Numerous castles line the promontories above the Rift Valley, memorials to the medieval wars of the Crusaders. These include Belvoir in the Galilee and Nimrod’s Castle in the Golan, as well as Ajloun Castle – further north along the Abraham Path – and Shobak, further south. But none is as large or imposing as Karak, many of whose massive vaulted halls still stand, offering one of the best opportunities to explore a medieval fortress outside of Europe. Its many levels of passageways and large chambers create a thrilling underground tunnel experience while its remaining towers command excellent panoramas of the surroundings and views down Wadi Karak toward the Dead Sea.
The town and castle are located on a strategic hilltop, such that they were noted as fortified cities in the Bible and other Iron Age sources and in the Madaba Map. It was also part of the Moabite Kingdom, and an inscription duplicating some of the text of the Mesha Stele was found there.
The castle was built in the 1140s as a base of Crusader control over the region and its trade routes, but it was held by the Crusaders for less than half a century. After several unsuccessful attempts, Saladin finally took the castle as part of his ultimately prevailing effort to drive the Crusaders from the region. From that time, the castle was spared further major military action and spared the usual fate of being mostly demolished by earthquakes; though far from intact, it retains far more accessible area than most other castles in the Middle East.
Legends abound of Saladin’s chivalry and the respect accorded him by his enemies; while some may be apocryphal or embellished, there is certainly no shortage of them. One tale centers on Karak, where Saladin, arriving with his siege engines, learned that the wedding of the castle’s young lord was underway. Supposedly, although the rest of the siege continued, Saladin ordered his troops not to attack the tower which contained their bedchamber!