Commanding the top of a long, narrow ridge between two deep wadis, the Saladin Citadel has been recognized by visitors for centuries as a uniquely stunning site: in 1909, even T.E. Lawrence described the massive structure as “the most sensational thing in castle-building I have seen.” A number of civilizations coveted the ridge-top location for its strategic value and contributed to the development of both its rich history and its incredible architecture.
The citadel’s lofty perch overlooks the Bdama Pass, the path through the surrounding mountain range on the route from Latakia to Aleppo. Control of this location would simultaneously allow a level of oversight of the pass and provide the ability to protect the plains behind Latakia. These are likely among the considerations that first inspired the Phoenicians to fortify the area. Later, when the Byzantines came to the region, they too saw the importance of the site and built the first castle to occupy the ridgeline at the end of the tenth century CE.
In 1108, Crusader forces moved through the region and took the castle and began modifying it and using it for their own purposes. It remained in Crusader hands only 80 years, though; in 1188, the army of legendary warrior and leader Saladin carried out one of its most significant sieges against the citadel and ultimately won it from the Crusaders, inspiring the site’s current name. Unlike many other strongholds taken by Saladin’s forces, the citadel never fell back into Crusader hands; it continued to serve as a major military center for Saladin and for the following Ayyubid and Mamluk leaders until falling into disuse after the rise of the Ottomans to power.
The diversity of players in the citadel’s history can also be seen in its architecture. The original Byzantine fortress still occupies the center of the structure. The eastern end is dominated by Crusader-era additions – a towering donjon, a chapel, and a yawning cistern. Evidence of Mamluk presence is also scattered throughout the site, including a mosque and a bath-house from that era.