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!
Sadly as I write, the city of Homs is under bombardment from government forces as Syria slowly sinks in to what looks increasingly like civil war.
Many history buffs may be unaware of the city of Homs until I refer to it as Emesa. Then those of you with a strong interest in ancient Roman history will experience a twinge of recognition. Emesa came to prominence under the Severan dynasty of emperors (late second/early third century AD) when Septimius Severus married in to the local nobility. After his death, the family continued to rule in Rome producing the wildly erratic teenage emperor Elagabalus who introduced the cult of Sol Invictus to the centre of Roman life – as well as bringing a holy stone, probably a meteor, to Rome to be worshiped. This object would have been similar to the holy stone still venerated in Mecca.
Emesa remained under Roman control being ruled from Constantinople when the empire divided permanently after Theodosius (late 4th century AD). But as with the rest of Syria – it was invaded by the armies of Islam in the seventh century when the emperor Heraclius was forced to abandon Emesa, which then became Homs. A resurgent Byzantine (eastern Roman) empire was able to retake Homs for about thirty years in the tenth century – which partly explains why many Muslims mistook the First Crusade for a Byzantine attack.
By the time Jerusalem and Antioch were taken by the crusaders, Homs was back under Muslim control – though no doubt with nervous glances down the road to the newly arrived westerners. Homs changed hands several times among different Islamic rulers but by the 12th century was firmly under the sway of the Seljuk Turks. The crusaders realised its strategic importance and tried to take Homs but it was given super fortifications that effectively repelled the crusaders and provided the Saracens with a strong base from which to attack the Christian states of outremer.
Being very much on the front line of the crusades, Homs was not that far from the crusader stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers. Unfortunately – if you’re planning a trip there you may have to wait a while. Normally, you would go from Homs to this historic location but until the fighting between government and rebels is over – your plans may have to go on the back burner.