Homs (Syria) (AFP)
Gripping a small saw, Syrian volunteer Rana Jreij cut down bushes growing on the centuries-old walls of one of the world’s most famous crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers.
She was among dozens cleaning up the grass, shrubs and dead trees from the UNESCO-listed fortress this week, to protect it from the forest fires that have ravaged the area.
“This castle is our home. These are our memories, and I’m afraid for that, ”said the 32-year-old woman, wearing a white t-shirt with her hair tied back.
Heritage manager Naeema Muhartam said she was delighted to see the castle come back to life after years of bitter civil war that has driven almost all tourists away.
“The castle is recovering,” she said.
The fortress was built by a medieval Catholic military order, the Knights of St. John, who held it from 1142 to 1271, when it was captured by a Mamluk sultan.
Sitting atop a high ridge in what is now modern Syria’s Homs province, it once could accommodate a garrison of 2,000 men.
Several centuries later, after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, the fortress again became a battleground, this time between government forces and rebels.
“The castle closed in 2012, then reopened in 2014 but it was not ready to receive visitors,” Muhartam said.
The most notable was the damage to the castle’s Gothic reception hall and its chapel.
– Forced into locking –
Muhartam was ecstatic when the fortress finally greeted tourists from across the moat bridge into its fortified interior in late 2018.
“Up to 23,000 visitors came in 2019, but the corona pandemic forced it into isolation and only 5,000 people came this year,” she said.
“I am happy to see life return to the castle with hundreds of volunteers, but my dream is to see cultural and tourist events return.
“I hope to one day see concerts within its walls as there were before the war. ”
In early 2018, the Syrian government participated in a tourism fair in Madrid, seeking to bring foreign visitors back to the war-torn country.
But most countries advise citizens not to travel to Syria, and foreign tourists are rare.
At the entrance to the great reception hall of the castle, engineer Hazem Hanna waved at some of the decorative stones damaged in the battles of 2012-2014.
“As long as the primary materials are available, we can fix them,” he said.
Hungarian archaeologists came to help with the restoration.
“The Hungarian excavation team came at the end of 2016 and helped us restore the church steeple and part of the interior of the castle,” he said.
– ‘Fear for our castle’ –
The United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) added Krak des Chevaliers to its World Heritage List in 2006, alongside old Damascus and the ancient city of Palmyra.
Two years after the start of the civil war, it was inscribed on the list of World Heritage in Danger.
Now that the cannons have died down, another kind of danger lurks in its fortified walls.
Earlier this month, President Bashar al-Assad declared a national disaster after inspecting farmland devastated by forest fires that ravaged Syria’s Mediterranean coastal belt.
The fires have destroyed more than 9,000 hectares of farmland and forests in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus, as well as in Homs inland, the United Nations said.
Naji Derwish, director of social responsibility at a nearby university, says more than 400 volunteers have come to the fortress to clean up vegetation and anything that could catch fire.
“We were afraid for our castle, with all the dry glass and shrubs that had accumulated during the years of conflict,” he said.
Nine years after the start of the war, the government in Damascus regained control of over 70% of Syria.
Derwish said he hoped to see tourists once again exploring the dark underbelly of the fortress and taking photos from atop its massive walls.
“The castle misses its visitors,” he says.
© 2020 AFP