Crac des Chevaliers (in present-day Syria) remains a standout among surviving Crusader castles. In 1142 the Knights Hospitaller occupied the hilltop fortress, which protected the southeastern frontier of the County of Tripoli. In the early 13th century the Hospitallers added a 30-foothigh outer wall with projecting towers. At the time the military order was strong, boasting a garrison of 2,000 soldiers, though most were local auxiliaries or mercenaries paid from the order’s treasury. With steel to back its rule, the order collected tribute from neighboring Muslim states.
But with the 1250 rise of the Egypt-based Mamluk sultanate, which fielded an army far dwarfing those of the Crusader states, the balance of power ultimately shifted in favor of the Muslims. In 1268 Sultan Baybars captured Crusader-held Antioch, killing its men and enslaving its women and children. Then he targeted Crac des Chevaliers.
The ground around the hilltop fortress drops sharply from the walls on three sides. To the south, however, is a slight rise, and on that side of the outer wall the Hospitallers had neglected to build a tower capable of supporting a counterweight trebuchet—the heavy artillery of the time. The Crusaders tried to compensate by building a makeshift wedge-shaped outwork, but that side remained vulnerable to attack. Baybars noted the opening.
On March 3, 1271, the sultan arrived to prepare his siege, first erecting massive siege engines to the south of the triangular outwork. On March 21 the Mamluks stormed the outwork, forcing the Hospitallers to withdraw within the outer wall. The Mamluks then set up their artillery on the captured outwork and bombarded the castle.
Baybars’ next move was to undermine the outer wall. Here the Mamluks’ numerical advantage came into play: Miners started digging along the foot of the southwestern tower wall, shielded by a movable timber palisade others dragged up while absorbing casualties from the defenders’ fire. The tower fell on March 29, and Mamluks surged through the breach, killing the handful of defenders they encountered.
Training their siege engines on the inner defenses, where the bulk of the garrison had taken refuge, the Mamluks knew it was just a matter of time before Crac des Chevaliers fell. But Baybars wanted to accelerate matters. Two Muslim sources claim the sultan sent the Hospitallers a forged letter, supposedly from the grand master of their order, permitting the defenders to surrender. The trick worked: The garrison yielded on April 8, and Baybars allowed them to flee to the coastal fortress of Tripoli. With Crac in his possession, he ordered construction of a massive square tower to safeguard the south wall.
The fall of Crac des Chevaliers marked the beginning of the end for the Crusader states. Within 20 years the Mamluks had seized the remaining Crusader strongholds on the coast.
Hit your opponent in the purse.
From 1268–71 Baybars raided the countryside around Crac des Chevaliers, carrying off many of the local peasants and destroying their crops. These raids dried up the Hospitallers’ primary revenue source.
Don’t leave your enemy an opening.
The Hospitallers’ failure to complete a fortified outwork on Crac’s south side left it vulnerable to attack.
Knowing no relief force would come to their aid, the Hospitallers fought with stubborn determination—for honor and not victory—once the outwork fell.
Deception greases the skids.
Baybars’ forged letter, “authorizing” the Hospitallers to surrender, enabled them to lay down their arms and later claim to have been deceived—a semi-honorable resolution to the siege.
Location, location, location.
Site a fortress in a strategically decisive location and its military import can last centuries. Opposing forces in the ongoing Syrian Civil War have battled for control of Crac des Chevaliers.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.