Another little trip to Paris. Well, Eurostar are doing lots of cheap tickets so it’d be rude not to.
On my last quick visit I had intended to take in a couple of exhibitions but, due to the yellow vested demonstrators, everything was shut so I couldn’t. Luckily, I was able to book another trip just in time to catch the exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, ‘Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre’.
The exhibition is relatively small in size but very broad in scope, taking in the history of the site from its establishment in the first half of the 12th century, through to its ‘rediscovery’ in the 1920s when Syria was under the French Mandate, down to the present day as an important heritage-at-risk site.
Its earliest years, as a home to the Knights Hospiteller, the crusader castle, on which construction began in 1142, was built on the site of an earlier settlement of Kurdish tribesmen under the Emir of Aleppo and Homs, Shibl ad-Dawla Nasr. The site was then known as “Ḥiṣn al-Safḥ” but later became known as “Ḥiṣn al-Akrād” (Castle of the Kurds).
The castle underwent many modifications during its lifespan as a crusader castle, sometimes due to changes in fashion, due to damage from earthquakes, floods and droughts, and due to the changing defensive demands of the site. Eventually in March 1271, after a siege lasting almost a month, the outer parts of the castle were taken by Mamluk forces. The Crusader Knights retreated into the inner ward but, after 10 days, they were persuaded to leave when the besiegers delivered a, possibly forged, letter of permission to surrender from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli. The Knights were granted safe conduct and the new, Mamluk, owners converted the castle for their own needs (including converting the chapel into a mosque).
Several 19th century explorers described and recorded the castle, and it was included in guidebooks of the east and Holy Land but it gained a new audience when in 1926, on a visit as part of the International Congress of Syria and Palestine, Paul Deschamps first saw the castle. In the intervening centuries, a village had grown up within the walls and up to 500 people lived in and around the site. The underground vaults were choked with detritus of human habitation.
Deschamps recognized the site as important and tried, unsuccessfully to persuade the villagers to move out so that it could be conserved. When the villagers proved unwilling to give up their homes, he then hit upon the idea of persuading the French colonial government to purchase the castle from the government of Latakia (the Syrian provincial government responsible for the site). The French government agreed and November 1933 it paid one million francs for the site. Clearance and restoration work was conducted between 1934 and 1936 but then, after the Second World War, due to the questionable legality of the earlier sale the, now independent, Syrian government had demanded, and been granted, the return of the site. Crac des Cevaliers was restored to the Syrian government in February 1949.
The site was cleared and renovated by Deschamps, using soldiers garrisoned there as labour. Duchamps’ notebooks describing this process survive, along with snaps he took on his many visits to the site.
This is how the internals view looked when I visited in 2010.
The exhibition includes posters and artefacts relating to the French Mandate period when travel and tourism to Syria and Lebanon were being marketed to French travelers. The Holy Land in these images is exotic and glamorous, but also with an adventurous slant. Very colonial.
Highlights of the exhibition are the maquettes, the largest a detailed [scale???} model of Crac des Chevaliers created for the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931. The model was created by Etienne Prevost and shows the condition of the castle in 1930, before restoration began.
Here is a view of it in the 1931 exhibition.
In 1928, Duschamp also had casts made of the castle’s architectural elements inscriptions.
This cast is of an inscription commemorating the work carried out at Crac in the mid-13th century.
AU : TENS : DE : FRE : NICIOLE : LORNE : FU : FETE CESTE BARBACANE
This in-situ 13th century inscription, in Latin reads,
SIT TIBI COPIA | SIT SAPIE[N]CIA | FORMAQ[UE] DET[UR] | INQ[U]NAT O[MN]IA SOLA | SUP[ER]BIA SI COMI[TETUR]
Be wealthy, be wise, be beautiful, but beware of pride, which blemishes all it comes near.
There is actually something dreamy about Crac des Chevaliers. Perched on its own mount in the Homs Valley, the views of the castle are spectacular and, before the current conflict, a visit to Syria just wasn’t complete without a visit to Crac. The viewpoint from the road overlooking the valley (top) is the classic view of the castle and road with steep drops and hairpins bends means that the drive up to the castle itself is pretty exciting. From the citadel itself, there are dramatic views down the valley.
Unfortunately, the events of recent years have not been kind to Crac, which was occupied by armed groups in the summer of 2013 and sustained damage in bombardments over the next 9 months or so. Ongoing work being carried out under the auspices of Unesco includes recording using digital technology to produce 3-dimensional digital plans of the site. Hopefully, this detailed work will help with both the Syrian and international conservation efforts.
‘Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre’ is at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, and the run has been extended until 4th March.