My favourite Crusader Castles
Archaeologist Stephen Bourke has spent many years working throughout the Middle East, and at one point had the chance to live in Shobak castle, in the south of Jordan, for a couple of months. No wonder then, when asked to chose his favourite Crusader castles, Shobak was first on the list.
Shobak Castle. Image © Bernard Gagnon CC BY-SA 3.0
When asked to choose my favourite Crusader castle, settling on Shobak in the arid south of Jordan may seem an odd choice. It is neither the largest, nor the most spectacularly sited of the many Crusader fortifications to dot the Holy Land. But it is the only one I lived in for two months in the summer of 1984, and the nightly views of the silvered landscape from atop the high walls of the castle linger with me still.
Shobak castle is located around 25 km north of the spectacular Nabataean capital of Petra, and around 120 km south of Jordan’s modern capital, Amman. After the bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, and more than a decade of hard fighting to take control of the coastal centres of what became the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin I of Jerusalem looked to expand east of the Jordan river, and selected the less well defended southern half of what is modern-day Jordan as his first target.
Shobak (Montreal) was founded in 1115, and further castles at Petra (Li Vaux Moise) and Aqaba (Ayla) followed in 1116. These three Crusader centres formed the initially quite small Lordship of Oultrejourdain, primarily designed to interdict communications (and the fabulously wealthy trade caravans) between the two main Muslim centres of Damascus and Cairo, while as well levying tribute from the annual Hajj pilgrimage between Damascus and Mecca.
Today, the visible remains of Shobak consist of a roughly oval-shaped castle 175 x 80 m in extent, occupying all of a conical hilltop 1400 m high, thus making direct attack with siege equipment well-nigh impossible. Copious springs flow from both the north and south sides of the Wadi Bustan, situated immediately east of Shobak. A separate water source issued from the soon-to-be fortified hilltop afterwards reached via a 375 step passageway cut deep into the bedrock, securing the water needs of the garrison.
The land about Shobak is nowadays desolate, but Crusader-period witnesses speak of forested hillsides, rich grain fields on the northern plateau, and both wine and olive oil produced from the east valley margins. The Crusader period population seems likely to have contained a fair number of Orthodox Christians settled among a majority Muslim peasantry, and this may in part explain the initial choice of Shobak as a Crusader stronghold, although safe water, verdant surrounds and the unequalled strategic position will all have played their part.
Entrance to Shobak castle today. Image © Bernard Gagnon CC BY-SA 3.0
The Lords of Oultrejourdain
The Lordship of Oultrejourdain threatened the prosperity of the adjacent Muslim kingdoms by levying heavy tribute on large trade caravans. It also disrupted Muslim military activity by preventing the coordination of the Egyptian and Syrian armies, while acting as a constant affront to the religious sensibilities of those tasked to secure the safe passage of the Hajj pilgrims.
Consequently, while much of the Crusader world reached ‘live and let live’ arrangements with their
Muslim neighbours during the middle years of the Twelfth Century, the lordship of Oultrejourdain was always considered differently, and few concessions or ‘understandings’ were ever offered to its lords.
Initial lords were sage and careful in the husbanding of their quite limited resources, but after Reynald of Chatillon assumed control of the lordship in 1176 warfare was constant, vicious and increasingly unregulated by the many rules and unwritten customs that governed conflict in the Crusader period. Reynald terrorized the Hajj pilgrims, pillaged the trade caravans, and even launched maritime assaults into the Red Sea, menacing centres as far south as Mecca.
Once Saladin (of Richard the Lionheart fame) reunified Syrian and Egyptian emirates in the early 1180, the days of Oultrejordain were numbered. When Reynald was captured after the Crusader disaster at the battle of Hattin (1187), Saladin, a man celebrated for his chivalry, refused Reynald sanctuary and slayed him out of hand. And with him died the lordship.
After Hattin removed the threat of a Crusader relief army disrupting siege operations (as it had twice before in 1182 and 1183), Kerak (the capital of the lordship since 1142) fell in 1188, followed by Shobak in 1189, after a bitterly contested siege of two years. The defenders only surrendered when blinded from lack of salt, the one commodity they had not stored in sufficient quantity to withstand years-long siege.
One approaches Shobak today down the King’s Highway from Amman, and until nearly upon the castle, it remains invisible, nestled deep within its east/west valley.
The impressive fortification features three large square towers on the east (flanking the entrance way), northwest (looking towards the approach road) and southern (looking out over the eastern escarpment) sides of the castle, and one rounded stronghold on the northeast corner.
There is an impressive glacis of sloping stonework running down from the lower wall lines, sealing the hillside and making approach suicidal. There are two small Christian chapels within the walls, one Latin and carefully laid out with baptistery and pillared hall, the second more modest and set away from the public square, for the use of the mainly Orthodox population.
Much of the visible remains date from the Mameluke period refurbishment of the castle (1260-1300), as this former lordship was thereafter kept under the tight control of the Egyptian sultan, often serving as a place of exile for troublesome family members. The original Crusader wall lines are visible in places, and comparisons with Kerak (also rebuilt in Mameluke times) suggest that the Mameluke rebuild largely followed the original Crusader layout, although the large square towers on the northwest and south sides may well be larger additions to Crusader originals.
The tower of the castle where Stephen lived for a couple of months whilst surveying the area
CHARMS OF SHOBAK
So why choose Shobak? When offered the chance to live in the castle (in the three-storey eastern tower), while carrying out survey work in southern Jordan in 1984, we came to understand the particular attractions of the castle’s situation. Each morning we woke to bird song, issuing up out of the verdant valley of Bustan, spring-fed and sparklingly beautiful in the early morning light.
In the early evenings, drinks on the battlements watching the landscape’s slow change from gilded orange to deep purple as the air cooled and the stars emerged, soothed all the many frustrations away.
We learnt that no matter how hot the day, the stone walls of our tower repelled all heat. The arrow-slits let in cool night air, which wafted over my bedding, set on a raised bench beside the narrow openings. Winters must have been pretty grim, but the thick walls of the lower keep would have insulated against more than incoming missiles.
And cleaning your teeth on the top of the tower in brilliant moonlight, looking across the wadi to where Saladin once sat patient in his encampment, one naturally wondered about how it must have felt to be under siege.
The massive castle walls would have kept inhabitants reasonably safe from direct assault, but the isolated position and the small size of the garrison rendered the besieged utterly dependent on a relieving army, if any realistic chance of long-term survival was entertained. And after the disaster of Hattin, such hope of relief had vanished.
What must they have felt walking the walls each night, as the siege lines closed in and supplies dwindled? And why then did they fight on for two years, until literally blinded into surrender? Saladin granted them free passage to the coast when they did surrender, but the grim tenacity of what seems to us a pointless years-long defence warns against a too-blithe assurance that we only have to walk the walls to inhabit the minds of the Crusader defenders.
Shobak castle sits firmly atop its conical hill to this day. Once home to unruly Crusaders, Mameluke sultans, Turkish soldiers and Jordanian insurrectionaries, it now boasts a visitors’ centre, pleasant boutique hotels nearby, and a lively township in the valley bottom.
It makes a pleasant break on the way south from Kerak to Petra. Perhaps it was ever thus.
Read more about Stephen's other choices of Saladin's Castle and Crac des Chevalliers in our first issue of Timeless Travels, Summer 2014.
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