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January, 2001

I travel from Hama to Krak des Chevaliers with an American working in Lebanon and Abu Farouz who drives us in a yellow Mercedes. This castle is supposed to be the epitome of castles and was Lawrence of Arania’s favourite. We pass through increasingly hilly country. Rich red-soil fields line the road, wrested from rocky terrain, out of which grows the assassin castle, Musayef, and the town that surrounds it. Out of a high patch of black-specked white rock spouts a multitude of TV aerials. So many castles are overlaid on Musayef I only have a faint memory of it.

After Musayef, the hillsides are terraced and we see the cross rather than the crescent. Olive and apple trees dot the hillside. On a narrow windy road through town we nearly bang into an old woman leading a cow out of the house. We approach Krak des Chevaliers, houses crawling up the hill towards it. Abu Farouz parks the Mercedes at the foot of a towering turret, and I have two hours to stretch the imagination into the past: soaring ceilings; arches leading into stables, men’s quarters, kitchens. Round turrets and square turrets. Arrow slits. Ramparts that the brave-with-heights can still walk along. Stone stairs worn away by centuries of feet, sometimes grown over with moss or grass. Spectacular views, down terracing into a valley, and then more valleys. I sit on a top step and eat a quarter of a grapefruit. Sitting again in the Knight’s Hall, I draw the attention of a would-be guide who wants to show me things: snow-covered mountains through arrow slits; hollows in the ground connected somehow to the storage of oil; a huge oven; dark corridors where guards used to pace. The prayer hall is very beautiful – arched ceilings, decorated doorways, a stone pulpit. I wonder how on earth the Crusaders and their cohorts kept warm in such grandeur.

While the driver and my fellow-passenger eat, I perch on a low wall at the base of the castle and watch little girls play elastics. They tell me their names and the Arabic words for thongs, boots and sneakers. A man about my age with one leg joins me companionably and shows me the pictures on coins. (It only occurs to me now there might have been a sub-text!)

Other images from the day? A donkey under a tottering burden of sticks. A woman emerging from the trees carrying a  load of firewood.  A boy pushing a tractor around a corner in the middle of a hillside town. A truckload of carrots heading into Hama. A Christian cemetery. Bandy-legged old women with walking sticks. A motorbike with a cargo of seven rolled up carpets. These are all morning images. The journey back to Hama is along a nondescript highway.

You’ll have to be satisfied by words this week: for some incomprehensible reason I don’t have any photos except the blurry one I’ve used. photos, There are spectacular images in some of the links below.

 Report on damage in 2014 here: 2015 here: 2016 here