Qalaat al Marqab (Castle of the Watchtower)

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.


Yazan said…
I love that citadel btw,
It's very different than other citadels in syria..

I like the color too..

anyways, just a history correction, crusaders final departure was from Arwad in 1303. the Templars held on to Arwad till 1303 before leaving to cyprus.
The Syrian Brit said…
Thank you for a most delightful post..
It has been a year or two (!!!) since I have been to Qalaat al Marqab.. (actually, I was still at Medical School then.. so it is more like 27 years ago!..), and your post just brought back some fantastic memories..
I could not access Flickr, (because I am in the office at work, taking advantage of a quiet moment to relax with a strong cup of coffee.. Access to certain websites is restricted).. If the picutres there are as breathtaking as the ones in the post, then I am in for a treat tonight when I get home..
Abufares said…
Hello Yazan
I'm very excited to communicate with a history buff.
Well, to be 100% true is virtually impossible. May be I should have said that the Crusaders left the mainland in 1301. Remember that the Crusaders were not all a part of one package. The Hospitalliers, the Templars and others had different affiliations. Although the Crusaders are believed to have left Arwad in 1302 or 1303, but did they really??? What about their descendents? I reckon that they are still there. The Arwadis have a very European complexion, blue eyes and blonde or red hair are only too common. Besides, many left to Cyprus while others directly to mainland Europe. Those who remained in Cyprus kept traveling back and forth to Arwad for many years to come. At the time, the Kingdom of Arwad had still not fallen within Arab hands. It's agreed that the last point of exit (from the mainland) was from the old Roman port in Tartous, but the Crusaders didn't all leave together as with the French troops (Jala'a).
The years 1300-1310 marked the "withering" of the Crusaders from the East. And that little harbor in the picture is indeed one of the last departing points of the Crusaders in 1301.
Abufares said…
Dear Syrian Brit
It's a pleasure to have you here. I'm glad you liked the pictures. One thing for certain, in the 27 years that passed since your last visit very little had been done to al Marqab. While it sounds and looks awful (the neglect is unbelievable) a Spanish colleague once told me that the best thing to happen to Syrian monuments is neglect. Everytime the government tries to fix something by making it (touristic) they usually fuck it up. May be one day, we can all enjoy this and other monuments of Syria with the rest of humanity in a civilized fashion. Until then, we're lucky that al Marqab is not on the agenda of short-sighted individuals and/or organizations.
Dubai Jazz said…
Salam Abu Fares; would you believe that I have never been to Al Marqab citadel?
Yeah…it’s a shame…but I am definitely going to, once I am back home, especially after this inspiring description.
When I was a student of architecture in Aleppo, we used to be constantly ‘pushed’ by our teachers to go and explore the old town; but it has always been like the old-fashioned rhetoric speeches of “We must preserve our heritage” “It’s a treachery to our forefathers to let our old town get wasted” “The old Arabic house is a golden source of ecological ideas, so is the theory behind the planning of the old town, we must seek to learn about it….” …..etc…..etc…
While I acknowledge that it is all true, I grapple with the fact that every attempt to ‘renovate’ an ancient building in old town Aleppo has failed miserably (Khan Al Wazir for instance) Except for some old private houses, that were refurbished for commercial purposes. I agree that rehabilitating an old building is a specialized discipline that takes a lot of experience. However, I don’t think that it was the lack of expertise which had lead to these fiascos…I think I am digressing…I better stop here!!!
Anyway, wonderful post Abu Fares, wish to be able to visit Al Marqab soon.
Abufares said…
Hi Dubai Jazz
I have worked on what should've been a great renovation project in the old city of Tartous.
In 2000, the Spanish cities of Alicante and Palma signed a protocol with the city of Tartous to fund the architectural restoration and social renovation and rejuvenation of the old city. The Spanish colleagues did their best, despite great obstacles from their side, even some opposition to the funding. A colleague of mine and I were appointed by the Spaniards as local consultants. We all busted our asses off but to no avail. Stupidity, indifference, greed, and red tape took over and the project was never able to roll into 2nd gear.
The state of our national heritage, and I am talking about our great historical monuments is a sorry one. The scene of a donkey grazing in Qalaat al Marqab where an open sky theater should be located might seem like an exageration. There's no toilet. No signs, no lights, no guides, nothing. On one of the main towers of the castle a cellular network antenna is erected with dangling cable trays and a myriad of other obtrusions. There's dung in almost all the halls [the donkey(s)need(s) to take a shit]. Telephone and electrical cables crisscross the ground halfhazardly...
Should I say more, I guess not.
Thank you for dropping by. I need to Fish My Khele2
The Syrian Brit said…
Abu Fares,
Go ahead!.. Fish khel2ak to your heart's content!.. This is the place to do it without suffering some unsavoury consequences!!...
Needless to say, I totally empathise.. The state of our national heritage and buildings is just appalling, and nobody cares...
Any attempts at restoration or preservation (few and far in between as they are!..) that have been done have always been done so amateurishly, and on the cheap, with catastrophic results!.. I guess you wouldn't expect anything else.. The 'authorities' have no interest in this, since there are no 'backhanders' for greedy officals!..
Abufares said…
Hi Syrian Brit

