Crusader castle trek

Following in the footsteps of the young Lawrence of Arabia, James Henderson hikes across Syria in the high-summer heat to the awe-inspiring edifice of Salah ad-Din.

The vast stronghold of Salah ad-Din.
The vast stronghold of Salah ad-Din. | Image: Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Picture a castle on a distant ridge, brooding on the skyline, shimmering occasionally in the extreme Levantine heat. Finally, after weeks of sea travel and hundreds of miles on foot, it is at hand; journey accomplished.

I might be describing the arrival of a Crusader in the Holy Land 800 years ago, but, in fact, I am following in the footsteps of the young TE Lawrence. In 1909, long before the Arabian exploits that made him famous, he traversed vast swathes of this desert area, visiting Crusader castles as part of the research he completed for his undergraduate history thesis, The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the End of the XIIth Century. He walked for over 1,000 miles, alone, in his summer vacation. In a weekend I will cover just 35, but it’s enough to taste the adventure and the fascination with the Arab world that fired the young Lawrence.

Friday 1630 Lawrence’s route passed through what is now Syria, so I’m bound for Aleppo, via Istanbul, on a semi-overnight from London. The bustle of the Levant intrudes the moment we touch down.

James Henderson pauses on the trail, the town of Safita behind.
James Henderson pauses on the trail, the town of Safita behind. | Image: James Henderson

Saturday 0200 I arrive in Aleppo, slightly bleary but knowing there is still half a night of travel ahead. We drive through desert flatlands, trees flashing either side of the arrow-straight Tarmac, and then wind into mountains. While endurance is not normally a part of modern travel, it’s fitting to remember what TE Lawrence, or Ned as he was then, expected of himself. For years as a teenager he had roamed the backroads of England, cycling off alone on a pedal-bike to churches and castles, with minimal food and equipment, pushing himself to 180 miles a day. In 1908 he cycled almost the length of France and back in eight weeks. As for this Middle Eastern trip, he was advised against it – “wearisome, hazardous to health and even disappointing” – but he took it as a challenge. It’s nearing dawn as we approach Latakia and the coast.

Saturday 0600 After a cup of tea, we set off. In June there is no chill in the air, even this early in the day. Lawrence would probably have used the main thoroughfares, but with a guide, Ahmad, I can take a hiker’s route. We head off into farmland, through olive and orange groves, using any paths that follow ours. We go up and over the lie of the land, climbing from terrace to terrace and descending sunken trails. Our goal, Salah ad-Din castle, moves in and out of view on a distant mountaintop.

Almost everything that grows naturally in this part of Syria seems to have spikes. Grasses look like miniature tank traps and every spindly bush, some coloured a blue worthy of Avatar, has spines. Thistles, their spiky flowers bigger than a fist, make easy work of my lightweight walking trousers and a pin-cushion of my knees and thighs.


Saturday 1030 We reach the shade of an apricot tree. Ahmad whacks it with his stick and a score or more of the yellow fruits drop to the ground, bouncing randomly about us on the path. They are perfectly ripe; we sit for a few minutes and savour their sweetness. Some time later we walk into a charcoal factory, something that has probably existed for a millennium. Under a series of pods are smoking piles of soil, each concealing a mound of charring branches. Men open them to douse them with water, sending out columns of steam. Then they are wrapped again in tin and earth. They smoulder for a week, apparently.

Interestingly, it was the lack of wood in the Levant that made all the difference to the castles, and it was an important factor of Lawrence’s thesis. Until the late 1100s, Western Europeans had been building motte and bailey defences, but as their needs changed from defensive to offensive, so the wooden palisades turned to stone bulwarks with firing angles. With so little suitable wood in the Levant, there was already a long tradition of building in stone. There the castles are vast edifices, with storey on storey of vaulted rooms. It was tempting to think that European techniques were borrowed by Crusaders returning home.

Saturday 1300 The sun and heat are remorseless. I hear the tiny roar in my ears that signals heat exhaustion. I drink and drink. Mercifully, we finally enter the green gloaming of a pine forest. Even so, I find I am flagging. So it is a relief when I eventually see, through the trees, the outline of Salah ad-Din. It is awe-inspiring. In Lawrence’s words, “…the most sensational thing in castle building I have seen”.

