Northern Jordan’s verdant hills are cut through by countless lush valleys. Even in the height of summer, when the hills are baked brown and dry, you’d miss a good deal of the kingdom’s beauty if you neglected the chance for a trip into the countryside. Thick forests of pine, oak and pistachio covered these slopes until the early 1900s, when large areas were cleared to provide timber for the Hejaz Railway, both for track-building and for fuel. Enough survived, though, around the highland market town of AJLOUN – within half an hour’s drive of Jerash – to give plenty of walking and picnicking possibilities in what are some of the most southerly natural pine forests in the world. Use the town – or, better, the rural tourism projects around the Ajloun Forest Reserve nearby – as a base to get way off the beaten track for a day or three, walking silent hillside tracks and exploring the magnificent Crusader-period castle perched among the olive groves.
Ajloun itself (pronounced “adge-loon”), 25km west of Jerash via a beautiful road that lopes over the hills among stands of pine and olive trees, has been a centre of population for a thousand years or more. Marking the centre of the town, 150m along the market street from the bus station, is a mosque that probably dates from the early fourteenth century. The square base of its minaret, as well as the simple prayer hall and carved Quranic inscriptions set into the walls, are original; ask the guardian if he will show you around inside.Read More
The history of Ajloun is bound up in the story of the castle – in Arabic, the Qal’at ar-Rabadh – which towers over it from the west. The hill on which the castle sits, Jabal Auf, is a perfect location, offering bird’s-eye views over the surrounding countryside and over three major wadis leading to the Jordan Valley. It’s said to have formerly been the site of an isolated Christian monastery, home to a monk named Ajloun. By 1184, in the midst of the Crusades, the monastery had fallen into ruin, and an Arab general and close relative of Salah ad-Din, Azz ad-Din Usama, took the opportunity to build a fortress on the ruins, partly to limit expansion of the Crusader kingdoms (Belvoir castle stands just across the River Jordan to the west and the Frankish stronghold of Karak is ominously close), partly to protect the iron mines of the nearby hills and partly to show a strong hand to the squabbling clans of the local Bani Auf tribe. Legend has it that, to demonstrate his authority, Usama invited the sheikhs of the Bani Auf to a banquet in the newly completed castle, entertained and fed them, then threw them all into the dungeons. The new castle also took its place in the chain of beacons which could transmit news by pigeon post from the Euphrates frontier to Cairo headquarters in twelve hours. From surviving records, it seems that Ajloun held out successfully against the Franks.
Expanded in 1214–15 by Azz ad-Din Aybak (who also worked on Qasr Azraq), Ajloun’s castle was rebuilt by the Mamluke sultan Baybars after being ransacked by invading Mongols in 1260. Ottoman troops were garrisoned here during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but when the explorer Burckhardt came through in 1812, he found the castle occupied only by forty members of a single family. Earthquakes in 1837 and 1927 caused a great deal of damage, and consolidation work on the surviving structures is ongoing.
Visiting the castle
These days, the castle is entered from a modern parking area below the walls. A moat bridge cuts through the east wall. A long, sloping passage leads up to an older, arched entrance, decorated with carvings of birds, and just ahead stands the original entrance to Usama’s fortress. Although the warren of chambers and galleries beyond is perfect for scrambled exploration, with all the rebuilding over the centuries it’s very difficult to form a coherent picture of the castle’s architectural development; there’s even – in this Muslim-built, wholly Muslim-occupied castle – one block carved with a cross, presumably part of the monk Ajloun’s monastery. However, a climb to the top of any of the towers gives breathtaking views over the rolling landscape, and these more than make up for any historical confusion.
Off to the side of the castle road are acres of olive groves, carpeted in spring with wildflowers and perfect walking territory.
Ajloun Forest Reserve
Ajloun Forest Reserve
One of Jordan’s most beautiful hideaways is the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature’s AJLOUN FOREST RESERVE, spread over remote hillsides about 9km north of Ajloun (and roughly 85km north of Amman). This is lovely countryside, situated around 1200m above sea level – the coolness compared to Jerash is noticeable, and when it’s sweltering a short drive away in the Jordan Valley it can be balmy and fresh up here.
The reserve comprises thirteen square kilometres of rolling Mediterranean woodland – mainly evergreen oak, with some pistachio, carob and wild strawberry trees along with olive groves. The fauna covers some very European names: wild boar, foxes and badgers are all common (alongside striped hyena, Asiatic jackals and wildcats), as are birds such as tits, finches and jays. Roe deer – previously extinct in the wild – have been successfully reintroduced to the reserve by the RSCN. Staying a night or two, or just booking for a meal and a walk, is strongly recommended.