What can I say except:

Biddak Titawel Balak. But as I've mentioned earlier. May be we're lucky because there's no official interest "yet" in our great monuments.
Anonymous said…
I see nothing great in this monument. you Arabs are always bragging about your structures and heritage, but i still haven't seen anything exciting. Come on Abu Fares give me something to talk about.
Abufares said…
you anonymous,
Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
What you fail to appreciate is a shortcoming of your personality. I, an Arab, as you've so boorishly addressed me and thus so shamefully presented yourself am free to brag about whatever I deem admirable. It might be more difficult for someone with a questionable origin (thus prefers to remain anonymous)to find something in which to accentuate his own pride and identity.
you have forced me to shed my inherited good manners in replying to your comment. As my blog is an extension of my Arab character, I see no reason why you should visit me or comment on my posts again.
Dubai Jazz said…
You've hit the nail on the head Abu Fares; had this guy seen anything admirable about his identity, he wouldn't keep himself Anonymous...
Abufares said…
Hi Dubai Jazz
Thanks for the moral support. I really can't understand some people.
If I don't like a blog or post, I just ignore it all together. He should've done the same.
Dubai Jazz said…
Abu Fares; I can’t see why would anyone NOT love your Blog, regardless of nationality, identity or walk of life, your Blog is one of the best I’ve seen. Enjoyable, diversified, elaborated, moderate, funny and written with eloquent and articulate language…. It’s real fun to read it, and it’s not my own testimony alone, I am sure that ALL your readers would attest to that.
As for the menial intruder, he failed to understand that while we were exalting our historical achievement, we were at the same time exercising self-criticism. Which is, as far as I am concerned, the paramount element of civilization.
I hope that after reading these comments he would realize how puny his mind is…
Abufares said…
Again, Dubai Jazz, Thank you. I appreciate your positive opinion about my blog.
The Syrian Brit said…
I whole-heartedly second the comments of Dubai Jazz, and whole- haeartedly second Abu Fares's reply to 'anonymous'.
Keep up the good work, Abu Fares..
Abufares said…
Thank you Syrian Brit
I really appreciate your comment.
Ascribo said…
I've seen it standing by the road hundreds of times, but my father has always said: "It's a hard drive". I started to believe that it's a hard climb indeed, but then I discovered that it's too easy to find a reason NOT to do something you don't want to do , as it's easy to find a MEAN to do something you want to do...

As for the neglect, I'm not surprised. I wonder why anyone would give a damn about some citadel in the middle of the way between Tartous and Banias. Other great necessities is continuously denied...Simply, as an old monologuist has put it: "We're moving backward by all measures, why would you complain of the backwardness of art?"

That anonymous reminded me of a colleague, who would stupidly consider all the historical monuments in the whole word as being some meaningless piles of old stones. Mutanabi sufficely says:
وكم من عائب قولاً صحيحاً وآفته من الفهم السقيم
Abufares said…
Hi Ascribo
Isn't it amazing how we keep forgetting about the precious things we have so near to us. Once we're away from home do we realize the importance of the stuff we're ignoring.
Karin said…
Abufares ... this time I am late and do apologize! I can only echo Dubai Jazz ... people who don't have an idea what they are talking about should better keep their mouth shut (of course I talk about this anonymous-person ...)!

Personally I am crazy about these kind of places and each time tempted to crawl into every possible hole to "discover" ...
For me it builds emotional bridges back to this time ... I don't know if I can express that feeling in words!
Thanks so much for sharing that dear friend - it is GREAT!! :-)
Abufares said…
Welcome back Karin
Don't worry about anonymous people. You've already had more than your share of strange comments on your blog.
There is something bothering these people and they just can't get a normal life I guess.
I'm glad you're back in Cyberspace.
Thank you for visiting.
Anonymous said…
Hello Abufares..
Great article about the castle..
Me myself from Banias but i visited 3 or 4 times in my life,and that`s when our friends from different cities come to see it.But yes,Banias won`t be mentioned if this castle weren`t there..
BTW i saw your face before but i can`t remember where..!!
Have a nice day.
Kinan Arous.
Abufares said…
Hello Kinan
Welcome to my humble blog.
You must'ver seen me in one of the movies I've done with Pacino, ...etc.
Just kidding, most probably in Tartous I guess.
I'm glad you lked the post about one of the greatest and most under-rated monuments in Syria.
Haifaa said…

I went to Qallat al Marqab when I was twelve years old, now I am 47 years old, and I remember feeling and reliving the history. Ofcourse, I was thinking of the prisnors (since I am an Arab what else can I think about?!)

They did not have a cafe then or anything. It was deserted....I LOVED IT THAT WAY.
dubai rent said…
Dude... good post! I might actually even listen to what you are saying. Overall your whole blog is great... I am digging it. Peace!

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