22 July 1996
KRAK DES CHEVALIERS - CRUSADER MEMORIES
Homs - ancient Emesa, & Tales of the Assassins
We woke up early today, and took a morning bus to Homs, where we planned to visit Krak des Chevaliers, the great Crusader castle. The journey there took two hours, passing a region of bare hills and desert with sparse grass. This boring landscape was interrupted only by an occasional small town, army camps (where I imagined terrorists were trained - see the degree of my indoctrination by western media and rambo movies !) and statues of the Great Leader and his son.
Homs, or Hims, as it is known in Arabic, does not have much to offer
to tourists, apart from its glorious historical role as the birth place
of two Roman emperors (Elagabalus and Severus Alexander). Known as
Emesa in the ancient days, it later became the burial place of Khalid ibn
al-Walid, the Arab conqueror of Syria, and is today a minor pilgrimage
|the Assassins. Headed by the legendary Rashid as-Din, more popularly known to the West as Old Man of the Mountain, he had the ability to command absolute loyalty from his followers through drugs (or as some said, black magic as well). He used to impress visitors to his mountain strongholds by asking his followers to jump to certain death off the mountain cliff...|
In Homs, we got a taxi to Krak des Chevaliers for S.L. 800 - the way
there, plus 2 hours sightseeing time, and back to Homs - was about
5 hours in total. Quite worth it. The journey west to
Krak took about an hour plus, passing an uphill but certainly green and
fertile region. Vegetable farms and tiny prosperous looking hamlets
everywhere. We soon entered a Christian region, with churches and
little roadside shrines similar to those one sees in Italy and Portugal.
This is a beautiful region, with much peace and serenity. But back
to the Crusader days, these hills were once terrorised by a mysterious
Isma’ili Shiite sect known as the Assassins. Headed by the legendary
Rashid as-Din, more popularly known to the West as Old Man of the Mountain,
he had the ability to command absolute loyalty from his followers through
drugs (or as some said, black magic as well). He used to impress
visitors to his mountain strongholds by asking his followers to jump to
certain death off the mountain cliff. He was particularly feared
for his ability to send suicide assassins to murder his enemies and had
tried to assassinate Saladin, leader of the Ayyubids several times.
However, the power of the sect was not absolute, as it was eventually destroyed
by the invading Mongols, when its defences were betrayed by a spy pretending
to be a follower.
Introduction to the Crusader Age
Krak des Chevelairs, or Castle of the Knights, was the greatest castle ever built by the invading Crusaders in the land of Syria (which then included Lebanon and Palestine/Israel). The First Crusade began in 1095 as a reaction to Muslim control over the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (although historians say that the real reason was simply human greed). This began a series of expeditions (including 8 large ones) to conquer the Middle East. At varying time, the Crusaders control parts of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and the wars that stretched over the next 200 years (until 1291 when the Europeans were finally chased out) gave arise to many legends and heroes, as well as much cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East. The latter eventually led to an explosion of scientific discoveries and philosophical enlightenment in Europe and the almost complete domination of the world by the Western civilisation until the second half of the 20th century.
Located in the mountains of northwestern Syria, Krak des Chevelairs exerted a stranglehold over the Homs Gap and thus controlled the flow of goods and traffic between the Mediterranean and the inland cities, as well as the land trade between Asia Minor and the Holy Land. The Knights of St John held it between 1142 and 1271, when it was finally conquered by the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Baybars I. Well preserved, it is the most notable surviving example of Medieval military architecture, and perhaps the most well-known tourist attraction in Syria.
Conversations with Mohammed
In this enormous castle (which we could see from afar - more than 15
minutes away - as we approached it), we wondered around aimlessly
at first, as it was so huge and had so many inner tunnels and passages
that we realised it was so difficult to rely on the map in Lonely Planet.
It was not long before we met Mohammed (the second of the many Mohammeds
we were to meet on this trip), a chubby waiter at the castle restaurant.
We had a nice little conversation with him ( - “Oh, you people are the
first Singaporeans I have ever met !”) and before we knew it, he brought
us around for the next one hour plus - for free ! Such is the
hospitality of the Syrian people, and Mohammed wanted us to tell the whole
world that Syria is not a dangerous country to visit, and that the Syrian
people are friendly. Mohammed was born in a village near the
Castle and have been working at the restaurant for years. He had
never been school but spoke excellent English, and French (which I can’t
verify because I can’t speak the language). He appeared to be a well
refined and well informed person. It was a pity that opportunities
are so lacking in this country. A person like him could have made
it big with an education. As a person who knew the Castle so well
and presents it to visitors so enthusiastically, perhaps he should be a
tour guide. Maybe this would help to supplement his income.
|Today’s conflicts are a mere continuation of what began nearly 1,000 years ago. Memories last a long time in this cradle of civilisation. Great leaders of the past like Richard the Lionheart and Salah-ad-Din could not resolve it even with their personal friendship. Can today’s leaders do so ?|
We spent about 2 hours at the castle, exploring its tunnels and passages,
huge chambers as well as its phenomenal towers, from where some say that
the Mediterranean and the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon (“You mean,
you didn’t visit Lebanon ? What a pity ! That’s the most beautiful
country in the Middle East”, say many) would be visible on a clear day.
Looking the valleys beneath and the Lebanese mountains faraway, I thought
about the tumultuous days of the Crusaders and realised that today’s conflicts
are a mere continuation of what began nearly 1,000 years ago. Memories
last a long time in this cradle of civilisation. Great leaders of
the past like Richard the Lionheart and Salah-ad-Din could not resolve
it even with their personal friendship. Can today’s leaders do so
National Museum - Syrian history in a nutshell
We returned to Damascus and used what’s left of the day to make a quick visit to the renowned National Museum of Damascus. We had to make a mad rush just looking at the most important treasures of the Museum - the mosaics of Doura Europos synagogue. This was the most eastern outpost of the Roman Empire (today at the eastern end of Syria, near Iraq) and well-preserved Jewish frescoes and mosaics were found here. Apart from these were baked tablets with the ancient alphabets of Ugarit and other Mesopotamian relics, statues of Palmyra, Byzantine mosaics, Islamic art objects and Koran from old Damascus, etc. It was a pity we had so little time left. If one can afford it, a proper trip to the Museum should take half-a-day.
After the closure of the Museum, we visited the Artisanat, an art market
and shopping complex at an Ottoman madrassa (religious school). Interesting
place to pick up T-shirts and souvenirs. Given the low number of
tourists in Syria, shop-keepers are generally friendlier than in many other
countries and would offer you drinks even though you do not buy anything.
We ended the day at a tea canna (or tea house) next to the Hejaz Railway
station, where we tried bitter Yemeni coffee while observing the dusk of
Damascus amidst loud Arabic pop music.
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