By Mohammed Mirza
Perched on a hill in the midst of a dramatic valley, Usfan fort is one of the last few Ottoman forts in the country.
Situated at around 40 kilometers from Jeddah, this well accessible and scenic fort is ideal for a day trip from the coastal city. The first view that we got of Usfan fort was heart stirring; it exuded a cryptic beauty that beckoned us. The imposing stone fort stands betwixt barren dark colored mountains and has meandering roads encircling the entire hill it stands on. The hill seemed to have been partially cut from one side to make way for the highway that passed around it. It has numerous roundels that have fortified ramparts running between them, most of which were surprisingly intact.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached; the sky was turning amber in color. The weak sun lighted up the fort’s dark colored walls beautifully. Constructed by the Ottomans using basalt rocks sourced from the valley, the fort served as a caravanserai for pilgrims coming from the North for their annual pilgrimage. Ideally built on the route between Makkah and Madinah, it even sheltered caravans of merchants and people traveling to other regions in Southern Arabia.
In bygone times, the area around the fort was filled with palm trees and water wells, the water of the latter was said to be sweet. Today the palm groves have long gone, but a few of the water wells still remain.
We climbed from the western portion of the hill making our way through a path that was filled with lose gravel and thorny plants. We then came across a set of uneven stairs that led us all the way to the top. The journey to the top was strenuous but exhilarating at the same time.
We made our way through the arched gateway, which was the only entrance to the fort and reached the bailey. It was shocking to see that none of the structures in the interior of the fort had survived.
There was no visible sign of vandalism on its walls and was squeaky clean, devoid of even bats that could otherwise have made a home even in its innermost crevices. As we were walking past the crumbling ruins, across the lives of people gone centuries ago, we got a weird feeling, that prickly sensation on the back of the neck which makes people feel uncomfortable.
We made our way through the debris of rows upon rows of rooms that looked like skeletons of some sad past. Close to the center there was a peculiar looking vault, which led to the lower portion of the fort. Its steps were filled with rubble that barred its entrance. We then peaked through the crenels that overlook the highway.
From an elevated portion in the fort right near the exit we saw the trailing edge of the sun’s disk hide behind the mountains. Following which we made our way out of the fort and the way down was much harder than we imagined.
The uneven stairs didn’t have a handrail and a gusty wind began to blow. Taking one step at a time we finally reached the base with a few cuts on our arms and feet by the thorny plants that were abundant on the hill.
If you can brave a strenuous trek to the top, the Usfan Fort is a great way of combining heritage and adventure. Totally worth the effort, it is one of the best vantage points to relive history, admire gorgeous sunsets and view beautiful vistas of the valley down below.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Jeddah head to the expressway that leads to Madinah. Once on it you will come across an exit that reads Usfan. From there, keep heading straight and after about 30 kilometers you will come across a checkpoint. Continue driving for another 2 kilometers and the fort will be on your left.