Their Own Fortresses
By Robert Fisk
04 April, 2005
drove Pat and Alice Carey up the coast of Lebanon this week to look
at some castles. Pat is a builder from County Wicklow, brave enough
to take a holiday with his wife in Beirut when all others are thinking
of running away. But I wanted to know what he thought of 12th-century
How did he rate
a Crusader keep? The most beautiful of Lebanon's castles is the smallest,
a dinky-toy palisade on an outcrop of rock near the village of Batroun.
You have to climb a set of well-polished steps - no hand-rails, for
this is Lebanon - up the sheer side of Mseilha castle and then clamber
over doorsills into the dark, damp interior.
So we padded around
the battlements for half an hour. "Strongly made or they wouldn't
be still here," Pat remarked. "But you wouldn't find any company
ready to put up the insurance. And in winter, it must have been very,
And after some minutes,
he looked at me with some intensity. "It's like being in a prison,"
And he was right.
The only view of the outside world was through the archers' loopholes
in the walls. Inside was darkness. The bright world outside was cut
off by the castle defences. I could just see the splashing river to
the south of the castle and, on the distant horizon, a mountainside.
That was all the defenders - Crusaders or Mamlukes - would have seen.
It was the only contact they had with the land they were occupying.
Up at Tripoli is
Lebanon's biggest keep, the massive Castle of St Gilles that still towers
ominously over the port city with its delicate minarets and mass of
concrete hovels. Two shell holes - remnants of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil
war - have been smashed into the walls, but the interior of the castle
is a world of its own; a world, that is, of stables and eating halls
and dungeons. It was empty - the tourists have almost all fled Lebanon
- and we felt the oppressive isolation of this terrible place.
Pat knew his Crusader
castles. "When you besieged them, the only way to get inside was
by pushing timber under the foundations and setting fire to the wood.
When they turned to ash, the walls came tumbling down. The defenders
didn't throw boiling oil from the ramparts. They threw sand on to the
attackers. The sand would get inside their armour and start to burn
them until they were in too much pain to fight. But it's the same thing
here in Tripoli as in the little castle. You can hardly see the city
through the arrow slits. It's another - bigger - prison."
And so I sat on
the cold stone floor and stared through a loophole and, sure enough,
I could see only a single minaret and a few square metres of roadway.
I was in darkness. Just as the Crusaders who built this fortress must
have been in darkness.
de Saint-Gilles spent years besieging the city, looking down in anger
from his great fortress, built on the "Pilgrim's Mountain",
at the stout burghers of Tripoli who were constantly re-supplied by
boat from Egypt. Raymond himself died in the castle, facing the city
he dreamed of capturing but could not live to enter.
And of course, far
to the east, in the ancient land of Mesopotamia, there stand today equally
stout if less aesthetic barricades around another great occupying army.
The castles of the Americans are made of pre-stressed concrete and steel
but they serve the same purpose and doom those who built them to live
From the "Green
Zone" in the centre of Baghdad, the US authorities and their Iraqi
satellites can see little of the city and country they claim to govern.
Sleeping around the gloomy republican palace of Saddam Hussein, they
can stare over the parapets or peek through the machine-gun embrasures
on the perimeter wall - but that is as much as most will ever see of
The Tigris river
is almost as invisible as that stream sloshing past the castle of Mseilha.
The British embassy inside the "Green Zone" flies its diplomats
into Baghdad airport, airlifts them by helicopter into the fortress
- and there they sit until recalled to London.
Indeed, the Crusaders
in Lebanon - men with thunderous names like Tancred and Bohemond and
Baldwin - used a system of control remarkably similar to the US Marines
and the 82nd Airborne. They positioned their castles at a day's ride
- or a day's sailing down the coast in the case of Lebanon - from each
other, venturing forth only to travel between their keeps.
And then out of
the east, from Syria and also from the Caliphate of Baghdad and from
Persia came the "hashashin", the "Assassins" - the
Crusaders brought the word back to Europe - who turned the Shia faith
into an extremist doctrine, regarding assassination of their enemies
as a religious duty.
Anyone who doubts
the relevance of these "foreign fighters" to present-day Iraq
should read the history of ancient Tripoli by that redoubtable Lebanese-Armenian
historian Nina Jidejian, which covers the period of the Assassins and
was published at the height of the Lebanese civil war.
"It was believed
that the terrorists partook of hashish to induce ecstatic visions of
paradise before setting out to perform their sacred duty and to face
martyrdom..." she writes. "The arrival of the Crusaders had
added to ... latent discontent and created a favourable terrain for
their activities." Ouch.
One of the Assassins'
first victims was the Count of Montferrat, leader of the Third Crusade
who had besieged Acre in 1191 - "Saint Jean d'Acre" to the
Christians - and who met his death at the hands of men sent by the Persian
"terrorist" leader, Hassan-i Sabbah. The Assassins treated
Saladin's Muslim army with equal scorn - they made two attempts to murder
him - and within 100 years had set up their own castles around Tripoli.
They established a "mother fortress" from which - and here
I quote a 13th-century Arab geographer - "the Assassins chosen
are sent out thence to all countries and lands to slay kings and great
And so it is not
so hard, in the dank hallways of the Castle of St Gilles to see the
folly of America's occupation of Iraq. Cut off from the people they
rule, squeezed into their fortresses, under constant attack from "foreign
fighters", the Crusaders' dreams were destroyed.
Sitting behind that
loophole in the castle at Tripoli, I could even see new meaning in Osama
bin Laden's constant reference to the Americans as "the Crusader
armies". The Crusades, too, were founded on a neo-conservative
theology. The knights were going to protect the Christians of the Holy
Land; they were going to "liberate" Jerusalem - "Mission
Accomplished" - and ended up taking the spoils of the Levant, creating
petty kingdoms which they claimed to control, living fearfully behind
their stone defences. Their Arab opponents of the time did indeed possess
a weapon of mass destruction for the Crusaders. It was called Islam.
"You can see
why the Crusaders couldn't last here," Pat said as we walked out
of the huge gateway of the Castle of Saint Gilles. "I wonder if
they even knew who they were fighting."
I just resisted
asking him if he'd come along on my next trip to Baghdad, so I could
hear part two of the builder's wisdom.
Copyright: The Independent