Perched above the town centre stands the 13th century Fortress of Shali is the grand centerpiece of Siwa Oasis town. For centuries, the fortress stood to protect the local Berber community against all outsiders. In fact, few outsiders have ever set foot inside the fortress throughout history. In 1926, a three-day rain caused great damages to the kershif (local salt and mud) buildings of the Shali. The locals abandoned the centuries-old fortress and relocated themselves in new houses adjacent to the Shali. Since then, the mighty fortress was left for self decay and gradual erosion from wind and occasional rain.
In 2018, a joint effort by the EU and the Egyptian company Environmental Quality International began to restore the crumbling ruins of the Shali. The government was hoping that a restored fortress in Siwa would boost eco-tourism in the faraway oasis town. The EU funded project aims to restore traditional marketplaces, upgrades environmental services and establishes a child healthcare centre for the villagers. Not everyone agrees with the restoration. For some locals, the Shali is better to be left in its ruined state and the resources to be spent on something else.
The King’s Highway of Jordan has been an important trade route from Egypt to the Euphrates River for thousands of years. The route roughly runs along Jordan Rift Valley, from the source of Jordan River, passes through the Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea, Arabah Depression, Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The Jordan Rift Valley lies in the crossroad of the tectonic plates, including the Arabian Plate, Dead Sea Transform Fault, Sinai Microplate. The dramatic valley landscape is formed by the geological movements of the tectonic plates, forming an interesting backdrop for the historical King’s Highway. Today, tourists and pilgrims travel on the historical backbone of the country, the King’s Highway, from Mount Nebo and Madaba in the north, passed by the Crusader castles of Karak and Shobak, and arrive at the magnificent Nabataean lost city of Petra.
From Karak, our hired taxi brought us to Shobak Castle, the second Crusader castles that we visited in Jordan. In 1115, Baldwin I King of Jerusalem ordered the construction of Shobak Castle, establishing the oldest Crusader castle in the region. Also known as Montreal, the Shobak Castle is not as big as Karak, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape is no less impressive. We met few tourists (except a local family of six) in the castle, despite the admission was free of charge. We wandered freely in the castle ruins. Apart from the ruins, what truly impressed me the most was the surrounding landscape of the Jordan Rift Valley.
Castle Shobak is also known as Montreal, or Mont Royal.
Baldwin I King of Jerusalem built the Shobak Castle to control the caravan routes between Egypt and Syria.
Tunnels were constructed in the castle to access two spring cisterns down the hill.
The tunnel access to water source allowed the castle to hold longer during a siege.
Yet, in May 1189, the castle fell to the army of Ayyubid sultan Saladin.
Probably for defensive uses, a number of stone balls are in display at the ruins.
Some stone balls were placed on the defensive walls of the castle.
The stone balls looked interesting against the blue sky.
During our visit, we met a local family who waved to us and posed for our photo.
Despite mainly in ruins, visiting Shobak Castle was an impressive experience.
Ayyubid force controlled the castle for 70 years and embellished the complex with carved inscriptions.
From the castle, we could get a decent view of the landscape of Jordan Rift Valley.
Down below, the landscape and ruined buildings blended into one coherent picture.
The pristine landscape surrounding the castle was a pleasant surprise.
We spent quite a long while just to admire the impressive landscape.
Looking carefully into the surrounding landscape, we could find many ruined buildings.
The ruins and the landscape almost seemed like an abstract painting.
From Shobak, there are various hiking trails toward different directions, including north to Dana and south to Petra.
In a foggy afternoon of December 2016, gunfire broke the silence at the remnants of Kerak Castle. Following a series of attacks on police patrols and station in Al-Karak, five ISIS terrorists seek refuge at the 12th century Crusader castle as the Jordanian force was closing in. The government force besieged the castle and eventually killed all terrorists. 14 people were killed in the shootout, including one Canadian tourist. Terrorist attacks are not common in Jordan, but the 2016 siege of the Kerak Castle and the unstable conditions in Syria have hampered tourism of Jordan in recent years. Built in the 12th century, the former Crusader stronghold Kerak Castle was not stranger to military siege in history, with the siege of Saladin’s force in 1183 being the most famous. The siege by Saladin, the Muslim leader from Damascus, coincided with the royal wedding inside the castle between Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem. The siege ended when the force of Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem, came for rescue. The historical incident serves as the background for the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven.
