The marvels of nature and the genius of medieval Arab military architecture have given north Jordan two of the most important ecological and historical attractions in the Middle East the sprawling pine forests of the Ajloun-Dibbine area, and the towering Arab-Islamic castle at Ajloun that helped to defeat the Crusaders eight centuries ago. Both these natural and man-made marvels, along with other attractions in the north, are being carefully protected to form the core of a pioneering Eco-tourism project now being implemented with French technical assistance, which aims to preserve the large pine forest that stretches from Ajloun towards the north; this is a unique environmental resource, for it is the southernmost complete pine forest in the world.
The area's cool forests, beautiful picnic areas, and extensive walking trails already attract visitors throughout the April-October season, especially from the Gulf and other warmer regions of the Middle East.
The project that has been recently launched will designate three concentric zones:
a) an inner, fully protected nature reserve where the pine forest can flourish in perpetuity;
b) an environment-friendly Eco-tourism zone where private sector investments will be encouraged in services such as chalets;
c) a surrounding national park acting as a buffer zone, where visitors can enjoy picnics, trail walks, and other low-impact activities.
The combination of the invigorating forests, clean air, cool summer temperatures, easy access from all north Jordan, and a series of major antiquities sites promises to make this a leading new tourism destination, for both international and domestic tourists. The gateway to the national park will be from the Jerash region, just 20 minutes by car to the east. The Greco-Roman city of Jerash, among the best preserved cities of its kind in the world, is one of Jordan's leading tourist attraction.
Ajloun Castle, more formally known as Qalaat er-Rabad, is the major ancient site within the Ajloun forests region. It towers above the green hills and can be seen from many miles away, betraying its strategic purpose as a military watch post that protected the trade routes in the 12th –15th Centuries. It was first built in 1184 by the nephew of Salaheddin (Saladin), Izzeddin Usama Munqith, to repel the Crusader threats to north Jordan (the Crusaders had already occupied south Jordan, from their massive castles at Shobak and Karak, and were driven out of TransJordan in 1189).
T he Ajloun castle was expanded in 1214 into its current configuration. The castle is one of the best preserved and most complete examples of medieval Arab-Islamic military architecture. Among its main features are a surrounding dry moat, a drawbridge into the main entrance, the fortified entrance gate (with decorative pigeon stone carvings), a massive south tower, and several other towers on all sides. Inside, the castle is a labyrinth of vaulted passages, winding staircases, long ramps, enormous rooms that served as dining halls, dormitories, and stables, a total of 11 water cisterns, and the private quarters of the Lord of the Castle (complete with a small stone bathtub and rectangular windows that convert into arrow-slits for defensive purposes).
From the top of the castle, visitors enjoy panoramic views into the Jordan Valley and throughout the highlands of north Jordan. Excavations have recently identified a church that was built on the castle site in the earlier Byzantine period, while restoration and conservation works have made all areas of the castle accessible and safe for visitors. New restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity of the castle make it easier for visitors to spend an entire day, or a weekend, in this enchanting region. Other nearby sites that can be visited include the birthplace of the Prophet Elijah at nearby Listib, the Church of St Elijah at Khirbet Mar Elias, and scores of smaller ancient sites, including water mills, forts, and villages, in the hills and valleys of north Jordan.