inside the Crusader castle Krac des Chevaliers, an entrance wide enough for horses to ride in two-by-two

All along the road there are small stalls, often no more than a table, with some large plastic bottles. These sell fuel. Of course there are normal service stations, although I don’t see that many, but these are avoided my most motorists. The way it works – or so I have been explained – is the Syrian government buys oil from the Kurds, in Northern Syria, at market prices, and refines it into petrol and diesel. It provides some of this for the local market at highly subsidised prices, less than 1 US$ a litre. But this is expensive, so they limit the supply. Officially, you can buy 100 litres a months, but only 20 litres each time you fuel. For this you need to apply, and it takes 10-12 days to get the coupon. So nobody reaches their maximum allocation. The rest of the fuel is being sold, internationally, for a large part to Lebanon. From where it is smuggled back into Syria, and sold at ‘market’ prices, up to 50% above the official price – but readily available, and that is worth something. Sold illegally, of course, yet, quite openly. Because there are lots of middle men who earn a commission, and apparently even the government benefits, through some kind of tax on the smuggled fuel. I am not sure how the business model works exactly, but everybody benefits.

fuel station along the road

and another, slightly bigger one

the funnel produced for our tank

and the generator mobilised to pump the diesel into the funnel

Our bus driver makes full use of it. At one stage during our drive north a guy on a motorbike leads us off the motorway, to a small shed – but much bigger than the small stalls along the road. A generator is mobilised which pumps diesel into a funnel contraption, and into our tank. And we are not the only ones, all around are people filling up jerrycans. Most don’t care about me taking pictures, but some don’t like it, or say ‘no faces’ – a clear indication that it is illegal, after all.

and we are not the only ones…

The local fuel situation is also illustrated when we pass a refinery. Literally hundreds of trucks are lined up outside, on the motorway, and on the access to the motorway, waiting to be supplied, I thought – but no, they are actually waiting to be offloaded, they bring the crude oil by tanker from the production facilities in Kurdish Syria. This cannot be very efficient. But there is no pipeline, which, in any case would not have a long life in this violently divided country.

tanker trucks lined up by the refinery to deliver crude oil

and these are water tanks, empty I presume

kids along the road are having fun with the tourist bus, or would it be with their sling shot?

there it is, the largest Crusader castle in Syria, Krac des Chevaliers

With the bus fuelled up, we make our ascend to the Krak des Chevaliers, an impressive Crusader castle first constructed in the 12th C AD. And still in perfect condition: this is a castle as you expect a castle to be! Built on a hill top, it is in fact a castle within a castle, an outer wall needs to be breached first, before one reaches a moat surrounding the inner castle. No wonder the place has never been taken by force, only by trickery. In 1271, during the siege by the Mameluke sultan Baybars, a letter arrived to the castle from the Crusader commander in Tripoli advising the knights inside to surrender, which they did, only to find out that the latter was a forgery. Although our Syrian guide maintains that the castle was taken by force, and that Baybars had found a weakness in the defences.

in the form of lions, which is unlikely to be a later Muslim addition

some of the walls have curious decorations

the inner castle, protected by a moat, and an outer wall, from which the picture is taken

the elegant gallery in front of the Hall of the Knights

I love these passages, I could wander around here for hours

a series of small windows, in one of the towers

a lost ladder, who knows is this a remnant of one of those early sieges

view from one of the higher parts, onto…

the upper part of the castle

Whatever, Krak des Chevaliers today is a delightful place to explore, wander around the buildings – including the elegant Hall of the Knights with its vaulted and colonnaded gallery – and climb the towers. Which provide fabulous views over the surrounding countryside, of course, as well as over the neighbouring village which is encroaching onto the castle. There are huge stables, and a gradually rising covered passage into the inner part, wide enough to allow horses to ride next to each other. The victorious Mamelukes added a hammam to the castle, and Baybars’ pillar, whilst some of the defence towers are also later additions. I can spend hours here, discovering hidden corners, subtle decorations, or just the sheer size of it all.

the village encroaches onto the castle – and remember those red water tanks from earlier?

In nearby Al Mishtaya is another monastery, the 6th C Saint George’s. It contains no less than three Greek Orthodox churches, the newest from 1857, but with a 300 year old, beautifully carved iconostasis. Below this is an earlier church, from the 12th or 13th C, with an even more spectacular iconostasis, an exquisitely carved wooden frame, and a series of icons, whilst the bottom part is decorated with blue and white majolica tiles that one would more associate with mosques and madrasas then with a church.  Further steps down lead to the remnants of a tiny little 6th C church, which is only interesting because of its age.

iconostasis in the old church of the Saint George monastery

and the central icon itself

fabulous wooden carving of iconostasis and door

and a detail of the carvings

Saint George himself, battling the dragon

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