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Krak des Chevaliers
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Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers (also Crac des Chevaliers, "fortress of the knights" in a mixture of Arabic and French) was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller in Syria during the Crusades. It was also called in Arabic in al-Akrād, "fortress of the Kurds."

The castle is located east of Tripoli in the "Homs Gap," atop a 650-meter high cliff along the only route from Antioch to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. The original fortress had been built in 1031 for the emir of Aleppo. It was captured by Raymond IV of Toulouse early in 1099, during the First Crusade, but was abandoned when the Crusaders continued their march to Jerusalem. It was reoccupied again by Tancred of Hauteville in 1110. Raymond II, count of Tripoli, gave it to the Hospitallers in 1142.

The Hospitallers rebuilt it and expanded it into the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land, adding an outer wall 30 meters thick with seven guard towers 8-10 meters thick, to create a concentric castle. One of these towers was occupied by the Grand Master of the Hospitallers. In the 12th century there was a moat covered by a drawbridge leading to postern gates. Between the inner and outer gates was a courtyard, leading to the inner buildings, which were rebuilt by the Hospitallers in a Gothic style. These buildings included a meeting hall, a chapel, and a 120-meter long storage facility. Other storage facilities were dug into the cliff below the fortress, and it is estimated that the Hospitallers could have withstood a siege for five years. By 1170, the Hospitallers' modifications were complete, but parts of the fortress were rebuilt after numerous earthquakes in the late 12th century and early 13th century. It may have held about 50-60 Hospitallers and up to 2000 other foot soldiers. Aside from the control of the road to the Mediterranean, the Hospitallers also exerted some influence over Lake Homs to the east, where they could control the fishing industry and watch for Muslim armies gathering in Syria.

In 1163, the fortress was unsuccessfully besieged by Nur ad-Din. After their victory the Hospitallers became an essentially independent force on the Tripolitanian frontier. It was also besieged, again unsuccessfully, by Saladin in 1188.

It was recaptured by Baibars on April 8, 1271, after deceiving the Hospitallers into believing the count of Tripoli had instructed them to surrender. Baibars refortified it and used it as a base against Tripoli. He also converted the Hospitaller chapel into a mosque. The Mameluks later used it to attack Acre in 1291.

The fortress is one of the few sites where Crusader art (in the form of frescoes) has been preserved. Edward I of England, while on the Ninth Crusade in 1272, saw the fortress and used it as an example for his own castles in England and Wales. T.E. Lawrence believed Krak des Chevaliers was the greatest of the Crusader castles and "the most wholly admirable castle in the world." Today it is owned by the Syrian government, who operate it as a tourist attraction.