Even today the 12th Century crusader fortress of Karak Castle dominates the town and surrounding countryside. Built between 1142 – 1161, this was the pinnacle of Crusader castle technology and it still has the power to awe as you approach it. Built to project the power of the Christian invaders, this is one of the largest Crusader castles in the Middle East.
Ironic then that it was only in Crusader hands for 46 years before being captured by Saladin following a year-long siege. Standing on the ramparts it isn’t difficult to imagine the armies of Saladin surrounding the castle and bombarding it with giant stones flung from catapults. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere of this extraordinary place, added to by its vicious history.
Karak Castle came to be the main base of the Crusader Lord of Oultrejordain, in the 12th Century one the most important Crusader fiefdoms. In 1177 it came under the control of the reviled Reynald of Chatillon – a man renowned for his brutality – who used the recently constructed Karak Castle as a safe haven from which to attack Muslim caravans and pilgrims on the way to Mecca.
Reynald’s activities broke a recent peace treaty between Saladin and King Baldwin of Jerusalem, but it was his threat to attack Mecca that brought Saladin’s army to his doorstep in 1183. That siege was unsuccessful but Saladin had only to wait four years until Karak was under his control.
In 1187 Reynald was a key player in the disastrous Battle of Hattin, disastrous for the Crusaders at least. Disastrous also for Reynald, who was captured by the victorious Muslim forces and beheaded by Saladin personally.
This is the moment in history portrayed in the film Kingdom of Heaven, and the destruction of the Crusader army by Saladin’s forces saw the collapse of Christian power across the region. Dozens of Crusader castles and towns fell to Saladin after the Battle of Hattin, including Jerusalem itself. Karak fell the following year never to return to Crusader control.
On a day when rain gave way to mist rising out of the valley, my first sight of Karak was dramatic. I managed the nerve wracking drive through Karak’s crowded downtown streets and found a parking spot near the entrance, although not before being told off by the police for parking illegally. I got lost in a nearby mosque complex before finally finding the castle entrance. I’m certain Saladin didn’t have this many difficulties.
Once inside this magnificent structure all such troubles faded from my mind. The views over the surrounding countryside and town were breathtaking. I spent some time drinking in the panorama, before heading off to explore the maze of atmospheric tunnels and rooms dug deep into the hillside below the castle walls.
Many people skip Karak en route south to Petra or Wadi Rum, and there were only a handful of non-Jordanian tourists the day I visited. Yet this is an unforgettable place that tells part of the extraordinary history of this region. If you’re in Jordan it’s well worth a visit.