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It was Friday, 19th of May in 2006, a weekend holiday for the Muslims. At Wahadat Station in Amman, buses were running on holiday schedule. It took us sometime to find a bus bounded for Kerak Castle. Our goal for the day was to make our way on the King’s Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, the popular base for tourists visiting the splendid lost city of Petra. It was a two hour bus ride from Amman to the town of Al-Karak. When we got off the bus, the driver told us that there would not be any public transportation from Karak to Tafila on Fridays. Our original plan was to visit Kerak Castle, take a bus to Tafila, and then hire a taxi onwards to Shobak and Wadi Musa. Without public transportation, we had to settle with hiring a taxi driver for the day at 40 Jordanian Dinar, taking us uphill to Kerak Castle, and then to Shobak Castle and Wadi Musa.
Kerak Castle is one of the largest castles in the region. Compared to Krak des Chevaliers, Kerak has a simpler design and rougher craftsmanship. Kerak Castle has a nice little museum. I enjoyed reading a little about the history of the castle, the Crusades and the Muslim conqueror Saladin at the bookshop.
We were lucky to find a bus going to Kerak Castle that was running on the Friday holiday schedule.
The castle looked spectacular from the town of Al-Karak.
The scale of Kerak Castle is enormous when viewed from the town below.
The castle was empty, but a large portion of the structure remains intact for over 800 years.
Due to the large size, tourists dispersed all over the castle once inside the complex.
Kerak Castle contains many covered passages protected with thick defensive walls. During the 2016 terrorist attack, most tourists were hiding in a separate part of the castle to avoid contact with the attackers.
Al-Karak lies 140 km south of Amman, on a hilltop 1000m above sea level. The Dead Sea is visible from the castle. Beyond the Dead Sea, the Holy city of Jerusalem is just a short car journey away.
Just a few kilometres north of the Syrian and Lebanon border, atop a 650m hill in the Homs Gap between the Mediterranean and the Syrian interior stands one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers. Proclaimed by Lawrence of Arabia as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” Krak des Chevaliers was built by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, Saint John of Jerusalem, in the 1140’s after capturing an earlier fortress on the spot during the First Crusade. Housing 3,000 knights to protect pilgrims and trading caravans in the Roman Christendom, the castle remained as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitalier until 1271 when it fell into the hands of Sultan Baibars of the Mamluks, and then to the Ottomans from 16th century onward. The castle was abandoned in the 19th century, and soon the locals established a small village inside the complex until 1927, when the French bought and restored the castle. Before the civil war, Krak des Chevaliers was a popular tourist destination for international tourist groups, cruise groups, independent travelers, art and architecture students, etc. During the civil war, the castle was taken by the rebels in 2012, and was used as a military command centre, weapon storage and a transit base for Lebanese fighters. The government force recaptured the castle in 2014 and allowed UNESCO and foreign press such to assess the war damages: blackened walls in the Knight Hall, bullet holes, graffiti, rubble allover the inner court, but the biggest loss was the destruction of the main stair. After a series of ongoing restoration, the castle has reopened recently for visitors again.
Before reaching the castle gate, our van stopped by a roadside lookout for a distant view of the famous Krak des Chevaliers. Even from a distance we could already appreciate the intact outer walls and well preserved guard towers. The castle was protected by two layers of wall. We entered the castle through an entrance on the lower level, then walked through a vaulted ramp, and reached the inside of the fortress. Another ramp led us up to the core area, where the Knight Hall and Gothic church (later converted into a mosque) stood. We climbed the guard towers one by one to check out the surrounding scenery. Krak des Chevaliers was certainly the day’s highlight.
From a distant look, Krak des Chevaliers stands as the perfect Crusade castle out of a fantasy movie. Situated in the Homs Gap between inner Syria and the Mediterranean, the castle location has always been strategic for the region.
The moat, imposing walls and talus of Krak des Chevaliers survived the civil war.
