With few visitors, custodian of Syria castle has lonely job

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A Crusader fortress on Syria’s Mediterranean coast that welcomed hordes of visitors before the war is now largely the preserve of one person, its custodian of the past 15 years.

Every morning, Younes Dayoub uses a large metal key to unlock the wooden gates of Al-Marqab castle, located near the coastal city of Baniyas in Tartus province.

The 49-year-old government employee spends much of his shift inside a ticket booth adorned with a picture of President Bashar al-Assad on the wall.

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He rarely issues any admission tickets.

“The gates of the castle are still open but sometimes days and weeks go by without me giving out a single ticket,” Dayoub told AFP. “This has been the case since the start of the war” in 2011.

This picture taken on July 25, 2022 shows a view of al-Marqab castle (“watchtower”, also known as Margat) – first fortified by Muslims in 1062 and later served as a stronghold for the Knights Hospitaller crusading order – near the city of Baniyas along the Mediterranean sea coast in Syria’s western Tartus province. (AFP)
This picture taken on July 25, 2022 shows a view of al-Marqab castle (“watchtower”, also known as Margat) – first fortified by Muslims in 1062 and later served as a stronghold for the Knights Hospitaller crusading order – near the city of Baniyas along the Mediterranean sea coast in Syria’s western Tartus province. (AFP)

Dayoub passes his time sipping hot tea or enjoying the sea view from the hilltop fortress which once attracted visitors from Syria and abroad.

He showed AFP pictures from before the war when tourists used to clamber over the castle’s ramparts and wander its cavernous halls.

“I feel lonely here, and I have no friends except these high, silent walls,” he said.

Al-Marqab castle is close to 1,000 years old and has survived the civil war largely unscathed, with no major damage, the antiquities department said.

First fortified by Muslims in 1062 AD, the hilltop site is considered one of the finest examples of military architecture from the period of the Crusades.

But the civil war has kept nearly all foreign visitors away while domestic tourism has been virtually brought to a halt by a spiraling economic crisis that has plunged most of the population into poverty.

Rising fuel prices have put long-distance travel within Syria beyond the means of many.

In the meantime, national treasures like Al-Marqab castle have been gathering dust.

“I promised myself that I would allow visitors to enter free of charge... once their numbers return to what they once were,” Dayoub said.

“I hope this day will come soon.”

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