Karak has been a prized possession of a number of civilizations. It lies on the ancient caravan routes that used to connect Egypt to Syria, and its commanding position almost 1000 meters above the Dead Sea Valley made it a strategic asset of great importance. The city was the ancient capital of Moab, and was also used by the Greeks and Romans. During Roman times it was known as Characmoba.
But it was not until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 12th century that Karak reached its full splendor. It is recorded that the Crusader King Baldwin I of Jerusalem had the castle built in 1132 CE. With its location midway between Shobak and Jerusalem, Karak formed part of a great line of Crusader castles stretching from Aqaba to Turkey. Karak became the capital of the Crusader district of Oultrejourdain, and, with the taxes levied on passing caravans and food grown in the district, it helped Jerusalem prosper.
Even with its impressive defensive fortifications, Karak could not hold out against the forces of Salah Eddin. After the governor of Karak, the infamous Reynaud De Chatillon, broke several truces with Salah Eddin, the Muslim leader responded with a massive bombardment of Karak. De Chatillon, who was captured and executed by Salah Eddin in 1187 CE, was known for throwing his captives off the top of Karak's battlements with wooden boxes over their heads to ensure that they remained conscious until they hit the ground. Salah Eddin's armies besieged and conquered the fortress in 1188, marking the beginning of the Crusaders' loss of power throughout the area.
The Mamluk Sultan Baibars refortified the castle in the late 13th century, and it was also later used by the Ottomans. The fort itself has been partially restored, and is a maze of vaulted passages and rooms. To the west across the moat is the tower from which De Chatillon cast his prisoners to their deaths. The tower in the northwest corner was added by the Mamluks in the 13th century. The multi-storied building at the southern end was the dungeon. To the right of the castle entrance, a stone staircase descends to the museum, which holds one of the many copies of the Mesha Stele, along with Mamluk pottery, and Nabatean and Roman coins. The castle is open free of charge during daylight hours, while the museum is open daily 09:00-17:00 with a 1 JD admission.
The town of Karak lies 129 kilometers south of Amman, or 88 kilometers south of Madaba. Within Karak, numerous small hotels are available. Karak can be reached via the Desert Highway by turning right at Qatrana. However, the King's Highway is the recommended route, as it will take you over one of Jordan's most spectacular sights, Wadi Mujib. About 50 kilometers north of Karak, this canyon is over 1000 meters deep. Wadi Mujib was the "Arnon Gorge" or "Arnon River" of the Bible (Numbers 21: 24; Judges 11: 18), a natural boundary which separated the Moabites in the south from the Amorites in the north.
The magnificent Crusader fortress of Kerak - Crak des Moabites, or Le Pierre du Desert to Crusaders - soars above its valleys and hills like a great ship riding waves of rock. But Kerak's origins go back long before the Crusaders; the earliest remains are Iron Age, shortly after the Exodus, when this was a part of Moab. It was known as Kir-haraseth, Kir-heres, or Kir, and its doom was prophesied by Isaiah (16:7), who mentions its 'raisin-cakes', presumably a local specialty. Then it falls out of history until the Byzantine period, when it was important enough to have an archbishop.
It was the Crusaders who made Kerak (biblical Charach Mouba) famous. The fortress, located 124 km south of Amman, was built in 1142 by Payen le Bouteiller, lord of Montreal and of the province of Oultre Jourdain, on the remains of earlier citadels, which date back to Nabataean times. He made Kerak the new capital of the province, for it was superbly situated on the King's Highway, where it could control all traffic from north and south and grow rich by the imposition of road-tolls.
There were -as there are today- two parts of Kerak, both contained within stout walls, but the citadel and its fortress are separated from the town by a deep dry moat. The fortress is typically Crusader, with dimly lit stone-vaulted rooms and corridors leading into each other through heavy arches and doorways. The best preserved are underground, and to be reached through a massive door (ask at the ticket office).
The castle in itself is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders' architectural military genius. Each stronghold was built to be a day's journey from its neighbor. At night, a beacon was lit at each castle to signal to Jerusalem that it was safe.
As the visitor enters the modern gate, one path leads down to the stairs to the lower courtyard and lower vaults, and a second path leads to the upper level. The ruins of the upper level are attributed to the Crusader period, and the staircases leading to the underground level of the upper courtyard provide access to Mamluk architecture complexes, most of which were probably associated with a palace. Among these ruins are a well-preserved school with an adjoining mosque.
All the inhabitants of the town could gather for protection within the citadel in times of danger - as they did in 1173 when the Zengid ruler Nureddin attacked the castle. His siege was unsuccessful, as were later attempts by Saladin in 1183 (when the marriage of the heir of Kerak was taking place inside, and Saladin chivalrously kept his siege-engines off the bridal tower), and again in 1184. It was not until the end of 1188, after a siege of more than a year, that Kerak finally surrendered to the Muslims.
Kerak's most famous occupant was Reynald de Chatillon, whose reputation for treachery, betrayal and brutality is unsurpassed. When King Baldwin II (who signed a truce with Saladin) died, his son, a 13-year-old leper, sued for peace with Saladin. The Leper King, however, died without a heir, and in stepped Reynald, who succeeded in the early 1180's in winning the hand of Stephanie, the wealthy widow of Kerak's assassinated regent.
Reynald promptly defied the truce with Saladin, who returned with a huge army, ready for war. Reynald and King Guy of Jerusalem led the Crusader forces and suffered a massive defeat. Reynald was taken prisoner and beheaded by Saladin (the only Crusader king or lord to be executed by Saladin himself), marking the beginning of the decline in Crusader fortunes.
In 1263 the Mamluk Sultan Baybars took Kerak. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited it in 1355, was much impressed by the castle's strength, and said that it was also called "The Castle of the Raven". Under Ottomans it was ruled by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha son of Mohammad Ali of Egypt took it, greatly damaging its defenses. After World War I, Kerak was a British administrative center until Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921. It remains the center of a large district.
Kerak is still a largely Christian town, and many of today's Christian families trace their origins back to the Byzantines. There is a small but interesting museum in the castle, which is one of the finest of its type surviving today.
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