A Day Trip Through Northern Jordan: Ajloun, Pella, & Umm Qais

The original plan was to do this road trip last spring – March 2020. I’m sure it’s no surprise why that didn’t happen. We could have gone once our lockdown let up and we were able to start driving again, but we’d been told this trip was best seen during the spring – when Jordan’s wildflowers are in full bloom.

Fast forward to spring 2021 and we were once again indisposed – this time in the US getting our Covid vaccines. We returned to Jordan April 5th, assuming we’d missed our chance once again. But it rained the weekend after we got back, so we figured – hey, why not?

We started the morning with a drive to the Ajloun Forest Reserve and had a rough outline for the rest of the day, depending on how everything timed out. On a Saturday morning, Ajloun is just over an hour’s drive from us, so we arrived around 9:00 am.

We paid the entrance fee – a surprising 12 JD – and began the only self-guided hike in the reserve: Roe Deer Trail. So named for the locally extinct deer that were reintroduced to the area in 1988. Labeled as an easy hike that takes less than an hour, we were surprised to encounter a stroll that takes 30 minutes while going at a leisurely pace.

While we were disappointed in length of our hike, there is a lovely lookout and the wildflowers were still out, even if not at full bloom. By 9:45 we were on the road again.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Ajloun Castle. Built between 1184 and 1188, the castle has great views of the of the Jordan valley and three surrounding wadis. Erected on top of an old monastery, the castle has had many owners over the years. A Muslim fortress built for protection against the Crusaders, the castle also controlled the traffic between Damascus and Cairo.

We enjoyed it mostly for the views, but I also can’t resist something that crumbles : ) That said, we probably spent a total of 30 minutes exploring inside.

We had talked about going to Pella after Ajloun, but it was a bit out of the way. These ruins had been recommended to us by a Jordanian colleague and because we were so ahead of our schedule, we included it.

Not knowing what to expect, we followed the instructions on Google Maps. This led us to a very closed ticket booth, so we parked and started walking around. With the exception of a few pillars across the road, it wasn’t immediately apparent what we had come to see.

After climbing a few hills, we found ourselves looking down into deep excavations. But with no signs or explanations, we didn’t know what we were looking at. Up ahead we could see more pillars and so we made our way down some fairly treacherous goat paths. If there’s a marked path, we never found it.

We spent some time in the shade of the pillars – it was a cool 93 degrees in the middle of the day – and looked off into the distance as some further away pillars, presumably from another Roman temple. We left not feeling particularly impressed.

It wasn’t until we got home that we looked up the significance of Pella. It turns out that Pella is archeologically significant because it shows evidence of 6000 years of continuous settlement. From Neolithic time to today, people have been living on this land. Which is just wild to think about. However, Lonely Planet says it best: “Many of the ruins are spread out and in need of excavation, so some walking and a bit of imagination are required to get the most from the site.”

Our last stop for the day was Umm Qais. The previous spring we had planned on spending a night in the city to cut down on driving, but it was barely 1:00pm when we arrived. We started at the restaurant, which we had been looking forward to eating at since before our arrival in Jordan. It’s owned by the Romero Group, who also own one of our favorite restaurants in Amman – Sufra.

The views are incomparable – from the restaurant you can see Syria, Palestine, and Israel, and the views of the Sea of Galilee are picturesque. But like everywhere else in Jordan, you probably have one clear day out of every 100. And, unfortunately, the food was pretty basic – though sold at reasonable prices.

After eating, we didn’t quite know what to explore. Umm Qais is well known because it includes both Roman ruins and an abandoned Ottoman-era village. However, many of the doors were closed and so there wasn’t much to see throughout. We spent some time at the columns, were intrigued by the West Theater (constructed from black basalt), and made a quick stop in the museum (which contains the headless white-marble statue of the Hellenic goddess Tyche, originally found sitting in the front row of the West Theater).

We then drove the two hours home. In total, we spent about 5 1/2 hours in the car that day and it was hard to justify the stops. We spent anywhere from 30-60 minutes at each destination and drove that amount of time or more between spots. It’s quite clear why the route didn’t make the cut during our first trip to Jordan.

But it was nice to get out of the house and do something new. Despite our time in the US, we’re definitely feeling wanderlusty. Returning to Amman with daily 7:00pm curfews and total Friday lockdowns has felt pretty stifling and it’s not an exaggeration to say we’re eagerly awaiting our summer plans. With just seven more weeks to go, we’ll try to get out and do a few more of these smaller trips.

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