Inside the complex, the main Medieval stair is gone forever due to damages from the civil war.
The Knight Hall is one of the world’s best preserved example of Crusader architecture.
The gallery facade of the Knight Hall suffered damages from the war as well, including burnt walls and broken arches and columns.
The inner court of the castle was littered with rubble in 2014 when the castle was recaptured by the government army.
In 2006, the castle’s inner court was largely peaceful and intact.
Seen from the southeast tower of the castle, the village of Al-Husn dominated the scenery below the castle. The word “Al-Husn” literally means “The Castle.”
Covered ramps connect the inner court is with the outer areas and main entrances.
Before leaving, we had one last photo of the castle. The image lived long in my memories, especially when I acknowledge how delicate political situations could become in this part of the world, such that a 900 year old cultural heritage could be gone forever upon a few brutal missiles.
After Apamea, our van took us to Musyaf Castle, the legendary headquarters of the Order of Assassins. Known to the Crusaders as “Old Man of the Mountain”, Rashid ad-Din Sinan led the Syrian branch of the Nizari Ismaili sect, or what commonly known as the Order of Assassins, from Musyaf Castle on a 20m high plateau 40km west of Hama. In the 12th century, Rashid ad-Din Sinan controlled a part of northwestern Syria from Masyaf Castle. Rashid and his followers were famous for imposing the military tactics of assassinations in the region. In fact, the Order of Assassins was the origin of the modern word “assassination.” Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty who controlled a kingdom stretched from Syria and Yemen all the way to Egypt and North Africa, was Rashid’s primary enemy. A truce was made between the two simply because Saladin feared for the danger of assassination from Rashid’s network. In 1191, Rashid was involved in the successful assassination of Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem. Musyaf Castle was later occupied by the Mamluks and Ottomans. After an extensive restoration in 2000, the legendary Masyaf Castle of the Assassins continues to dominate today’s skyline of the town of Masyaf.
Thanks to legends and folklore, books, graphic novels and video games, the mysterious Order of Assassins still lives long in people’s imagination after 800 years.
Funded by the Aga Khan Trust, extensive restoration of the castle was undertaken in the early 2000’s.
Appeared in the Assassin’s Creed game series as the base of the Assassin Order, Masyaf is actually a small peaceful city.
With a population of 22,000, Masyaf was inhabited since the 8th century BC. The Crusaders first knew of Masyaf and its castle in 1099 AD, 41 years before the castle was conquered by the Nizari Ismaili force.
In the Syrian Civil War, Israeli air strikes hit an Iranian associated missile production facility in Masyaf.
From the Great Mosque, we headed east and arrived shortly at the gate of Aleppo Citadel. Perched on top of a limestone hill at the centre of the old city, Aleppo Citadel is the most dominating structure in the old city. We crossed the moat via the imposing stone bridge and entered the citadel complex, which contained restored stone buildings from the Medieval Ages. The citadel was once a powerful stronghold of the Muslims to defend their homeland against the crusaders, and is today considered to be one of the largest citadels in the world. Apart from its size and dominance of Aleppo’s skyline, it is the citadel’s complex layer of history and cycles of destruction and restoration that captivate people’s imagination.
Most of the remaining structures in the citadel were erected by the Ayyubids in the 12th and 13th century. A 2009 excavation showed the citadel hill has a much longer history, as remains of a Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple dated to the 3rd millennia BC was unearthed. The hill was first used as a fortress and acropolis in the 4th century BC during the reign of Seleucus I Nicator. Since then, the citadel had changed hands many occasions, and had been destroyed and restored many times due to warfare and earthquakes. In the Medieval era, the citadel served as a Muslim stronghold, and a number of crusaders were imprisoned here. Then the citadel was sacked by the Mongols two times before taken by the Ottomans in the 16th century. After a mid 19th century earthquake that destroyed much of the complex, the citadel was first extensively restored by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I, and then later by the French Mandate after the First World War. The latest ordeal came from the Battle of Aleppo (2012 – 2016) in the Syrian Civil War, when 60% of the old city was destroyed. The mighty citadel suffered significant damages from bomb and missile attacks. The cycle of destruction and restoration has once again came to a full circle. Let’s hope one day a long lasting peace would arrive and break the cycle of destruction once and for all.
