Whether you approach Karak from the ancient Kings Highway to the east, or from the Dead Sea to the west, the striking silhouette of this fortified town and castle will instantly make you understand why the fates of kings and nations were decided here for millennia.
An ancient Crusader stronghold, Karak sits 900m above sea level and lies inside the walls of the old city. Karak lies to the south of Amman, Jordan on the King's Highway . Karak commands a magnificent view of the Dead Sea. The city today is home to around 170,000 people and continues to boast a number of restored 19th century Ottoman buildings, restaurants, places to stay, and the like. But it is undoubtedly Karak Castle which dominates.
Al Karak has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age, and was an important city for the Moabites (who called it Qir of Moab) and the Nabateans. In the Bible it is called Qer Harreseth, and the Romans conquered it from the Nabateans in 105. During the late Hellenistic Period, Al Karak became an important town as was known as Kharkha. Under the Byzantine Empire it was a bishopric—containing the much venerated Church of Nazareth—and remained predominantly Christian under Arab rule.
The town is built on a triangular plateau, with the castle at its narrow southern tip. The castle is some 220m long, 125m wide at the north end, and 40m wide at the southern end where a narrow valley deepened by a ditch separates it from the adjoining and much higher hill – once Saladin's favourite artillery position. Throughout the castle, dark and roughly shaped Crusader masonry is easy to discern from the finely crafted blocks of lighter and softer limestone used in later Arab work.
While the castle we see today essentially dates back to the 12th century, Karak has been a fortress since biblical times. The Bible relates how the King of Israel and his allies from Judah and Edom ravaged Moab and besieged its king Mesha in the fortress of Kir Heres, as Karak was then known.
Centuries later, it took the Crusaders some twenty years to erect their vast castle. Once finished in 1161, it became the residence of the lord of Transjordan, by then the most important fief of the Crusader kingdom, rich in produce and tax revenues. After withstanding several sieges in the early 1170s, Karak came under the rule of Reynald of Chatillon, a lord who became known for his recklessness and barbarism. Breaking all treaties, he began looting merchant caravans and Mecca-bound pilgrims, attacked the very homeland of Islam – the Hijaz – and raided Arabian ports on the Red Sea, even threatening Mecca itself. Saladin, the ruler of Syria and Egypt, reacted swiftly. He took the town of Karak by force, burned it down and almost managed to storm the castle as well.
Reynald’s peacetime robbery of a large caravan in 1177 prompted fast retribution from Saladin, who attacked the Crusader kingdom – ending in the defeat of the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin. Saladin spared most of the captives except Reynald, who he executed himself. The defenders of Karak held out for eight months in a prolonged siege before surrendering to the Muslims who, mercifully, allowed them to walk free.
Once again in Muslim hands, Karak became the capital of a district covering much of Jordan, playing a central role in Middle Eastern politics for the next two centuries. For a time, Karak even became capital of the whole Mameluk kingdom when Sultan an-Nasir Ahmad grew weary of power struggles in Cairo. Indeed, it took eight separate sieges before his brother and successor as-Salih Ismail took the fortress and returned the royal insignia. It was during these sieges that Karak had the dubious honour of being the first target of modern artillery in the Middle East, as-Salih Ismail making use of cannons and gunpowder.
Under the Ayyubids and early Mameluk sultans, the castle was substantially renovated and the town’s fortifications strengthened with massive towers but seemingly no gates – access to the town was through subterranean passages with entrances still visible today.
In later times, the town more often than not became a refuge for rebels, while the castle was used as the gathering place of tribal councils. Firm Turkish administration was enforced after 1894 and the Mameluk palace inside the castle was used as a prison. The Great Arab Revolt dealt the last blow to Turkish rule, which ended in 1918.
Construction of the Crusader castle began in the 1140s, under Paganus, the butler of King Fulk. The Crusaders called it Crac des Moabites. Paganus was also Lord of Oultrejordain (Transjordan), and Kerak became the centre of his power, replacing the weaker castle of Montreal to the south. Because of its position east of the Jordan River, Kerak was able to control Bedouin herders as well as the trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. His successors, his nephew Maurice and Philip of Milly, added towers and protected the north and south sides with two deep rock-cut ditches (the southern ditch also serving as a cistern). The most notable Crusader architectural feature surviving is the north wall, into which are built immense arched halls on two levels. These were used for living quarters and stables, but also served as a fighting gallery overlooking the castle approach and for shelter against missiles from siege engines.
In 1176 Raynald of Chatillon gained possession of Kerak after marrying Stephanie of Milly, the widow of Humphrey III of Toron (and daughter-in-law of Humphrey II). From Kerak, Raynald harassed the trade caravans and even attempted an attack on Mecca itself. In 1184 Saladin besieged the castle in response to Raynald's attacks. The siege took place during the marriage of Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem, and Saladin, after some negotiations and with a chivalrous intent, agreed not to target their chamber while his siege machines attacked the rest of the castle. The siege was eventually relieved by King Baldwin IV.
After the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Saladin besieged Kerak again and finally captured it in 1189. During the siege the defenders were said to have been forced to sell women and children into slavery for food (this is also said to have happened at the siege of Montreal).
In AD 1263, the Mamluk ruler, Baybars, enlarged and built a tower on the north-west corner. In AD 1840, Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of its fortifications.
The castle extends over the southern part of the plateau. It is a notable example of Crusader architecture, a mixture of European, Byzantine, and Arab designs. Its walls are strenghthened with rectangular projecting towers, long stone vaulted galleries are lighted only by narrow slits, and a contains a deep moat from the west which completely isolates the site.
In the lower court of the castle, there is Karak Archaeological Museum, which was newly opened in 2004 after renovation work. It introduces local history and archaeology of Karak region- the land of Moab- from the prehistoric period until the Islamic era. History of the Crusader and Muslims at Karak castle and town is introduced in detail.
Al Karak is widely accepted as the capital of Jordan's national dish Mansaf.
On November 9, 2005, Karak became a sister city of Birmingham, Alabama, USA. The sister city agreement was signed in Birmingham by Karak Mayor Mohammed Maita and Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid.
Jordan Tourisom Board, www.visitjordan.com
Karak, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Karak
Politics & Change in Al-Karak, Jordan, A Study of a Small Arab Town & Its District ISBN: 0192158058- Author: Peter Gubser
Kennedy, Hugh (2000). Crusader Castles. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79913-9