School holidays presents a challenge to any parent – knowing the wonderful curious little humans in our lives are going to be in need of different stimulation and ways to use all their energy – it’s source so often a mystery to us parents who are STILL naively wishful that a two hour Ramadan delay to bed time will mean a lie in. With the end of school coinciding with the start of this Holy month it’s been a big routine change for us. From Karam learning how to ride his bike and Meerah gaining balancing skills with her scooter, digging in the sand in Little Petra and being surrounded by family at iftaar, it’s safe to say we have not been bored. This week we found ourselves with a slightly breezy day so we jumped in the car for the short drive to the town of Shobak to visit its famous crusader castle.
As well as the castle, the Shobak municipality is known for its fertile lands that for years have opened the way for agriculture to be a main source of income for many of its 12,000 residents –olive and fruit orchards fill many of the empty gaps around town, apples being its most famous crop. There is a wonderful ladies society in the area – producing and packing food from the land – sundried tomatoes, dried figs, spice mixtures, jams and so on (but more about them in another blog).
I often saw Shobak as the town we passed on our way to Amman but since one of my brother-in-laws married a lady from Shobak I have had the chance to go beyond the main street, over the mountains, past a collection of old stone buildings to a small settlement at the foot of the castle, near the dreamy home of my sister-in-law Nabeela … but I digress. Having only made it to the foot of the castle and its surrounds it was exciting to take the narrow road up and around the mountain to the small car park at the castle gates.
Shobak castle was built by Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1115, the castle is strategically located on the plain of Edom, along the ancient pilgrimage and caravan routes that connected Syria to Arabia. The location allowed Baldwin to control the commerce in the area as his permission was required before merchants and pilgrims could pass. After passing the ticket office (included in the Jordan pass but 1JD otherwise) it’s not hard to see why this location was chosen, the panoramic views allow visibility for miles. There’s no way anyone would pass unnoticed. The castle has changed hands a few times through history, the once peaceful trade routes overseen by Baldwin fell into the hands of Raynald of Chatillon who used his position to attack rich caravans passing through.
Shobak Castle is still very much a place of mysteries – upon first view it looks as if only ruins remain. As we wondered we began to see complete structures which sparked all of our curiosity, especially the kids! With no signage and us not making a stop at the visitors centre below we were unable to answer the kids MANY questions, much to their frustration! Thankfully, this is Jordan, and in Jordan you are never too far from running into someone you know. As I wondered up some of the castle steps I was greeted by a familiar face.
It’s always a little odd when you see someone out of the context that you know them in but it didn’t take long for me to link the man’s warm smile to our previous interactions when he worked at a souvenir shop that was owned by my husband’s cousin in Petra. He had often so fondly told us about his home town of Shobak when we visited the shop looking for supplies. So to see Abo Laith now working as a guide at the castle and sharing that passion with visiting tourists was a great thing to see. He spontaneously began showing us around, answering the many questions that the kids had and made our trip to the castle all the more special.
As the midday heat started to make an appearance we were taken to the start of a mysterious tunnel that descends from the top of the castle down 350 steps into the mountain and then into the valley, leading to an ancient spring. With three kids in tow, in the middle of Ramadan and no car to collect us from the exit we decided against taking the journey down the slippery, spiral steps but it is definitely something we hope to return to do in the future. Abo Laith told us that the steps at the top were good in comparison to what was ahead – so perhaps one to do with a guide, no children, older clothes … and a torch! In addition, with the castle not yet fully excavated it is almost certain that more secrets and wonders will be discovered and we promised ourselves that we will be back when they do!
As we said good bye to Abo Laith and strapped the kids into the car, he asked us to wait a minute. We watched him as he disappeared over the hill only to return with a bunch of fresh mint for us to take home, so with a beautifully smelling car, happy and tired children, we set off home. As a child my mum showed me that when and where possible you should never go home the same way you came so instead of going up and past the visitors centre we turned left and followed the road down and around the foot of the castle.
As we drove around the lower part of the castle’s grounds and hillside, we looked in awe as we came acros old buildings once inhabited and almost camouflaged set into the mountain. Then as, we turned the corner we found another place we will have to return to – “The Smallest Hotel in the World” – and possibly cutest! On the site of the road sat an old VW beetle that had been gutted to make way for a bed. The space that once held seats and a steering wheel is now the location of a small but cozy bedroom. Beetles have always had a special place in my heart, one of my good friends in England was so in love with these pieces of machinery we would go driving in search of them! I for one cannot wait to return and find out more!