Exploring a Castle Built for Giants in Syria..
“Nestled high on a vertiginous hilltop, sits a castle that TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) described as the finest in the world. Krak Des Chevaliers, or the Castle of Knights, was constructed between 1000-800 years ago by both the First Crusaders and then the Knights Hospitaller. The castle is visible from many kilometres distant, and its sombre walls stare grimly as you weave your way through the narrow streets towards its entrance. However, it is not until you stand beneath the towering outer walls that you realise the stupendous size of this castle that could house a garrison of 4000 soldiers.
I have visited numerous castles and forts in many countries. Still, I have never witnessed anything on this scale – the most diminutive enclosure in this complex would be the most spacious in any other castle – and everything was grander, larger and more imposing. Massive grey stones were used to build cavernous rooms and enormous passages that dwarf the visitor – it was akin to stumbling upon a castle more befitting giants than mortals.
Further and further, I climbed through the castle – and not being particularly enamoured of high places I was reluctant to travel further. A fellow traveller encouraged me to climb the south-western tower, and upon reaching the top of the stairs, a panorama opened before me that was as staggering as it was breathtaking. The vista in every direction on a beautiful day gazed down upon the villages and verdant fields below – as if the occupiers of this castle were indeed gods looking down upon their cowering subjects. The sun shone with moderate warmth, and an occasional breeze whispered across the valley – the Krak Des Chevaliers felt increasingly more like a paradise only suited for divine beings.
At one point during my wanderings, I discerned the sound of an Islamic prayer call – it wasn’t bellowing from a speaker, but from an intimate, finely tuned human voice. I searched for the source and wandered into a disused mosque where a young man in his early twenties was leaving. I questioned him as to who was praying, and he humbly admitted that it the beauty of his call and so we walked into the mosque where I stood beside him as he again evoked the prayer call to Allah. The purity of his voice resonated through the empty mosque, and when the final echo faded, the ensuing silence was magical. We smiled at each other, shook hands and parted ways – it was yet another one of those brief encounters during travelling that can leave such lasting memories.
Not content to pay just one visit to Krak Des Chevaliers, I returned a few days later for another measure of this wondrous place. However, instead of clear and salubrious weather, I was greeted by dark, brooding clouds that swirled thickly around the castle, and a biting wind that made another ascent of the south-western tower impractical. The whole mood of the castle changed, and it was a small reminder of how bitter the winters would be at this exposed vantage. However, the capacious rooms and halls and the intricate stonework lost little of their charm, and I can say with a significant degree of confidence that this is clearly the most beautiful crusader castle in the world.”