Occupying a rocky spur on the southern edge of the town centre, Karak castle is first, and most impressively, visible on the approach from the east, its restored walls and glacis looming above the ravine below. Access is from behind the Castle Plaza complex, across a wooden footbridge spanning the moat. The castle has seven levels, some buried deep inside the hill, and the best way to explore is to take a torch and simply let your inquisitiveness run free: it’s quite possible to spend two or three atmospheric hours poking into dark rooms and gloomy vaulted passageways.
The hill on which Karak stands – with sheer cliffs on three sides and clear command over the Wadi Karak leading down to the Dead Sea – features both in the Old Testament and on Madaba’s Byzantine mosaic map as a natural defensive stronghold. The Crusaders began building a fortress on a rocky spur atop the hill in 1142.
The castle’s construction was initiated by the knights of the successful First Crusade, but its eventual downfall is inextricably linked with Reynald of Chatillon, a ruthless warrior who arrived in the Holy Land in 1147 on the Second Crusade. Reynald was both vicious and unscrupulous, and it was specifically to avenge his treachery that the Muslim commander, Salah ad-Din, launched a campaign to expel the foreign invaders. In 1177, Reynald married Lady Stephanie, widow of the Lord of Oultrejourdain. Safely ensconced in Karak, he began a reign characterized by wanton cruelty: not only did he throw prisoners from the castle walls, he encased their heads in boxes first, in the hope that this would stop them losing consciousness before they hit the rocks below. In 1180, he robbed a Mecca-bound caravan on the King’s Highway in violation of a truce; Salah ad-Din was forced to swallow his anger until a suitable time for revenge could be found.
In 1183, the wedding of Reynald’s heir was celebrated within the walls of Karak castle at the very moment that Salah ad-Din and his army, having already invaded the town, were poised just beyond the north moat ready to attack. Lady Stephanie sent plates of food to the Muslim army beyond the walls. In response, while his men were trying to bridge the moat and catapulting rocks against the walls, Salah ad-Din enquired which tower the newly-weds were occupying – and then ordered his army to direct their fire elsewhere.
Karak withstood that siege, but at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the Crusaders, stymied by the strategic ineptitude of Reynald and others, were defeated. The victorious Salah ad-Din characteristically spared the king and the Crusader lords – all apart from Reynald, whom he personally decapitated. The besieged Crusader garrison at Karak held out for months; they sold their wives and children in exchange for food, and resorted to eating horses and dogs, but surrender was inevitable. Karak capitulated in November 1188.
After the Crusaders
With the Europeans gone, Ayyubid and Mamluke occupiers of the castle rebuilt and strengthened its defences. Under the Ottomans, anarchy was the rule rather than the exception. During a rebellion in 1879, Karaki Christians abandoned their town, moving north to settle among the ruins of ancient Madaba. Soldiers only reimposed order in 1894, but Karak’s ruling families – among them, the Majali clan – remained restless. In 1908 they rallied a local force and stormed Karak’s government buildings, forcing the Ottoman garrison to seek refuge in the castle. After eight days, troops arrived from Damascus, publicly executed the rebel leaders and declared the Majalis outlaws. Even today Karak retains a reputation for political activism, yet – a little ironically, considering the family history – the Majalis are now at the heart of the Jordanian establishment, boasting government officials and even a prime minister or two among their number.
Exploring Karak castle
A good place to start is by heading up the slope once you enter, then doubling back on yourself into a long, vaulted passageway along the inside of the huge north wall built by the Crusaders. Down here, close to the original entrance of the castle in the northeastern corner, are a barracks and, on the right, the kitchens, complete with olive press and, further within, a huge oven. You emerge along the east wall, close to the ruined chapel. Over the battlements the restored glacis heralds a dizzy drop, and facing you is the partly complete Mamluke keep, the best-protected part of the castle. It’s not difficult to climb to the highest point, from where there are scarily vertiginous views in all directions.
In a sunken area between the chapel and the keep lie the remains of a Mamluke palace, while at the bottom of some steps just behind the chapel’s apse is a beautifully carved stone panel. Of the two rooms opposite the panel, the one on the right features some reused Nabatean blocks set into the wall; next door, Reynald’s extensive and suitably dank dungeons lead off into the hill. Back at the carved panel, a passageway to the left eventually brings you out, after passing another barracks, near the entrance.
If you head down from here to the lower western side of the castle, you’ll come across the museum, offering fascinating background to the history of the castle and the local area. Equally interesting is a restored Mamluke gallery nearby, running virtually the length of the west wall at the lowest level of the castle.