The enormous Crusader castle of Karak looms about 1000 meters above the Dead Sea Valley, a strategic link in the vital communication and protection system of castles that spread from Aqaba to Turkey. Karak was on the trading route between Egypt and Syria during biblical times, and later civilizations also recognized the advantages of the location. The castle has known happiness, but it has also known cruelty. Modern visitors will enjoy the spectacular views and the sandwiched layers of history.
During biblical times, Karak, known then as Kir, Kir Moab and Kir Heres, was the capital of Moab. The city can be found on the famous mosaic map in Madaba. Later used by the Greeks and Romans, its name was changed to Characmoba.
In the twelfth century, the Crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem commissioned Payen the Cupbearer to build the fortress of Karak. It became the capital of the Crusader Oultrejouirdain district, and became rich levying taxes on traders, travelers and agricultural produce. Karak is halfway between Shobak and Jerusalem, and its success helped Jerusalem prosper.
In the late 13th century, the Mamluk Sultan Beibars renovated the castle, deepened the moat and built the lower courtyard. Although damaged by an earthquake in 1293, the Ottomans also used the castle, after local fighting in the1880s forced the Christian inhabitants of Karak to flee to Madaba and Ma'an. Peace was restored only after a significant number of troops were stationed in the town.
Crossing over the wooden bridge over the dry moat, visitors enter through the Ottoman's Gate. To the left is the Crusader's Gallery, or the stables, at the end of which is a headless stone carving. Some claim it is Saladin, but as it dates from the 2nd century AD, it is likely a Nabataean carving. To the right are passages containing the kitchens and dining areas, as well as barracks. Coming out into the light, the favorite, dizzying drop of de Chatillon is on the left. Ahead is another set of passages, containing a mosque, a church, a prison and a marketplace. In the distance, Umm al-Thallaga is visible (the Mother of Snow), the mountain that was the biggest defensive threat to Karak. Here, at the Mamluk keep built in 1260, the defenses were strongest. Down below is the Mamluk courtyard and towers overlooking Wadi Karak, possibly down to the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah.
While the castle is being restored, and much of it is open to visitors, there are still some passages that are off-limits. It is tempting to imagine what treasures lie within. With any luck, Karak will give up more secrets to us in the near future.