In addition to all the interesting characters who attacked, defended, or lived in it in the middle ages, Byblos Castle also plays a role, if a small one, in the story of a fascinating figure from the 20th century: T. E. Lawrence, later to become famous as “Lawrence of Arabia.” In 1909, Lawrence, than an undergraduate at Oxford, embarked on a walking tour of Ottoman-controlled Syria, looking at crusader castles as part of the work that would become his thesis, The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture — to the 12th Century. Among the castles Lawrence inspected was Byblos, the keep of which is, of course, the inspiration for our model.
One of the interesting things about Lawrence’s work at Byblos castle is that the upper floor in his photographs looks quite different from the upper floor that we see today.
This photo from Lawrence’s thesis shows Byblos (also called Giblet, Jiblet or Jubayl) standing a good deal higher than it does today; you can plainly see a row of windows that are no longer extant. Another view of this construction appears in a collection called Architectural Lantern Slides of Lebanon:
In this image, you can also clearly see the difference in material between the lower and upper levels. At some point, then, the castle seems to have been being used as a residence, with appropriate remodeling. We don’t really know more about these changes: they were made some time before 1910, and they no longer exist today, but why they were made and when they were demolished remain unclear.
This raises an important issue that anyone trying to “reconstruct” a historical building has to confront: buildings aren’t static. When you’re trying to create a reconstruction of a building — or even if you’re trying to restore an actual historical building — you have to start by deciding exactly what it is that you’re trying to restore. Buildings change constantly, and there’s no “correct” version. You’re just making a choice to prioritize one of the building’s many forms over the others. Once again, we see that the idea of “accuracy” or “authenticity” is more complex than it seems to be.
That is, of course, if you’re even sure what the building looked like at any point in its history. Subsequent rebuilding can make it very difficult to identify earlier phases of a building’s history, and rebuilding is very common. After all, in the late medieval and post-medieval periods, most high medieval castles were considered draughty eyesores at worst and convenient sources of building stone at best. A medieval keep was useless to whoever made the alterations we see in Lawrence’s photograph, so rather than let the building go to waste they modified it to fit their needs.
Changes in the fabric of buildings are inevitable when you’re dealing with structures like Byblos castle that have long, varied histories — but without images like Lawrence’s, we’d know even less about them than we currently do.