Jordan’s Crusader Castles
GUIDE TO MILITARY FORTS DURING THE CRUSADER PERIOD
Jordan is a cradle of ancient civilisations that left remarkable stamps on the history of the country. As of 969 CE, the Fatimids of Egypt took control of Jordan and struggled over it with various Syrian factions for about two centuries. At the beginning of the 12th century CE, however, a new campaign was launched which would once again place Jordan at the centre of a historical struggle.
The impetus for the Crusades came from a plea for help from the Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius, who in 1095 reported to his Christian European brothers that his city, the last bastion of Byzantine Christendom, was under imminent threat of attack by the Muslim Turks. The prospect of such a severe defeat prompted Pope Urban II to muster support for Constantinople as well as for the retaking of Jerusalem.
The so-called “Holy Wars” thus began in 1096 CE. They resulted in the conquest of al-Quds (Jerusalem) by Christian forces and the establishment of a kingdom there. The Crusaders’ interest then centred on the protection of the route to Jerusalem, prompting the Crusader King Baldwin I to build a line of fortresses down the backbone of Jordan – from the Zarqa River in the North through the Negev Desert to Aqaba on the Red Sea in the south, with the Dead Sea and Jordan River as the western border, and the Muslim caravan and pilgrimage routes in the east.
The most substantial of these were the castles Karak and Shobak (Montreal). The famous Crusader stronghold Karak is an impressive example of military architecture, built in the mid-12 century AD on top of a ridge, separated from the old fortified town by a deep moat.
The place was one of the main settlements of the ancient Kingdom of Moab around the 9th century B.C. The Old Testament describes how the King of Israel and his allies besieged Kir Moab, as Karak was then known, but King Mesha’s sacrifice of his first-born son averted the imminent defeat. After Nabataean domination at the beginning of the Common Era, the city became a regional centre in Roman Arabia (under the name Characmoba), and a diocesan town during the Byzantine period. It is featured as a walled city on the Madaba mosaic map.
The Montreal Castle, or Shobak as it is called now, was the first Crusader fortress in a line of strongholds in Oultrejourdain. Baldwin, I King of Jerusalem ordered its construction in 1115 to control the caravan routes between Syria and Egypt. Perched on a conical hilltop, it had a well shaft inside that could be accessed via 375 steps down to the water vein, an unparalleled advantage during a siege.
Other military castles during the Crusader period in Jordan include Vau Moise, one of the smaller Crusader castles created as an outpost of the Shobak (Montreal) Castle and located just outside of Petra, Al-Habis, situated in one of Petra’s “High Places” and Ajloun Castle – an important strategic link in the defensive chain against the Crusaders, to stop their advance to the north of the country.
After having unified Syria and Egypt under his control, the Muslim commander Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in 1187 CE. This opened the way for the Muslim armies to liberate Jerusalem, effectively eliminating the foreign domination of Jordan.
In the 12th century, the Crusaders re-imposed central authority over south Jordan. The importance of southern Jordan during the twelfth century and under the Crusaders is archaeologically demonstrated by four significant castles constructed at al-Kerak, ash-Shawbak, al-Wuayra outside Petra and Al-Habis in Petra.
The Arab biographer and geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi notes that “owing to the construction of ash-Shawbak the passage from Egypt to Syria was blocked”. Not only was ashShawbak on one of the main routes between Cairo and Damascus, but it also threatened the free traffic of Syrian pilgrims making the annual hajj to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Central and southern Jordan had several important assets during the Crusader period. “First there were the natural recourses of the region. The fertile plains of Balqa, al-Kerak were capable of producing a regular agricultural surplus. Second, the Bedouin of the southern and eastern deserts were important for their herds of sheep, goats, horses and camels. Third, southern Jordan had already demonstrated their defensive qualities during the last years of Frankish rule”.