The news that Karak castle in Jordan had been attacked by members of the so-called Islamic State is horrifying and shocking. Much worse that a Canadian tourist, Linda Vatcher, was killed in the skirmish along with members of the Jordanian security forces. Linda’s son Chris was also injured. Our thoughts go to them at this terrible time.
I visited Karak (or Kerak as I spelt it then from the Arabic) in 2013. It’s a stunning place to see and underneath is a warren of mysterious tunnels. The fortress was the stronghold of the notorious Raynald of Chatillon who apparently wasn’t averse to chucking his enemies off the battlements. And I can assure you that the drop is steep and vertiginous. It eventually fell to the forces of Saladin but not without a long and bitter fight.
Sadly, I will not be returning to Karak anytime soon. This is one of many Templar sites across Syria and Jordan that are off limits as war rages in the region. The splendid Krak des Chevalier was reportedly damaged during fighting in 2014, the BBC reported. While the outside walls looked pretty much intact, the interior had taken a pounding and there was rubbled strewn everywhere.
We might say – well, tough for those buildings but people come first. And that would be right. However, the deliberate demolition and vandalism perpetrated by so-called Islamic State against historic buildings is calculated to destroy the spirit of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi peoples. The terrorists know that when they release film of Roman, Templar or ancient Muslim sites being reduced to dust, that it cuts deeply.
This is part of their year zero strategy to convince us that everything before them was false and sacrilegious and that history now begins with their self-proclaimed “caliphate” – rejected by most Muslims worldwide. So we must do whatever we can to defend these great places and assist in the rebuilding and repair after the wars have dissipated. We must preserve the past to build the future.
Fans of the Templars and fans of the Saracens will need to come together to protect the heritage of the Middle East that means so much to all of us.
And on that note – Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2017!
A hilltop medieval city owned by the Trenceval family in the Middle Ages that subsequently became a flashpoint during the crusade against the Cathar heresy. It’s incredibly beautiful and though heavily restored, looks like one of those walled towns you see in illuminated manuscripts. I went there on a stag weekend but remained sober long enough to appreciate the sights!
I’ve been to Tomar every year since 2009 though I’m taking this year off to give the town a rest from me. Overlooking Tomar is a great hulk of a Templar fortress with its walls intact and a fortified, octagonal chapel with exquisitely painted walls. Bolted on to this chapel are the very well preserved ruins of a 16th century convent. The town is quite sleepy but this makes it all worthwhile. My advice – make it part of a wider visit to Lisbon.
Acre in Israel
The modern town of Akko in Israel is home to a castle built by the Templars and Hospitallers. The whole structure is pretty much intact and underneath is a very odd, long tunnel. Quite what it was for still has archaeologists guessing. Base yourself in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and make this an obligatory day visit.
A sprawling Templar built castle with a vertiginous drop to the town below. It held out for years against the armies of Saladin but then eventually succumbed and there are various Ayyubid additions. Again, as with Acre, there is evidence of more Templar tunneling. In fact, the hill is riddled with tunnels.
Royston cave in England
This place really has historians flummoxed – a seventeen foot high cave re-discovered in 1790 and covered in the most bizarre carvings of what we think are saints and biblical representations. There are any number of theories about what the Templar builders were depicting here.
At Kerak castle, built by crusaders in the 12th century, there is a block of stone in the walls depicting a very muscular figure. For centuries, it was believed to be Saladin – scourge of the Templars and crusaders and the Muslim ruler who re-took Jerusalem. In fact, it definitely isn’t Saladin and is much, much older.
The figure is a Nabatean warrior – the civilisation that built the legendary tomb city of Petra. It dates back to the 2nd century AD and shows a cavalryman equipped for the afterlife. So what on earth is it doing in a crusader castle? Well, masonry from much older monuments (this would have been nearly a thousand years old when Kerak was built during the crusades) was often incorporated into new buildings. So this chap – whose name we shall never know – found himself immortalised in the wall of Kerak castle. Even if he was given an incorrect identity subsequently!
Kerak is the crusader castle in modern day Jordan from which the notoriously cruel crusader Raynald of Chatillon used to throw people off the battlements. A great limestone hulk built on a ridge and protected by steep valleys, it’s riddled with tunnels underneath. The foundations were crusader and as I wandered through these passageways, I was left wondering what on earth these Christian warriors were up to.
They did have plenty to worry about. Saladin besieged it several times though as my photos show, it would have been almost impossible to storm. The drop from the walls is truly vertiginous. But in 1188, the castle was taken and never returned to crusader hands.
After it was captured by the Muslims, it became a great Mamluk fortress and they made some impressive additions. However the bulk of this great structure was made by crusader and Templar hands and is well worth a visit.