Tourism investment has been pouring into rural Ajloun in recent years, and there are now competing interests at play in and around the forest reserve. As well as the walks and visits outlined in this section, run by the RSCN’s Wild Jordan ecotourism unit, the local Al Ayoun community has developed its own trails.
Walks in the reserve
From the reserve visitor centre, several walking trails head out into the trees. Of the self-guided trails, the Roe Deer Trail (2km; 1hr; JD9) is a short circuit heading up through the forest to a nearby hilltop and back – especially beautiful in springtime when wildflowers carpet the ground. More rewarding is the Soap House Trail (7km; 3hr; JD14), which leads through the woods and up to the stunning Eagle Viewpoint at 1100m before continuing down into Rasun village to end at the Soap House.
Longer trails must be done with an RSCN guide. The Orjan Village Trail (12km; 6hr; JD22 including lunch) extends the Soap House Trail beyond Rasun to pass springs, copses and olive groves around Orjan village – find a description of it at w walkingjordan.com. The Prophet’s Trail (8.5km; 4hr; JD19 including lunch) heads off in the other direction, south past caves and across hillside meadows before climbing to Tell Mar Elyas; an extension, graded as “difficult”, continues on an all-day route to Ajloun Castle, dubbed the Ajloun Castle Trail (total 18km; 9hr; JD27 including lunch and donkey transport). Another route is the Rockrose Trail (8km; 4hr; JD14), a scenic countryside walk of moderate difficulty, crossing wooded valleys and ridges on a beautiful looping path.
For all these (bar the circular trails), return transport by minibus is included.
Soap House, Calligraphy House and Biscuit House
As part of their remit for supporting socio-economic development in the communities hosting nature reserves, the RSCN has launched three development projects in RASUN and ORJAN, two adjacent villages on the northern edge of the protected area. The idea is to provide local people with new sources of income, thereby reducing their dependence on natural resources, promoting environmental conservation and giving a boost to the rural economy.
The Soap House employs local women to manufacture speciality soaps by hand from olive oil and floral essences. You can tour the workshops, view the soap-making process and chat with the women; there’s no pressure to buy, though the soaps (and other RSCN gift items) are available.
Just down the road, the Calligraphy House is a startlingly good idea: the RSCN has supported local women to study Arabic calligraphy in Amman, then bring the skills back to the countryside. You get a fascinatingly detailed explanation of the art of calligraphy – and a briefing on the Arabic alphabet – before being handed your own bamboo quill and pot of black ink, for gentle guidance on forming letters and shaping designs. There’s a silk-screening workshop alongside where you can print your handiwork onto a T-shirt or card.
Down the hill, the isolated Biscuit House employs local women to produce all-natural biscuits, energy bars and crisps under the RSCN’s Tasali brand for national distribution. You can visit the workshops and sample the produce at the onsite café. The same building also houses a lovely, peaceful B&B. There is talk of facilitating one-week residential Arabic classes, staying at the B&B and studying at the Calligraphy House. Check details well in advance with the RSCN.
A two-day trek from Ajloun to Pella
A two-day trek from Ajloun to Pella
Outside the rainy (and occasionally snowy) winter months, the gentle terrain of north Jordan allows walkers to make their own explorations – preferably in the springtime, when the flowers are at their best. There are no marked trails, so you’re free to wander at will over the verdant hills.
A fine two-day trek leads 36km from the fortress of Ajloun down to the ruins of Pella. Bring water, since places to replenish supplies are widely spaced. From the castle walls at Ajloun you can see the line of the route: west along the ridge, then down right into the thickly forested valley and up west to a saddle between rounded hills, on the far side of which is concealed the Wadi al-Yabis (also known as Wadi Rayyan). The walk down this long and varied valley is particularly beautiful, first passing through natural forests to reach a knoll on its right side, with Ottoman ruins; this makes for an idyllic campsite, with a view to the setting sun behind the Palestinian hills. The second day covers about 20km, with a pleasant morning walk down through olive groves. The path crosses and recrosses the stream, until a larger stream enters from the right after a couple of hours. Cross the confluence and take a track north through well-tended orchards where birds dart between pomegranate blossoms in spring. The trail rises steeply to the hilltop village of Kufr Abil, from where various options down 6km of country lanes take you almost to the Jordan Valley, emerging above the village of Tabaqat Fahl at the ruins of Pella.
But don’t rely on our brief outline: this and other walks in the area are described in detail in Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs, Canyons by Tony Howard.