Coucy, Saphet and Marqab were the greatest round towers of the middle ages of which only Marqab survives.
Coucy (France) – the most formidable of them all – has been described in a
on our website so an account of the others is opportune.
Saphet stands near the Golan Heights in modern day Israel. Destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century the remains provide no clue to what once was known as 'The Glory of the Templars'.
In 1266 the castle was besieged by the Mamluks who tricked the Templars into surrendering, never to return. Our knowledge of the castle is based upon medieval accounts:
'Among the excellent features which the castle of Saphet has, it is notable that it can be defended by a few and that many can gather under the protection of its walls and it cannot be besieged except by a very great multitude, but such a multitude would not have supplies for long since it would find neither water nor food, nor can a very great multitude be near at the same time and, if they are scattered in remote places they cannot help one another'.
We are on firmer ground with Marqab which was a major stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller and second only in size to Krak des Chevaliers. It is sited in modern day Syria about two kilometres from the Mediterranean coast. It is situated on a spur and so arranged that the outer and inner walls are mutually supportive in what has become known as the 'concentric plan'.
Marqab was one of the few castles left in Crusader hands after Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem as he regarded it as too strong to take. Over the years it fought off several attempts until its nemesis in 1285 when the Hospitallers supported a Mongol invasion of Syria. This proved unwise as the Mongols (to everyone's surprise) were defeated and the Sultan, smarting from their unwelcome intervention, turned on Marqab.
His first attempts failed. He then brought up trebuchets which were promptly destroyed by the Hospitallers. He then brought down the outer wall by mining but when the Muslims rushed the breach they were decisively thrown back. The Sultan resumed sapping and within eight days the great round tower had been undermined. Hoping to preserve such a wonder, he invited the Hospitallers to send a deputation underground to inspect the mine. The Knights quickly took in the situation and capitulated on condition of safe passage to Acre with 'everything they could carry' (including their gold). The terms were accepted.
Marqab continued in occupation and became the residence of the military governor. In 1884 it was abandoned and only in recent years has some attention been paid to it.
The current civil war has seen Krak des Chevaliers suffer from aerial bombardment but, to date, Marqab has escaped.
Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle. With thanks to Scottish Castles Association member John Pringle for supplying the photographs.