It’s a serious question.
Is there an established timeline that follows, “in the days of yore…?”
Is there an “early yore”, and a “late yore”?
And where do you put the question mark in a sentence like that: before, or after the quotation mark?
These are the questions that leave me flummoxed as I sit to write the follow up to last week’s, “In the Days of Yore.”
At what point does the period of “yore” end, exactly? Does it have a conclusive period defining its hazy parameters?
My wife tells me that in Arabic, the phrase “tathkaraat min al maad,” means “the memories of old times,” which is pretty similar but rather lovely. And avoids the ambiguity of yore by politely describing old times.
This is just one of the little mysteries we take for granted with our marvelously fluid but maddeningly indefinite language.
And it’s seemingly inconsequential quandaries like this that preoccupy the minds of writers the world over, and probably why we aren’t very good company at dinners.
Why on earth do we call it a ‘fork’??
All that is to say, this tedious digression is meant to serve as the introduction to the next chapter in my ongoing treatise (which approaches the length of a novelette) on castles.
Although I write these pieces largely for myself, the comments section and the responses on Twitter remind me all too painfully that I am not, as I have convinced myself, the only audience. And so for your consideration, dear reader, brief as it may be, I try to offer some piquant observation, however trite, that will enrich your day in some small way.
In this case, I suppose that meager offering is to leave you wondering exactly when and where ‘yore’ sits in the historical timeline. It isn’t much, but I never said it would be. You continue at your own peril.
As a consolation prize, can I offer the tidbit that the Irish Gaelic expression for a stormy ocean is “bláth bán ar gharraí an iascaire“, or “The fisherman’s garden is under white flower.”
Which I think is one of the most beautiful expressions I’ve ever heard. Why don’t we speak that way anymore?
And once again, for those who came here hoping for “Pearson Sharp, Political Pundit Extraordinaire”, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I make it a mission to never speak of politics outside of work, and not even inside work, if I can help it.
This, then, concludes my rambling introduction, and I leave you with the continuation of my favorite medieval fortifications, those marvelous wonders of architecture we so humbly call “castles.”
There it is. The castle which T.E. Lawrence called “the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.” And that’s coming from T.E. Lawrence himself! That man knew his castles.
This is Krak des Chevaliers, and I hesitate to even call this a castle. No, this is a fortress. It’s located near Homs, Syria, just over the border from Lebanon. It’s what’s known in the middle east as a “crusader castle”, and among all such crusader castles, this stands head and shoulders above the rest. One picture doesn’t do it justice. Seriously, do a quick search and see for yourself. This thing is unbelievably impressive.
Construction began in 1142 and lasted until around 1170, building on top of a former castle which no longer remains. It served as an important staging area for the crusaders as they fought against the legendary Muslim leader Saladin. Krak was important for controlling the “Homs Gap”, which was a strategically critical valley connecting Syria with the Mediterranean sea.
The castle was also headquarters for the group known as the Knights Hospitaller–or, more fully, the Military Order of the Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Then, as now, those royals loved their titles. But they weren’t just knights, they were also monks. And eventually, the castle housed a garrison of some 2,000 of these warrior monks. As you’ll see later, I’m a sucker for a good glacis (pronounced “gley-sis”), which is a wall that steeply slopes outward from the top of a fort, making it difficult to climb and exposing attackers to whatever the defenders wanted to hurl down on them. And baby, the glacis at Krak des Chevaliers was over a hundred feet thick at the base.
Saladin carried out an unsuccessful siege against the castle in 1188, and it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later, in 1271, that Muslim Mameluke Sultan Baybars finally captured the fortress with the help of massive catapults.
Most recently, and tragically, the castle was damaged during the Syrian War when it was occupied by terrorist forces, and shelled by the Syrian Army. The Army attacked it again with an airstrike in 2013. It was recaptured in 2014, and reconstruction is underway. T.E. Lawrence would weep.
It’s one of my favorite castles for many reasons, but mostly because of the sense of mystery and ageless wonder it evokes. It rises up from the desolate mountain top and gazes imposingly over the surrounding valleys and peaks, a steward of a time long gone. To me, Krak des Chevaliers always looked lonely, like it was waiting for something to happen, for the crusaders of old to walk its massive ramparts once more. And for some reason, I found that haunted desolation irresistible.
