Syrians spruce up famed Crusader castle after years of war

25 Oct 2020

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Volunteers take part in a clean-up at the medieval Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, approximately 40 kilometres west of Syria’s central city of Homs and close 
to the border with Lebanon.—AFP
Volunteers take part in a clean-up at the medieval Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, approximately 40 kilometres west of Syria’s central city of Homs and close to the border with Lebanon.—AFP

HOMS: Clutching a small saw, Syrian volunteer Rana Jreij cut away at bushes growing up the centuries-old walls of one of the world’s most famous Crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers.

She was among dozens to clear grass, shrubs and dead trees from the Unesco-listed fortress this week, to protect it from forest fires that have ravaged the region.

“This castle is our home. It’s our memories, and I’m scared for it,” said the 32-year-old, dressed in a white t-shirt with her hair tied back.

Heritage official Naeema Muhartam said she was delighted to see the castle come back to life after years of grinding civil war that has kept almost all tourists away.

“The castle is recovering,” she said.

The fortress was built by a medieval Catholic military order, the Knights of St John, who held it from 1142 to 1271, when it was captured by a Mamluk sultan.

Sitting atop a high ridge in what is now the Homs province of modern-day Syria, it could once accommodate a garrison of 2,000 men. Many centuries later, after civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the fortress again became a battleground, this time between government forces and rebels.

“The castle closed its doors in 2012, then opened up again in 2014 but it wasn’t ready to receive visitors,” Muhartam said.

Most notable was the damage to the castle’s Gothic reception hall, and its chapel.

Muhartam was ecstatic when the fortress finally welcomed sightseers back across the moat bridge into its walled interior in late 2018.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2020