It’s actually hard to travel in Syria alone. Everybody wants to talk to me, share tea with me, introduce me to their children and ask questions. I find the hospitality to be on par if not more so than many of the supposedly “dangerous” places I’ve visited. Axis of evil? Oh, come on! With so much misunderstanding, grudge-carrying and misinformation, it’s no wonder everyone perceives the world to be a “dangerous place” to travel. Notwithstanding there are plenty of exceptions – but they’re exceptions and not the rule.
Stopping for fuel in Khan Alsobel near Idleb, Syria my way to the most impressive structure I’ve seen, Crac des Chevaliers, I’m invited into the owners office where tea is shared amongst Yousif, the Iraqi manager, a worker and the owner’s young son. The Iraqi fled his home in Iraq where his children and wife await news that he can afford to bring them to a new place where they can build a new wife. He speaks excellent English, but his boss, the owner and the boy do not. Yousif is somewhat bitter about the conflict in his own country. He feels that it’s not safe and that the ensuing chaos and unknowns warrant finding a safer place to build a home and raise his family.
As the minutes and ultimately more than an hour ticks by, we hug and bid farewell. Yousif and I share email addresses and he promises to update me on his plight.
Making My Way To The Biggest & Baddest Castle I Could Ever Have Imagined!
The backroads wind over fertile green hills as I rise from the valley into the foothills of the mountains that seperate and provide a natural border between Syria and Lebanon. Nearly twenty or more miles from my destination, I spot the massive fortress knowns as Crac des Chevaliers, a crusader era castle that must be the subject of many a tale of knights, castles, warriors and wars.
Commanding a hill top above several small villages, just about 35 miles from of the city of Homs, and close to the border of Lebanon sits the imposing fortress. Though not originally build by the crusaders, it was the Knights Hospitaller used Crac des Chevaliers who perhaps spent most of the time here as Crac served as its headquarters during the Crusades. Originally much smaller, it was built in 1031 for the emir of Aleppo, but during the 1st Crusade in 1099, Raymond IV of Toulouse, first captured it but then abandoned the castle as the Crusaders marched towards Jerusalem.
The Hospitaller crusaders, contemporaries of the Knights Templar, rebuilt it and expanded it into the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land capable of housing and feeding 2,000 foot soldiers and 1,000 horses for five years. There are actually two moats and in classic military style a drawbridge led to massive postern gates.
You can almost feel, if not see, the Mediterreann sea if not for the moutains. The closes Lebonese city, Tripoli is just east and even today it’s along the only route through those mountains to to Tripoli. It was actually the count of Tripoli, Raymond II who gave the initial fortress to the Hospitallers.
And what a job the Crusaders did in fortifying the imposing structure, which some might find feels more like a prison than a castle. Its outer wall was nearly 100 feet thick and each of seven guard towers had walls up to 30 feet thick. The strucutre prevented the Muslims from capturing it for years as both even Saladin tried in 1188. It wasn’t until the Mamluks arrived in 1271 that the castle fell. But not because of its fortifications. No, the Mamluk’s played a trick on the Hosptiallers — convincing them with a couterfiet order from Tripoli ordered them to surrender the castle.
The Mamluks eventually refortified the castle and used it as a base against Tripoli. A Christian chapel inside was converted into a mosque. Evidence of the continued building and fortifications are visible as are indicators of the number of different defenders who held the castle since the Crusaders and the Mamluks, including the Persians and the Ottomans.
Wandering the ramparts high above the outer moat and the cantilevered outer walls of the castle I get dizzy looking down as local farmers heard sheep while dodging the tiny amount of traffic that uses the roads here.
It’s very remote and there aren’t any decent guest houses of accomodation, so my plan was to make for Aleppo, near the border of Turkey before sunset. The country roads that twist and wind over the hills and through tiny settlments are a treat for the eyes and my mind continues to wander and wonder who else passed these lands 1,000’s of years ago.
Traveling the holy lands inspires, intrigues and continues to boggle my mind with more questions — and always more answers.