Tour of Jordan Ajlun Castle

Tour of Jordan Ajlun Castle known as Qal’at al-Rabad representing an example of brilliant Arab-Islamic military architecture from the medieval time of Crusaders - join the tour of castle with pictures.

Tour of Jordan: Ajlun castle

Since the beginning of time Middle East “thanks” to its location at the crossroads between Europe, Arabia, Asia and Africa has been at the center of interest of powerful rulers.

Perhaps more accurately we could assign the “beginning of time (and troubles)” to the arrival of Moses at the (nearby) Mount Nebo…..

Control of strategic merchant roads of which most famous were Incense Road linking Arabian Peninsula with Greek and Roman Imperium and later Silk Road linking China with Europe was of prime importance.

Unfortunately “things” didn’t change much these days – incenses and silk were replaced by oil, local rulers by global powers….

Tour of Jordan Ajlun Castle - staircase leads to the vast interior of the fortress....

No wonder that throughout millennia the Middle East has seen countless invading armies. They left numerous traces, some vanished with time, some like medieval castles still witness the old dark ages…..

One of them is Qal’at al-Rabad, to us westerners known as the Ajlun (Ajloun) Castle, representing an example of Arab-Islamic military architecture from the medieval time of Crusaders.

History of Ajloun Castle

The Ajloun Castle was built in 1184-85 by Izz-al-Din Usama ibn Munqidh - administrator and nephew of Salah al-Din Yusuf ‘Ayyub  (known as Saladin). The fortress towering the hill Jabal Beni ‘Auf was part of Saladin’s strategy to protect the country from incursions of crusaders and an answer to their imposing strongholds at Karak and Belvoir.

Plan of the Ajlun fortress

As usually, such huge and important military construction was a “work in progress” undergoing throughout the time numerous additions and modifications aiming at improving its defensive capabilities and comfort of living.

By the same token it was also a “work in regress” due to destruction caused by foreign armies and natural disasters.

From the strategic point of view, the Ajloun Castle controlled the access to the vast territory of northern Jordan Valley from Wadi Kufranjah, Wadi Rajeb and Wadi al-Yabes - main communication routes between Jordan and Syria. Because for most of us these “exotic” names are not helpful to visualize castle’s location, it may be better to say that the castle controlled area between the Dead Sea (to the south) and the Sea of Galilee (to the north).

Main entrance with the foot-bridge over the old moat...

The fortress also provided protection of local iron mines. Let me make it clear – free access to iron (and other metals) was crucial for Saladin’s efforts because at the time of Crusades, Catholic Europe banned the export of “strategic” materials to Muslim countries.

(Well, nothing new, it seems like we always loved to use “embargos” especially for the protection of “humanity”…).

It is also worth to mention that due to its moderate climate, rainfalls, dense forests and fertile soil the area of Ajlun was a kind of “Promised Land” in the generally speaking barren territories, therefore a perfect target for grab….

Surrounding Ajlun's fortress moat today is just a shadow of its past glory....

Originally the castle was surrounded by the moat averaging 52 feet (about 16m) in width and a mind-blowing 39-49 feet (12-15m) depth. Defensive walls included four large towers protecting each corner of the fortress.

Saladin’s strategy brought the long awaited fruits. Crusaders were badly defeated at the battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187. Saladin’s victory was followed by the fall of the Karak castle two years later. In longer term, these events also marked the beginning of the end of Ajlun’s Castle strategic importance.

 In 1214-15 the local governor Izz al-Din Aybak (later the first Mameluk’s sultan of Egipt) significantly enlarged the castle adding also the fifth, L-shaped tower in the fortress’ southeast corner to enhance its defensive system. It turned out to be rather one of the last efforts to keep Ajlun stronghold up to the evolving military needs

View on the Ajlun Castle from the nearby hill.

In the middle of the 13th century, the Ajlun Castle was handed over to the Ayyubid’s king of Aleppo and Damascus, who used it as an administrative center.

Decline of the Ajlun Castle

Probably this lack of military readiness led to an easy fall of the Ajlun Castle to Mongols during their incursion to the Holy Land. While the siege and occupation of the castle was short, it left visible damages to the defensive structure of the fortress.

