I had wanted to visit Kerak (aka Al-Karak) Castle ever since reading Ronald Welch’s novel Knight Crusader when I was perhaps 10 or 11, back in the early 1960s. It was hugely sympathetic to the people the Crusaders called Saracens – and had a huge influence on how I viewed both the Crusaders and their enemies, the Seljuk Turks.
Having since read many accounts of the experiences on all sides during that seemingly endless and often bitterly fought conflict, I felt a magnetic pull towards such castles as St Hilarion, which we visited several times while living in Cyprus in the late 1950s, and Syria’s Krak de Chevaliers, which Elaine and I visited in 2002.
Two other other castles I had long since known about turned out to be on the menu today: Kerak, which I largely knew because of the vile activities of Raynald de Châtillon, and Shobak (Qal’at ash-Shawbak in Arabic), which I had known as Montreal – and hadn’t realised until today would be on our itinerary.
De Châtillon has had a bad press since he died – partly because some of the histories were written by his enemies. But he truly was one of history’s villains. Indeed, his perfidy resulted in Salah al-Din having his head struck off after the Crusaders’ disastrous defeat at the Battle of Hattin, an event which features prominently in Knight Crusader.
There were many reasons for my feeling uncomfortable at Kerak today, splendid though its military architecture may be – and I was delighted to get a good shot of the glacis that had struck me when I first saw a photograph of the castle back in the early 1970s. Shobak’s later role as a particularly grim prison no doubt lent an additional edge to the sombre mood, but – after driving another 130-odd kilometres – we found walking around Montreal/Shobak Castle as the sun set a real delight.