Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The most beautiful castle

Magdalena and Miriam and I enjoy the view from the top of the Keep at Krak des Chevaliers near Homs, Syria, in 2010.

In the summer of 2010, we visited Krak des Chevaliers near Homs, Syria. It's a 12th-century Crusader castle and it is glorious to behold. Four-year-old Miriam instantly dubbed it "The Most Beautiful Castle." She asked about its history and we explained to her what castles were for - a stronghold in a time of war, a place to store food and water, a fortress where the good guys try to stand their ground against the bad guys (or vice versa). I checked Miriam's blog to see what I wrote about our visit at the time and found these brief remarks:

"Miriam's fever had just barely broken but she really wanted to visit and explore places so we went ahead and did it. We had trouble with some bad attitude at first but after she got into it she was fine. She was full of questions about what everything was for. She also wondered about why there was a war, and why there aren't bad guys anymore."

Today, there is a war in Syria again, and there are bad guys again. There always were bad guys, of course, but that's not the kind of thing you casually mention to your 4-year-old when she asks. Krak des Chevaliers itself is being used as a defensive stronghold again, alternately by FSA and regime forces. The castle has been damaged and rebuilt many times over the centuries, I'm sure. This is just more of the same. The thought is almost comforting. Almost.

I think of British explorer Gertrude Bell visiting this place more than 100 years ago, in 1905. Back then, Krak des Chevaliers was inhabited by local families, though still very obviously a castle. From The Desert and the Sown, Bell's account of her journeys through the Levant:

"The castle is the 'Kerak of the Knights' of Crusader chronicles. It belonged to the Hospitallers, and the Grand Master of the Order made it his residence. The Egyptian Sultan Malek ed Daher took it from them, restored it, and set his exultant inscription over the main gate. It is one of the most perfect of the many fortresses which bear witness to the strange jumble of noble ardour, fanaticism, ambition and crime that combined to make the history of the Crusades."

Here is Bell's view of the Gothic windows of the banquet hall (p. 205), "the tracery of which was blocked with stones to guard those who dwelt within against the cold":

And ours in 2005:

Ours in 2010:

And now (source: BBC News article):

1905: Gertrude Bell's view from horseback:

Our view in 2005:

A Syrian soldier's view in 2014:

Some years after Gertrude Bell left the castle, it was re-converted into a proper tourist attraction, albeit one without interpretive signs, fences guarding against precipitous drop-offs, or exorbitant admission fees (I think it cost about $3 to get in). Now it has been converted back into a functioning fortress. Who knows what it will be used for in the years to come? Happier things, I hope. It is, after all, The Most Beautiful Castle.

8 comments:

Jen said...

I've started getting a little pit in my stomach when I see one of your posts lead with a pic from your time in Syria.....because I know there's most likely a current photo to follow.

Such a tragic present-tense for something so beautiful.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

When I first saw the article I feared more extensive damage from the past few years, especially given the intensity of nastiness occurring in and around Homs. We spent some happy hours exploring Krak des Chevaliers. That place generated some of my favorite travel memories.

Jeremy Palmer said...

I'm nearly in tears reading this. It is resonates more because we have been there but unfortunately this is not the only castle or country to witness such bloodshed and destruction.

Susanne said...

Ah, I so wanted this to be happy post where you shared some good times spent exploring Syria. I liked reading what you wrote on Miriam's blog...and then I got to the current picture from inside. So sad what has happened to Syria. I grieve for them.

I heard part of the BBC news hour while driving this morning, and they were talking about a five month old boy who had polio. His family took him from Syria to Turkey for treatment, but they didn't seem hopeful.

Breaks my heart.

Kathy Haynie said...

Your Syria posts make the abstract into something real and believable - even though the reality is awful. Thank you.

Sarah Cook said...

Beautifully written. I wish this and other writings of yours would be published on yahoo or msn or usatoday so americans would take a minute and realize what is happening in such a beautiful place.

dave said...

It is indeed the most beautiful castle, and I'm terribly saddened by the damage to those Gothic windows (I remember them clearly in my mind).

Liz Johnson said...

I agree with Sarah Cook - this kind of stuff needs to be more widely publicized. Syria barely makes the US news anymore. It's just... sickening.

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