A strange thing happened when I was looking at my old photos of Syria. A persistent, troubling thought of something misremembered or forgotten. As I gazed at a photo of the 6th century Byzantine palace of Qasr Ibn Wardan memories came flooding back. It was clear the moment I arrived amongst the red earth of the Syrian Desert that this site didn’t receive many visitors. It took a while to find the old caretaker to let me in. I was about to wander off but he insisted on showing me something.
Next to the guest book, inside a plastic folder, was a fading ‘missing’ poster. Jacqueline Nicole Vienneau was a Canadian traveller who disappeared on 31 March 2007. Her diary recorded that she’d planned a day trip from her hotel in Hama to this very spot after visiting nearby beehive villages. Syria was considered a safe country, even for solo female travellers, and as I stood there only five months after her tragic disappearance the caretaker was visibly angry that this could happen in his country.
After 13 years without recalling this incident, I now remember that I wrote down the details and looked them up when back in London. Her family spent those years desperately searching for her, even when the civil war made that close to impossible. Despite leads, and indications that a hotel employee was involved, they never conclusively found out what happened to their daughter and sister. This link and this link tell some of this awful story.
I wasn’t going to write about this, it seems intrusive, but there’s always hope that someone may see this and provide answers to 13-years of questions. Qasr Ibn Wardan is an evocative place, a former palace, church and fortress complex with a unique striped design imported from Constantinople to impress the locals. Afterwards we drove to visit villages containing Syria’s famous beehive houses followed by a stop in Hama so I could see the Byzantine-era waterwheels.
The conical beehive buildings that dot the landscape here are typical of this region, and are the perfect design for the heat extremes this area experiences. The livestock-farming communities that inhabit these villages are visibly poor and judging by the enthusiasm with which I was welcomed, they don’t see many tourists. Wherever we stopped a gang of children quickly formed a disorderly queue to see this strange person. It was a fleeting visit, time was short and there was one particular Syrian sight I couldn’t miss.
The restaurant in which I ate a very late lunch while overlooking the mighty Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers is still there. It’s now an empty shell and hasn’t served lunch to any tourists since the bloody Syrian Civil War engulfed this area in 2011. Despite being bombed by the Syrian government in 2013, the 900 year old Krak des Chevaliers survived largely intact. This marvel of Crusader engineering dominates the region’s rolling hills and valleys, which extend to the coast and into Lebanon.
Standing on its mighty battlements it’s easy to see why the Crusaders chose this site. The views are extraordinary and it is generally considered the greatest of all the Crusader castles in the region. It formed one link in a chain of Crusader fortresses that stretched from modern day Turkey to southern Jordan. The castle was gifted to the Order of the Knights Hospitaller in 1142, and it was they who held it until it fell to Sultan Baibars in 1271.
So powerful were its defenses that it was never conquered militarily – not even the great Muslim leader, Saladin, managed that. In the end all it took to conquer Krak des Chevaliers was a short siege and a forged signature. Crusader power was on the wane in the region but Krak des Chevaliers was no easy trophy. Despite little hope of victory, the garrison prepared to fight to the death until presented with a letter from the Grand Master of the Hospitaller Order instructing them to lay down their arms.
The letter prevented a bitter siege and many deaths. It was also forged. The knights of the Hospitaliers left never to return. Crusader power, fatally weakened by infighting, collapsed and 20 years later the last Crusader stronghold of Acre fell to Muslim forces. It’s hard to take in the history in a short visit, but the sheer size and strength of Krak des Chevaliers leaves a lasting impression.