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Jordanian FlagAqaba - Jordan's Aqatic Playground

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seafrontAqaba (Al Aqabah in Arabic) is on the Red Sea, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.

fort The Gulf of Aqaba separates Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula. In width it varies from 12 to 17 miles (19 to 27 km) and is 100 miles (160 km) long. The gulf is bounded by hills on both banks, some rising up to 2,000 feet (600 m). It's narrow entrance at the Straits of Tiran as well as the many islands, coral reefs and sudden storms make navigation in the gulf difficult. Part of the East African Rift system, the Gulf of Aqaba touches Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The only natural sheltered harbour along the gulf is at Dhahab, Egypt, but Jordan and Israel have created the ports of Al Aqabah and Eilat, respectively, as outlets to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

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mother and child at the fort Because of freshwater springs in the vicinity, this area has been settled for millennia. In Biblical times, King Solomon's port and foundry of Ezion-geber lay nearby. Excavations on the Jordan-Israel border 4 km east of the centre of Aqaba have revealed ancient copper smelters which are thought to be the site of Ezion-geber.

The modern name Aqaba is derived from the name given it in Roman times, Aqabat Alia - the Pass of Alia. The pass through the mountains to the north (now occupied by the highway to Maan) was improved for traffic as early as the 9th century AD. Under Trajan's rule (AD 98-117) the town was garrisoned by a Roman legion and was the southern terminus of the main trade route leading from Damascus through Amman and Petra, heading toward Egypt and Palestine. Under Byzantine rule in the early 4th century, it became the seat of a bishopric. After being conquered in 630/631, it became an important way-station for Egyptian Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the early 12th century the town was taken by Crusaders, but was returned to Muslim rule in 1183.

Aqaba FortAqaba declined under Ottoman rule. By the beginning of the 20th century it had been an insignificant fishing village for about 500 years. Even its pilgrimage traffic had disappeared following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the Hejaz Railway in 1908.

mameluk fortAt the outbreak of WWI Aqaba gained some importance as a strategic fortified Turkish outpost. The town was bombarded by the British and French navies and in July 1917 the Ottoman forces were forced to retreat from the town when T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) led a surprise Arab raid across the desert.

fortAfter its capture, the town was used by the British as a supply centre for the push through Transjordan and Palestine. At the end of the war the status of Aqaba was in dispute. Britain claimed it as an outlet on the Gulf of Aqaba for its newly created protectorate of Transjordan (technically part of the Palestine mandate). The Kingdom of Hejaz based its claim to the town and the region to the north on the former political subdivisions of the Ottoman Empire. When King Ibn Saud conquered Hejaz in 1925, the British placed Aqaba and the Maan district under Transjordanian authority. This situation continued after Jordan became fully independent in 1946. The border was disputed until an agreement was signed in 1965. In this agreement, King Hussein traded with Saudi Arabia, giving 6000 sq km of Jordanian desert for a further 12 km of coastline to allow for the increase in size of the port of Aqaba. As part of the agreement, the Saudis officially recognised Aqaba as a part of Jordan.

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Aqaba Today

family returning from the beachWith mild winter temperatures of around 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), Aqaba is Jordan's aquatic playground and only seaport.

restaurantAlthough the beaches are not as accessible as those in Eilat (the resort town across the border in Israel) the prices tend to be lower here and the people are much more welcoming. Unlike my memories of Egypt, there are no crowds of pushy cab drivers demanding "baksheesh", and the merchants in Aqaba are polite and friendly. The snorkelling may be better at Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, but Aqaba is home to a number of excellent hotels and restaurants offering quite reasonable rates for good quality. It is within easy drive of Petra and Wadi Ram, two of Jordan's better known attractions.

Aqaba FortThe Mameluk fort, dating from the later period of the Islamic dynasty and rebuilt in the 16th century, is well worth a visit. While there, don't forget to stop in at the small but interesting museum.

courtyard of the museum The museum covers the known history of southern Jordan and contains a number of artifacts found at local sites.

applique cusion cover Next to the museum is the Queen Noor handicrafts shop. Items sold in this shop raise money to improve life in the more isolated villages. The applique cushion cover, phot right, was purchased in this shop.

shopAqaba's harbour has been modernized under an independent Jordan. Deepwater facilities were opened in 1961. The port's principal export is Jordanian bulk phosphates. Imports are primarily manufactured goods. Aqaba is a free port. That means that all goods for sale in Aqaba are tax free. The numerous gold and jewellery shops in the town offer excellent value to the European or North American tourist. As in most resort towns, souvenirs run the gamut from excellent quality to complete tat, but it's fun to look through the shops and most offer good value for the price. Remember to haggle for your souvenirs. If you accept the first price offered the merchant will not only think you are really dumb, but you will have deprived him (and yourself) of the fun of the contest. The price of gold won't come down much, but almost every other souvenir item is fair game in the small shops (not in hotel gift shops or charity shops though).

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Visit the other pages in the Jordan section. Click the link to go to the page.

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This page was updated on 26 November 2007.

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