In 1260, Mameluke sultan al-Dhaher Baibars after the devastating victory over the Mongols at Ain Jalut regained the control of the castle. The castle was restored; however since then it was used mainly as a storehouse for military provisions rather than as originally intended an “Eagle Nest”.

Playing the role of an administrative center the Ajlun Castle was part of the chain of “Medieval Communication Network” which used fire beacons and pigeon to transmit messages between Damascus ruled by Ayyubids and Cairo ruled by Egyptian Mamelukes.

Spacious halls.....

Few centuries later, during the Ottoman period the Ajlun Castle was a forgotten outpost housing only small contingent of few tens of soldiers….. . Clearly its time of importance and glory was long gone…..

Finally the nature wrote the last chapter of the scenario for this impressive at the time fortress. Two massive earthquakes struck the Ajlun Castle. The damages from the first one in 1837 were partially repaired by Ibrahim Pasha. The second earthquake in 1927 was more destructive and subsequently the fortress was abandoned.

Only in recent years thanks to the restoration efforts sponsored by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities the castle was partially re-built offering a glimpse on its history to the tourists visiting the site.
Even in its today’s half-collapsed shape the Ajlun Castle is an impressive witness to the brilliance of medieval Arab-Islamic military architecture as well as imagination and “engineering” skills of its creators.

The original drawbridge over the moat replaced these days by a wooden footbridge leads to the gate.  This fortified entrance allows visitors to explore castle’s vaulted rooms, labyrinth of corridors, winding staircases, ramps and hallways, marvel at horseshoe arches and thick walls with V-shaped slits for archers….. Dining rooms, dormitories and not surprisingly – stables, they are all under one roof.

View on the Jordan Valley from the upper level of the Ajlun Castle....(valley looks like the sea...).

Due to the fact that for the long period of time the Ajlun Castle played a role of the administrative center, rulers put a lot of effort to make the place “comfortable” for its residents.

Hence you can see ventilation shafts allowing for circulation of fresh air, fire-places for heating the spacious rooms and numerous cisterns for water. You can also see the private quarters of castle’s governors – although not much survived till our times, the stone bathtub gives an idea that the life in Ajlun fortress was far from being “Spartan”.

Some of the stones in walls have engravings in Arabic calligraphy, providing written evidence of construction efforts and their chronology.

Mysteriously, few stones have Christian crosses carved into them. 

This gives some credibility to an old tale that once upon a time, deep in Byzantine period, the hill was home to an ancient Christian monastery inhabited by a monk named Ajlun.

Panoramic vistas

From the top of the castle opens beautiful panoramic view on the Jordan Valley. It perfectly reflects the Arabic name Qal’at al-Rabad (meaning “Hilltop Castle”) earned by the Ajlun fortress.
On sunny spring days unexpectedly green slopes of the hill covered by lush vegetation, pine forests, olive groves and orchards offer stunning contrast with the bluishness of the sky. The vast valley stretching beyond the remote horizon seems to be covered by a blanket of satin created by miniscule particles of sand suspended in the air.

From the top of the castle it appears as a vast area covered by water, illusion forming an almost surreal scene in the middle of rather desertic landscape typical for the Holy Land

Tour of Jordan -  pictures of the Ajlun castle

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Pictures of the castle - interior; on the right, vaulted ceiling

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Pictures of the Ajlun castle - labyrinth of halls, rooms and walls....  On the left - the contemporary monument in front of the castle.

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Tour of Jordan Ajlun Castle- upper floor is in ruins, however vistas on surrounding hills and remote Jordan Valley are breathtaking....

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Frankly, it was worth to visit the site even just to experience these breathtaking, captivating vistas intertwined with illusions fed by our imagination….

Another surprise for visitors – during the winter period the Jabal ‘Auf hill may be covered by snow creating totally different impressions, especially to unaware visitors! It will be easier to understand this phenomenon knowing that the hill is reaching height of about 5,500 ft (1676 m) above the sea level.

At the entrance a man in traditional Arab clothing serves delicious, cardamom-flavored charcoal-heated coffee and fresh mint tea. It greatly helps to feel the Arabic atmosphere and the spirit of the past hanging in the air in Ajlun castle.

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