Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hungarians in the Crusader Castle of Margat

View of Margat castle, photo by Éva Galambos
The Crusader castle of Margat (Marqab) is the largest such building in the former Principality of Antioch (present-day Syria). After its capture from the Muslims in the early 12th century, the castle was incorporated into the Principality and later - in 1186 - it was sold to the Hospitallers. In 1188, Saladin was unable to capture it, and it remained in the hand of the Hospitallers for almost another century (until 1285).
King Andrew II of Hungary, leader of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1218) spent some time in the castle, and made a sizable donation to the Hospitallers.  It is interesting to note that the mother of Andrew II, Anne (Ágnes) of Chatillon stems from the Principality of Antioch, as she was the daughter of Raynald of Chatillon - the same Raynald executed by Saladin in 1187, a year before his army reached Margat.

The castle was built into a huge edifice by the Hospitallers, organized around a large circular keep (donjon). The main buildings of the castle - including the great hall, the chapel, the chapter house, the dormitories and the kitchen - survived largely intact to this day. Since 2006, the Syro-Hungarian Archaeological Mission, led by Balázs Major has been conducting research and excavations at the site.

The big breakthrough came in 2008, when frescoes were discovered inside the castle chapel. The frescoes are the remains of a large Last Judgment, likely painted at the end of the 12th century by western painters. So far large areas of the depiction of Hell have been cleaned on the wall to the left of the apse, and traces of Heaven have been uncovered on the opposite wall. Jaroslav Folda, in his book Crusader Art in the Holy Land from the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291 (Cambridge-New York, 2005) dates the construction of the chapel to 1186-87, so immediately after the Hospitallers took over the castle. He also describes the frescoes known before the current excavation campaign, located in the sacristy. The newly discovered frescoes are not only on a much larger surface than those known before, but their rare iconography makes them the most important discovery in the field of Crusader art. Their style is also different from those described by Folda as the work of a Byzantinizing locally trained painter (p. 33).

Thanks to the kindness of one of the restorers working on these frescoes, I am able to include a few illustrations here. These photos were all taken by Éva Galambos, and have never appeared before.

A lot has been done to publicize the important results of research so far. Balázs Major has given lectures on Margat (for example at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA), and Hungarian public television has made a one-hour documentary about the excavations (this can be seen by clicking here - even if the language is Hungarian, it is worth looking at the film). You can also read about the archaeological mission in the following English-language articles: Crusader's castle under a Hungarian flag, in Heti Válasz; interview with Balázs Major, also in Heti Válasz. Some more general photos of the castle and the excavations are available here and in the August issue of National Geographic Hungary.

Invitation - click for larger image!

On October 21, 2010, an exhibition presenting results of the Margat excavations will open at Pécs (European Capital of Culture 2010). You can read about the exhibition at these links, and with some more details in Hungarian.

(all photos in this post © Éva Galambos)


  1. Congratulations! Your post was selected to be included in the November issue of the Art History Carnival.

    I found this post to be very fascinating, and I really enjoyed looking at the images of the Western frescoes.

    You can find the November issue here:

  2. Excavating a Crusader castle, what could be more fun than that?

  3. Good site.