Off again after breakfast, which proved much better than dinner, we headed to Karak Castle, best known as the castle of the crusader Reynald de Châtillon. The scenery on the old “King’s Highway” was spectacular.
Raynald de Châtillon is a controversial fellow, often vilified in popular history, most recently in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven.” The truth is most likely that he was simply a man of his times whose morals and values were different from ours. He started off as a second son, and thus could not inherit, so he became a mercenary and then spent fifteen years as a prisoner of the Muslims before being ransomed. All of that would be enough to influence anyone. He is famous for his raids into Egypt and Arabia, earning Saladin’s personal enmity. (It appears that he was, however, innocent of the murder of Saladin’s sister.) You can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raynald_of_Châtillon
This may be the place to put in some links on the Crusades. Beyond reading the famous “The Crusades” by Harold Lamb, there is a simply amazing site here: https://europeanhistory.boisestate.edu/crusades/ The really hard core can take a full on line course on the Crusades. And given world events, it would be most useful if some of our commentators would do just that. The book, “The Crusades” appears to be out of print, but you can read it here: https://archive.org/details/cruasadestheflam006191mbp (I bought my copy used and discovered that it had belonged to Ambassador Parker Hart (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker_T._Hart) who was purged by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I feel like I am holding a bit of history each time I read it.)
For the rest of us, on July 15, 1099, the Crusaders took Jerusalem after a brief siege. They then proceeded to slaughter almost all of the Jews and Muslims who lived there. It appears that, contrary to some reports, the Christian inhabitants had already been expelled form the city. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(1099)) The differences between “eastern” and “western” Christians were already so pronounced that the Crusaders had no compunctions about killing of eastern Christians. The Crusaders then set up the various kingdoms of the Outremer and, to defend them, started building a chain of large castles, running from Krak des Chevaliers in Syria to Montreal in southern Jordan. Kerak was an important part to this chain. (Which led, of course, the the construction of counter castles like Ajloun, visited in this post: https://diplostrat.org/2016/07/27/heading-north-the-adventure-begins/ )
Kerak has been fortified since Biblical times but the castle that you can visit today was started in the 1140’s. It took about twenty years to build the first castle and the castle was used by the Crusaders, the Umayyads and was still in use in Ottoman times. This has lead to many changes over the year, but the essential character of the castle remains. It is a “spur” castle, flanked by several enormous glacis and accessible only on the north side. The north wall is huge, more like a Keep than a wall or gate house and proceed by a deep fosse or moat. It is easy to see why the castle was able to withstand several sieges. The castle was interesting in that it was built on a cliff but was also built down into the cliff. Between tunneling in the mountain and filling in the space between the walls, Kerak sometimes feels more like one big, multistory building, than a classic wall-around-the-inner-ward of other castles. However you describe it, Kerak is is one of the big ten of castles in the world.
Turning on the way-back machine, Kerak was one of Fred’s favorite destinations as a child.
Kerak today is a well preserved archeological site. Back in the 1950’s it was a wonderful playground for kids. especially those obsessed with history. And cows. Kerak today has more visitors in a day than it would have had in a month. Photos were taken by Fred or, more likely as they are full frame, by his Father. (Fred had a half frame camera as a child.) From their size, they may have all been contact prints.
Part of Kerak’s strategic importance came from its location astride the Moab trade routes. From its heights you can see all the way to the Dead Sea.
We found ourselves acquired by a charming and authentic sounding guide, which given a total lack of any form of explanation (unlike Aljoun Castle which had been well documented), made our visit much more understandable. We would have been guessing at rooms otherwise. That said, all guides must be taken with at least some salt.
|1: Present entrance
2: Original entrance
3: North and south moats
|7: Mameluke residence
As you can see from the map, there was a lot to see. Worth noting that the castle was originally surrounded by Kerak town, of which little remains. The town was sometimes taken and destroyed when the castle still held out. The modern Kerak remains a largely Christian community.
We started at the north face. Over the centuries, the fosse has largely been filled in. There would have been wooden bridges over the fosse to the main and postern gates; wooden so that they could be easily destroyed when the castle was attacked.
Once inside, we could look back at the massive North Wall. While most of the construction is of stone, there would have been lots wooden and mud brick walls and floors as well.
The great North Wall was a warren of passages and rooms.
Ahead of us was the inner ward, divided into Upper and Lower Courts.
It has changed a bit over the years.
We started out underground. In Kerak, more than any other castle we have visited, the underground galleries are simply amazing.
We saw the multiple levels of cells (some with fireplaces for the better class of prisoner!) and huge stables.
We had a special guide who knew all about the underground passages.
There are great views over the modern town as well. Don’t know the date of the glacis, but imagine trying to fight your way up that slope.
As noted, many of the “surface” ruins are still a long way underground.
There is a lot more excavation to do. Maybe there will be more to see if we make it back again! Kerak belongs on every history nut’s bucket list.
Wonderful article, thank you!
You may find my ancestor less of a contradiction if you exclude the politically motivated accounts of William of Tyre, Runciman who repeats them unchallenged, and Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” which is blatantly anti-Crusader. Strangely, he has a better reputation among contemporary Muslim chroniclers. Check also Dr. Paul Crawford’s more current research.