Next up, we have the fairy-tale hilltop Hohenzollern Castle in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. My favorite of all the Württembergs (there’s just the one). It’s built on a 2,800 foot mountain, and from the top of the ramparts you can see more than 60 miles across the pastoral hills of Teutonic farms and medieval villages.
Historically, this one isn’t quite as interesting, as the castle you see here was built in 1867. But that’s the third and last castle–the first one was built back in the 11th Century. It’s the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and imperial line dating back a thousand years. The kings and queens of Prussia have called this place home.
The original castle was destroyed in 1423 during a massive siege that lasted nearly an entire year. It was rebuilt in 1461, and was then home to the Catholic branch of the family during the Thirty Years’ War. Finally it was occupied by the Habsburgs (remember them?) for about a hundred years. But after the 1700s, heading into the 1800s, there wasn’t much strategic value in the castle and it was partially abandoned. It’s surprising how quickly something as sturdy as a castle will crumble if it’s not maintained, and over the next few decades it began to rot and deteriorate. Most of the dilapidated buildings were demolished, and today the only part of the original structure that remains is the chapel.
The castle we see today was built by Frederick William IV of Prussia after he climbed to the top of Mount Hohenzollern and had a kind of epiphany, longing to see his family’s great castle in all its former splendor. So the third castle was built more as a memorial to Frederick’s family than as an actual castle. Which is apparent if you look at the design, as there’s very little to suggest true defensive fortifications. It’s more of a palace today than a fortress, but it’s grandeur is no less diminished. Architecturally it’s a little odd, because it doesn’t resemble other German castles at all. The architect Frederick hired was influenced by English Gothic Revival, and it definitely looks more western-European than Germanic.
The location, graceful spires, and stunning background all make this one of the most unique castles I’ve ever come across, and definitely puts it in the top ten.
And then… there’s Carcassonne Castle. Also known as a fortified city, this place is medievalist’s dream come true. It’s seriously one of the most magnificent castles anywhere in the world–and it was almost demolished in the 1800s! Today it’s one of France’s biggest tourist attractions, and there’s actually 47 people who live in the castle full time. How lucky they are!
It’s perched atop a craggy hill in the city of Carcassonne in southern France, with the majestic Pyrenees Mountains looming grandly in the distance. The castle has immense historical significance, and the strategic value of the site goes back over 2,500 years, all the way to before the time of the Romans. It has two (2!!) rings of walls, 52 towers, and is seriously just the most picture-perfect castle anywhere. You have to give it to the Germans, they build some pretty impressive castles. But I think the French might edge them out ever so slightly with fortresses like Carcassonne in the running.
Honestly the history of this castle is just chockablock with wars and invasion and intrigue, it’s fantastic! The Romans built their first fortification here in 333 AD, and the famous Gallo-Roman walls, which are still standing, were built and reinforced when the town was occupied by the Visigoths in the 5th and 6th centuries. Around this time the famous religious sect of Catharism sprang up right in this region, Languedoc, and got the locals all riled up against the city’s ruler, Bernard Aton, who was actually doing a decent job running things at the time. But since he was a Catholic, and favored by the Pope, Urban II, the Cathars took umbrage with him and revolted. Bernard managed to hold on and, quelled the rebellion, restored the Galo-Roman fortifications, and even built himself a new palace in the deal. This is the first time Carcassonne was surrounded by a finished castle wall.
And I’m going to break my rule here and include two pictures of this astonishing city, because it’s simply too extraordinary to believe.
But in 1208, Pope Innocent III decided he just couldn’t have all these pesky Cathars running around all willy-nilly and free-like, so he launched a crusade against them. The castle was besieged by crusaders, the leaders surrendered, and the town outside the citadel was sacked and razed. The castle was later given to Simon de Montfort, one of the most famous knights of the Middle Ages and a tremendous military commander. He was also one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, which, through no fault of his own, was just a disaster.
