Krak (also Crac) des Chevaliers (mod. Qal‘at al-Hişn or Hişn al-Akrãd, Syria) was a castle on a mountain spur on the eastern frontier of the county of Tripoli, overlooking the fertile plains around the Muslim city of Homs (mod. Ḥims, Syriaț).
In 1144 Count Raymond II of Tripoli gave the site and most of the surrounding land to the Order of the Hospital. In the second half of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers built an enclosure castle on the spur. The curtain wall was strengthened by square mural towers, and there were halls for communal living along the inside of the enceinte and a simple early gothic chapel. This castle was strong enough to dissuade Saladin from attacking it in 1180 and again in 1188.
After being damaged by an earthquake in 1202, the castle was substantially rebuilt. An outer line of walls was constructed and the inner enceinte enclosed by new walls and a great sloping glacis. These new walls were defended by large round towers, all constructed in the fine limestone ashlar that is one of the glories of the castle.
The first half of the thirteenth century were the glory days of Krak. The garrison probably numbered about 2,000, of whom only a small number (perhaps 50) were Hospitaller knight brethren. From the safety of the castle, they led raids to extort tribute from the surrounding Muslim areas.
The offensive function of the castle at Crac is perhaps more unexpected. The golden age came in the first half of the thirteenth century, a period when most of the other Crusader enclaves in the Levant were struggling to survive but when Crac had a garrison of 2,000 and lorded it over the surrounding areas. Most of the evidence for this comes from Muslim sources which, naturally, tend to dwell on their own successes and pass over the less encouraging aspects. Reading between the lines, however, it seems clear that the Knights at Crac extracted tribute on a fairly regular basis from the Muslims of Horns and Hama and the neighbouring districts and that this went on as long as the various members of the Ayyubid family who had divided Saladin’s domains up amongst themselves were in covert or open rivalry. As early as 1203 raids were being launched on Hama and Montferrand, now under Muslim control. In 1207-8 the Franks of Tripoli and Crac were attacking Horns. In 1230 the Amir of Hama refused to pay his tribute and a combined force of 500 knights and 2,700 footsoldiers, both Hospitallers from Crac and Templars, set out to take it by force. On this occasion they were rebuffed but in 1233 they assembled a punitive expedition including, in addition to their own forces, the Master of the Templars, Walter of Brienne, with a hundred knights from Cyprus, eighty knights from the Kingdom of Jerusalem led by Pierre d’Avalon, John of Ibelin, lord of Beirut (the great lawyer and senior member of the local aristocracy) and Henry, brother of Bohemond V of Antioch, with thirty knights from the principality. It was as great a show of force as the Crusaders of the Levant could manage at this time, testimony to the prestige of the Knights of Crac and the central role of the castle in the Crusader east. They ravaged the lands of Hama unchallenged and after this the prince of Hama agreed to pay his tribute. The Isma’ilis (Assassins) of the Syrian mountains were paying tribute at the time of Joinville’s visit in 1250-1, and as late as 1270 they were still complaining to Baybars about the tribute they had to pay to the Franks.
Crac was also visited by many passing Crusaders who, we may presume, left donations. In 1218 King Andrew II of Hungary came there and was received with royal honours by the castellan, Raymond of Pignans. The king was extremely impressed by the work of the Knights in what he called the ‘key of the Christian lands [terre clavem christiane]’ and endowed them with income from his own properties in Hungary, 60 marks per annum for the Master and 40 for the brothers. A less affluent but equally chivalrous visitor was Geoffroy de Joinville, a baron from one of the leading families of Champagne, who had been given the right to quarter his arms with those of England by Richard Coeur de Lion on account of his knightly prowess. He joined the Fourth Crusade, many of whose members went on to sack Constantinople in 1204, but he broke away from the mob and came to Syria to fulfil his crusading vows. He died at Crac in 1203 or 1204 and was buried in the chapel, and his shield, along presumably with many others, was hung on its frescoed walls. We know about this because his nephew Jean, the biographer of St Louis, went to Crac in the early 1250s in the course of St Louis’ stay in the Levant, and took the shield back to France. There it hung in the collegiate church at Joinville until stolen by some German mercenaries in 1544. Geoffroy’s bones probably still lie beneath the paving of the austere and dignified chapel with its simple apse and plain vaulted roof to the present day.
Crac is an exceptional castle. It owed its glories to the wealth the Knights acquired from their own rich lands, from extracting tribute from the neighbouring Muslims and from the generosity of visiting Crusaders.
The main hall (palatio) was used to feed 4,000 men daily in the siege of 1220. Naturally, since the castle was occupied by a Military Order, there was a fine chapel of almost octagonal plan, whose vaulted roof was supported by a slender central column. In both the strength of its defences and the extent of its living quarters, Chastel Pelerin was among the most impressive of thirteenth-century Crusader works.
Outside the castle proper a small town was founded with a church and baths and enclosed by an unimpressive wall. In 1220 the castle, defended by no less than 4,000 combatants, faced a major assault by al-Malik al-Mu’azzam who brought with him seven siege engines: his artillery could not even reach the great towers of the inner enceinte, one engine was destroyed by the artillery of the defenders and the attack was a fiasco. He withdrew after a month and the hastily constructed castle had proved its worth.
The good times came to an end after 1250. In 1252 a horde of Turkmans, estimated by the treasurer of the Hospital at Acre as 10,000 in number, ravaged the fertile lands around the castle and after this there are signs that the financial position was deteriorating. In 1254 St Louis finally left the Levant where he had spent so much money strengthening fortifications, and in 1255 Pope Alexander IV replied favourably to a request for exemption from tithes because of the expenses incurred by the Hospitallers in maintaining the castle and a permanent garrison of sixty Knights in the heart of enemy country. In 1268 the Master Hugh Revel complained that the lands on which 10,000 people had lived were now deserted and that no revenues whatever were collected from Hospitallers properties in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
After 1260 the growing power of the Mamlūks meant that tribute gathering became much more difficult.
As long as it could be supplied by sea and was adequately garrisoned it was virtually impregnable: even the mighty Baybars, conqueror of Crac des Chevaliers, left it alone when he sacked the town in 1265. It was never taken by assault and it was not until after the fall of Acre in 1291 that the much reduced garrison was finally forced to abandon it. Apart from some slighting of the defences immediately after the Muslim occupation, the castle seems to have remained largely intact until Ibrahim Pasha used it as a quarry to rebuild the walls of Acre in 1838, since when the fabric has deteriorated rapidly.
Deschamps, Paul, Le Crac des Chevaliers (Paris: Geuthner, 1934). Fedden, Robin, and John Thomson, Crusader Castles (London: Murray, 1957). Kennedy, Hugh, Crusader Castles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). King, D. J. Cathcart, “The Taking of Crac des Chevaliers in 1271,” Antiquity 23 (1949), 83–92.