Qal’at Sahyun (Sal­adin’s Castle)

Timeless Travels Magazine - - MIDDLE EAST -

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’s for­ti­fi­ca­tions

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.

Sal­adin’s cam­paign

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.

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