The Splendor of Bilad al-Sham
Qalaat Saladin
Carol Miller
Qalaat Saladin (Saladin's Castle) or the "Chateau of Saone" was, according to art historian Ross Burns (Monuments of Syria), "The most romantic of the castles". To architectural historian Fedden (Crusader Castles), "this was the finest and best preserved of the feudal castles prior to the profound modification in defensive architecture that came at the end of the twelfth century." For art critic and journalist Deschamps, "Other castles were built with economy and precision. Saone on the other hand is sprawling, solid and magnificent."
The site - on a rocky wedge-shaped ridge strategically placed between two steep canyons that ultimately converge in the shape of the prow of a great ship, soaring at least one hundred and fifty meters over the riverbed below - is placed high in the nearly inaccessible Jebel Daryous range east of Latakia; it was chosen because of its superlative defensive potential, long before the Crusades. The wistful location, heady, indomitable, that commands the entire coastal plain, inspired an early fortification from the Phoenician period at the beginning of the First Millennium B.C.
The Phoenicians still held the site when Alexander invaded Syria in 333 B.C. "A number of the castles from this period are disappointing, in an advanced state of deterioration and abandonment," writes T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") in his Oxford thesis (Crusader Castles), first published in London in 1936, "but there is one great castle, an appendage of the Antioch jurisdiction, that of Saone, which taken as a whole is probably the finest example of military architecture in Syria."
Like the other castles of the north, the visible remains of Saone correspond largely to the Byzantine period, built, says Lawrence, "of typical plan but of exceptional quality." This plan was modified and definitely amplified by the Crusaders. "Saone," Lawrence continues, "is of such colossal size, and so deeply set in the inhospitable hills that complete examination is a matter of some exertion and discomfort."
More than fifty castles - and given the idiosyncrasies of the terrain each of them notably different from the others - remain as witnesses to Syria's ancient and varied history. The Europeans who embarked on the First Crusade in the eleventh century, however, were mostly French. Their references, as far as defensive architecture was concerned, dated principally from their Roman occupation. Over time it was their Christian allies, for example the Armenians, who amplified this limited expertise, by showing them how to integrate their construction into the rocky promontories along their way, following the line of cliffs or making the best use of overhangs and abutments.
In one after another of the Crusades, the Europeans benefited knowledge with experience, in order to appreciate urban defenses as well as battlements in the countryside: the mighty walls of Constantinople, the efficacy of Byzantine mining and tunneling, Persian siege and assault tactics, even Alexander's legendary strategies, as much a miracle of reckless enthusiasm as of cold-blooded skill. The whole history of the region was a textbook of successes and failures in military campaigning, in the design and construction of fortifications, and in the maintenance of defenses with a well-ordered force of men and horses.
The Crusaders thus learned as they advanced along their nearly three hundred year enterprise, while they hungered for these fertile new lands, coveted an exotic plunder rich in all the wonderment of the East, and fostered resolute intentions of extending Christendom beyond the Levant. The character of the castles in Asia, however, was dictated more precisely by the varied topography of the setting, as well as the nature of the available building materials. Any philosophy of defensive systems had to be acquired along with specific experience in any given situation. And meantime an appalling number of European combatants, and their mercenaries, fell in battle. Of the one hundred and fifty thousand Crusaders who set out for Jerusalem, for example, only forty thousand arrived. Many of these, after confronting Saladin, turned around and went home. Those who remained had to deal with scant manpower, insufficient reinforcements and unreliable supplies, so resorted to a proliferation of castles with their fortified ramparts, whose formidable presence often inspired the advancing Muslim armies to a prudent appraisal of the property rather than a direct attack, and so gave the Christians a welcome respite.
With this the Crusaders became more adept at essential decisions. Round towers or square? Reinforced double doors or movable gates? Entrances at right angles to the doorway? Drawbridges, moats, machicoulis? Not all the decisions were the right ones, not every campaign was blessed. A number of castles fell and were adapted by their new owners, others were never taken, until after the fall of Acre in 1291. They were, instead, simply abandoned. The Crusaders, in the end defeated, and failed in their long and persistent attempts at extending their holdings in Asia, retreated first to the offshore stronghold at Arwad, facing Tortosa (Tartous), then to Cyprus, Rhodes or Malta, leaving a legacy of new construction techniques and revised architectural traditions, to be applied in Europe to new circumstances of military hierarchies; and in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine to a new parade of Muslim regimes. Nuradin, well into the twelfth century, built fortified citadels in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Bosra, among others, works that continued into the Ayyubid age of the thirteenth century, the Mamluk period in the late thirteenth, through the fourteenth, and, after the devastating Mongol raids that swept everything along in their path and much of whose destruction had later to be rebuilt, into the centuries of the Turks, first the Seljuk and then the Ottoman.
