27 km east of Hama, Salamiyya region, Syria
Refortified and enlarged to current dimensions in Hegira 628 / AD 1230
Mostly Atabeg and Ayyubid with some Mamluk restoration
Al-Malik al-Mujahid Shirkuh bin Muhammad, known as Shirkuh II, the Ayyubid Governor of Homs between AH 581–636 / AD 1185–1239; al-Malik al-Ashraf Musa AH 644 / AD 1246; al-Malik al-Salih Ayyub , Governor of Homs in AH 659 / AD1261; Sultan al-Zahir Baybars AH 659–76 / AD 1261–77; Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun AH 678–89 / AD 1279–90; Fakhr al-Din bin ‘Uthman al-Ma’ani I (AH 920–51 / AD 1516–44) chief of local Druze Dynasty under the Ottoman Empire.
The castle, located 27 km east of the city of Hama, is built on the conic site of an extinct volcano, known as al-Ola Heights, which rises amidst the wide plains that surround the town of Salamiyya. This strategic site has been used as a fort since ancient times. Its name, properly pronounced "Shumaymis", means "Little Sun" probably pertaining to the Roman Sun God, Apollo, or his indigenous Arab counterpart, Haddad. Geographically, the area has long been important for the fertility of the soil and the abundance of water, in addition to being a stop along various trade routes.
Arab historical sources of the medieval period mention the destruction of an ancient fortress near Salamiyya following the earthquake of AH 552 / AD 1157. It was reconstructed by Nur al-Din Mahmud bin al-Zangi. During the Ayyubid period, Shmemis, along with the region of Salamiyya, came under the rule of al-Malik al-Mujahid Shirkuh II bin Muhammad, ruler of Homs. He completely refortified and expanded the castle in AH 628 / AD 1230 as part of his campaign against the rivalling Ayyubid ruler of Hama. Shirkuh II extended the same refortification campaign to two other castles in this Steppes region, namely those of Palmyra and al-Rahba, resulting in three castles of similar oval shape and dimensions.
Shmemis remained in Ayyubid hands until it was destroyed by the Mongols in AH 658 / AD 1260. It was restored by the Mamluk Sultan, Baybars the subsequent year, thus remaining under Mamluk possession up until the Ottoman period. During the early AH 10th / AD 16th century, a powerful Druze dynasty headed by Fakhr al-Din al-Ma'ani I gradually acquired lands expanding across Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, coming to possess Shmemis Castle. As al-Ma'ani's sovereignty increased, the sultan grew wary and had al-Ma'ani assassinated in AH 951 / AD 1544, the castle subsequently fell into ruin.
The only surviving architectural features of the castle are its exterior defences: the entry gate, protective walls, salient towers, and a deep-dug surrounding ditch. The periphery of the castle follows the shape of the volcano's flattened top surface, an oval approximately 81 m wide. The exterior wall is punctuated by 11 square towers, ranging in size between 6.0 m and 6.5 m and 7.5–8.8 m, built at nearly equal intervals of 5.0 m to 6.3 m. The least ravaged remains are found at the entry gate in the northeastern part of the outer wall, which is guarded by a pair of flanking, shallowly protruding, square towers. The gate leads to a small lower courtyard of nearly square dimensions which contains evidence of an 80 m-deep well connected to a canal.
The interior of the castle is a shambles: traces of a central fortress, a 33 m x 35 m rectangular building with a gate on its eastern side, survive along with a surrounding portico that allowed defenders the advantage of climbing to the second level of the towers.
A little-published monument, Shmemis Castle still requires much investigation. Its scenic hill-top location has earned it the title of “Sword of the Steppes”, a highly expressive label of military strength and elegance.
This Ayyubid citadel is scenically located on top of a volcanic hill with a panoramic view of the fertile plains that surround the town of Salamiyya. It came under the jurisdiction of the Ayyubid ruler of Homs, Al-Malik al-Mujahid Shirkuh II, who undertook its refortification in AH 628 / AD 1230. It was admiringly known as the 'Sword of the Steppes' in its heyday. A little-published archaeological site, although all that survives are part of the exterior walls and towers it requires further study.
The monument has been dated by archaeological evidence and through historical sources.
Berchem van, M., and Edmond F., “Voyage en Syrie”, Vol. I, Mémoires de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale du Caire, Cairo, 1914–1915, pp.171–3.
Waal Hafian "Qal'a Shmemis" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;26;en
Prepared by: Waal Hafian
Copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: SY 32
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Atabegs and Ayyubids | Travelling and Trading
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