© Mark Lowey 2021. All rights reserved.

In this photo essay, Mark Lowey recounts his travels to Syria with his wife and another Aramco couple in April 2011, which inadvertently coincided with the beginnings of the civil uprising in Syria.

In Parts 1 and 2, the party of four toured Syria’s capital, Damascus, and the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.

Syria’s Treasures, Part 1 – Damascus Syria’s Treasures, Part 2 – Palmyra

Let's go to Krak

One year before, fellow Abqaiq residents and Aramcons, Baron and Gayle Bustin, proposed a sightseeing trip of a lifetime to Syria. We were somewhat familiar with Syria’s main attractions, but one destination on the Bustin’s itinerary caught our interest, a relatively obscure, Crusader-era fortress dating back to the 10th century, Krak des Chevaliers. My wife, Ann, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Having thoroughly explored Palmyra’s Roman ruins, temples, and colonnaded avenues, it was time to move on. We tossed our luggage in the van and headed west. During the three-hour drive the desert terrain transitioned to rolling hills of fertile countryside. It was early Spring and pistachio tree orchards were in full bloom.

Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Route from Palmyra to Krak des Chevaliers.
Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Pistachio trees.
Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Gayle, unaccustomed to driving outside of the Abqaiq community in Saudi Arabia, took a turn behind the wheel.

Arrival at Krak

Just past the city of Homs, we skirted the small village of Al-Husn nestled in a valley surrounded by green terraced hills. We stopped at a tourist information center and hired a knowledgeable local guide. Across the valley, impressively situated on a hilltop, was the famous castle.

Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers

Our guide showed us around the nooks and crannies of the castle, a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways. We climbed to the towers, walked along the moat, and explored the dungeons. Carved on the stone wall of the interior Crusader cloister are wise words, an inscription in Latin: "Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy, but beware of pride which alone can tarnish all the rest." [1]

Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Gayle, Baron, Ann and Mark atop the castle.

“The castle’s strategic location, guarding the only corridor from Syria's interior to the coast as well as the entrance to Lebanon's Bekaa valley, guaranteed that it would be a fiercely contested stronghold in Syrian civil war, just as it was for the Knights of St. John in Crusader times.” [1]

Medieval Plumbing

During our tour, the guide brought us to the ancient toilets on the bottom level and profoundly proclaimed that Krak was more advanced than European castles of the same era because it had “plumbing.” I asked what he meant, and he showed us the open, cobblestone-lined scupper drain in front of the row of several, side-by-side stone latrines. Fresh water would supposedly have flowed along the drain, within easy reach of users. Something told me that European castles might share a similar system.

Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers
Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
The Crusader Cloisters
Syria’s Treasures, Part 3 – Krak des Chevaliers
View of Al-Husn village.

Krak Photo Gallery

A Tour Through History

Alexander Besant of Hearst Newspapers toured the castle in 2009 and described a similar experience. Perhaps his guide was the same as ours, two years later.

My guide took me into the castle's passages, secret doors, and hidden tunnels, recounting the tall tales and political intrigue that occurred through the centuries. Though my guide was clearly dwelling in the realm of fiction for the most part, I admired his ability to bring antiquity to life.

As I walked through the dark corridors of the castle, its history was palpable. Gothic, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture meld to form one of the most eclectic castles of the period, one that reminds you that you are not in Europe.

After touring the bakery, the kitchen, and the latrines (which smell as if they are still in use today), I made my way up to the windswept towers, which offer breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, including the mountains of Lebanon in the distance. [2]

History of Krak Des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers, literally “Castle of the Knights” is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. It is one of the most notable surviving examples of medieval military architecture.

The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by Kurdish troops. In 1142 the castle was given by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, to the order of the Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of St. John. [3] It remained in their possession until 1271.

The Hospitallers rebuilt the castle and completed it in 1170. The Hospitallers controlled several castles along the border of the County of Tripoli, a state founded after the First Crusade. Krak des Chevaliers was among the most important and acted as a center of administration as well as a military base.

In the 13th century a new outer wall was added giving the castle its current appearance. The two concentric towered walls are separated by a wide moat. [2]

At its peak, in the first half of the 13th century, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000. Such a large garrison allowed the Hospitallers to exact taxes from a wide area. [4]

In 1271 Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured Krak des Chevaliers from the Knights Hospitaller after a siege lasting 36 days. Legend has it that a forged letter purportedly from the Hospitallers' Grand Master caused the Knights to surrender. [4]

During the Ottoman period (1516–1918), the castle was the center of the tax district of Tripoli and later Homs. The castle was used as a prison by the Syrian state under Hafez al-Assad as recently as 1985. [1]

In 2006, Krak des Chevaliers was recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. In 2012 it was partially damaged in the Syrian civil war from aerial shelling and then recaptured by the Syrian government forces in 2014. Since then, reconstruction and conservation work on the site is underway. [4]

Knights of Hospitaller

The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller, was a medieval and early modern Catholic military order. It was headquartered in the Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1291, on the island of Rhodes from 1310 until 1522, in Malta from 1530 until 1798 and at Saint Petersburg from 1799 until 1801. [3]

. . . . . . .

Next: Syria’s Treasures, Part 4 – Aleppo, Syria’s northernmost city famous for its grand covered bazaar and The Citadel, a large medieval fortified palace in the center of the old city.

References:

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191181
[2] https://www.sfgate.com/travel/article/Krak-des-Chevaliers-Crusade-to-find-castle-3282069.php
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_Hospitaller
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak_des_Chevaliers

Mark Lowey
The author at Al Khawali restaurant in Damascus

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

Part 2