in Syria, like the British in Palestine saw their Outremer past as a ticket for a revived presence and influence in the Levant. They studied it and cleared it of the village houses that had encrusted it like barnacles on a shipwreck. It was subsequently partly excavated and restored, and until the recent conflict it was a highly popular tourist destination in Syria. This is somewhat surprising considering that the castle is a very powerful manifestation of medieval Christian might in the face of Islamic pride. Perhaps, as it was not dismantled by Baybars but was instead turned into a governor's residence and was indeed enhanced with impressive rows of machicolations, it could to some degree be regarded as a Syrian castle.
Some thoughtful individual has uploaded to the internet a film of the road to the castle taken from the window of a truck driving I imagine along the very route my father and uncle took. It is a long, shaky film, with no commentary other than the whining of the engine on the curves, and the whacking of the wind through the open window. It enables banished souls like myself to get a real sense of the landscape, as if I am on that bumpy ride through the unkempt landscape of terraced hills with rows of grey-blue olives and ugly concrete villages, and the vast green Homs Gap spread out below. Otherwise, I know Crac only from reading and from photographs, but I seem to know it for all that. I seem to have been there, to have walked up to its vast walls, to have clambered through the flicker and drama of its cold, dark passageways, to have breathed the damp and dust in its cavernous vaults, and stepped out into the brilliant glare of its wall-walks. Crac is every castle-lovers dream, brilliantly perched over the green fissure of the Gap, intelligently designed to incorporate all of the innovations of that innovative castle-building age, possibly the greatest achievement of the military orders... monumental, audacious... the Parthenon of castles.