Hasbaya, the capital of the Wadi Taym, is an attractive town full of history. A good deal of this history transpired at the huge citadel that is today Hasbaya’s chief claim to fame. Owned by the Chehab emirs, the citadel forms the major part of a Chehabi compound – a group of buildings surrounding an unpaved central square 150 meters long and 100 meters wide. Several medieval houses and a mosque make up the rest of the compound, which covers a total of 20,000 square meters. The citadel is situated on a hill overlooking a river which encircles it from the north.
A site steeped in mystery, the citadel is so old its origins are uncertain and so big that even today no one is sure how many rooms it contains. The known history of the structure begins with the Crusaders, but it may go back even earlier to an Arab fortification or a Roman building. Won by the Chehabs from the Crusaders in 1170, the fortress was rebuilt by its new owners. Since then it has been burned many times in battle and was often the scene of bloody conflict. Most recently, it was struck by rockets during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon (1978 – 2000).
Amazingly, for almost all of the eight centuries since it fell to the Chehabs, the citadel has been occupied by members of this same family. Today actual ownership is shared by some fifty branches of the family, some of whom live there permanently.
The building consists of three floors above ground and three subterranean floors. Constructed in stages, often damaged and rebuilt.
The tower in the southwest corner and the eastern wall-both visible from the third floor – are easily identifiable as Crusader. Other medieval elements are arrow slit windows and machicolations-small openings through which hot oil or missiles were dropped on the enemy. Despite its primary function as a fortress, the castle also possesses many graceful architectural features such as slender columns and arched windows.
Entrance and First Courtyard
Wide steps lead to the main entrance, where the original Crusader door still swings smoothly on 800 year old hinges. Four meters wide and three meters high, the passage allowed horsemen to enter the castle without dismounting.
Stone lions, a heraldic emblem of the Chehab family, decorate the wall on either side of the arched portal. Two large lions are depicted in chains, each beside a weak, unchained rabbit.
Once through the portal, you enter a huge stone-paved courtyard surrounded by castle walls 1.5 meters thick. In addition to the attractive windows, old balconies and staircases, the courtyard has four main points of interest: a limited view of the dungeons, two important arched entrances and a wing once occupied by the Pasha of Egypt.
Now closed off by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities, the three subterranean floors posses their own dark history. Crusaders buried their dead here and prisoners were kept in its dungeons. During the citadel’s heyday the lower floors were also used to store water and other suppliers, as well as to house animals.
At the far end of the courtyard is a wine arched opening set in a wall of alternating black and white stone. This was the entrance of the “diwan” or salon of Sitt Chams, wife of Bechir Chehab II, governor of Mount Lebanon between 1788 and 1840. To the left of the diwan is the wing occupied by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt during his campaign against the Ottomans in 1838. Another, higher entrance, in a wall of yellow and white stone, once gave onto a Crusader church, which was long ago destroyed.
The Second Floor
Stairs lead to the second floor and a courtyard with a small, tiled pool at its center. A splendid room just off the courtyard is interesting for its painted walls decorated with delicate carvings. Although faded with age, it is possible to make out the fleur de lys and star symbols of the French Bourbon kings who ruled during the Crusader period. Similar Bourbon remnants can be seen in the carvings around an arch in the courtyard. This floor, as well as the third, contains apartments of the families who still live on the premises.
The Third Floor
The third floor, added by the Chehabs in the 19th century, also features a courtyard and pool. Typical Mamluke and Ottoman style squinches or honeycomb decorations, are set above the entrance, and below that is a seal with an inscription praising additions made by Emir Mohammed to the citadel. One wall features elegant stonework, some of which was removed from the lower floors. Two of the Italianate marble columns are reportedly hollow, a device used to detect the sound of approaching enemy cavalry.
From this level you can enter the Crusader tower, and if you dare, climb its very narrow winding staircase. This is also a good place to view the town around the citadel, including some of the Chehabi compound. Of these, the mosque is the most important. Dating to the 12th century, its hexagonal minaret is decorated with colored stones. A modern addition stands beside the old mosque.