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Al-Karak

Castle located at Al-Karak is an excellent example of medieval military architecture.

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. 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 that dominates.

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.

 

 

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Karak Castle is a dark maze of stone-vaulted halls and endless passageways. The best preserved are underground and can be reached via a massive door (ask at the ticket desk). More imposing than beautiful, the castle is nevertheless an impressive insight into the architectural military genius of the Crusaders.

With some care, you can walk along the crenellated top of the West Front wall and admire the sweeping view. On clear days, you can look across the Dead Sea and see all the way to the Mount of Olives bordering Jerusalem.

Away from the castle, visitors can visit the Castle Plaza, where beautiful 19th century Ottoman administrative buildings have been redesigned to house a tourist centre, with restaurants, a crafts centre and other facilities grouped around a central plaza.

The famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta wrote in his travel report that, in 1326, Karak could only be entered through a tunnel hewn in rock. The entrances to two such tunnels (which are now blocked) are still visible – a large one next to the road approaching Karak from the southeast (Salah ad-Din Street) and a smaller one near Baybars’ Tower.

The two most impressive towers (‘burj’ in Arabic) of Karak are Burj Al-Banawi, a round tower bearing a monumental inscription adorned by two panthers, the emblem of Sultan Baybars; Burj As-Sa’ub, a small fortress in its own right; and Burj Az-Zahir Baybars (or Baybars’ Tower), a massive structure resembling the castle keep.

Karak is still a largely Christian town, and many of today’s Christian families trace their origins back to the Byzantines.

The fiercest, most significant battle fought during Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) lifetime was the Battle of Mutah (629 AD). It took the lives of his closest companions, martyred fighting against a combined Byzantine/Ghassanid army. You can visit the tombs of the venerable companion Zaid bin Harithah, Ja’far bin Abi Talib, and Abdullah bin Ruwahah in the town of Al-Mazar Al-Janubi, near Karak. Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) adopted son, the venerable companion Zaid bin Harithah, led the Muslim army during the Battle of Mutah. Zaid is the only companion mentioned in the Holy Qur’an by name.

In and around Karak other shrines of significance to Islam are located:

You can visit Prophet Nuh’s (Noah) shrine in Karak, and his tomb lies close to the city. God sent Noah to his people to warn them of divine punishment if they continued to worship idols, and to build a mighty ark that would withstand the floods to come.

Credited with great wisdom and piety, the Prophet and King of Israel, Sulayman (Solomon), has a shrine in Sarfah near Karak. Karak also hosts a shrine of Zaid bin Ali bin Al-Hussein, the great, great grandson of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and a religious leader known for his righteous and knowledgeable ways. When describing Zaid , Al-Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq said:

“Among us he was the best read in the Holy Qur’an, and the most knowledgeable about religion, and the most caring towards family and relatives.”

The Karak Archaeological Museum was established inside the old castle, which has remains from the Moabite period in the first millennium BC, going through the Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader periods. The museum was opened in 1980.

The main part of the museum is a large hall in a vault of the castle, used as living quarters for soldiers in the Mameluk period. The collections date from the Neolithic up to the late Islamic periods and come from the Karak and Tafila regions. Among the sites is Bab Adh-Dhra’, famous for its Bronze Age burials. The museum houses remains of skeletons and pottery from the Bab Adh-Dhra’ graves; Iron Age II artifacts from Buseirah; Byzantine glass vessels and inscriptions, and Roman and Nabataean artifacts from Rabbah and Qasr.

Located within the west wing of Karak Castle, this museum has articles dating from 6000BC to the 14th century AD, including pottery, coins, etc.
Opening Hours: 0800 – 1900 (April to September) and 0800 – 1600 (October to March).

Mazar Islamic Museum

Mazar Islamic Museum

Located at Al-Mazar near Karak, the museum is host to a collection of items representing Islamic civilization and culture, including sculpture, ceramics and coins.

Opening hours: 0800 – 1500 (closed Tuesdays).