A minaret still stands in Salah ad-Din.
A minaret still stands in Salah ad-Din. | Image:

Saturday 1600 Emerging from the ravine, we reach the foot of the castle walls. They soar from the bedrock, angled initially in a talus and then sheer, vast, interlocked blocks of limestone. At one end of the castle is a 90ft deep “moat”, not for water but to separate the rock peninsula. It must have taken years to dig it out. In its depths, an obelisk is left – the pylon for a bridge.

We take the 100 or so steps and enter the stronghold. Inside, it is simply vast, 150 yards across by 500, with a second section half a mile long. There are enormous cisterns (still holding water), vaulted stables, complete and ruined towers, even a (later) Ottoman hammam. Arches still stand after nearly 1,000 years. I clamber happily around the nooks and crannies, peering through loop windows and battlements 100ft up, nosing into secret passages, effortlessly channelling the boyish sense of wonder and discovery that Lawrence himself must have felt. It is silent now; but a millennium ago, 1,000 men lived here.

Saturday 1800 Legs numbed by spiky plants, I sit wearily, battered feet chilling in the shower tray. Eventually, I drag myself out for supper, which perks me up: succulent meat kebabs, limitless aubergine and tomato and sliced potato in a molasses and pomegranate sauce. Soon I am out cold, oblivious to the stuttering air conditioner.

The thick stone arches of the stabes.
The thick stone arches of the stabes. | Image: De Agostini/Getty Images

Sunday 0900 Salah ad-Din, though less known than Krak des Chevaliers, is probably the most romantic castle in Syria. As it turns out, Lawrence was interested principally in one tower here, which he considered a perfect example of the Templar architectural style. (Templar towers are square, unlike Hospitallers’, which are round.)

It is 100ft square, with walls 16ft thick. Inside, gothic vaults, straining like sinews, rise from the walls and a central column to meet overhead, supporting the enormous ceiling. From the battlements on the roof the views cast as far as the Mediterranean. A secret passage leads down the central column to the ground floor; luckily, in the darkness I find no sign of the “lusty collection of snakes” that Lawrence encountered.

After some quiet contemplation, it’s back onto the trail. We head north, over the canyon and into the pine forest, proceeding in silence. The rhythm of walking puts the brain into a ruminative state. I muse on Lawrence: at 21, he was immensely strong and keen to challenge himself, pushing through discomforts – including dysentery and malaria on this trip. He was proud of living like an Arab, saying that he would have trouble returning to the English way of life; a true ascetic. But his letters reveal a lighter side, too – “Why can’t somebody invent an occupation for flies?”

Hosing down the charcoal in the charcoal factory.
Hosing down the charcoal in the charcoal factory. | Image: James Henderson

The conclusion he drew for his thesis was that the prevalent view – that of Europeans as “timid copyists of the crusading architects” – was incorrect, as the two styles were fundamentally independent. Since then his idea has largely been disproven, but he did get a first-class degree for it.

We startle a deer, which darts away, flashing among the trees. Then we meet a tortoise, moving laboriously across the path.

Sunday 1100 Eventually, we emerge into open country again, through groves edged with straggly vines, blackberry bushes and eucalyptus. Beneath the trees the dry earth is ploughed neatly in swirls. At moments this seems like the archetypal biblical land, but then we emerge at Kafriyah, where the car is waiting. Modern Syria flashes by, with all its manic building. Our road trip to Aleppo lasts three hours; the same journey took Lawrence five days, walking 13 hours a day.

Mansouriya Palace hotel.
Mansouriya Palace hotel. | Image: Paul F Sloan

Sunday 1800 Lawrence stayed in the Baron’s Hotel but the Mansouriya Palace, set in a restored 16th-century house, is currently the nicest (and chicest) address in the city. For all his famed asceticism, Lawrence wrote telling how much he enjoyed his bath; again, I channel him with ease.

At some time around midnight I am dragged out of sleep and into a vehicle. Near dawn we are in Istanbul again.

Monday 1000 I arrive back a couple of hours into the working day – not a month late for the university term, like Lawrence was (and nor have I been shot at along the way). But I have had an immensely satisfying trip, with an inkling of the formative experiences of one of Britain’s great adventurers, including his physical endeavour and endurance. And perhaps the kindling of his dreams for an Arab homeland; on arrival in England, I was already planning my return.


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