Built along important trade routes, constructed high atop stunning landscapes and demonstrating extraordinary feats of military engineering, Crusader fortresses are among the world’s most dramatic sites. Whether it is the behemoth that is Krak des Chevaliers or Caesarea’s ocean lapped fortress, the Grandmasters Palace in Rhodes or the imposing sites of Acre, the Crusaders’ clearly built their castles to last. If you’re planning a trip to explore Crusader castles but are short on time, then these famous places are probably your best bet. But if you do have a more flexible itinerary then at the very least Kerak Castle, Bodrum and Belvoir Fortress should all be on your list. With so many fascinating places to explore, it’s not necessarily easy to select the very best castles from the Crusades, but we’ve painstakingly contemplated, deliberated and meditated over this list and come up with our top recommendations as well as a few others worth exploring if you have more time.
What are the best Crusader Castles You Can Still Visit Today?
Krak des Chevaliers is a stunning example of Crusader-era military architecture and was the headquarters of the famous Knights Hospitallier during the 12th and 13th centuries. This awe-inspiring feat of medieval military architecture is perhaps the best preserved Crusader fortress in existence today. Built to withstand a siege for up to five years, Krak des Chevaliers stands atop a 650-metre high hill which dominated the route from Antioch to Beirut, with the main enclosure surrounded by a man-made moat carved out of solid rock. Captured by the Mameluke Sultan Baibars in 1271, Krak des Chevaliers was used as a base for Mameluk expansion towards the end of the 13th Century.
The Grandmasters Palace of Rhodes was the palace of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. Dating to the fourteenth century (circa 1309), the Grandmasters Palace would be the base of this famous Christian and military order until Rhodes was captured by the Ottomans in 1522. Under this empire the palace served as a fortress, but was devastated in 1856 by an ammunitions explosion. It was the Italians who restored it in 1912. Today, this medieval castle operates as a museum of works mostly from the early Christian period up to the Ottoman conquest.
Acre or “Akko” is an ancient city in Israel which has been almost continuously inhabited since at least 3000 BC. Today, the Old City of Acre is a UNESCO site, with a myriad of ruins representing the many civilisations that ruled the area over the centuries. However the overwhelming character of Acre is defined by the city’s time under the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Visitors can see its impressive fortifications, sites related to the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitallers, such as the Knights’ Halls, sites of the Bahá’í Faith and the many remaining public buildings, most of which originate from the Ottoman and Crusader periods.
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.
Described by a contemporary adventurer as “the most marvellous, most inaccessible and most celebrated of castles”, the site of Kerak is mentioned in the Bible, where it was said to have been besieged by the King of Israel. The structure which is visible today took on its current guise during the Crusades in the 12th century. Initially a Crusader stronghold, the castle is situated within the city walls of Karak and was located in an area of great strategic importance, nine-hundred metres above sea level. There are seven different levels within the castle and visitors can wander through its vaulted passageways and dungeons.
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, it houses the world renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology.
Offering up great views of the surrounding area, the ruins of this former Crusader castle can be found towering high above the Jordan Valley. Once a stronghold of the powerful Knights Hospitallers, Belvoir was located at a key strategic location and dominated the local area. Despite withstanding a number of attacks the fortress fell to Saladin’s forces after a long siege. Today the fortress is located in Belvoir National Park and is a popular visitor attraction.
The Citadel of Salah Ed-Din is a partly-preserved fortress in Syria which is an interesting example of Crusader-era fortifications. The site has been used as a fortification for many centuries, and 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.
Arsuf, also known as Apollonia, contains the remains of an ancient settlement on the Israeli coast that has stood for over 1,000 years. It is best known for the remains of a mighty Crusader castle which was once home to the Knights Hospitaller, but the site also contains remnants from the many other civilisations that have occupied the area.The Crusaders captured the town in 1101AD and in 1191AD Richard the Lionheart defeated Saladin here in the Battle of Arsuf. In 1265, the Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured the fortress after a 40-day siege. His forces destroyed the town and the site was abandoned. Today, visitors can see the remains of the Crusader fortress, including evidence from the final battle. The clifftop setting and impressive defensive moat bring to life the scale and drama of the once-mighty castle.
A beautiful ancient fortress in Jordan, Shobak is a remote Crusader ruin which dates back to the early 12th century. Originally built by Baldwin I of Jerusalem, it was positioned along key trading routes and designed to control this key strategic location. It was from this location that many Crusader raids on caravan convoys were launched, leading to significant tensions in the area and eventual war. Saladin’s forces lay seige to the castle for several months before the fortress eventually fell in 1189. Today the castle lies in ruins but there is still much for the visitor to explore. The main outer walls still stand along with a number of the internal chambers, archways and passageways. As well as the ruins themselves it is possible to explore a tunnel which runs through the hillside – though this is certainly not one for the faint-hearted.
The Grandmasters Palace in Valletta has been the seat of power in Malta since the sixteenth 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. At first, the site of the Grandmasters Palace only had a single house on it, owned by the nephew of the head of the Knights Hospitaller, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette. This was incorporated into the new palace. 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 of which many, such as The Great Siege Frescoes by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, date back to the times of the Knights Hospitaller.