Monday, September 19, 2011

Crusader Castles

As a Christian, I have always avoided studying the Crusades, because they represent a terribly misguided and embarrassing span of history. I know that the Crusades are of vital importance to any study of the Middle Ages, but they make me uncomfortable. Thousands of people did some really awful things to other people, all in the name of Jesus Christ. Wow. That sucks. It seriously makes me sick. Christianity as a whole was so messed up in the Middle Ages, and though the Crusades might have begun with a noble purpose, these campaigns ended up as a giant excuse for genocide - even of fellow Christians.

"Angel Leading the Crusaders" by Gustave Dore
The problem was that the Church's clergy made promises that they had absolutely no authority to make. They considered themselves like God, so much that they took upon themselves the power to decide who would go to heaven and who to hell. They promised peasants, soldiers, and noblemen alike, that if they died while on the "Holy Crusade," they would be guaranteed direct passage to heaven. NO ONE has the authority to decide that but God. [The way to heaven is much simpler than fighting a battle, all you have to do is acknowledge that you're not perfect, and trust in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection - that He paid the price you owed but could never have paid on your own. It's that easy. Ask me if you wanna know more.]

There is so very much more to the Crusades, but I will leave that to a few other future posts. For now, I'd love to share with you some of the castles I got to visit this Summer while studying abroad in Jordan and Israel, and a little bit about how we can learn from them.

Montreal Castle (now called Qal'at ash-Shawbak), in Jordan, was built in 1115 by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. It sits on a hill rising above the plain of Edom and controlled a trade route from Syria to Arabia. The castle's inhabitants drew their water from a spring at the bottom of the hill, accessed by a long, steep tunnel dug down through the hill. Saladin captured Montreal Castle in 1189, but only after a siege of nearly two years.

Kerak, not to be confused with Krak des Chevaliers of Syria, stands north of Montreal Castle and east of the Dead Sea. Kerak is a massive castle, constructed in the 1140s, which controlled trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. It was besieged beginning at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, and captured (due to treachery on the part of the governor's wife) in 1189.

Qasr al-Azraq (the "Blue Fortress") is a mysterious basalt castle located at an oasis in the northern Jordanian desert. Historians don't know when it was originally built, and whether by the Romans or Nabateans, but it was extensively renovated in the 13th century (and Jordan doesn't have the funds to excavate it yet). Interestingly, T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") used the castle as his headquarters from 1917-18.

Qasr Kharana, though not a true castle, is an Islamic style, fortified desert mansion built in the eighth century, by caliph Walid I. He probably used this palace to hold councils or celebrations with his tribal leaders. His favorite few might then be taken to the nearby mini-castle-bathhouse-spa for a private retreat. All in the middle of the desert. Go figure.

Nimrod's Fortress is a gorgeous and sprawling crusader fortress built by the nephew of Saladin in 1229 AD, in the Golan Heights north of the Sea of Galilee. It is also called "Castle of the Large Cliff," as it sits atop a high hill with a cliff rounding one side. The fortress was used sporadically until an earthquake destroyed it in the 18th century.

Vadum Iacob ("Jacob's Ford"), built in 1178 by King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, was the last castle we visited. Though it may appear horribly anticlimactic, as hardly any of the castle's remains are readily visible, it tells one of the most fascinating stories of the Crusades, and of Crusader Archaeology. But, that story must wait until another time. For now, suffice it to say that it involves greed, arrogance, a mighty battle where one side was completely annihilated, and the remains were left untouched for over eight hundred years.

The castles built in the Middle East by the Crusaders and their Muslim adversaries are some of the best examples of Medieval castle-building technology and design. This was a period when the greatest developments occurred on both sides of castle construction, as the Crusaders learned certain techniques from the Muslims and vice-verse. It was an amazing privilege for me to walk through the courtyards, chambers, and corridors constructed so long ago by these driven warriors of the Crusades (and earlier eras), even if we only had a short while to explore each one. (Literally, when we arrived at most of these fortresses, our professor announced, "Okay, guys, you've got twenty minutes to explore this castle!" We had a very tight schedule...)

The Crusades in general might still make me a little uncomfortable, but I'm warming up to studying them (besides, I'm a Medieval Studies major - I have no choice). They may be embarrassing to the Christian faith as a whole, but they left a legacy of cultural, technological, and architectural advancements. We can learn a great deal from the mistakes and  successes of this much-debated era of history, when Europe and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, clashed.

Photo credits: Deanna Leiber, unless otherwise noted


  1. Good site. Great pictures. Why no Ajlun?

    1. Thank you! I didn't write about Ajlun because this post's purpose was to highlight the castles I was able to visit while in Israel and Jordan that summer. Ajlun was not one of those castles, unfortunately.