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The spirit of the Crusades survives in a 12th century castle in Syria, in the most extraordinary of all Crusader strongholds in the Middle East. 

About two hours from Damascus, one can see silhouetted against the blue sky at the pinacle of a stone mountain the citadel and massive walls of the mightiest and best preserved castle Crac des Chevaliers. Known in Arabic as Qala'at al-Husn, it stands 650 meters above sea level and was built to dominate the pass that is Syria's gateway to the Mediterranean.

Captured from the Arabs, who initially built it in the late 11th century, the castle was extended and strengthened by the Hospitallers -- a fighting monastic order. They controlled it for 127 years as a monastery, a marshaling center for men and horses and storehouse for food, water and other provisions. Enough supplies were stored to last a 3,000 man army for up to five years. It was recaptured in the late 12th century by al-Malik al-Zahir Rukn-al-Din Baybars, the Mameluk Sultan who was the real founder of Mameluk power.

Today, the barbicans, casements and bastions tower over the rich fig and olive orchards of the valley below. After walking through the entrance, the visitor can see the small town, housed inside the citadel, with a church and chapel, aqueducts, cisterns, courtyards, stables, living quarters and large halls. Historians state that its completeness, setting, size and sheer magnificence make it the finest example of military fortification in the world.

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