But then he died in 1218 and it fell to his son, who couldn’t hold onto it and gave it to King Louis the VIII of France. A bunch of rich noblemen didn’t like that very much so they launched a campaign to take it back, and finally succeeded in 1224. But then Louis kicked off another crusade, because why not, and the castle finally became under royal control from then on.
In 1226 they built on another line of castle walls outside the original Roman walls, giving Carcassonne a total of two curtain walls, which is so much better than one. After that, in 1247, it was annexed by the Kingdom of France, and kind of acted as a buffer between France and Spain. Some walls were torn down, some more walls were added, turrets put up here and there, and finally in 1659 after the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the province officially became part of France and it wasn’t so strategically important anymore. Sadly, the castle fell into decline, and in the 1800s the French government decided for some reason that it was an eyesore and moved to tear the whole thing down. Thankfully the locals just about went to war over the decision, which changed the government’s mind (the French government has a history of ignoring the will of the people at their own peril), and restoration work began.
I love this castle because I mean it really has it all. Thick, high curtain walls festooned with massive towers, capped in the traditional French peaked turrets covered in blue slate tiles; enormous drawbridges and moats, and a giant, heavily fortified keep in the center. What else could you possibly want? The incredibly rich history is a bonus. When you think about how this place has been occupied by everyone from the Romans to actually crusading knights… it really makes you feel insignificant, and like you’re part of just a tiny chapter in something much, much bigger.
Castle Corvin! Look at that! It’s like if Hogwarts students went to Eastern Europe for summer classes. This magnificent piece of Gothic-Renaissance architecture is in Romania, and it’s actually known as one of the 7 Wonders of Romania. Beats me what the rest of them are.
It was built back in 1446 by John Hunyadi, and its early history isn’t very interesting. But it is in Transylvania, so that’s always pretty cool by itself. It’s constructed, as all the most wonderful castles are, on top of a massive rock outcropping, taking the place of an older fortification that had fallen into ruin. And like Carcassonne above, it also features a double wall! Though not quite as massive. This is just a castle, it doesn’t house an entire city.
There was a massive fire and in the 17th Century, contemporary architects redesigned the castle to match their “fanciful” ideas of what a gothic castle should look like. I’m ok with it, I think they did a bang-up job. I mean that elevated walkway approaching the main entrance is just so damn dramatic! I’ll never understand why billionaires always choose to live in boring cookie-cutter mansions. Why would you not live in a castle like Corvin if you could?! My house is totally going to have a drawbridge someday.
Of course, everyone knows Transylvania is the home of Dracula, and his real-life inspiration, Vlad the Impaler. And there’s also a legend that this castle is where Vlad was held prisoner by John Hunyadi, the guy who built it, and also who executed Vlad’s father. The legend says the Vlad spent seven long years languishing in Corvin’s foetid dungeons before escaping, and they say it drove him mad.
Whether it’s true or not, this is simply a marvelous castle, and ticks all the boxes for what a medieval fortress should look like. The peaked, orange spires are classically Eastern European, and are a dead giveaway whenever you’re trying to pinpoint the location of a particular castle. Lots of Slavic and Russian fortresses (also known as a “kremlin”) feature the same style (check out the astonishing Malbork Castle as an example).
And I think this is where we’ll wrap things up for today.
When I sat down to write this, I had no idea how long it would end up being. I hesitate to even tell you, because I’m excited about sharing these castles with you, and I don’t want to discourage you from continuing. Suffice it to say, it took me two weeks to write a post I anticipated only spending an afternoon on.
In any case, it’s my sincere hope that you’ll find something interesting or informative in this list, and perhaps even discover someplace new you’d like to visit yourself! That would tickle me to no end, and if you do go, I’ll insist you take pictures and share them. Especially if it’s someplace I haven’t been yet.
And if you’re wondering about the cover image, that was back in the year of our Lord, Two-Thousand and Four. I was touring Europe for the first time, and was visiting Hadrian’s Wall, up in Scotland. This was moments before I did a somersault down the hill and, without noticing, dropped my $200 Oakley sunglasses I’d bought the week before. That ridiculous and expensive lesson is why I’ve never bought another pair of fancy sunglasses.
You never know when the urge to somersault will strike again.