Set on a towering mountaintop overlooking the surrounding countryside, the breathtaking remains of the Krak des Chevaliers have drawn the admiration of many over the years, including that of T.E. Lawrence: he once described the site as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.” Known as Qalaat al-Hosn locally, the castle guards the Homs Gap, the only major passageway through the surrounding coastal mountain range. Historically, control of this passage meant authority over all travel between the coast and the inland regions: all goods and people moving inland from the ports had to pass through the Homs Gap. To gain this strategic advantage, the Emir of Homs built the first fortress overlooking the site in 1031 and placed a Kurdish colony there. The citadel became known at that time as Hosn al-Akrad (Fortress of the Kurds), and some scholars believe that the word Krak in the site’s present name may derive from a variation of this historical title.
Control of the fortress officially changed hands when the First Crusade swept through at the end of the eleventh century, taking Hosn al-Akrad and many other castles in the area. Initially, Crusader use of the fortress was minimal; in the mid-12th century, though, as the Crusaders sought to expand and protect their presence throughout the region, they dispatched a secular order known as the Knights Hospitaller to defend their territories and interests from an operational base in this mountain fortress. Originally formed to provide shelter to pilgrims in Jerusalem, the order of the Knights Hospitaller significantly expanded the Krak des Chevaliers and strengthened its fortifications. Over the next century, many armies tried in vain to take the great fortress, including the warriors of legendary commander Saladin; but its fortifications were never fully breached.
When Mamluk forces began overthrowing the Crusader presence in the region at the end of the thirteenth century, the Krak des Chevaliers was the last opposing stronghold to fall. Physically, in fact, the fortress never fell; instead, it was handed over to the Mamluks through a process of negotiation following a lengthy siege. Once in control of the Krak des Chevaliers, the Mamluks further enhanced its fortifications. The final product was a unique blend of architectural styles, combining gothic features installed by the European Crusaders with the elements of Islamic design added by the Mamluks.
As tensions in the region diminished, however, the Krak des Chevaliers fell into disuse. Over time, locals began moving into the fortresses, setting up their own residences within its walls. They lived there until French scholars and archaeologists cleared them out in 1934 in order to clean and restore the historical site.