Karak PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key
Karak Castle from East They came, they conquered, and then they departed, beaten. Their stay in the lands of the Middle East endured for less than two centuries, yet they made their mark in stone and in the memories of the people who remained. They called themselves the Crusaders, knights of the Cross, and their legacy in the Holy Land was at best a mixed one. They are remembered in the castles they left behind when they were forced out by Muslim armies. One of the mightiest of these, second only to Crac de Chevaliers in Syria, stands at the narrow southern end of a triangular plateau in the midst of Jordan’s great mountainous backbone. Its name was Crac de Moabites (Karak in Moab) or Crac de Pierre (Karak of the Rock).

In the time of the First Testament, this region belonged to the Moabites. It is clear from the archaeological evidence that there was a town here then, but it is not clear which. The Moabite word qir appears in 2 Kings 3:25 in the name of a city, Kir-Hareseth, where the Moabite king sacrificed his son on the wall (but the text is unclear, and it may have been the son of his enemy, the king of Edom) to deter a concerted attack by Israelites, Judeans and Edomites. Yet the term qir, which can mean city, is not necessarily related to the name Karak, which goes back to the Aramaic karkah, meaning fortress. (Sources on this.)

Example of a Proto-Aeolic capital The site is indeed a natural fortress, situated on the cliff a kilometer above the Dead Sea, surrounded by valleys, and dominating the King's Highway that stretched through the nearby plateau. Unfortunately, the construction of the Crusader castle swept away earlier evidence. The little that was found attests to the site's importance, however. One item was a limestone proto-aeolic capital (see photo) like those turned up at Hazor , Megiddo and Jerusalem. Diggers also discovered part of a basalt panel depicting a lion. The fragment of a Moabite inscription was also found, probably, here or nearby. (Source.)   

Karak was part of the Nabataean kingdom when the Romans annexed the latter in 106 AD. After the Roman Empire transitioned into the Byzantine, it became a predominantly Christian town. Church council records show it as a bishopric.

During the Crusader era, Oultrejordain—French for "Transjordan"—was a vaguely defined area extending from Gilead in the north all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. When the Crusaders took control of it, they assumed power over the north-south trade routes as well as the Hejaz (pilgrimage) road from Damascus to Mecca. By dominating this caravan trail, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had a steady source of considerable income. Part of the road is indicated on the satellite photo below by Jerash, Amman, Heshbon, Madaba, Dibon, Karak and Montreal (sites that thrived at various periods).

Position of Karak

In 1134, Fulk, a Crusader King of Jerusalem, took the fief of Transjordan away from a rebellious knight named Roman le Puy and gave it to the loyal Paganus the Butler (then a title for a French peer). Paganus, whose seat had been in the fortress of Montreal at Shobak to the south, in the 1140s began to build one at Karak. The castle was intended to supplement Montreal in strengthening the southern border of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but it also had the vital task of securing the King’s Highway. When construction was completed, Paganus moved to Karak, preferring it to the weaker Montreal.

His successors as Lord of Transjordan, first his nephew Maurice and then Phillip of Milly, improved the fortifications. They added towers and moats to the north and south, leaving only an approach on the east. The adjacent town was also fortified with a wall, towers, and subterranean entrances. In 1176, Raynald of Chatillon married Phillip's daughter, Stephanie. The marriage made him the new lord of Transjordan, including the castle at Karak.

Karak glacis showing the height from which Raynald threw his captives Raynald proved vicious. For example, before having his captives flung from the castle walls, he would encase their heads in wooden boxes so that they wouldn’t lose consciousness before hitting the ground. From the safety of his strongholds in both Montreal and Karak, Reynald began harassing caravans traveling along the King’s Highway, violating a truce that had been signed between his lord, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and the Muslim sultan Salah Ad-Din (Saladin). When Saladin complained to Baldwin, the king replied that he couldn't control his vassal.

