From around the 11th century, European Christians embarked on a succession of brutal military excursions known as the Crusades. Their aim was to reduce Muslim influence in the Holy Land, placing them under Christian control.
At first, the Crusaders were somewhat successful, with Syria and Palestine falling under Christian control. But into the 4th century, those steps forward were reversed as the influence of Islam in the eastern Mediterranean grew.
When the influence of the Pope declined in the 16th century, after the Protestant Reformation, the crusades waned in popularity and influence, too.
The relics and ruins of the Crusades can nonetheless be found across Europe and the Holy Land.
Here are 10 of the most important crusader sites and monuments to visit.
1. Temple Church
The Temple Church in Central London is named after the Knights Templar, who founded it in the twelfth century. The church became the English headquarters of this famous Christian charitable and military order. This first section of Temple Church is now known as the Round Church, built in a circular form so as to echo the shape of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
One of the highlights of a visit today is seeing the unique effigies of 10 knights on its floor, each with individual characteristics. As discussed in the Dan Brown novel, The Davinci Code, these effigies do not mark the locations of actual tombs.
The walled city of Acre is as historically rich as it is visually stunning. With its winding alleys, crumbling courtyards and views of the Mediterranean, Acre can rightly claim its place among the most interesting locations from the Crusader period. The Crusaders captured Acre in 1104. This was a time of great development and prosperity, with the erection of fortifications as well as public buildings such as bathhouses, shops and churches.
As a result of its colourful past, Acre has much to offer today. Visitors will enjoy simply getting lost in the ancient city, but it’s also worth hunting out the Turkish baths and Templar tunnel.
3. Grandmasters Palace - Rhodes
Located on the Greek island of Rhodes, the Grandmasters Palace is a spectacular medieval fortress and former headquarters of the famous Knights Hospitaller – crusading religious warriors known for their power and influence in the early medieval period.
Today, this massive medieval fortress operates as a museum covering everything from early Christianity up to the Ottoman conquest. Though part-19th century reconstruction, its huge battlements are nonetheless exceptionally impressive and definitely worth exploring.
4. Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers is a stunning example of Crusader-era military architecture and was the headquarters of the famous Knights Hospitaller during the 12th and 13th centuries. It is perhaps the best-preserved example of a Crusader fortress in existence today and is an awe-inspiring example of medieval military architecture.
Built to withstand a siege for up to five years, Krak des Chevaliers stands atop a 650-metre high hill that dominated the route from Antioch to Beirut. Situated close to the border with Lebanon, the huge fortress allows visitors to experience the historic architecture of the medieval period and get an insight into the lives of the Crusaders.
5. Grandmasters Palace - Valletta
The Grandmasters Palace in Valletta has been the seat of power in Malta since the 16th century. It was in 1571 that the Knights Hospitaller of St John made the Grandmasters Palace their base, a role which it would fulfil until 1798, when this religious and military order left Malta.
Today, as well as being a government building, parts of the Grandmasters Palace are open to the public, particularly the State Rooms and the Armoury. The opulent and lavishly decorated State Rooms display several art collections, some of which, such as The Great Siege Frescoes by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, date back to the times of the Knights Hospitaller. Meanwhile, the Palace Armoury contains the impressive collection of armour and weaponry of the Knights Hospitaller.
6. Kerak Castle
Kerak Castle is an impressive 12th-century Crusader-era fortification located to the south of Amman, Jordan, on the ancient King’s Highway.
Today, the castle operates as a visitor attraction and contains a maze of corridors and chambers within the imposing fortifications. There are seven different levels within the castle and visitors can wander through vaulted passageways and dungeons. There is a museum located on a lower floor of the castle, and one route leads onto the keep, which provides spectacular views. Visitors can look across the Dead Sea and out to the Mount of Olives, bordering on Jerusalem, on clearer days.
7. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Ranking among the oldest churches in the world, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the believed site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This makes it one of the most important buildings in Christianity. The current structure mostly dates to the Crusader period.
Today, the church is a major pilgrimage site: it’s often extremely busy, with pilgrims waiting to touch holy relics and spots. Security is tight, and guards are strict. Nonetheless, it’s a deeply atmospheric place, rich with history.
8. Citadel of Salah Ed-Din
Also known as Saladin Castle, this Crusader-era site is a partly-preserved fortress in Syria which is an interesting example of Crusader-era fortifications. The site is thought to have first been occupied by the Phoenicians and later by Alexander the Great. The current site was built by the Byzantines and became a Crusader stronghold until its capture by Saladin in 1188.
In the early 20th century, T. E. Lawrence visited the castle, and described it as ‘the most sensational castle building I have ever seen’. Today, visitors who are willing to make the walk or the steep drive up the ridge can explore the historic site.
9. Bodrum Castle
Bodrum Castle was built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1402 in order to offer protection from the invading Seljuk Turks. Constructed according to the highest standards at the time, it remained an important Christian stronghold for over a century, serving as a focal point in Asia Minor.
Today, the castle is open to the public and houses the world-renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology, founded in 1962.
10. Ajlun Castle
A grand medieval castle commissioned by Saladin and built by his nephew Izz al-Din Usama, Ajlun Castle was a fortress designed to strike fear in the heart of the Franks.
A visit to Ajlun Castle will immerse visitors in the culture of siege warfare and take them back in time to one of the most destructive periods in the region’s history. The site also holds the remarkable Ajlun Archeological Museum, which offers fine examples of pottery and ceramics as well as other displays and artefacts from the region.