South of Madaba on the old King's Highway is Karak, which was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab.
Perched atop a steep hill, Karak 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, Karak was also home to the Nabateans, Romans (from 105 AD), and the Byzantines, before the Crusaders built a castle here. In the Byzantine period Karak was a bishopric and it remained mostly a Christian town even under Arab rule.
A city of about 20,000 people has been built up around the castle and continues to boast a number of restored 19th century Ottoman buildings, restaurants, places to stay, and the like. The town is built on a triangular plateau, with the castle at its narrow southern tip, but it is undoubtedly Karak Castle which dominates.
Construction of the Crusader, Karak’s castle began in the 1140s, under Pagan, the butler of Fulk of Jerusalem. The Crusaders called it Crac des Moabites or "Karak in Moab", as it is frequently referred to in history books.
Paganus was also Lord of Oultre jordain (Transjordan), and Karak became the centre of his power, replacing the weaker castle of Montreal to the south. Because of its position east of the Jordan River, Karak was able to control Bedouin herders as well as the trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. His successors, his nephew Maurice and Philip of Milly, added towers and protected the north and south sides with two deep rock-cut ditches (the southern ditch also serving as a cistern). The most notable Crusader architectural feature surviving is the north wall, into which are built immense arched halls on two levels. These were used for living quarters and stables, but also served as a fighting gallery overlooking the castle approach and for shelter against missiles from siege engines.
In 1176 Raynald of Chatillon gained possession of Karak after marrying Stephanie of Milly, the widow of Humphrey III of Toron (and daughter-in-law of Humphrey II). From Karak, Raynald harassed the trade caravans and even attempted an attack on Mecca itself. In 1183 Saladin besieged the castle in response to Raynald's attacks. The siege took place during the marriage of Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem, and Saladin, after some negotiations and with a chivalrous intent, agreed not to target their chamber while his siege machines attacked the rest of the castle. The siege was eventually relieved by King Baldwin IV. After the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Saladin besieged Karak again and finally captured it in 1189. In 1263, the Mamluk ruler Baybars, enlarged and built a tower on the north-west corner. In 1840, Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of its fortifications.
During the Ottoman period, it played an important role due to its strategic location on the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Greater Syria. The castle extends over the southern part of the plateau. It is a notable example of Crusader architecture, a mixture of European, Byzantine, and Arab designs. Its walls are strengthened with rectangular projecting towers, long stone vaulted galleries are lighted only by narrow slits.
In the lower court of the castle is the Karak Archeological Museum, which was newly opened in 2004 after renovation work. It introduces local history and archeology of Karak region – the land of Moab – from the prehistoric period until the Islamic era. The history of Crusaders and Muslims at Karak castle and town is introduced in detail.