Cultural Heritage / Syria

Behemoth’s Footprints: The Fate of Syria’s Crusader Legacy

Marqab (Photo by Dick Osseman, 2009. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.)

Marqab (Photo by Dick Osseman, 2009. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.)

Vulcan’s stones tell a story. High above the azure waters of the Eastern Mediterranean sits Qala’at Marqab. Menacing and foreboding, it spies upon the Syrian coast two kilometres away. This black stone Behemoth was once the most significant fortress in the principality of Antioch: one of four territories established by the Crusaders (or Franks) during their near 200 year tenure. Today Marqab flies the regime flag as it peers over the Banias Oil and Gas Refinery.

Between the castle and the sea a lonely watch tower, the Burj al Sabi or Tower of Youth, still stands. In former days it guarded access to the castles port, long since eclipsed by Banias (or the Crusader’s Valénie), six kilometres to the North. Together the castle and the Burj protected the only land route to the Southern territories held by the Crusaders, notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

As with Crac des Chevaliers (Qala’at al Hosn), another Behemoth to the East of Marqab, the castle’s origins whisper a date of 1062, before the arrival of the men of the cross. But this is all but forgotten in favour of later stone masons, part of a louder narrative championed by Pope Urban 2nd. On the 28th November 1095, in response to a plea for help from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comneneus, Urban called the faithful to arms. With the words, “Deus Vult” (“God wills it”) he unleashed Europe’s peasantry and nobility and sanctioned the penitential wars and pilgrimages we term Crusades.

Contrary to Urban’s battle cry, Latin presence in the Levant began softly when a humble band of merchants from Amalfi established a church, convent and hospital to care for Jerusalem’s sick. They would go on to found the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and become the famed Hospitallers. Together with their near rival order, the Knights Templar, they would be bound by the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Come the mid 1130’s the brethren would take a fourth vow: a call to defend the Holy Land as prescribed by the papal advocate, St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] as set out in his De Laude Novae Militae.

Within a few decades the military orders would become immediately powerful. Several factors were play. First, via a series of papal bulls the orders broke ranks with the local churches and soon became exempt from parish tithes. Secondly, through endowments and donations, the Hospitallers acquired 18,000 manor houses in Europe and amassed extreme wealth. Yet there was a third factor that of feudal poverty in the Crusader’s new territories; and this was readily exploited by the Hospitallers and Templars alike.

Marqab was a case in point. The castle had first been acquired by Reynald 2nd Mazoir, vassal to the Count of Tripoli, in 1170. Sixteen years later in 1186 his son Bertrand was compelled to sell to the Hospitallers on the grounds that he could not hold the castle, “as was necessary in the interest of Christianity”  and prae nimiss expensis et nimia infidelium vicinitate  – “because of excessive expense and close proximity to the infidel”.

By 1180 the Hospitallers controlled some 25 castles to include Crac des Chevaliers, Saône (Qala’at Salah el Din) and Marqab; while the Templars held Burj Safita (Chastel Blanc), Tortosa (Tartus) and Arados (the island of Arwad).

All of the castles’ locations were highly strategic. Situated within the Homs Gap, (that is the sole break within the 250 kilometre mountain chain of the Ansariyah Mountains in the North and the Lebanon range in the South), the castle stood watch upon ancient grounds. They guarded the millennia-old trade route (and invasion route) from the coast to the hinterland of Homs and Hama, as did the great civilisations before.

Marqab, located on the road between Tripoli and Latakia was the most western of the Crusader strongholds, Crac des Chevaliers, on the other hand, was the most eastern. Between the two was (Burj) Safita or Chastel Blanc. If as the young T. E. Lawrence (the latter day “Lawrence of Arabia”) claimed, “its keep could never have been a very effective stronghold”, it could at least exchange messages between the two giants with smoke and mirrors.

Come 4th July 1187, at the Battle of Hattin, the world of the Crusaders and their military orders would change irrevocably. Yusuf ibn Ayyubid, otherwise known as Saladin, would unite a previously fragmented Islamic world and drive a stake through Christian domination in the Levant. Jerusalem fell to the Muslim cause. Thereafter the great citadels of the Crusaders fell, if not by the sword of Saladin, by subsequent Mameluk rulers who built upon the initial triumphs.

Today, Marqab and Crac des Chevalier have also been drawn into the conflict with its lure of rhetoric and munitions.  These two Behemoth have been occupied by Assad’s forces on occasion and, in the case of Crac des Chevaliers, thereafter. Military installations are now the order of the day. Once more they stand guard and preside over the Homs Gap; but now the much traversed plain is a thoroughfare for Hizbullah and vital Iraqi pipeline.

No direct evidence has been provided about destruction to Saône and Marqab. Attention has focused instead upon Crac des Chevaliers which, together with Saône, was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006 and incorporated into the World Heritage’s Danger List last year. That is not to say there has not been damage to the other Crusader castles of Syria, those national heritage sites which should, but may not, receive due attention.  Rather it reflects the fact that only two Crusader monuments have been inscribed by UNESCO and subject to its protection. (Tortosa/Tartus has been proposed for inscription and remains on the Tentative List).

Since the start of the Syrian civil war the town of al Hosn beneath (but also encroaching) the castle has endured an 18 month blockade. Until recently it was surrounded by 73 pro-regime villages but remained steadfast in opposition. It was held by rebel command until March 20th of this year when until the latter were ousted and three hundred lives were lost in combat. The majority of al Hosn’s townsfolk have been displaced to the coast. The castle itself has been targeted by the regime on at least seven occasions.

Five days after the regime gained control of Crac des Chevaliers, a field assessment was conducted. A report was submitted to The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO by the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums. It was cited in the agenda for the recent session Item 7A of the Provisional Agenda: State of conservation of the properties inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. (The Committee convened on the 15-24th June in Doha, Qatar).

Thirteen incidences of damages are noted. The main staircase is reported to have been destroyed in its entirety. The façade of the Loggia, or cloister (Hall of Knights) has been damaged as well as its lintels and arches. Traces of fire behind the Church have been recorded. The façade of the Tower of the King’s Daughter has faced mortar attack; and there is evidence of destruction of the pillars which supported the ceiling of the library tower.  Both internal and external walls have been also been targeted with gunfire and worse.

If Vulcan has now been awakened from his slumber let us hope that, at Doha, the World Heritage Committee’s as yet unpublished findings will support the restoration efforts at Crac des Chevaliers and prioritise its rehabilitation.

Special Contribution by Adam Blitz, a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. Contact via email: or Twitter: @blitz_adam

Photographs provided by Dick Osseman, PBase. All photos are copyright protected and all rights reserved. (Please contact photographer directly for permission to use.)



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