Sultan Ghazi reinforced the Citadel in early 13th century. His works included deepening the moat and constructing a tall entrance bridge / viaduct.
As a famous defensive structure, the Citadel was guarded by a bent entrance complex where intruders would need to go through six turns up a vaulted ramp via a killing zone where hot liquids or stones would be dropped.
While the Outer Gate was damaged in the Battle of Aleppo, the imposing Inner Gate seems to be intact.
Sometimes considered as a city within a city, Aleppo Citadel contained dwellings, palaces, bathhouses, temples, mosques, as well as military barracks.
Originally built as a Byzantine church, the Mosque of Abraham has a tranquil little courtyard to welcome worshipers.
The amphitheatre in the Citadel is actually a modern addition from 1980s to hold concerts.
The stone wall of the former palace is decorated with exquisite carvings of Islamic patterns.
Destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century, the Throne Hall built by the Mamluks is one of the splendid structures restored in the Citadel.
Before the civil war, lookouts from the Citadel offered some fine views of the bustling Hawl al-Qalaa Street below.
The prewar Aleppo was long gone. Photographs from 2016 and beyond show significant destruction of buildings surrounding the Citadel.
The Grand Serail served as the former governor house from 1933 to 2008. The building was completely destroyed in August 2014 by an underground explosion.
Inside the Citadel, the main street connects the Entrance Gate to Ayyubid Palace, Mosque of Abraham and the Big Mosque with its prominent minaret.
Most buildings in the Citadel survived the war but significant damages were made at various parts of the complex.
Walking in the Citadel before the war was a peaceful experience to learn about the history of the great city.
Decorative stone details at a doorway in the Citadel.
During the Battle of Aleppo, the Syrian army used the Citadel as a military base, shelling the surrounding areas through arrow slits on the ancient walls. A part of the wall was destroyed in the battles.
In prewar Aleppo, the area around the Citadel was the most peaceful and atmospheric in the evening.
It might still be years away before Aleppo can regain its peaceful atmosphere, rise up from the ruins and proudly showcase its cultural heritage to the world once again.
Situated at the mouth of Bosphorus into the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavagi, which literally means Control Post of Anatolia (Asia Minor), has been an strategic outpost and fishing village since Roman times. Today, a small fishing community remained. The village also serves as the last stop of the Bosphorus tourist cruise. Compared to the bustling scenes of cosmopolitan Istanbul, the tranquil village expresses a distinctive ambience that keeps on luring foreign tourists and Istanbul inhabitants to come for a brief getaway.
After getting off at Anadolu Kavagi, the first thing that caught our attention was the street food vendors right by the dock. We picked a seafood restaurant, climbed the stairs to the upper floor, and ordered fish buns, fried mussels, fried calamari, etc. After lunch, we ascended the hill behind the village to the ruins of Yoros Castle. We wandered around Yoros Castle a little bit before finding ourselves at an open lookout overlooking the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Some say the towns along the Black Sea coast are quite picturesque and interesting, but we would have to leave them for the next time around.
Anadolu Kavagi appears as a lovely fishing village.
The waterfront of Anadolu Kavagi is occupied a cluster of fishing boats.
During our brief visit, several fishermen were busy fixing their fishing net while chatting causally.
The peaceful fisherman life at Anadolu Kavagi offered a pleasant contrast to the chaotic and busy scenes of Istanbul just 90 minutes of boat ride away.
Each fisherman we met seemed friendly and relaxed.
A handful of seafood stalls and restaurants can be found at the fishing village.
Just like Istanbul, we had all sort of cat encounters in Anadolu Kavagi. This cat sat right by the dock looking at the sea.
Even the cats seemed content with their hassle free lives in Anadolu Kavagi.
Located at the hilltop above Anadolu Kavagi, Yoros Castle guarded the confluence spot of the Bosphorus and Black Sea since the Byzantine times.
From Yoros Castle, we could see the Bosphorus as well as the Black Sea.