Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Krak des Chevaliers is considered by many to be the finest surviving example of a medieval castle. Situated on a mountain overlooking Syria’s Homs Gap, the original fortifications were an 11th century Kurdish castle known as Hisn al Akrad. The castle was improved by the Count of Tripoli, who gave it to the Knights Hospitaller in 1142. They would remain in possession of the site until 1271.
The original Crusader castle was damaged by an earthquake in 1170 and reconstructed in the early 13th century. In keeping with the times, the walls – which are some 80 feet thick – are made of masonry blocks measuring 15 inches by one yard, filled with a core of rubble and mortar. If the outer wall was breached, the towers of the inner castle’s keep were defended by a moat (which also served as a reservoir) and a sloping wall (talus) topped with small protruding boxes known as machicoulis. The sloping angle of the talus kept attackers from finding shelter directly beneath the walls, while the machicoulis allowed defenders to rain down arrows, oil and stones on any foolish enough to attempt it.
Krak was virtually impregnable: the great Muslim leader Saladin marched on Krak, took one look at the walls, and marched on. The castle finally fell to a ruse. In 1271, Sultan Baibars and his army surrounded the fortress and penetrated the outer wall, but found it impossible to breach the talus and towers of the keep. Baibars forged a letter from the Order’s Grand Master, ordering the 300 defenders to surrender. The Knights complied, Krak fell, and the Crusader castles became a distant memory in Europe.
This changed in the 19th century, when there was a resurgence of interest in the old Crusader strongholds. Architectural surveys gave way to limited restoration in the 20th century after control of the site was given to the French state. One of the premier tourist sites in Syria, Krak has reportedly been under fire during the Syrian uprising, and may have suffered damage.