Qal’at Sahyun (Saladin’s Castle)
Qal’at Sahyun, Crusader Saone, has to be one of the most spectacular of all the Crusader castles in the Levant. Set in the irresistibly picturesque wooded uplands that ward the coastal plain 25 km east of Lattakia, Sahyun controlled the main east/west trunk route between Lattakia and Aleppo.
I first visited in early spring amid hillside flowers and almond blossom in surrounding orchards. Like all castle buffs, I had come to see some of the best preserved battlements still in existence.
Laid out along 750 m of ridge line in three separate keeps, together walling an area of almost 5 ha, flanked by two deep ravines, and severed from the ridge’s eastern continuation by a 30 m deep, 20 m wide, 150 m long entrenchment cut through the living rock, Sahyun is the most complete example of a twelfth century Crusader castle in existence.
So in quiet, late afternoon sunshine, with the buzzing of bees my only companions, I pushed my way through the overgrown lower city and the moving east, I strode along the spectacular battlement walkways, and poked my head into the keep, which was suitably massive and dark. I then moved out of the castle and down into the massive exterior moat. The main reason I came to Sahyun was to see this moat, surely the most spectacular carved feature in all the Crusader Levant.
Sahyun features massive stone walling with carefully constructed high flanking towers guarding the more vulnerable positions, sharp indirect access gateways, an amazing drawbridge-supporting stone pinnacle 28 m high carved from the living rock, a 30 x 10 m ashlar masonry barrel-vaulted cistern, near intact battlement walkways on several of the eastern towers, several delicate churches set in now-wild scrubland in the lower township, and a three-storey 25 m square donjon with 5 m thick walls, serving as the final redoubt when all other defences had failed.
The site is an amazing combination of massive defensive works along the most obviously vulnerable eastern face, and a curiously re-engineered Byzantine-era middle-keep with patently inadequate walling. Even more problematically, the keep had been inadequately separated or protected from the surprisingly poorly defended lower township, which in all probability had never been intended to serve as more than a refuge for the local peasantry.
This thin-walled lower town proved to be the key weakness of the entire complex, as the Muslim warriors, veterans of innumerable siege operations, were not slow to spot the weak point immediately after conflict erupted, which makes the lack of preparedness even more difficult to understand.
Crusader take over
Sahyun was given as feoff by Tancred, then Regent of Antioch, to Robert of Saone, one of the two wealthiest baronial families in the principality; the first 30 years of occupation by the lords of Saone featured much bloody field warfare, as the pugnacious Crusaders tried to hold on to the eastern portions of the originally quite large northern principality.
However, a new phase of more realistic defensive mindedness occurred after 1144, following the fall of Edessa and the debacle of the Second Crusade. It must have become clear to the northern Crusader lords that large Christian field armies were a thing of the past (a lesson their southern brethren might have heeded); thereafter, a massive re-fortification of major access routes, landscape choke-points and fertile agricultural lands, was put into action.
It is very likely that the major refortification of the eastern keep, donjon, stables, cisterns and wall lines at Sahyun dates to this period after 1144, probably enacted under William, the third lord, whose two predecessors had died trying to hold indefensible eastern territories.
With the castle laid out along the western edge of a sharp ridge line, to secure it from attack, a massive trench was cut right across the neck of the ridge. The first dry fosse was likely to have been cut by the Byzantine builders in the 10th century, but whatever they began was dwarfed by the later Crusader achievement. When complete, the deep trench cut nearly 150 m across the ridge, 20 m wide and almost 30 m deep.
Sahyun was the vital bastion guarding the eastern approaches to Lattakia and its verdant plain, developing into the secondmost important centre of the Principality of Antioch. With the newly constructed towers, moat, walls and cisterns, Crusader Sahyun was a much harder nut to crack than its Byzantine predecessor.
Once Saladin succeeded in uniting the various emirates in the late 1170s, the various Crusader lordships had no option but to unite behind Jerusalem to meet the overwhelming threat that Saladin posed.
For around a decade, the canny Crusaders managed to avoid major conflict and largely frustrate Saladin’s attempts to bring them to battle, but after the inept Guy de Lusignan walked the entire army into a trap at Hattin in 1187, all but the most heavily defended castles were doomed because much of the best Crusader manpower had been captured or killed at Hattin.
Saladin seized a vast swathe of inland territory in the months after Hattin, and largely confined the few Crusader remnants to isolated coastal redoubts. In 1188 the Muslim armies swept north, trying to seize as many coastal centres as quickly as possible. In the northern campaign of 1188, the key centre of Lattakia fell in early July and thereafter Saladin moved rapidly on to Sahyun, aiming to clear the road to Aleppo and cut Antioch off from all help from the south. Because Sahyun’s main purpose had been to deny the road to Lattakia to attackers coming from the east, Saladin’s rapid approach from the west, after having taken Lattakia, probably demoralized already badly shaken defenders, all too aware of their chronic shortage of manpower after Hattin.
Saladin set up his massive siege engines opposite the eastern keep, forcing most of the defenders to these walls. While this battering by huge stones hurled by Saladin’s unequalled field artillery was occurring, Saladin’s son moved up to the thinly defended northern walls of the lower town and rapidly smashed them into rubble.
Without the manpower to contest the breach in the walls, the defenders were forced to retreat into the upper town, and here the incomplete state of the moat separating the upper from the lower town proved a fatal flaw, as the Muslim attackers poured across the inadequate fosse and forced all defenders off the walls and into the massive (but isolated) keep. However, this 5 m thick tower stood unbreachable, and Saladin, anxious to move on to other vulnerable centres before the avenging Christian armies arrived, agreed terms, allowing the small Crusader garrison and families to depart for Antioch. One of the greatest fortresses in Christendom had fallen in three days, due partly to flaws in
the defences and partly to the shattering of morale after Hattin and the fall of Lattakia. The spectacular moat had served no purpose after all as the attack had come from the north side, completely ignoring the much strengthened eastern facade and its mighty fosse.
However, Sahyun was never recovered by Christian forces, and as a consequence they never threatened Aleppo or even the northern Orontes valley lands again. Such was the value of one castle, strategically placed.
Today Sahyun slumbers in its verdant woodlands, magnificent in its quiet isolation among the bird song and the pine forests; walking through the massive stone fosse, or along the southern wall lines, one could easily imagine it serving once more to guard the local peoples from assault, wherever it might come from.