Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers (also "Crac des Chevaliers" - 'Castle of the Knights') located near Homs in Syria is widely recognised as the archetypal Crusader castle. Described by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as "perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world", this somewhat isolated site is located magnificently (750 m or 2300 ft above sea level) and is, indeed, extremely well-preserved. Today it represents one of the premier tourist attractions in central Syria.
Opening hours: 9AM-6PM (summer), 9AM-4PM (winter). The usual Syrian government practice of closing Tuesdays is generally ignored for Krak des Chevaliers, on account of its popularity as a tourist destination - that said, in the middle of winter, it's a good idea to phone the ticket office ahead of time just to check.... 740 002.
Krak des Chevaliers was the easternmost of five Crusader fortifications guarding the only major pass (known as the 'Homs Gap' in the Orontes river Valley) between Antakya in Turkey and Beirut in the Lebanon. The castle was built and expanded at Qal'at al-Hisn by the Order of the Knights of St John in the years between 1142 and 1271. It covers 3 hectares in area and, at the height of its powers, it housed a garrison of up to 2000 men. The castle held out against several fierce attacks (including one by the famous Saladin), and was rumoured to be impregnable. The Krak, however, was eventually lost by the naive crusaders to the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1271, who tricked the defenders into abandoning the castle by means of a faked letter from the Crusader Count of Tripoli.
The castle has two main parts: an outer wall with 13 towers and an inner wall and keep. The two walls are separated by a moat (now full of stagnant water), which was used to fill the baths and water the horses. Walk through the main entrance, an imposing gate in the 5m (16ft) thick wall and past the towers which defended the castle, and you enter a courtyard. A corridor covered in delicate carvings leads to a large vaulted hall, where you can see an old oven, a well and some latrines. The chapel in the courtyard was converted to a mosque after Sultan Baybars captured the castle - it still retains its pulpit (mihrab). The top floor of the Tower of the Daughter of the King is now a café with great views.
Krak des Chevaliers is an easy day trip from Tartus or Hama, the latter city being the most attractive base from which to visit, if somewhat more distant (one-way microbus trip just under 2 hours). Buses also run from Homs and will drop visitors off at the castle. Bus fares are less than US$1 and the trip takes less than an hour each way. A taxi from Damascus cost around US$ 60 round trip also including the driver waiting outside, depends on your bargain skills. Some hotels in Damascus offer bus trips to the castle, but it constitutes a very long day out for the one site.
On the whole, it's best to arrive early - by mid-late morning the castle can be almost submerged in hordes of tourists coached up from Damascus. Sunrise is also a great time to enjoy the view of the castle in a magnificent light. Ditto sunset.
Once at the castle, mostly on foot...
Admission to the Krak for travelers is £S150. Students £S15. Postcards, booklets and souvenirs are available to purchase at the ticket office and in the various restaurants nearby.