A number of these defensive strategies - in effect, a showcase for military construction -are patent in Saone. A sole access is gained through a cut carved along one hundred and fifty-eight meters in the rock face of one of the canyons. During the rainy season a raging torrent passed along its course. A monolithic obelisk, twenty-eight meters high, was therefore left, like an admonishing finger in the middle of the canyon, to hold a bridge in place. The bridge has long since vanished. The canyon floor is now a paved road, that skirts the massive walls and the three enormous circular towers in the southeast corner of the fortifications above the rock-cut ditch, or moat, to a parking area at the foot of a steep stairway.
A visitor originally entered one of the ground level rooms, often secret, in one of the solid, stone "keeps" or donjon - the source of the word dungeon. The first of these, in contrast to the round towers fused with the rock of the canyon wall, is a rectangular and carefully erected mass, fifteen by thirteen meters by seventeen meters in height. Today's visitor has instead to climb the two hundred and eight exterior steps to the door at the level of a second floor room, framed by a high, narrow arch above the lintel, and with this gains admittance to the grassy knolls - with the scattered stones of ruined constructions embraced by butterflies among the wildflowers - in the interior of the citadel.
The Byzantines were temporarily deprived of the enigmatic mountain stronghold during its occupation by the tenth-century Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo. The emperor John I Tzimisces recovered "the mysterious Saone" in the second half of the tenth century, and in 975 A.D. began the stonework that would culminate in the expanded defenses. The Crusaders arrived, according to documentation in the feudal titles of Robert de Saone - granted in 1119 by Roger, Prince of Antioch - probably at the beginning of the twelfth century, and called their "Chateau de Saone" simply "Saone".
The Byzantines, who were to profit from both the Crusaders and their Islamic foes, did nothing to oppose the advance of either. Had they taken up the cause of their fellow Christians the history of the world might have been written differently. Yet despite the Crusader rampage throughout the entire twelfth century, and the difficulty of their maintaining a successful network of fortresses and citadels, Saone somehow escaped consignment to either the Templars or the Hospitallers, the two most powerful orders in the Levant, and remained under Byzantine jurisdiction.
Additional construction, concentrated on the keeps, dates from well after 1100 and was effected independently of the mainstream Crusader advance. These keeps caught Lawrence's well-informed eye: "Conforming to a fairly numerous class of donjon in Syria, this construction bears a distinct resemblance to the keeps of northwest Europe, only modified to suit the local conditions. In Europe no keep was vaulted above the basement. In Syria there was no other way of making a roof. The largest keeps at Saone, one of them twenty by fourteen meters by twenty meters in height, and the other twenty-five by twenty-five by twenty-four meters in height, with their intricate inner construction, the great halls mounted on pillars, the interior staircases, the placement of the windows both for illumination and for bowmen's defense of the terraces, are the most massive, as well as the most interesting, in all the region. Though the keep form owes nothing to the Greeks the Syrians were accustomed to building Greek fortresses. It is evident that the mass of the work - their own technique in doorways and staircases, and ways of dressing stone - was done by natives of the country."
In 1188, during the height of the Islamic advance against the Christian invaders, the castle, though it was not at the time a specifically Crusader stronghold, served the strategic purposes of the Muslims, so was taken by Saladin, one of the most original and compelling personalities in all of history.
The greatest "cavalier" or "gentleman" of the Crusades, honorable to a degree far greater than ever to be found in his European adversaries and so greatly admired by them, he considered "clemency a mighty engine of war". For this he was lauded, among others, by Richard the Lionhearted, his most fervent admirer. And for the fabric of his entire life he was especially venerated by Lawrence. When the renegade British leader of the "Revolt in the Desert" entered Damascus on October 16, 1918, before anything else he paid homage at Saladin's tomb, inside the precinct of the Umayyad Mosque. Despite the fact that even today many people in Syria think he was nothing but England's spy, Lawrence had a vision of himself as a latter-day Saladin, freeing the desert people of the European yoke and uniting them into a comprehensive political entity.
Saladin, a nephew of Nuradin's ward, Shirkuh, came to power in 1171 when he shrewdly dethroned what he termed "the last decadent Fatimid caliph in Egypt". Upon Shirkuh's death, al-Malik al-Nasir Salah ed-din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, that is, "the King, the Defender, the Honor of the Faith, Joseph son of Ayyub" - and in the absence of an acceptable heir to the leadership in Nuradin's eleven year old son - Saladin, to fortify the Levant against the oncoming Crusaders, left Egypt with seven hundred horsemen, and in one swift campaign after another made himself master of Syria.
