Syria's Krak des Chevaliers Crusader fortress charred and battered in war

Assad's troops who recaptured fortress find its vaults crumbling and its columns ravaged by soot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:53am


Columns are blackened with soot and vaults have crumbled in one of the courtyards of Syria's the Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle that is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a victim of the country's three-year civil war.

The army seized the medieval fortress on Thursday after fierce fighting in the village of Al-Hosn in central Syria, routing rebels who captured it in July 2011.

Most of the 11th century fortress and its external walls appear intact, but the damage is inside, in the lower courtyard.

Fires, apparently lit by the rebels who were entrenched inside the fortress, have ravaged ancient pillars, while some archways and vaults have collapsed.

Huge blocks of grey stone litter the ground, but it is not clear if the damage was caused during Thursday's capture of the fortress or in earlier bombardments.

The only bullet holes that can be seen are on a metal plate that was once inscribed with information for tourists who visited the Krak des Chevaliers, or Fortress of the Knights. "We acted in a way to preserve the Krak, to make sure it would not be damaged," said a colonel who escorted the journalists on their tour.

In July 2011, four months after the Syrian conflict erupted, Sunni villagers from the village of Al-Hosn seized the Krak and were soon joined by allied rebels, including Lebanese fighters.

Islamist fighters also occupied the Krak, including jihadists from Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, and from the Jund al-Sham group.

The fighters were routed after fierce fighting on Thursday, part of an offensive to sever rebel supply lines from Lebanon.

They left behind all sorts of supplies. A pot of leftover meat and rice stew can be seen in a room that rebels apparently used as a command centre and living quarters.

Rugs cover the hard stone floors, there are camp beds and, on one side of a room that apparently served as the kitchen, there is a cupboard that contains rice and a tin of vegetable fat.

Curtains are strung across loopholes to keep the daylight out and men's clothing is strewn across the room.

Nearby are the women's quarters, said the colonel, adding that 700 rebels lived in the Krak.

In the village of Al-Hosn, the damage is greater. Shop windows are shattered, shards of glass carpet the streets and buildings have been bombarded.

The colonel said the army took the rebels by surprise on Thursday and seized the Krak after an operation that lasted about 12 hours.

The Krak ranks as one of the best preserved examples of medieval fortresses from the times of the Crusaders, according to Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation.

Like other Crusader castles in the Middle East, it sits on top of a hill that dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Initially, Abbassid Muslims built a fortress on the hill in 1031, but the bulk of the existing fortress was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, which was given the castle in 1142. There were further fortifications built towards the end of the 13th century by the Mamluks, who swept in and seized it from the Crusaders.

The Krak was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage Site list in 2006, one of six such Syrian sites.

Last year, Unesco decided to add all six to its World Heritage in Danger list, including the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo, Palmyra and Qalat Salaheddin fortress.

The move reflected growing concern that serious damage was being inflicted on the sites, as the war that erupted in Syria in March 2011 raged on.


Tripoli pays bloody price as Lebanese city is dragged into Syria conflict

Eleven people died in Tripoli, Lebanon, in fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad which also sparked clashes with the Lebanese army.

It was one of the deadliest days in the Mediterranean port city, which has seen frequent outbreaks of violence since the start of the conflict in neighbouring Syria three years ago. Twenty-seven people have been killed in the past week. Tripoli, like much of Lebanon, is divided along sectarian lines and is only 50 kilometres from the Syrian border. Its majority Sunni Muslims, who back the Syrian rebels, often clash with the minority from Assad's Alawite sect.

Seven people were shot dead on Friday, including gunmen and civilians, one of them an elderly man. Most were shot by snipers but some gunmen were killed in clashes with the army.

Four people wounded in earlier clashes died, including two gunmen hit in overnight clashes between fighters from the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen.

Lebanon's population is deeply divided over the Syrian war. Shiite militant and political movement Hezbollah and its allies support Assad, while many of the country's Sunnis back the revolt.

Tripoli's Sunnis and Alawites have clashed for decades but Syria has worsened tensions, with each side accusing the other of using the city as a base for sending fighters and weapons in and out of Syria.