Thirty kilometers north of Tartous, where the sea washes the feet of the mountains and at the point where the road passage is at its most precarious, a gigantic black castle is perched on the peak of an extinct volcano. In 1062, the Muslims were the first to erect a post commanding a panoramic view of what makes up today’s entire Syrian coast.
The city of Banias, at the foot of the mountain has a much longer history and its origin dates back to the Phoenicians. It is referred to in Strabo’s geography as Balanea (c 58 BC to c AD 24). Banias was home to the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. When the Crusaders came along in 1098, they first established themselves in the city and called it Valenia after slaughtering its original inhabitants. In 1104 Qallat al Marqab (Castle of the Watchtower) fell back to Byzantine hands from the Arabs. It is not certain when the Crusaders made their second comeback to the site but it is believed to be between 1108 and 1140 when it passed to the Principality of Antioch. It was held by the prominent Mansour family on behalf of the Prince and was later sold to the Knights Hospitaller in 1168.
The Hospitallers altered the castle into one of their strongest fortresses between 1186 and 1203. Qalaat al Marqab would have been absolutely impregnable if not for the dwindling human resources of the Crusaders. It had survived waves of offensives starting from the Emir of Aleppo (Malik a- Daher) in 1204, to the Turkoman Emir (Saif al Din Balban) in 1280. Only the lack of Crusaders troops because of fewer "volunteers" from Europe made the Marqab succumb to the bombardment and undermining of Qalaun in 1285. The Crusaders surrounded and were allowed to flee to Tartous and Tripoli. That was the beginning of the end for the Crusaders in the region. They surrendered Tripoli in 1289 and later Tartous in 1291. One of their final departure points from the East to Europe in 1301 was from the natural harbor (visible in background of the picture below) at the base of the mountain.
The visit to Qalaat al Marqab is a must for the serious traveler or archeologist of Syria. The view from the top is breathtaking. If you are a fan of arghile (shisha), sitting at the straw-roofed café and enjoying a smoke is an experience not to be forgotten. If hungry, there’s also a similarly simple restaurant at the base of the castle.
However, to walk inside within the remains of the walls, or to wonder in the deserted (and neglected) halls would take you back in time. You could almost sense the presence of armored soldiers, of tied horses being fed and resting after the arduous climb. You could smell the cooking in the vestiges of soup kitchens with smoke scorched ceilings. The keystones of the vaulted chapel tease the mind with metaphors and symbols of the Holy Grail.
With the setting of the sun, a surrealistic wind blows and phantoms from the past freely roam the passageways flanked by the magnificent black stones. The thin line between reality and illusion fades as the howling of the wind morphs into the moans of bygone warriors embattled and defeated a thousand mile from home.
To get to Qalaat al Marqab take the Lattakia Hwy from Tartous and drive north for 30 km. Just before you reach Banias take a right exit and drive following the signs for 5 km what is a very steep uphill climb. Park the car near the small café and climb the stairs leading to the main gates. There is a charge of SP10.00 for students and kids and SP50.00 = US$1.00 for adults.
For more information about this great site and others in Syria, I recommend Monuments of Syria an Historical Guide by Ross Burns (I. B. Tauris, Dummar Publisher, revised edition 1999.
See more pictures of the Qalaat al Marqab at my Flickr.