The Krak des Chevaliers, bestriding the strategic Homs gap, is one of the most impressive examples of medieval military architecture anywhere in the world. When the Crusaders in the 12th century set up their first mini-states, the stretch of mountains running along the coast from Antakya, Turkey — once Antioch, a great port in antiquity and the seat of a Crusader principality — down the road to Beirut became lousy with castles, with the new invaders eager to choke off any advance by a Muslim (or rival Christian) army. (That ground encompasses the territory demarcated by France in the 19th century as the Alawite state, a part of Syria that its embattled Alawite President Bashar Assad may choose to retreat to if the tide continues to turn against him.) No single fortification proved more daunting than the Krak, which was occupied and built up by the Knights Hospitaller starting in 1144.
One Arab chronicler of the time described it as the “bone in the very throat of the Muslims.” Its layers of dense, crenelated walls were rarely breached; its location atop a wind-swept hill was imperious. Only a century and a half later in 1281, with the Crusaders a much-diminished presence in the Levant, did it fall — and not through military conquest, but subterfuge. A letter urging surrender was sent to the garrison within, forged in the hand of the head of their Order in Jerusalem. After decades of resistance, the Crusaders left the Krak, but it stands to this day.
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