Fairy-tale castles in Bolzano, Italy, and along the German Romantic Road might be what most package tourists expect, but many travelers don’t realize the Middle East can hold its own when it comes to entertaining castle fans. That’s because many of the ancient Crusader castles built during the battles for control of the Holy Land are still standing throughout the region. Many are remarkably well preserved. Add to that the fact that many of them are situated in extremely picturesque locations in a part of the world considered by many to be sacred, and it’s easy to see why they’re very popular with tourists. Here are a handful of great structures to see when touring the Middle East.
5. Akko Castle
First, a quick refresher course in middle-school history: The Crusades were a series of religious wars fought over access to Christian holy sites in and near the ancient city of Jerusalem. Most Crusader castles were built during the 12th and 13th centuries, their locations strategically chosen for their military advantage and defensibility. Case in point: The crusader castle in Akko, Israel. A strategic site during the Crusades, Akko (or Acre in English) today is a popular day-trip option for those visiting the city of Haifa. It’s very well preserved, offers self-guided audio walking tours in multiple languages and is located near a charming waterfront restaurant serving fresh seafood at sunset. The town itself is quaint enough to spend the night if you choose, but really a day trip is probably enough for most people. That being said, Akko is definitely worth your tourist time and provides a number of scrapbook-worthy photo opportunities.
4. Ajloun Castle
Located in northern Jordan near a nature preserve of the same name, Ajloun castle offers a commanding view of the surrounding area and is a great stopping-off point for those pursuing a more leisurely tour of that part of the country. Built by a nephew of Saladin himself, Ajloun is located on a strategic hilltop and features a tower, thick walls and a commanding historical presence. The castle suffered damaged in a pair of earthquakes, most recently in 1927, but is being restored.
3. Byblos Castle
No vacation to Lebanon is complete without a day trip out of Beirut to witness the seaside ruins of Byblos Castle. Serene Mediterranean views, an outdoor amphitheater and even a few souvenir shops tucked inside the ancient walls make this a great place to pause with a picnic and a book after a guided tour. Other doable day trips from the area include the ruins of Baalbeck and Anjar, as well as the caves at Jeita.
2. Bodrum Castle
Visitors touring the Turkish coast will want to make a point of stopping to see Bodrum Castle. Located in the city of the same name, this seaside castle was built in 1402 and remains an impressive structure popular with travelers. It houses an impressive museum of underwater archaeology, with items excavated from ships that went down in the Aegean Sea as many as 3,000 years ago.
1. Kerak Castle
This impressive and well-preserved castle in southern Jordan makes a great tourist stop on the way to Petra. Also an easy day trip from Madaba, this castle will take you some time to explore and reflect upon. Featuring a small internal museum as well as upper and lower courts, Kerak is an impressive archaeological jewel in Jordan’s already well-adorned tourist crown. Kerak’s history is quite fascinating as well, and worth a read before your visit.
One More: Krak des Chevaliers
Many crusader castles did not make this list, yet are still worthy of your time when you are traveling in the region. Any list of Middle East crusader castles would be incomplete without a tip of the hat to Syria’s famous Krak des Chevaliers. The largest crusader castle in the world, this massive hilltop structure is located near the Lebanese border, approximately 25 miles west of the Syrian city of Homs. Notable for its turbulent history and concentric architecture, it is arguably the most impressive structure of its kind. Sadly, at this time, political tensions make traveling to the area dicey. Hopefully, this situation will resolve itself in the near future.