Together with Wadi Rum and Petra, the City of Aqaba forms a golden triangle for the tourists. in the Kingdom of Jordan. The first settlement in the region dates as much as to 4000 BC with the modern version being the only water port in Jordan. In order to attract more investment and tourism, Aqaba was turned into low-tax, duty-free city. Probably, the greatest days of this place lies somewhere ahead in the future.
Due to it’s geographical location, visiting Aqaba is pleasant throughout the year. It might get crowded during the colder part of the year as it becomes a warm refuge to a lot of Jordanians during the winter.
The ancient name for the settlement is Elath or Ailath, which is also was used to name the modern Eilat, west of Aqaba in Israel and Palestinian territories. The modern name of Aqaba is a short version for al-Aqaba Aylah, meaning the mountain pass to Ayla.
“The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped’ and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedu have always fought. You’re famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now!” – Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
This is where during the First World War, British military officer T.E. Lawrence gained the trust of Arab Prince Faisal by capturing Aqaba on July 6th, 1917, after a successful, but the difficult crossing of Nefud desert, a place without any water supplies. It was close to a suicide mission, thus Lawrence avoided informing his superiors and with relatively very few men he attacked Aqaba from the inland – a direction from which the Ottomans didn’t expect an offensive action and therefore was not defending it. In the beginning, Lawrence started the raid with forty men of Prince Faisal, the troops were increased to over a few thousand with some local tribesmen joining the cause, most notoriously forces of Arab irregulars led by Auda Abu Tayi. After this successful expedition, the Ottomans were cut off the Red Sea and Te Lawrence became an advisor of Prince Faisal in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
The troops of Ottoman Empire had a way better army and technology than Faisal’s forces led by Lawrence and many other, but it was hard for Ottomans to take offensive action as the movement of the supplies was very difficult. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture Medina from Ottoman forces in October 1916, Lawrence convinced the Arabs to leave it alone and cut off the supply line instead. In March 1917, Lawrence led the first successful attack on Hejaz railroad which connected Medina to Damascus and the Dead Sea. This was succeeded by many other such attacks by Arabs and other British and French officers. Later on, in 1918 October 1st, he successfully led Arab armies to Damascus where he found the Arab Revolt Flag already risen by the Arab Nationalists as the Ottoman Empire was in full retreat. Finally, On January 9th, 1919, cut off from the rest of the Ottoman Empire, Medina surrendered under the order from Turkish Government.
You might wonder why such a powerful Navy as the British Empire is, requires such an orthodox attack on a coastal town like Aqaba. The problem is that this town stands at the end of a narrow Red Sea which is surrounded by mountains which were heavily defended. Most of the Ottomans defense was prepared for an attack by the sea as it was thought that the East is protected by vast sands of the Nefud desert. And to do so was a risky business. A simple cheap naval mine could sink an expensive British naval ship and it is very hard for smaller vessels to do a scouting mission defusing the mines in this heavily guarded area from the land. During the First World War, clearing out defenses on the land proved to be close to impossible even for the professional ground army, not to mention the naval forces which historically were decimated during such attempts.
Even though the Ottomans were a declining superpower back in the times of the First World War, this tactic proved to be very effective and even cost Winston Churchill his chair of First Lord of Admiralty after a major failure for allies at the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915-16. This event is considered to be the only major victory for the Ottomans during the First War and they were led by Colonel Mustafa Kemal himself, better known as the Father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. The success of these defenses became a basis for the independence of Turkey.
TE Lawrence proved to be crucial in the formation of the Arab government under Faisal in a recently captured Damascus which was supposed to be the Capital of the new Arab state. His work and his dream of an independent Arab State was destroyed after French forces captured the city in 1920 after the Battle of Maysaloun. Under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between British and French empires, Syria was supposed to fall into the influence zone of France.
