Advantages Beautiful, imposing and impressive medieval castle
Disadvantages Slightly difficult to get to independently
Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Knights) is the ultimate medieval castle and the dream of any child who ever played at knights and dragons or other games on the theme of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is one of few places I have been that has exceeded the childhood fantasy and taken on an imagination of its own.Given its largely European appearance Krak des Chevaliers stands out somewhat in its location in south Syria near the town of Homs. The principal reason for this apparent anomaly is of course that the castle was primarily built by Order of the Knights of St John between 1142 and 1271 and is a classic crusader castle. There was a pre-existing structure on the site when the crusaders came through the region but this was hugely expanded upon due to the areas important position between Turkish towns and Beirut. The castle, once, completed had a reputation for being impregnable and was besieged unsuccessfully a number of times and whilst I have heard varying versions of how the crusaders finally left it seems to be generally agreed that they were tricked rather than forced into surrendering. The most widely accepted story is that Mameluke Sultan Baibars forged a letter from the knights' commander ordering surrender which they complied with thus abandoning the castle.
Approaching the castle is a fascinating experience as you race along quite narrow and twisty roads until a huge, towering castle appears on a cliff edge overlooking the Orontes valley. As you approach the castle seems to defy the laws of logic and appear larger and larger against the skyline until finally when seen in comparison to the cars and people outside a sense of just how enormous it is finally sinks in. It covers over 3 hectares of land and was built to house 4000 men and their horses at its height. Although a ruin as some of the inner structures have slightly crumbled, the castle is extremely well preserved and with a tiny bit of imagination it is easy to see how it would have appeared in the 12th century-it is certainly in a much better condition that many Scottish castles I have visited!Standing outside the fortification the walls are extremely imposing as they tower above you. Also whilst many castles have worn and craggy stone that looks like it could almost be climbed the walls of Krak are polished smooth so that there is no way a human could scale them without mechanical help. Walking inside across a bridge and the huge size and strength of the place only becomes more obvious as the outside walls are around 5 metres thick. It is easy to understand why it was thought of as impenetrable.
Once inside the intimidating nature of the outside fortifications begins to fade away and the detail and beauty of the interior becomes obvious. After the outer walls there is a second set of inner walls before reaching the central section where there is a castle, chapel (afterwards transformed into a mosque but the architecture is notable of a church) and grand hall. These are largely in gothic style with large vaulted ceilings, doors and windows and it is possible to see the individual uses of the rooms through remaining details such as the ovens in the kitchens and bakery and details in the stable areas. A lot of effort was put into the castle making it quite intricately designed, with large carved windows and other interesting details that make the castle more than just a huge defence bastion. It is simultaneously a place of beauty.As this castle was not a constant dwelling place but saw knights of the order come through regularly there are a few differences from a normal design. Firstly the passages are, apart from the innermost private chambers, designed for mounted knights to ride through and are thus both wide and tall. Also there are fewer private rooms except for the master's but rather more public areas in the hall, stable areas and general common areas. These small variations give Krak an overall air of being very bright and open with fewer small nooks and crannies than I am used to in castles of this period. It also adds to the grandeur of the place as everything seems to be done on a huge scale for numerous people rather than small personal rooms.
Before leaving I would highly recommend going up onto the walls and walking around the outside of the castle. The climb up the stairs to the walls gives an idea of just how high they are and then walking along the top which is side enough to be a road really reinforces the defensive nature of the site. Also from here you can look over the whole castle seeing the size and money necessary for such a place. As a bonus there are great views across the valley and river that complete the experience.Although this is one of the prime tourist sights in Syria the relative lack of a highly developed industry means that the castle is not swamped in the way that many sights in Turkey or Egypt are. There will be other tourists handing around and at no time of day will you get the castle to yourself but it is also usually possible to find some seclusion alone in this magnificent place. As Syria is fast developing a tourist industry then it may be better to visit sooner rather than later but regardless this is one place that deserves its reputation as a breathtaking sight and cannot fail to impress even those most jaded of medieval ruins explorers.
This is a castle that was intended to display the power of the western crusaders and intimidate any who stood in their way as well as display the wealth and grandeur of the knights in contrast to the sometimes ragged mob who accompanied them to the holy land and to impress local lords. It succeeds in all of these and remains after 8 centuries a compelling and awing sight.Practicalities:
Getting There: Krak des Chevaliers is near Homs in Syria and buses run from the centre out to the castle for $1 each way. More commonly every town/hostel/hotel within striking distance of the castle runs small tours or shared taxis out which gives the visitor a little more flexibility-and are usually very reasonably priced.Opening Hours; 9am to 6pm summer and 9am to 4pm winter. Usually open 7 days a week but check with your hotel in advance as sometimes it will close for holidays.
Rather overpriced cafes and restaurants are just outside the main gates for hungry tourists.
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