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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Eminence and its Limitations

Fortresses fulfilled a variety of roles. Some were intended to actively defend, some primarily to fulfil a regional administrative role, some merely for reconaissance purposes. I have mentioned in the past about an excursion that I took with my wife through parts of south-eastern Turkey, and of our attempt to visit a castle called variously Çalan or Chivlan that is occasionally identified with the medieval La Roche de Roissol, an attempt that failed because of the difficulty of its approach and, more to the point, because of my fear of heights. To reach this castle involved a long and arduous drive, but as is often the case in these out-of-the-way places, it was well worth the effort. We were rewarded with a remarkable view when the land dropped away in a vast locked-in plain surrounded on all sides by tall, forested mountains. Opposite, in the distance we could make out vague ruins of the sought-after castle on its prominent rock. We drove through the valley with its scattered villages and lush gardens. On some of the fences there were mysterious totems made from the skulls of small animals mounted on poles and here and there were mosques with remarkable tin minarets mounted with conical cones that looked for all the world like missiles or those moon rockets from children's books of the 1950's. As we approached, we could see the not very substantial ruins on the sloping crest of the hill, below which the rock dropped down to the valley floor and the scattering of village houses at its foot. On this side there was no way at all to reach the castle and we drove through the village and around the hill ascending until we reached a place well behind the castle, at which point we parked the car and got out and I tried to approach the castle by foot along a narrow track up the slope surrounded by wind-stunted pines and oaks. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this attempt proved to be futile. Whereas the other side had been a sheer cliff and the approach on this side had seemed more feasible, in reality it was not that much better. The forest was extremely dense and the slope gradually but consistently became steeper. After having several times lost my footing I sat breathlessly on the rocky path listening to the howling wind that cut across treetops and the steady monotonous shrill of cicadas, pondering on how on earth the garrison had managed to make this climb on a regular basis.

"We saw it towering on an impenetrable summit, rising on an impregnable rock, its foundations touching the sky.... penetrating the ravines, it climbed the mountains, it flaunted its walls in the clouds, shrouded in fog, inseparable from the clouds, suspended from the sun and the moon... no one could have aspired to climb up there, whoever coveted it had no means of getting there, whoever raised his eyes to it could not fix his gaze."*

This description written by the twelfth century Muslim historian Imad ad-Din seems a very apt one, though in fact he was not describing Çalan at all, but another far more important castle further to the south-east, the massive Templar fortress of Gaston (Baghras), which in reality has a comparatively easy approach. Perhaps he confused the two? Çalan's identity and history are somewhat dubious and Robert Edwards writes in his comprehensive study of the fortresses of Cilician Armenia: "Although we cannot unquestionably associate Çalan with any historical site, the masonry and architectural features are Templar."**

If Çalan was difficult to approach, by the same token it would have been difficult to leave, and so its function would have been restricted and its garrison would have had little ability to serve in any manner in controlling the passage through the mountain pass that it overlooks. Its only apparent use would have been as a lookout post. Gaston, on the other hand, though on a prominence, being more easily accessed could indeed take on a more active role in defending the Belen Pass, the so-called Syrian Gates, a vital passage through the mountains between the Principality of Antioch and the kingdom of Lesser Armenia. As the latter served as a buffer between the Seljuks and the crusader states this role was as important for the Franks as it was for the security of the Armenians.

* Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, quoted from Janet M. Upton-Ward, "The Surrender of Gaston and the Rule of the Templars, in Malcolm Barber, ed., The Military Orders, vol. 1, Fighting for the Faith and Caring for the Sick, Aldershot, 1994, p. 181.

* Robert W. Edwards, The Fortifications of Armenian Cilicia, Washington, 1987, p. 102.

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