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.