Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم) is an impressive fortress located on the west bank of the Euphrates River east of Aleppo (حلب). The castle is known from Arabic texts to date back to at least the 7th century, possibly constructed over earlier Roman-era fortifications. Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zenki (نور الدين محمود زنكي), who ruled from 1146 through 1174, was responsible for reconstructing the earlier fortress at the site. After that time it was further developed and modified by subsequent rulers during the Ayyubid period.
The present design largely reflects the concepts of local military architecture realized from 1208 to 1215 by the Ayyubid governor of Aleppo (حلب), al-Zahar Ghazi Bin Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi (الظاهر غازي بن صلاح الدين الايوبي). Third son of Salah al-Din Yousef Bin Ayoub (صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب), al-Zahar Ghazi (الظاهر غازي) is also known for his great achievements in reconstructing the fortifications of the Aleppo Citadel (قلعة حلب). The existing remains date largely to the 12th and 13th centuries, before the Mongol invasions of the late 13th and 14th centuries resulted in the destruction of the castle. While the damage was extensive after centuries of neglect, recent restoration efforts have aided in returning the castle to its previous state. Today, Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم) provides one of the best examples of local fortification techniques.
The fortress was constructed in traditional local style, taking full advantage of an existing highpoint in the terrain. The rocky escarpment was in itself a natural defense, towering steeply above the river plain. The castle is surrounded by a ditch, inside of which is a smooth, steep glacis leading up to the walls of the castle itself. The walls are fairly well-preserved, reinforced by square and round towers at regular intervals. The single entrance, on the river side, is accessed by a ramp and bridge. Above the entrance, an Arabic inscription pays tribute to the building efforts of al-Zahar Ghazi Bin Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi (الظاهر غازي بن صلاح الدين الايوبي). The entrance is defended by two towers and includes several ninety-degree bends to thwart attackers. A great vaulted central passage leads up from the gateway, with chambers on both sides. Above this are two additional floors of vast pillared and vaulted rooms, with staircases leading up to the battlements and wide open terraces above. Underground passageways, some reputedly giving secret access to the river, are hidden throughout the castle. Remains also include a small palace with a central courtyard, a hammam, and a mosque. The mosque features an exterior double arcade looking out over the Euphrates River. The views up and down the river are spectacular.
The surrounding region has a long history, though the town that was once at the foot of the castle has disappeared. The site has been suggested as a possible location for the Roman settlement of Caeciliana, which is presumed to have been in the area. An important Euphrates port and crossing point, it served as a bridgehead for the nearby city of Manbij (منبج), and the assembly point for Roman forces preparing for campaigns against the Parthian/Sasanian threat in the region of Mesopotamia. The town of Manbij (منبج) itself has a long history dating from pre-Roman times. However, very little of this history remains to be seen today. The town does have several shops and some very basic eateries.
Getting There: Getting to Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم) is somewhat of a challenge and is fairly time-consuming. It is best to plan for a full day trip if using public transportation. The easiest way to reach Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم) from Aleppo (حلب) is to start with a microbus to the town of Manbij (منبج). These microbuses depart from the eastern bus station and the trip takes about an hour. From Manbij (منبج) there are irregular microbuses that travel to villages around Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم).
An alternative way of reaching Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم) is to take a microbus from the same eastern bus station bound for the predominantly Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab (عين العرب). This microbus passes by the turn-off for Qalaat Najm (قلعة نجم), about fifteen kilometers from the castle (make sure the driver understands clearly where you want to go). From the turn-off you can wait for a microbus coming from Manbij (منبج) or hitchhike the remaining distance.
The microbus from Manbij (منبج) might take you all the way to the castle, but it will probably stop in the village immediately before, leaving you with a fifteen minute walk. Microbus drivers will rarely drive as far as the castle looking for return passengers, either, so you might have to walk a couple kilometers back to find a microbus returning to Manbij (منبج). Note that the castle is occasionally sign-posted as “Star Citadel”, the direct translation from Arabic.
Coordinates: 36°33’18.00″N / 38°15’42.00″E
Transliteration Variants: Qalaat Najim, Qalaat Najem, Qalaat Najeem
Rating: (6 / 10)