A tour of five Crusader fortifications


William of Oldenburg described Margat as follows: A huge and very strong castle, defended by a double wall and protected by several towers. It stands on a high mountain ... Every night four Knights of the Hospital and 28 soldiers keep guard there ... The provisions stored there are sufficient for five years.

Margat's hilltop location is linked by a neck of land to a larger hill to the south, this potentially vulnerable approach being defended by a rock-cut reservoir to discourage mining. Margat itself is divided into two areas consisting of the castle and the fortified town, divided by a ditch and wall. The outer walls were defended by a dozen towers, of which all but four are round and probably date from after the Hospitallers had taken control.

Margat's defences are remarkably varied. On the eastern front, a wall and several round towers create a huge hillside terrace, behind which is a glacis crowned by an inner wall. How far this inner wall originally extended is, however, unclear. The north of the site has a single wall dominated by a square tower, probably from the 12th century. On the western side was an enclosure strengthened by four early 13th-century round towers whose wall-head defences are now lost. The main castle dominated the southern end of the enclosure, and was approached through a square gatehouse in the outer wall. Above the entrance arch are the corbels, which supported a machicolation; there is also a groove for a portcullis. The resulting complex entrance has alternative angled routes into the castle, though there was no access to the upper floors from the gate. Another fortified gate linked the fortress and the town, while the exterior of the citadel was protected by a double wall. On its western side are three square towers, again probably dating from the 12th century. The wall connecting them has a covered 'shooting gallery'. But on the other side there are no towers because the slope is so steep that simple walls were considered adequate. At the very southern tip of this roughly triangular citadel was what the Crusaders called the Tower of the Spur, which was replaced by the great Mamluk tower that dominates the southern end of Margat.

The great Hospitaller fortress of Margat crowns a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean, near Banyas. The site consisted of a fortified town, on the right, and a much better protected citadel on the left. The southernmost outer bastion of this citadel was rebuilt by the Mamluks after they captured the place, and is distinguished by a horizontal line of white limestone masonry. Most of the rest of the fortress dates from the 12th and 13th century Crusader period.

Though plain and undecorated, the church inside the citadel of Margat is an impressive structure built of finely cut white limestone, in stark contrast to the roughly cut black basalt of the rest of the castle.

These outer defences are overlooked by clifflike inner walls, which surround the inner court; the latter is largely surrounded by vaulted halls used for storage and shelter. On the southern side is a more elegant, vaulted chamber, which was probably the Knights' Hall. Nearby is a grand but austere chapel whose eastern end was incorporated into the castle wall. It was probably built shortly after the Hospitallers gained possession of Margat, although the halls on each side are from a later period.

Numerous changes were made to the plan during the construction of Margat, and it seems almost as if the masons were working continuously, year after year. The result is ingenious if rather confusing, with the most impressive elements of the citadel being two massive round towers. The smaller of these, at the north-eastern corner, still has its wall-head defences, which consist, at the lower level, of arrow-slits and one large rectangular opening for a counter-siege machine. Above them a wall walk has merlons pierced with arrow slits. At the southern end, where the natural defences are weakest, the Hospitallers constructed a round keep, 200m in diameter and 24m high. It was comparable to the great circular keeps of western Europe, though somewhat squatter, perhaps because of the threat of earthquakes.

Otherwise the castle of Margat is remarkable for its use of superimposed halls and vaults, provided with arrow slits to turn them into huge shooting galleries, linked by a maze of often unlit staircases within the wall. Most probably served as storerooms or barracks though one contained ovens and some seem to have been stables. Above them is an extensive roof terrace, perhaps intended for stone-throwing siege machines of the type which defended Margat in 1285. In fact, numerous arrowheads embedded in the mortar around certain arrow slits probably date from the final siege.

Today the western side of the fortress-town of Margat looks less impressive than the eastern and southern defences. This was, however, the original approach and was protected by two strong enclosure walls plus a dry moat. Most of what is visible here forms the inner wall with the mass of the main citadel rising on the right.

The inner courtyard of the great castle of Crac des Chevaliers is remarkably small because so much of its area has been covered by additional structures. Of these the most famous is the fine, carved, Gothic arcade on the right, which formed a covered cloister for the brothers of the Hospitaller Military Order.

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