Friday, March 29, 2013

Fortress of Baghras (Gaston or Gastein)


The Fortress of Baghras (Gaston or Gastein)
Original text by Maxime GOEPP and Benjamin SAINTAMON
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Translation : Andrew Zolnai

When one ponders a castle one can’t help but wonder how it could be taken.  Yet, medieval commanders often racked up a long list of sieges during invasions.  The question comes up again in pondering about Baghras Castle.  Bagras or Baghras is the name of the  town near the castle in the Iskenderun District.  This fortification is located in Turkey, province of Hatay, around 60 km north of Hatay (Antioch) and is known locally as Bakras Kalesi.  The journey to the castle involves a steep climb up a rough and precipitous track.  At the top the view of a massive, grim, and somewhat ruined structure still above.  To call it brooding would do injustice to its obvious intent to threaten and intimidate.
The castle was originally built by the Arab conquers in the seventh century, but this was constructed on a base of even more ancient fortifications.  This site was always important because it controls the route from Antioch up the coast.  The castle guards the southern approach of the Belen pass, in the Amanus Mountains, and this fortress was, at the time of the Crusades, of primordial importance for the defense of the Principality of Antioch.  The northern approach to this pass was guarded by the Trapesac Castle about ten miles to the North.  Known then as Gaston (Gastun, Guascon, Gastimor, or Gastein) - from the greco-Roman name Castron; today it is known as Baghras.  The fortress provided a base  for a force to cover the Syrian Gates (the passes between Iskenderun and Antioch -- Belen Pass).  It was built in two levels around a knoll, the fortification resembling Armenian work and with water supplied by aqueducts.  The small village of Otencay lies close by the bottom of the hill on which the castle stands.  The fortress was first erected  by Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who stationed there 1,000 footmen, and 500 horsemen under the command of Michael Bourtzes to raid the countryside  of the nearby city of Antioch.  Thus the Byzantines besieged the Arabs and then later it passed under Frankish control in the years around  1150.  The Principality of Antioch, which was one of the Crusader states created during the First Crusade.  The Principality transferred the castle to the Templars as they are first mentioned  as the owners of the castle in about 1153.  In 1154 Brothers of the Temple held garrison there, as various chronicles report how a contingent of Templars  from Gaston, surorised and destroyed  the body of the army launched by the Sultan Masud in the gorge of LaPortelle.  THe Templars held the castle until 1171, when Baghras Castle and Trapesac Castle were both taken by a renegade Armenian Baron Mieh, renegade of the Order and passed to the pay of Nur Al-din.  At his death in 1175, the Templars reoccupied their citadel and then they rebuilt the castle and it became part of their defensive perimeter around Jerusalam.  Thirteen years later, on August 26th 1189, the Sultan Saladin seized the fortress, and then in 1190 dismantled it at the alarming announcement of the imminent arrival of the armies of  The Holy Roman Emperor Frederic Barberousse.  It was the knight Foulques de Bouillon who recovered the citadel on account of his cousin, the Prince Leon II of Armenia (proclaimed king of Armenia in 1198). The latter settled there in 1191 and under the auspices of Leo II Prince of Armenia Cilicia took possession of the damaged castle  and performed important restorations.  The possession of this fortress by the Armenians became a major point of contention between them, the Antiochenes, and the Templars. In spite of ceaseless claims of the Templars and repeated interventions of the Pope, the Armenian sovereign agreed to return Gaston to his rightful owners only in 1216, after much negotiation.  in 1268, Antioch had fallen to Ba├»bars , the Mameluk Sultan of Egypt.  According to Armenian chronicles the castle withstood  a siege by the forces of Aleppo at about this time.  The small Templar garrison at Baghras Castle then lost heart and destroyed the castle before abandoning it.  Baibars took possession of the castle and had it rebuilt.
In the late seventeenth century, Baghras Castle was abandoned.  There are large remains of an aqueduct which supplied  the castle with water from the mountains  Looking upon it now one wonders how this placed changed hands so many times.  The entrance before it was destroyed by an earthquake, was a ramp that ran along the edge of a cliff defended by a thousand feet of oblivion.  Any other approach involved scaling walls built on top of a giant rock formation already a hundred feet high.
The citadel stands upon this rocky peak with sheer faces, especially to the West, so that defenses were rather established on the other faces.  The view offered the kind of perspective on the world that only eagles experience.  I could easily see into Syria fifty miles away.  In exploring the ruined interior structures was found, on the East side, through which it was accessed, are two enclosures dominated by an imposing rectangular keep, all built as small compound.  Finally we come upon the most intact building in the castle, the court, the grand hall, and the remains of the fortress chapel still well preserved.  It still boasted of a vaulted roof, several Gothic features, and windows that once had held stained glass.   Between the chapel and the grand hall, one will notice the underground rooms supported by enormous pillars. These rooms added to the numerous main buildings throughout the site, leads one to conclude that the place could maintain an important garrison.  Note also to the southwest of the site the presence of a partly preserved aqueduct, which connected the fortress to the mountain where several springs emerged. At the foot of the fortress, lies a small but famous spring known as the Fountain of Gastien.  
Here the Templars practiced the traditional part of their strange monastic lives.  In gazing out of the broken windows down into the desolate chasm below, it is understandable how a garrison could give over this place to an attacker.  Isolated, without knowledge of what was happening in the outside world, hungary and depressed by the lofty bleakness of the place, a surrender on terms must have been appealing.
The above is a combination of several descriptions of the Baghras Castle.  I shall be pleased to put this description on my Blog set together with the plan of the castle and several drawings that I will be making.  I will notify all who may have an interest in this new project.
Respectfully Submitted;
Marcus Audens

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