In search of Kerak castle

  • Themes: History

A new study testifies to the long and remarkable history of Kerak castle, a Crusader stronghold turned major strategic asset for Saladin.

Kerak castle.
Kerak castle. Credit: Brian Gibbs / Alamy Stock Photo

Crusader Castle: The Desert Fortress of Kerak, Michael S. Fulton, Pen & Sword Military, £25

Crusader castles are among the most memorable legacies of the crusader wars. Their heaped fortifications – now partially hidden beneath thorns and the dust of centuries – still powerfully evoke the age when they formed part of the territories established during the First Crusade, commonly known as the ‘Crusader States’. These maintained a presence in the Middle East for almost two centuries (1097-1291) and, during this time, energetic builders constructed many strongholds across the region. Some were little more than watchtowers, many others served as the centre of agricultural estates, while a few massive structures guarded the frontier.

The fortress of Kerak began life in 1142 as the second type of stronghold, built to the east of the Dead Sea, a region far from the frontiers of war. Its purpose was both to consolidate Frankish control over the Transjordan region (roughly equivalent to the modern country of Jordan) and to act as a centre for Frankish (crusader) settlement. In its early years no one assailed Kerak’s ramparts, yet the castle was strategically important for one vital reason – it controlled the roads connecting Syria and Egypt. This factor suddenly placed Kerak on the frontline in the 1170s when Nur al-Din, ruler of both Syria and Egypt, sought to strengthen the lines of communication connecting his major, yet geographically separate, territories. In later years, first Nur al-Din and later Saladin, raided and besieged Kerak time and again, thereby transforming the castle into one of the most strategically important sites in the Middle East.

Crusader Castle vividly pieces together Kerak’s long and remarkable history. Fulton opens his study discussing the castle’s early years under Frankish rule. Here and throughout the book, he discusses the castle’s development against the broader panorama of this era’s unfolding events, showing how the castle both influenced and was influenced by the dramatic developments shaping the region. He focuses on the aristocratic dynasties that governed the castle, carefully recreating their lives and concerns from surviving sources. These include the nobleman Reynald of Chatillon, who played a leading role in the actions surrounding the Franks’ overwhelming defeat at Hattin in 1187 – an event that paved the way for Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem soon after. Arguably, Reynald’s most significant act in these years was his raid, staged out of Kerak, against a merchant caravan passing through his lands. The attack was important because it triggered Saladin’s subsequent assault, the battle of Hattin, and all that followed.

Only a short while after the battle of Hattin, Saladin’s forces renewed their assault on Kerak and the castle fell, after months of determined resistance, in November 1188.

It marked the opening of a new chapter in Kerak’s history, as it became a major stronghold in Saladin’s empire (known as the Ayyubid Empire – named after his father, Ayyub). Saladin initially promised Kerak to his brother al-Adil, even before the castle’s capture, and it remained under Ayyubid control until its fall in 1263. During these years, Kerak took on many roles: at times a treasury, an armoury, and more frequently a sensitive location on the complex chessboard of internal Ayyubid politics.

Throughout Crusader Castle, Fulton pays close attention to the commercial and economic considerations surrounding the castle and he shows how, during the Ayyubid period, Kerak acted as an important agricultural centre, becoming in the 13th century a substantial growth area for the sugarcane industry. This rapid rise mirrored developments in Egypt, Syria and further afield, where producers sought to make their fortunes in response to the growing appetite for sugar across the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Kerak’s sojourn under Ayyubid rule came to an end in 1263 with the stronghold’s conquest by the Mamluks of Egypt. Back in 1250 the Mamluks – the Ayyubids’ elite warriors – rose in revolt and took power for themselves across Egypt. The Ayyubid Empire fell soon afterwards, losing territory to the Mamluks in the south and the advancing Mongols in the north. Kerak was among the last strongholds to hold out in their name.

Fulton then completes Kerak’s history, showing how in later centuries it remained under Mamluk control and then in the 16th century came under Ottoman rule. During this time, it slowly passed into decline and rarely played a major role in the region’s geopolitics, even if it remained an important centre for local Bedouin communities. Later, the castle became a source of curiosity and interest for 19th-century western visitors, who served as forerunners for the tourists of today.

Within this epic history, Fulton scrupulously draws together a wide range of different sources. These include chronicles and legal documents written throughout this period, as well as more recent archaeological studies examining the surviving ceramic evidence. He also draws upon the substantial body of literature surrounding the castle and the wider region, including key studies by Mayer, Sinibaldi, Pringle, and Milwright. The book’s final chapter supplies a detailed survey of Kerak castle itself, offering a synthesis of its key features. This section will be invaluable for anyone wishing to visit the site and to better understand its architectural significance.

Spread throughout this book’s core chapters are helpful asides on a wide variety of important matters: Kerak’s rulers’ relationship with St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, Kerak’s role within the far broader Frankish lordship of Transjordan, and the history of the settlement at Aqaba (at the northern tip of the Red Sea).

Focusing on this last point, I have long wondered whether the Franks’ possession of Aqaba led them to show much of an interest in the Red Sea (and by extension therefore the Indian Ocean). It is well known that in 1182 Reynald of Chatillon instigated a naval expedition into the area, but this stands out as an isolated event. Did the Franks ever try to engage with the Indian Ocean trade? The evidence suggests not; the Franks maintained a stronghold on a nearby island, but Aqaba itself remained largely undeveloped, even if the Franks did seem to enjoy eating Red Sea parrotfish! Exactly why the Franks never explored this option during the half-century that they maintained a presence in Aqaba remains a mystery.

One area of especial strength in Crusader Castle is the close attention paid to the Crusader States’ often-convoluted dynastic politics. It is very easy to get lost in a myriad of marriages, births, rivalries, and land purchases, but Fulton provides some scrupulously detailed analyses on the key families who governed the castle, including their relationships with the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, and their landholdings elsewhere, including those in towns such as Nablus and Hebron.

Taken overall, this is a fine piece of work. Fulton has a gift for writing scholarly history in an accessible and engaging way. As such, this study will be of interest both for seasoned academics and general readers, especially anyone planning to visit Kerak.


Nicholas Morton