Two impenetrable fortresses

Aleppo Travel Blog

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Crac des Chevaliers

Yesterday we drove from Palmyra to Crac des Chevaliers (Qala’at al-Hosn). Crac des Chevaliers was originally built as an Islamic fort by the Emir of Homs in 1031. However almost all the castle is Crusader built, as they vastly expanded the basalt fort with limestone in the 12thcentury, building a second castle around the first. The castle was built to guard the only significant gap in the mountain range between Syria and Lebanon, and was the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was based. It was repeatedly attacked by the Muslim warlords, but was never breached (alone of all the Crusader castles). The only reason it was ever taken, was that after Saladin took back Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and sieged Crac des Chevaliers for several years, the 200 remaining knights saw no point in holding out, and in 1271 surrendered to Beybars in exchange for free passage to the coast. Beybars let them retreat, but was so fearing a trap that rather than enter the gate, he tore down the southern tower and went in through the wall (this tower is now different from the rest, as he rebuilt it in the hexagonal Islamic style, rather than the round Crusader style).

We got to crawl all over and around the castle, through the dungeon and kitchens, the meeting hall, Turkish baths, secret tunnels and the round table where the knights meet on the roof. It was really quite spectacular, and you can see why it was never taken, rising up on a steep mountain, with an enormous outer wall, an inner moat, 13 watch towers, and an inner castle. Lawrence of Arabia said it was “the finest castle in the world”, which I really like, because it sounds like an opinion which is repeated simply because he is famous, but actually he was an expert on Crusader architecture, so his opinion is valid :)

After walking through the castle we had a mezze lunch on the roof, then drove to Aleppo via Hama. We only stopped briefly in Hama to see the norias, waterwheels pumping water up from the river to aqueducts to supply the city. The sixteen norias of Hama are the largest in the world, and date back to 1100 BCE.


Today we had a day to wander around Aleppo (Haleb). Aleppo has been a major city for 7000 years, making it the second oldest continually inhabited city in the world (close behind Damascus). We walked into the Old Town of Aleppo, which largely dates back 700 years, but there are parts including Madrasa Halawiya, which was built in the first Islamic century, making it over 1300 years old, and one of the oldest mosques in the world. Also very ancient is Jami al-Kabir, the Great Mosque, which was originally built by the Umayyads, although of the old structure only the minaret stands from 1090, as the rest needed to be rebuilt after the 1260 Mongol invasion.

We walked along the old town wall, 5km of solid rock, with seven gates. Inside the wall we visited the old mosques, schools, and Al-Bimaristan al-argouni (an insane asylum built in 1354). We visited the Aleppo Citadel, standing raised in the middle of the city on a 50m high artifical hill. The citadel is massive and ancient. The constant upgrades have meant that the current structure is about 700 years old, but parts of it are far older, including a 3500 year old Hittite temple to the storm god. The citadel door is wonderfully designed, being high up on the wall, only accessible by a drawbridge. Unlike most door, which face the exit, the Aleppo door is actually perpendicular to the castle in a niche, so that invader that make it to the door can be shot at from three directions (and have boiling oil tipped on from the holes above), and they only have a few metres to use a battering ram to knock down the walls. Inside the castle is enormous, housing 1000 people during peace times, and up to 10 000 people during war. There are palaces, mosques and bathes inside. The citadel was so strong that over the 7000 years Aleppo was only stormed successfully once, by the Mongolian invasion.

Aleppo was a major city because it is on the crossroads of two trade routes - between the Mediterrean Sea and the Euphrates, and Damascus and Istanbul, making it a major trading centre in the world. It has been estimated that during early Islamic times as many camels came through Aleppo in a day as came into Cairo in two months. So the souqs (markets) were well worth visiting. Most date back from the 13thcentury and Ottoman era, with hectares of markets and 30km of passages under a vaulted stone ceiling, and many stone khan (commercial courtyards, a complex where merchants could bring in their camels, sell their goods and stay). The souqs have strong stone walls and enormous iron doors (which swing open to let camels in, and have small doors like catflaps for people), so that the merchants could lock up the entire souq at night, rather than pack away each stall. I went shopping with Michelle and Tamara. They both bought plenty of jewellery, we had 12 cent falafal kebabs, and were given free pancakes from a guy they smiled at. Each time we went into a stall to look at something the seller pulled up chairs and poured us a tea to drink, and we had wonderful conversations with the very friendly people. Tamara cheered me up by offering to buy me a present, and Michelle cheered me up with her humorous pursuit by an Armenian shopkeeper. Afterwards Rhys was telling us about an Australian he met who had been in the Middle East for three years, and was very happy to see Rhys 'to talk to someone who could speak English'. I commented that many people here had a very high functional vocabulary, and Michelle laughed and rolled her eyes, remembering my unfavourable comparison of Rhys's English skills versus her Armenian suitor. Syria has actually had the nicest, most charming people, except that if I am not there Michelle gets groped constantly. It was a most enjoyable shop :)

It has been interesting watching the scenery change over the trip - Egypt was solid desert, except for the irrigation from the Nile and oases. Jordan was semi-arid, with some shrubs in the desert, and moving up in Syria it became quite verdant (in Lebanon too, where I had the best oranges I have ever tasted), except in the east where the Iraqi desert started. Now to Turkey...

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photo by: Stigen