Perched dramatically like a ship on the crest of a hill, the castle at SHOBAK was the first to be built by the Crusaders in Transjordan. In a more ruinous state than Karak castle, and much rebuilt by Mamlukes and Ottomans, it’s nonetheless well worth an exploratory detour on a route between Dana and Petra. In addition, the RSCN is exploring possibilities for a new nature reserve here: a fine canyon trail already leads along Wadi Ghwayr between Mansoura village, about 10km north of Shobak, and Feynan.
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Shobak castle’s walls and towers are Mamluke, and all the towers which stand have beautifully carved external calligraphic inscriptions dating from rebuilding work in the 1290s. As you enter, down and to the left is a small chapel, at the back of which are pools and channels of unknown usage. Below the chapel runs a long, dank and pitch-dark secret passage, which brings you out in the middle of the castle if you head right, and outside the walls if you head left.
Back alongside the chapel is the original gatehouse, to the left side of which are two round wells which presage an even scarier secret passage – a dark and foul opening with, according to legend, 375 broken and slippery steps leading down into the heart of the hill, followed by a tunnel 205m long. This was the castle’s main water supply: somehow the Crusaders knew that by digging down so far they’d eventually hit water. A prudent “No Entry” sign now bars entry: tourists who have started down this staircase anyway (including a potholing expert who tried it in 2008) have ended up with serious injuries, telling of how the stairs crumbled away under their feet.
The gatehouse gives onto a street, at the end of which is a building with three arched entrances, one topped by a calligraphic panel; up until the 1950s the castle was still inhabited, and this building was the old village school. If you head through to the back and turn right, a long vaulted corridor leads you out to the north side of the castle, and a maze of abandoned Ottoman cottages, beneath which is an exposed Ayyubid palace complex, with a large reception hall and baths. Further round towards the entrance stand the beautiful arches of a church, beneath which is a small room filled with catapult balls and chunks of carved masonry.
At the time of writing plans were afoot to stage re-enactments of battles between Crusaders and Muslim armies under Salah Ed-Din at Shobak, employing local army veterans in a choreographed show. Check w jhrc.jo for latest details.