What are the best Crusader Castles You Can Still Visit Today?
When it comes to travel inspiration, there’s little doubt that Crusader fortresses provide endless possibilities - with famous locations such as Bodrum Castle, the Grandmasters Palace in Rhodes and Acre in Israel being among the most popular to visit. 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.
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.
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 which dominated the route from Antioch to Beirut. The main enclosure was surrounded by a man-made moat which was carved out of solid rock in a dramatic example of Crusade-era engineering.
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.
Krak des Chevaliers was designated a World Heritage site in 2006.
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 Grandmasters Palace served as a fortress, but was devastated in 1856 by an ammunitions explosion. It was the Italians who restored the Grandmaster Palace in 1912.
Today, this medieval castle operates as a museum of works mostly from the early Christian period up to the Ottoman conquest. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Medieval City of Rhodes. This site also features as one of our Top 10 tourist attractions in Greece.
Acre or “Akko” is an ancient city in Israel which has been almost continuously inhabited since at least 3000 BC, during the Early Bronze Age. Today, the Old City of Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a myriad of ruins representing the many civilisations that ruled the area over the centuries.
Allocated to the tribe of Asher under the Israelites, Acre would come under the rule of the Assyrians (9th century BC) and the Phoenicians (6th-4th centuries BC) before being conquered by Alexander the Great. It would later be ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemid Dynasty, Syria’s Seleucids and form part of the Hasmonean Kingdom, then being taken by the Romans in 63 BC. From 638 AD, Acre became an Arab city, part of the Caliphate of Cairo.
All of these cultures and civilisations left their mark on the Old City of Acre. The ruins of various fortifications and structures can still be seen there today. However, the overwhelming character of Acre is defined by two later periods, denoting the city’s time under the Crusaders and the Ottomans.
The Crusaders took Acre in 1104 and proceeded to build an impressive set of fortifications, much of which remain. This was a time of great development and prosperity, with the erection of many public buildings such as bathhouses, markets, shops and churches. However, from 1187, Acre fell to the Muslims and proceeded to change hands many more times including falling to the Crusaders yet again under Richard the Lion Heart in 1191.
From 1517, Acre – then in a poor state due to damage from several conflicts - came under Ottoman rule, although it was not until the eighteenth century that reconstruction began taking place. The Ottoman redevelopment of Acre was sympathetic to the Crusader buildings, with their remaining structures being used as a basis for new construction. At this time, Acre experienced yet another period of prosperity, with many new public buildings, including mosques and homes.
Acre is also famous for being the site of a failed siege by Napoleon in 1799 and being the location of a prison for political dissidents under the British Mandate.
Visitors to Acre 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.
Acre features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions of Israel.
4. 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.
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.
The construction of Kerak began in 1142 and it took approximately twenty years to complete. There was already a fortified town of some considerable importance on the site, which served as an administrative centre during the Roman and Byzantine eras, as well as the early Islamic period. The castle soon became the most important centre of control in the Transjordan region.
One of the most notorious figures of the period, Reynald of Chatillon, ruled Kerak from the early 1170s. Reynald was infamous among contemporaries for acts of barbarism, which included breaking treaties, and looting the caravans of worshippers bound for Mecca. One of the favourite pastimes of Reynald was said to have been throwing prisoners from the castle walls onto the rocks below.
In 1177, after one particularly notorious attack made on such a caravan during peacetime, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, launched an attack on the crusader kingdom, which resulted in the defeat of Reynald's forces at the Battle of Hattin. Saladin, noted for his restraint shown towards his enemies during his lifetime, spared elements of the Crusader army but personally executed Reynald himself.
After the battle, Kerak Castle also fell to Saladin after a long siege, and it would remain in Muslim hands from this point on. During the period of Muslim rule, the castle would undergo further significant alteration and restoration as well as often being involved in the mainly-internal conflicts of the following centuries. Indeed, the castle held the dubious honour of being the first target of modern gunpowder artillery to be used in the Middle East.
Today, a visit to Kerak Castle affords the unique opportunity to thoroughly explore a well preserved Crusader fortification. There are seven different levels within the castle and visitors can wander through vaulted passageways and dungeons. Bringing a torch can help with navigating some of the smaller and darker passageways. The castle kitchens contain an olive press and ovens, and there is also a partially ruined chapel to be seen.
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.
Contributed by Chris Reid
Bodrum Castle (Bodrum Kalesi), also known as The Castle of St. Peter, in Bodrum, Turkey 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. Bodrum Castle incorporates many pieces from the nearby Mausoleum of Mausolus, including sculptures and building materials, the latter of which were used to strengthen Bodrum Castle from invasion by Sultan Suleiman in 1522.
Today, Bodrum Castle is open to the public and houses the world renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology founded in 1962. This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Turkey.
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, also known as Saladin Castle and Saone, 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.
The Citadel of Salah Ed-Din was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
Arsuf, also known as Apollonia, contains the remains of an ancient settlement on the Israeli coast that has stood for over 1,000 years. Arsuf is best known for the remains of a once-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.
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th or 5th century BC, Arsuf was occupied by the Persians, Seleucid Greeks (from where it gained the name Apollonia), Romans, Byzantines, Muslims and finally the Crusaders who captured the town in 1101AD. In 1191AD Richard the Lionheart defeated Saladin here in the Battle of Arsuf.
The area was fought over throughout the Crusader period and, from 1261AD the fortress of Arsuf was occupied by the Knights Hospitaller. However, just four years later the Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured the fortress after a 40-day siege. His forces destroyed the town and the site was abandoned.
Today, Arsuf has been excavated and is now Apollonia National Park. 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. Also on show are the remains of a Roman villa, which highlights the diverse nature of the settlement at Arsuf.
Visitors can wander through the remnants of Crusader chambers and the site contains useful information on the various areas of the ruins. The site itself takes only about an hour to view, and contains some pleasant coastal and tranquil walkways.
During the holidays, events are often held here for children and the site can make for a good family day out. Purists be warned, those core historians seeking to explore the atmosphere of the ancient ruins should check ahead to avoid these events, as the site can be overrun with children dressed as pirates!
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.
Under British Rule in the nineteenth century, the Grandmasters Palace became the home of the British governors and, since Malta’s independence in 1964, it has served as the seat of the country’s House of Representatives.
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.
Meanwhile, the Palace Armoury contains the impressive collection of armour and weaponry of the Knights Hospitaller.
The Grandmasters Palace is part of the City of Valletta UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Full list of Extraordinary Crusader Castles
It’s obviously tempting to focus solely on the top ten Crusader fortresses. But we suggest not rushing straight to the ‘big’ sites like Bodrum or the Grandmasters Palace and instead experiencing the charms of the lesser-known locations such as Petra, Fort Saint Jean or Yehiam Castle. In fact, these lesser-known Crusader strongholds can be the most intriguing to discover and contain a number of secret gems for your bucket list.
We’re constantly expanding this list of top Crusader castles and if you do notice any omissions then please feel free to contact us with further information and our editorial team will look to expand this collection further.