During the time of the First World War, dividing the territorial gains between imperialistic powers was absolutely normal. Some countries joined the war based on which side promised more rewards after the for. Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria are fine examples. The Sykes-Picot agreement was one of that kind, the Allies decided that the Sick man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, has to go, and by such it’s territories to be divided between the Great powers of the Allies. That was the opposite of what TE Lawrence wanted for the Arab world.
The Sykes-Picot treaty, among the others, was released to the public by the Bolshevik Government, led by Lenin, as a way to spread the Revolution among the ordinary people. To show the greed of imperialistic capitalist governments, a call for the proletariat to overthrow their rulers. Some saw the WWI as the war to end all wars, but in the heads of the red revolutionaries, their war was supposed to just get started.
After the WWI, Jordan fell under the British influence and they drew the lines of borders between Saudi Arabia and Jordan just outside the city. Saudis didn’t agree with this division, but never took any action. Later on, in 1965, King Hussein traded 6000 sq. Km of Jordanian desert to 12km of Saudi Arabia coastline south of Aqaba, where all of the snorkeling and diving takes place today. With growing city and the tourism in the region, this proved to be a very good deal for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which increased the total coastline to 27km.
Coal made the industrial revolution possible during the 19th century, but at this time it became clear that oil will become the coal of the 20th century. Securing the oil reserves slowly became a National security question.
At this time, the Ottoman Empire is a 500-year-old state and it is at its decline, but what would happen when once the world turns from coal to oil? As more and more oil reserves were found on this territory, it became clear that this superpower of the past could become dominant again. At this time neither Germany, France or Great Britain had an access to the oil. And for Britons and French, the easiest way to do it was dismantling the Ottoman Empire under their own influence zones.
As the only port in Jordan, Aqaba holds a very important strategic value to the whole country and is the most important city in the Southern side of the country. Located at the end of the Gulf of Aqaba, it connects Jordan to the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea. From all other direction, it is surrounded by high desert mountains which keeps the weather pleasant throughout the year.
Besides the Gulf of Aqaba there is another, way better know, the Gulf of Suez which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal and has enormous strategic value. The Gulf of Suez is probably the place where Moses led Israelites to another continent by separating the sea. Between both gulfs, lies the Peninsula of Sinai, the region which had to be crossed by TE Lawrence on a camel, in order to reach Cairo and inform his superiors of a successful capture of the Aqaba City.
To me Aqaba was a city of unexpected surprises, without any research it just looks like a random city near any given sea. But like most places in Jordan, for its size, it is rich in history and interesting sites.
Another amazing unexpected thong in this city is the first built-on-purpose Christian church in the World. Though it looks rather nut much more than an archaeological site, it dates as far as to 293/303 AD. Though the region is habited mostly Muslims it doesn’t change the fact that there is plenty of Christian sites in Jordan. To my surprise, there were no signs to it, or no plates to tell what it is. The church just stands there, near a road, looking like a random site, after all, Jordan is 95% Muslim country.
Built somewhere between 1510 and 1517, the Aqaba Fort was used by the Ottoman Empire until 1917 when TE Lawrence allied with Prince Faisal’s, Auda’s and many local Bedouin forces, took Aqaba city with ease with a help from British Royal Navy which shelled and destroyed large parts of the fort. To this day there is the Hashemite Coat of Arms above the entrance to celebrate the victory of the battle of Aqaba and the beginning of successful maneuvres of the Arab Revolt.
One way or another, most people are coming to Aqaba not for its historical significance, but for beaches, snorkeling, and diving in the Red Sea. For its world-class reefs you need to pay a relatively cheap price and with a guide, you‘ll definitely wont be disappointed.
If this is your first trip to Jordan you might get surprised by the trash and randomness, but soon it will be overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of locals. Of course, it does feel like you are visiting a country populated purely by man and my impressions would be worse if I was a lonely woman traveler, but most of the people we met showed respect to my female friends. If you are to visit Jordan, I would highly recommend going South, because of Petra and Wadi Rum. Aqaba is the biggest city in the region and it is relatively easy to enjoy compared to Northern parts. And there shouldn’t even be a question if you are a fan of the seaside, diving or snorkeling.