The magnificent Crusader fortress of Kerak - Crak des Moabites, or Le Pierre du Desert to Crusaders - soars above its valleys and hills like a great ship riding waves of rock. But Kerak's origins go back long before the Crusaders; the earliest remains are Iron Age, shortly after the Exodus, when this was a part of Moab. It was known as Kir-haraseth, Kir-heres, or Kir, and its doom was prophesied by Isaiah (16:7), who mentions its 'raisin-cakes', presumably a local specialty. Then it falls out of history until the Byzantine period, when it was important enough to have an archbishop.
It was the Crusaders who made Kerak (biblical Charach Mouba) famous. The fortress, located 124 km south of Amman, was built in 1142 by Payen le Bouteiller, lord of Montreal and of the province of Oultre Jourdain, on the remains of earlier citadels, which date back to Nabataean times. He made Kerak the new capital of the province, for it was superbly situated on the King's Highway, where it could control all traffic from north and south and grow rich by the imposition of road-tolls.
There were -as there are today- two parts of Kerak, both contained within stout walls, but the citadel and its fortress are separated from the town by a deep dry moat. The fortress is typically Crusader, with dimly lit stone-vaulted rooms and corridors leading into each other through heavy arches and doorways. The best preserved are underground, and to be reached through a massive door (ask at the ticket office).
The castle in itself is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders' architectural military genius. Each stronghold was built to be a day's journey from its neighbor. At night, a beacon was lit at each castle to signal to Jerusalem that it was safe.
As the visitor enters the modern gate, one path leads down to the stairs to the lower courtyard and lower vaults, and a second path leads to the upper level. The ruins of the upper level are attributed to the Crusader period, and the staircases leading to the underground level of the upper courtyard provide access to Mamluk architecture complexes, most of which were probably associated with a palace. Among these ruins are a well-preserved school with an adjoining mosque.
All the inhabitants of the town could gather for protection within the citadel in times of danger - as they did in 1173 when the Zengid ruler Nureddin attacked the castle. His siege was unsuccessful, as were later attempts by Saladin in 1183 (when the marriage of the heir of Kerak was taking place inside, and Saladin chivalrously kept his siege-engines off the bridal tower), and again in 1184. It was not until the end of 1188, after a siege of more than a year, that Kerak finally surrendered to the Muslims.
Kerak's most famous occupant was Reynald de Chatillon, whose reputation for treachery, betrayal and brutality is unsurpassed. When King Baldwin II (who signed a truce with Saladin) died, his son, a 13-year-old leper, sued for peace with Saladin. The Leper King, however, died without a heir, and in stepped Reynald, who succeeded in the early 1180's in winning the hand of Stephanie, the wealthy widow of Kerak's assassinated regent.
Reynald promptly defied the truce with Saladin, who returned with a huge army, ready for war. Reynald and King Guy of Jerusalem led the Crusader forces and suffered a massive defeat. Reynald was taken prisoner and beheaded by Saladin (the only Crusader king or lord to be executed by Saladin himself), marking the beginning of the decline in Crusader fortunes.
In 1263 the Mamluk Sultan Baybars took Kerak. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited it in 1355, was much impressed by the castle's strength, and said that it was also called "The Castle of the Raven". Under Ottomans it was ruled by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha son of Mohammad Ali of Egypt took it, greatly damaging its defenses. After World War I, Kerak was a British administrative center until Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921. It remains the center of a large district.
Kerak is still a largely Christian town, and many of today's Christian families trace their origins back to the Byzantines. There is a small but interesting museum in the castle, which is one of the finest of its type surviving today.