A man of taste and culture, as with his choice, in 1187, of the exquisite Kufic inscription as the architectural decoration in the Dome of the Rock - the octagonal shrine built over the ruins of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem to house the Rock of Abraham- Saladin was nonetheless unable to instill in his sons the skill and finesse to carry on his campaign. The Ayyubid rule in Syria lasted only three generations. But while it flourished, it bore the stamp of this exceptional man.
He was born in 1138 at Tekrit on the upper Tigris, of non-Semitic Kurdish stock. His father, Ayyub, became governor first at Baalbek under Zangi, then at Damascus under Nuradin. Saladin, in such circles, learned well, says Will Durant, "the magic in statesmanship and the zeal of war." But he combined them artfully with orthodox piety - he was a fervent student of theology- and an almost ascetic simplicity, to the extent of being considered among Muslims as a great saint. His principal and preferred garment was a tunic of coarse woolen cloth. His only drink was water. His early experience with voluptuosity was transformed in his mature years to fidelity and constraint. He abhorred the venality, the indulgence and the uncurbed appetites that he had observed among the Fatimids and which had contributed directly to their decadence and demise.
He was sent to Egypt with Shirkuh and was so admired as a soldier he became commander of Alexandria, which he successfully defended against the Franks. He became a Vizier at the age of thirty. By clever, but merciful, maneuvering, upon the death of Al-Adid, the last of the Fatimids, he dispersed the immense treasury among his followers while he kept nothing for himself. Will Durant tells us that "He took the slaves into his own ranks, was chivalrous to the women of the harem, and with the full approval of a rapturous following became the governor of Egypt, while he acknowledged Nuradin as his sovereign."
When he returned to Egypt after his Syrian campaign, however, with Cairo in chaos he had himself declared King, and initiated the Ayyubid dynasty. After six years "of giving to Cairo a pious aspect", he set out again, making Damascus his capital, and conquered Mesopotamia. As at Cairo, he continued the rigid and impassioned orthodoxy that propitiated the founding of mosques, monasteries, madrassas, and hospitals. He lowered taxes, fomented building and construction, and administered justice. With the traditional love of the Arab for books he inspired literature, but disdained poetry, which he considered simply a Persian fixation. Islam, it was said, gloried in the intelligence, the integrity and the fairness of his rule.
According to legend, he lived on his campaigns together with his troops, without privileges or luxuries, and if he ever stayed in residence at Saone, it was only briefly, on his way from the interior to the coast. As opposed to the case of other castles, however, Saone never again fell into Western hands.
The emir Nasr al-Don Manguwiris controlled the castle between 1188 and 1272, until his family ceded the property to the Mamluk sultan Baibars, in support of Baibars' continued drive against the Crusaders. It was during this time that the so-called "Arab baths" were added, with their domed courtyard surrounded by a wide selection of vaulted rooms paved in polychrome marble, with tiled walls, and separate ducts for cold water and steam. A beautifully decorated ornamental fountain occupied the center of the vestibule.
In 1280 the ex-governor of Damascus, Sonquor al-Ashgar, occupied the castle, but after a siege in 1287 it was taken by the ambitious Mamluk sultan al-Mansur Sayf-al-din Qalaun, or Kelaoun, given obsessively to public works and construction, who ordered a mosque built inside the defensive walls. The ruins of the mosque still stand. Especially the rectangular minaret, fourteen by ten meters, by close to eighteen meters in height, became a landmark. Its two doors at the ground level led to an inner staircase, that rose to a small room at the top, its four windows commanding the entire five hectares of the castle core, including the monumental cistern that was integrated into the interior of the great walls, and the monstrous terracotta pipes, that brought the vast amounts of water from the canyon below. The resident population, however, as the region became gradually more secure, began to leave the protective precinct and eventually gravitated to less solitary and inaccessible sites.
The "Chateau of Saone" fell into disuse. Lawrence described a number of subsequent visits in his regular correspondence with his mother. These were casual encounters and nonchalant references, mostly on his way to someplace else or to visit friends in the area, without his usual pencil drawings or architectural observations on the margins of the pages. He still liked to refer to the castle as "Saone".
Yet for all its long history and diverse ownership, the hidden fortress in the mountains, from the Ottoman days to the present, has nonetheless been known as Qalaat Saladin: "Saladin's Castle".

*Carol Miller is a sculptress and journalist who has devoted her recent years to the research of ancient cultures, as well as cultural convergence and comparative mythology. She has traveled extensively in Syria to prepare the articles for Syria Gate, which are soon to appear in book form.