More Castles, Syriasly

We pick up this week with number four on the list of “Best Castles Ever!” If you missed the previous two posts, I cover ten through five. You might be wondering, why castles? Well, I cover that in the first post right here. Suffice it to say, castles are absolutely magical, and in this dreary age we live in today, I think we desperately need a dose of magic.

And I’ve mentioned it before, but I won’t be discussing politics on this page. I know most of you come here after seeing my reporting, but Pearson at work and Pearson outside of work are very different people, and it’s very rare the two ever meet. So sit back, relax, and take a trip with me to some of the lesser known wonders of our world.

Aleppo Citadel, Syria

We start with Number Four, and this one is really special. Not just because I’ve actually been there, either! The Citadel of Aleppo. Even the name is imposing. From the first moment I saw this astonishing fortress, I was mesmerized. It’s simply too grand to put into words. The sheer size of it beggars belief, and the hard, powerful stonework speaks of necessity that we hardly understand today. The first time I saw it, I remember not believing that it was really real. I thought it was from a video game or a fantasy movie about Conan the Barbarian. Surely something this incredible can’t occupy the same world we do?

But it does, and pictures don’t do it justice. I think the incomprehensible size is what makes it so astounding, and it’s not just perspective–it actually is one of the largest castles in the world. Not only that, it’s one of the oldest, going back a mind-boggling five-thousand years. As with Krak des Chevaliers, the Citadel employs an absolutely Brobdingnagian glacis (that massive sloping hill) which is simply marvelous to behold.

Citadel of Aleppo
The Citadel with its massive glacis

While I really like all the other castles on this list, I love this castle. I’m fascinated by it, from the spectacular bridge over the enormous moat, to the staggering glacis, to the impregnable walls. And I do mean impregnable. Throughout it’s entire history, the fortress has remained unconquered–it has never fallen to enemy forces. And that includes the Islamic terrorists during the Syrian War in 2012. Syrian Army troops were forced to retreat into the Citadel for protection, holding off terrorists until reinforcements arrived. While the Islamic extremists used rockets and artillery to shell castle, its heavy walls resisted their attacks, and the soldiers inside were protected. A thousand years later, and the stronghold still did its duty. Tragically, the Citadel suffered significant damage from the attacks, but repair work is ongoing.

I was able to visit in 2018 just after it was recaptured, and I’m still in awe of this truly breathtaking structure. Crossing the bridge is a surreal experience, and entering the “block” as it’s called, the main tower above the entrance, is unbelievable. It features a strategic series of twists and turns designed to slow down invaders, forcing them to turn corners while defenders above pour boiling water and oil down onto them. I arrived at night for a concert celebrating the liberation of Aleppo and Syrian pride. It was touching, but I was much more interested in exploring the ruins of the castle. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to, there were still significant security concerns, and we were told not to wander–there were still terrorists wandering around the city, disguised as civilians. What a travesty. No one has any right to lay a hand on that kind of history.

After being occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims took possession in 636 AD and started renovating. The castle as you see it today took shape in the Ayyubid period, around 1174, in the middle of the Crusades. It was even a prison for several famous crusaders, including Reynald of Chatillon, and Baldwin II, the King of Jerusalem. The ruler Nur ad-Din built up the citadel and the city walls, followed by Saladin’s son, who brought the castle into more or less its current form. The fortified bridge was added much later, and the Sultan Suleiman made major restorations in 1521.

And that’s about it. One of the most splendid examples of Arabic / Islamic architecture anywhere in the world. It really is staggering, larger-than-life. A behemoth. Seeing it in person really makes you feel small. Not just because it’s truly gigantic, but because you feel like you’re just witnessing an infinitesimal piece of history that’s far, far beyond your understanding. I love this castle, and I hope I can go back and explore more someday, when the wars are over, and the Citadel of Aleppo can finally stand down from its long watch over the city.

Castle Cochem, Germany

Castle Cochem! Also known as the Imperial Castle, or the Reichsburg Cochem. How magical is that? Cochem is an instant favorite, that solitary tower jutting up from the midst of a profusion of smaller turrets and ornate spires and medieval outbuildings. Rising up like a Teutonic sentinel of old, standing guard upon its mighty crag over the serene Moselle River below.

Like many castles on this list, the Cochem Castle we see today is the manifestation of more modern times, built atop the ruins of a much more ancient fortress. The original castle was built back in the 12th Century, but the area had been settled long before that even, with early Celtic and then Roman people living in the area.

In 1151, King Konrad III lay siege to the castle and conquering it to settle a dispute over who should own it. That’s when it became the Reichsburg, literally “Imperial Castle.” It was conquered again in 1282 by King Rudolf (of the Hapsburgs again…), and then in 1294, King Adolf of Nassau sold the castle to pay off his debts and help pay for his coronation. It was then deeded to the local archbishop of Trier. It changed hands a few more times over the centuries, all the while serving its primary function of collecting tolls from people passing by on the river.

Finally, in 1689, the original castle met its demise at the hands of the bloody French, who invaded the Rhine and Moselle regions of Germany. French forces under the command of King Louis XIV captured the Reichsburg and burned it to the ground. It had some rough years after that, lying in ruins, until finally the region formally became a part of Prussia in 1815. Then in 1866, a wealthy businessman named Louis Fréderic Jacques Ravené, who was also a major patron of the arts in Berlin, fell in love with the castle and bought it, with the plan of taking on its restoration.

Reichsburg Castle overlooking the old city of Cochem

But Ravené didn’t want to restore the castle to its original Romanesque style. Instead, he worked with architects to draft up a more neo-Gothic castle, featuring elements of German romanticism that would act as a summer house for his family. Imagine that. Building a castle for your summer home. Now that’s the kind of wealth I’m talking about.

Some claim as a result of its destruction and recent renovation, that it’s not an authentic castle, but more of a “fanciful” reconstruction. But I think that’s ignoring a lot of the virtues of this charming and neo-classical monument to Germanic history. Sure, it may not be the original structure, but just look at it! You couldn’t ask for a more authentically German castle than this.

And I think that’s it for this week.

Even though this is my own page and I can do whatever I want, I still feel some slight obligation not to ramble on for more than a thousand words about something as obscure as medieval history. We’ll pick up again next time with the penultimate castle on this list. I truly hope you’re enjoying reading about these castles as much as I enjoyed writing them, and with any luck, learning a little bit about our history as well.

Until next time!


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