This response led Saladin to declare war on the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1182. Raynald used his proximity to the Red Sea to launch a small fleet of pirate ships, which plundered villages on the Arabian coast and disrupted Muslim commerce. He even attempted to capture Medina, with designs on Mecca. The campaign was repulsed, and Saladin laid siege to Karak. At the time, however, Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem (the half-sister of King Baldwin) were getting married in the castle. According to Crusader chronicler William of Tyre,

[Stephanie] sent to Saladin bread and wine, sheep and cattle in celebration of her son's wedding, reminding him that he used to carry her in his arms when she was a child and he was a slave in the castle. And when Saladin received these gifts he was exceedingly delighted and gave thanks to those who brought them to him, asking where the bride and bridegroom were staying: their tower was pointed out to him. Thereupon Saladin gave out orders throughout his army that no attack should be directed at this tower.

Karak from S No Arabic sources mention that Saladin was ever a slave in Karak, but his chivalry towards the newly-wed teenagers (Humphrey was 16, his bride 11) is consistent with his usual conduct. Unfortunately for him, the siege was shortly relieved by King Baldwin, who appeared with troops, no small feat considering that the leper king could barely walk. Since his quarrel was only with Raynald and not with Baldwin, Saladin withdrew, awaiting a better time for revenge.

A few years later Baldwin died and Saladin got his chance. After some squabbling, Guy de Lusignan was crowned king of the Crusaders. In 1187 Saladin attacked, defeating them  at the Horns of Hattin in Galilee. Raynald was captured and Saladin made a point of personally cutting his head off, while sparing Guy. Then he again laid siege on Karak. This time the knights inside could have no hope of reinforcement. They sold their women and children for food. Eventually they surrendered, as did every Crusader fortress in the land except Tyre—from which a new Crusade began in 1189.

The Crusaders never regained Karak. In the 13th century, Baybars, the Mamluke sultan, enlarged and rebuilt the castle's northwest tower, and later Mamluke rulers added other buildings, including two small donjons or keeps inside the walls.

In 1840, Ibrahim Pasha, an Egyptian general rebelling against the Ottomans, destroyed many of the fortifications. After retaking Karak from him, the Ottomans further dismantled the castle’s defenses, so that the rebellious locals would not be able to use it.

A visit to the castle

Karak: Gallery on castle's N end The castle has seven different levels, some of them in the hill on which it stands. On its west side, a natural ravine drops steeply toward the Dead Sea. Dry moats defend it on the north and south, with part of the southern one doubling as a cistern. A moat on the east divided it from the town, although debris has partially filled this. The best-preserved parts of the Crusader fortifications are on the north end, where rough-hewn stones protrude from the wall. Along the inside of this north wall runs an arched Crusader gallery with arrow slits at regular intervals. Near the castle's northeastern corner are a barracks, kitchens and a bakery.
Continuing along the eastern upper sections, we encounter the Crusader chapel. Although there was a cathedral in the town, medieval administrative records show that the lord of Crac des Moabites had his own priest in the castle. The glacis, a sloping stone-faced defensive bank, can be seen below the eastern wall (see photo above).  Directly opposite is the highest point, the donjon or keep, built by the Mamluke sultan Baybars.

Karak: Overview of castle (please allow a minute to load)

Another donjon in the south wall has a set of structures clustered around a small courtyard. These remain from the residence of an-Nasir Mohammad, a 13th-century Mamluke sultan. When we consider his high rank, the simplicity seems remarkable. Perhaps an-Nasir Mohammad, like the earlier Umayyads who built the Desert complexes, desired a retreat that would remind him of his Beduin roots. The palace once contained much decorative stonework—a carved panel near its eastern entrance gives a hint of what once was.

The lower terrace on the west side contains the castle’s museum, displaying artifacts discovered on the grounds, as well as a restored Mamluke-era gallery running almost the length of the western wall.

Crusader lords, Mamluke sultans and Beduin rebels, noble and sometimes brutal men, ruled here. Standing on the heights of the fortress of Karak, we can imagine the creak of battle engines, the whirr of arrows, and the clash of sword on shield as men strove to dominate this island of rock on the central plateau of Transjordan.