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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Dubious Origins

Adapted from CarmelH1 / CC BY-SA (

Qal'at al-Subeibe or Qal'at Namrud occupies a spur descending south-west from Mount Hermon. It is among the most marvellous of all medieval castles. It is vast, its curtains and towers spread up the slopes as if it were a gargantuan jewel-studded chain left there in ancient times by one of the Biblical Nefilim. There is no more splendid setting. The whole of the Hula Valley lies at its feet: the famed Panias spring, the walled town, the swift-flowing streams in verdant forests of oak, fig, ash and laurel. In the distance across the valley its Frankish cousin, Beaufort gazes back (one almost expects it to wave). To its north-east rises the snow-decked Hermon, and around and beyond are steep ascents, ravines, gorges, forests, falling water. Its name in Arabic, "Fortress of the Great Cliff" is apt enough. Subeibe has often been regarded as the penultimate crusader fortress, and it is not hard to see why. It overlooks the town of Banias and so references in documents to the fortress of Banias seemed to be referring to it. And it displays many of the finest architectural achievements of the Middle Ages, for the application of which the Franks in particular were renowned. But it was not built to defend Banias. Rather it was intended to guard the road to Damascus, and doubts of its crusader connection are old enough. In 1866 Arthur Penrhyn Stanley wrote in Sinai and Palestine that it was: "...built, as it would appear, in part by the Herodian princes, in part by Saracenic chiefs..."[1] The second assessment was true. In 1877 William McClure Thomson queried: "Is it probable, or even possible, that the Crusaders erected this prodigious fortification?" and answered himself: "I think not."[2] Horatio Kitchener in the Survey of Western Palestine referred to it as: "the crusading castle of Banias", and noted that it was: "the finest ruined castle I have seen in the country."[3] T.E. Lawrence who visited Subeibe in 1909 believed that the Franks had occupied the fortress in 1129 and after losing it, regained it and turned it over to the Hospitallers, and that as such it can be regarded it as the earliest datable Hospitaller castle in Syria.[4] He suggested that the Franks erected the large square keep. He was "very satisfied" with it, a very British way of saying that he was delighted by it:

"I got all over the place, and at last set fire to the brushwood in the inner court which burnt all morning. Still in the evening I profited, by seeing the building as a whole, as no other person had done for 20 years - it was simply chocked with rubbish."

In the little book by Robin Fedden and John Thomson it was said to have "helped to hold down the local Moslem population and to give security and prosperity to the town of Banyas on the road below it."[5] Otto Smail too, in his splendid Crusading Warfare, believed the crusaders had occupied it and built the keep and bailey.[6] But Joshua Prawer wrote: "As to Subeibe (Qal'at Nimrud), usually regarded as the castle of Banyas, we have serious reservations as to its links with the Crusaders."[7] The idea nonetheless persisted until it was finally put to rest, to the degree that anything can ever really put to rest, by Ronnie Ellenblum in a paper titled "Who Built Qal'at al-Subayba?" in which he convincingly presented the evidence for Subeibe having been first built at the initiative of the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus, al-'Aziz 'Uthman in 1228 and later enhanced by Baybars - in short, being totally Muslim. He thereby achieved an academic dismantling, like a latter day Baybars, of one of the greatest of all the "crusader" castles.[8]

Arthur P. Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, London, 1866, p. 397.

2 W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, London, 1877, p. 244.

3 Horatio H. Kitchener, Survey of Western Palestine, vol. 1, Galilee, eds. C.R. Conder and H.H. Kitchener, London, 1881, pp. 125-26.

4 T. E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles, Oxford, 1988 edition with Introduction and notes by Denys Pringle, p. 62, n. 46, 73-5.

5 Robin Fedden and John Thomson, Crusader Castles, London, 1957, p. 25.

6 R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, Cambridge, 1956, p. 223.

7 Joshua Prawer, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, London, 1980, 284, n. 5.

8 Ronnie Ellenblum "Who Built Qal'at al-Subayba?", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 43, 1989, pp. 103-12.

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