High on a hill, almost halfway between Homs, Syria, and the Mediterranean Sea, sits a grand and formidable castle. All imposing turrets and towers, winding parapets, and massive stretches of limestone walls, the Crac des Chevaliers is the stuff of Disney-worthy dreams.
One can only imagine the historical events that this castle has witnessed from that hilltop since the Crusaders began constructing it in 1142 as their latest and greatest fortress.
But it is in the most recent of these world-shaking crises—the Syrian Civil War—that the UNESCO World Heritage Site has suffered what may be irreparable damage.
As of December 2016, 450,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the violence that has overtaken the country, while 4.81 million have been forced to flee their homes and join the massive refugee crisis sweeping the globe. The human toll has been devastating and unimaginable.
The violence has also taken a significant toll on the country’s cultural heritage and historical sites as the Syrian Army and rebel forces continue to jockey for control over the most famous and important landmarks.
Added to these destructive burdens is ISIS, which has become notorious for looting historical artifacts and either destroying them in a show of power or selling them on the black market to fund their brutal campaign.
“There is a very close link between attacks on people that are being waged and the cultural dimension,” Giovanni Boccardi, UNESCO’s head of emergency preparedness told The New York Times in 2014. “The intentional obliteration of any trace of cultural heritage—be it tangible or intangible—is part of a strategy of war. This issue should not be considered as a luxury, a concern for an elite of antiquarians.”
In the 12th century, warriors of a different sort were sweeping through what is now known as the Middle East.
Starting in 1095, the Crusaders stormed the region on the orders of Pope Urban II to take control of what the Catholics considered their holy lands.
To secure their domination of the area, they built castles up and down the coast, choosing ideal positions where they could defend their new strongholds from the local Islamic armies.
When the Crusaders began constructing the Crac des Chevaliers in 1142, the Second Crusade was already under heavy bombardment as the Muslim armies became increasingly unified against the invaders. But that didn't stop the Catholic forces from building an impressive new citadel on what is known as the Homs Gap, the one area where a break in the coastal mountain range allowed for a pathway between the interior of the country and the Mediterranean Sea.
According to famed author and diplomat T.E. Lawrence, the Crac des Chevaliers is “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.”
Construction of the castle began under the leadership of the Knights Hospitaller, a medical group originally dispatched to the area to look out for the health of religious pilgrims, but quickly morphed into a military wing.
This was just one in a series of five castles—although it was the best of the lot—that were built to secure the area and remain in constant communication via signal fires and other medieval modes of communication.
A Kurdish garrison that had originally been stationed, and defeated, on the spot was used as the bones of the structure, and the castle quickly grew around it until it eventually featured 13 towers, two concentric series of ramparts for added defense, ditches, courtyards, chapels, and more. At the height of its glory, it could house up to 2,000 men.
By the first of the year in 1188, just over four decades after the first stone was laid, the Crusaders had lost many of their holy sites. But they had maintained a tight grip on the Crac des Chevaliers. For a total of 129 years, the Knights Hospitaller would defend their position in the region from the ramparts of their imposing residence. Sitting nearly half a mile above the valley, they were able to keep an eye on potential aggressors and repel any attempt at attack.
In 1188, for instance, the castle caught the eye of Sultan Saladin, a leader of the Islamic army. The sultan allegedly made a half-hearted attempt to take the castle, but quickly gave it up and went on his marauding way, looking for easier pastures to conquer.
But just shy of a century later, the Knights Hospitaller weren’t quite so lucky. The Mamluks, a group of former slave soldiers from the Muslim Army who had won their independence, decided to launch a siege against the grand castle.
But the castle was such an impenetrable fortress that only a bit of trickery could enable them to defeat the Crusaders once and for all. Their proverbial Trojan Horse was a forged letter from the benefactor of the Knights urging them to surrender to the Mamluks. On April 8, 1271, the Crusaders waved their white flag of resignation and abandoned the Crac des Chevaliers once and for all.
There the excitement at the grand castle on the hill pauses for several centuries. The Mamluks took up residence and continued to make improvements on the stronghold, but eventually, the wars in the region died down and the castle fell into disuse.
Fast forward to the early 20th century and the French government came on the scene, taking possession of the architectural treasure and setting about to restore it to its former glory. It was eventually turned back over to the Syrian government, the restoration was completed, and the castle reopened as a popular and historic tourist attraction.
“The fortified storybook castle known as Crac des Chevaliers, a marvel of medieval engineering,” Douglas Jehl described it in an travel piece for The New York Times in 1999. “The Crac, set amid green rolling hills, may be the paragon of castles, the one in the mind of any child who sets out with a bucket and a pail.”
But what all the medieval improvements and modern day restorations didn’t take into account was the damage that could be wrought by aerial bombardment and modern warfare.
On March 5, 2011, war broke out in Syria, and in 2012, a rebel group in the Homs region began occupying the castle. But what drove the Crusaders to build the castle in the first place also contributed to its downfall. While the Crac des Chevaliers is a desirable historic icon, it is also a strategic military post, one that holds an enviable position as well as impressive fortifications. So, naturally, the Syrian government wanted it.
After launching sporadic attacks against the castle for over two years, the Syrian Army took back possession of the site after a ferocious attack against the rebels in March of 2014.
While it’s tough to ascertain the extent of the damage, it is known that it was subject to three rounds of bombings from the Syrian Air Force, as well as a variety of ground attacks. Pictures posted by the BBC show a facade littered with bullet holes, courtyards strewn with rubble, crumbling columns and walls, and passageways that appear to have suffered from fires.
While the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the new occupiers of the Crac des Chevaliers, the Syrian government, have already begun restoration efforts, the castle is still at risk of further damage as long as the war continues, and efforts to fully restore the site are unfeasible until the conflict comes to an end.
While it’s impossible to move—and thus fully safeguard—such a behemoth of a cultural artifact like the Crac des Chevaliers, the damage to sites like this and the wholesale destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra have spurred other countries to take steps toward securing some of the cultural artifacts under threat.
At a summit in Abu Dhabi in December, a coalition of 40 governments and cultural institutions agreed to earmark $100 million to remove at-risk treasures from conflict-torn areas and secure them at a museum in the north of France.
Many have correctly pointed out the hypocrisy of this concern for works of art when refugees are increasingly being turned away from these same countries.
While the new initiative does nothing to help relieve the more serious human fallout from the war, there’s no doubt that the cultural damage has been severe.
“What we have witnessed in the past few years is the highest level of destruction since World War II,” archeologist Regis Vallet told USA Today.
The Crac des Chevaliers, for its part, will stay where it has stood for centuries: on a hill high atop the Homs Gap, bearing witness—and trying to survive—the historical events that roil the surrounding land.