European Heritage in Syria

The Castle of Knights or Hospitallers, Le Krak des Chevaliers. Photo: N. Moussleman, The Castle of Knights, Damascus 2001

One of the most remarkable European castles is found in Syria, close to the city of Homs. The Castle of the Knights or Hospitallers or le Krak des Chevaliers as it is known in the West, or Castle of the Kurds (Hissn-al-Akrad) in Arabic, was built in 1031 by the local governor of Homs, who left a Kurdish garrison in the castle. After the fall of Antioch to the crusaders in 1098, two crusader armies overran Syria. One was led by Count Raymond of Toulouse who laid siege to Homs. In 1110, the Castle of the Kurds fell and he crusaders built a new castle on the ruins of the old one, the castle which is still standing today. The garrison of 2000 could withstand a prolonged siege of 5 years, but it should withstand for 160 years. In 1142, the castle was turned over to the knights of St. John of Jerusalem.

Baibars, the famous Mamluk Sultan, was able to retake the castle in 1271, what marked the beginning of the Malmuk Dynasty. The castle is an excellent example of European castle building and the architecture, structures and above all sustainability are astonishing accomplishments from a period which was not only ‘dark’ after all.
Castles and knights, tournaments and sieges dominate our perception of the Middle Ages. Even in our modern age, strong battlements and soaring towers, or tales of robber barons and captive maidens retain their hold on our imagination. But, as a wealth of high-ranking pictorial and other sources proves, this fascination had already been felt even in the Middle ages. The finest examples of European illustrated manuscripts, decorative gold or bronze tableware, altarpieces and ivory carvings demonstrate the special role the castle played in art as early as the Romanesque and Gothic eras. Realistically coloured scale models of actual castles help to understand the evolution and the huge variety in castle architecture from the 11th to 18th centuries.

New archaeological discoveries, ranging from stove tiles to coin hoards, as well as valuable surviving examples of master craftsmanship allow us to glimpse both the everyday chores and the festivities which filled the castle with life. As early as the 17th century, castles had become a subject of scientific inquiry, illustrated not only in sketches and learned treatises, but soon also in tour guides and panoramic postcards. For the very first time, a comprehensive overview is provided of the history of the castle, which for more than a thousand years served as an elite residence, a symbol of power – and a holiday destination. An exhibition in the National Museum of Nuremberg presents some 650 objects, many of them displayed for the first time, from European castles and from international museum collections ranging from Vienna to New York. In combination, these highlights present a fascinating panoramic view of the ‘Myth of the Castle’ from the Middle Ages to our times. Further information: http://www.gnm.de/mythos-burg/