Variously known throughout history as Qir Heres, Qir Moab, and Hareseth, Karak has been a prized possession of a number of civilizations. It lies on the ancient caravan routes that used to connect Egypt to Syria, and its commanding position almost 1000 meters above the Dead Sea Valley made it a strategic asset of great importance. The city was the ancient capital of Moab, and was also used by the Greeks and Romans. During Roman times it was known as Characmoba.
But it was not until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 12th century that Karak reached its full splendor. It is recorded that the Crusader King Baldwin I of Jerusalem had the castle built in 1132 CE. With its location midway between Shobak and Jerusalem, Karak formed part of a great line of Crusader castles stretching from Aqaba to Turkey. Karak became the capital of the Crusader district of Oultrejourdain, and, with the taxes levied on passing caravans and food grown in the district, it helped Jerusalem prosper.
Even with its impressive defensive fortifications, Karak could not hold out against the forces of Salah Eddin. After the governor of Karak, the infamous Reynaud De Chatillon, broke several truces with Salah Eddin, the Muslim leader responded with a massive bombardment of Karak. De Chatillon, who was captured and executed by Salah Eddin in 1187 CE, was known for throwing his captives off the top of Karak’s battlements with wooden boxes over their heads to ensure that they remained conscious until they hit the ground. Salah Eddin’s armies besieged and conquered the fortress in 1188, marking the beginning of the Crusaders’ loss of power throughout the area.
The Mamluk Sultan Baibars refortified the castle in the late 13th century, and it was also later used by the Ottomans. The fort itself has been partially restored, and is a maze of vaulted passages and rooms. To the west across the moat is the tower from which De Chatillon cast his prisoners to their deaths. The tower in the northwest corner was added by the Mamluks in the 13th century. The multi-storied building at the southern end was the dungeon. To the right of the castle entrance, a stone staircase descends to the museum, which holds one of the many copies of the Mesha Stele, along with Mamluk pottery, and Nabatean and Roman coins.
The town of Karak lies 129 kilometers south of Amman, or 88 kilometers south of Madaba. Within Karak, numerous small hotels are available. Karak can be reached via the Desert Highway by turning right at Qatrana. However, the King’s Highway is the recommended route, as it will take you over one of Jordan’s most spectacular sights, Wadi Mujib. About 50 kilometers north of Karak, this canyon is over 1000 meters deep. Wadi Mujib was the "Arnon Gorge" or "Arnon River" of the Bible (Numbers 21: 24; Judges 11: 18), a natural boundary which separated the Moabites in the south from the Amorites in the north.
South of Madaba on the old King's Highway is Kerak, which was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab. Perched atop a steep hill, Kerak is a predominantly Christian town dominated by the largest and best preserved of the Crusader castles in the region.
Once an important city of the Biblical kingdom of Moab, Kerak was also home to the Nabateans, Romans (from 105 AD), and the Byzantines, before the Crusaders built a castle here. In the Byzantine period Kerak was a bishopric and it remained mostly a Christian town under Arab rule.
In 1126, Payen le Bouteiller (Paganus the Butler) received Kerak from King Baldwin II of Jerusalem as part of the lordship of Oultrejourdain (Transjordan). In1142, he built Kerak Castle over the existing foundations on the site.
Kerak Castle replaced Shobak as the center of the Transjordan and became the most important in a series of fortresses between Jerusalem and Aqaba. The Crusaders set up an impressive system of security: all the fortifications were a day's journey apart and each one lit a beacon at night to inform Jerusalem it was safe.
Kerak Castle resisted attacks by Saladin's troops in 1183 and 1184, but finally fell after a siege in 1189. The Mamluk ruler Baybars added a tower on the northwest corner in 1263. It was later owned by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of it in the process.
After World War I, Kerak was administered by the British until the Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921. Kerak is still a predominantly Christian town, with many of today's inhabitants tracing their roots back to the Byzantines.
Kerak Castle is a typical example of Crusader architecture, with Romanesque-style stone vaults, numerous corridors, and strong doorways. The Crusader parts of the ruins are mostly on the upper level and can be identified by their dark volcanic tufa; later Arab additions are in white limestone.
Through a massive door, steps lead down to vast, dimly-lit, vaulted rooms and corridors underground.
The upper courtyard includes the remains of a Crusader chapel and provides excellent views over the Jordanian landscape to the Dead Sea.
The west wing of the complex is home to the small Kerak Archaeological Museum, which displays artifacts excavated at the site.