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A Brief History of Aqaba, Arab Revolt & Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan

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About Aqaba

Together with Wadi Rum and Petra, the City of Aqaba forms a golden triangle for tourists in the Kingdom of Jordan. It is popular among tourists for relatively low prices for world-class diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea. Besides that, Aqaba has an exceptionally rich history. The first settlement in the area dates as far as 4,000 BC and it has been inhabited ever since. Today, the modern version of Aqaba is the only port in Jordan, making it a vital part of the Kingdom.

In order to attract more investment and tourism, Aqaba was turned into a low-tax and duty-free city, making it surprisingly pleasant for foreign visitors. All of this draws an optimistic picture of Aqaba, and I imagine that the greatest days of this city are yet to come.

The Name of Aqaba

The ancient name for the settlement in the Aqaba area is Elath or Ailath, which was also used for the modern Eilat – Israelian counterpart of the city, located just west of Aqaba across the border. The name of Aqaba is a short version of al-Aqaba Aylah, meaning the mountain pass to Ayla.

Sunset in Aqaba, Jordan. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Aqaba Details

Best time to visit Aqaba

Due to its 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.

Map of Aqaba Landmarks

Guided History Tours from Aqaba

Even such a historical center as Aqaba is over-shadowed in comparison to everything that the region Aqaba Governate has to offer. Let it be one of the Seven Wonders of the World – Petra, whose size is actually comparable to Edinburgh; Or the mesmerising Wadi Rum, which T. E. Lawrence has comfortably called home; The Dead Sea is also within the reach. Guided tours from the city are organized daily, so you don’t really have to worry about moving from your hotel or the logistics.

All tours on GetYourGuide are quality-guaranteed, completely safe and can be canceled for a full refund up to 24 hours to the tour date, therefore you can remain flexible even after your booking. If the tour doesn’t meet GetYourGuide standards, you can ask for a refund even after completing the tour.

Walls of the legendary fort of Aqaba where the last stand of Ottoman forces against Lawrence of Arabia and his allies took place. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Historical Significance of Aqaba

“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

The Battle of Aqaba

On July 6th, 1917, during the First World War, British military officer T.E. Lawrence captured the city of Aqaba, after a successful but the very difficult crossing of the Nefud desert (it has no places to resupply water reserves). This action was close to a suicide mission, but the reward was very high. T.E. Lawrence did not inform his superiors, and with relatively very few men attacked Aqaba from the inland – a direction from which the Ottomans didn’t expect an offensive action, therefore was not defending it. The reward for the Battle of Aqaba gained the trust of Arab Prince Faisal.

Lawrence had started the raid with only forty men of Prince Faisal, but the troops were increased to over a few thousand after some local tribesmen decided to join the cause. Most notorious of them were the forces of Arab irregulars led by Auda Abu Tayi. After this successful expedition, the Ottomans were cut off the Red Sea and T.E. Lawrence became an advisor of Prince Faisal in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

Entrance to Aqaba fort. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Arab Revolt

The troops of the Ottoman Empire had a much better army and technology than Faisal’s forces, led by T.E. Lawrence and many others, but it was hard for Ottomans to take offensive action because the movement of the supplies was very difficult. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture Medina from Ottoman forces in October 1916, T.E. Lawrence convinced the Arabs to leave it alone and cut off the supply line instead. In March 1917, T. E. Lawrence led the first successful attack on the Hejaz railroad which connected Medina to Damascus and the Dead Sea.

This was succeeded by many other such attacks by Arabs and other British or 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 while 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 orders of the Turkish Government.

Sunset in Port Aqaba. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Ottoman Defence

You might wonder why such a powerful Navy as the British Empire is, requires such an orthodox attack on a coastal port like Aqaba. The problem is that the city stands on the end of the narrow gulf of the Red Sea, which is surrounded by heavily defended mountains. Most of the Ottomans defence was prepared for an attack from the sea because it was thought that the eastside was protected by the natural barrier of the vast sands of the Nefud desert.

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 defences on the land proved to be close to impossible even for professional armies, not to mention the naval forces, who historically were decimated during such attempts.

Aqaba, Jordan, on the right, and Eilat, Israel, on the left. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Gallipoli campaign

Even though the Ottomans were a declining superpower during the First World War, this tactic proved to be very effective. It 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 is considered to be the only major victory for the Ottomans during the First War. They were led by Colonel Mustafa Kemal himself, better known as the Father of modern Turkey – Kemal Ataturk. The success of these defences became a basis for the independence of Turkey.

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Arab state after the First World War

T.E. Lawrence proved to be crucial in the formation of the Arab government under King 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, during the Battle of Maysaloun. Under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French Empires, Syria was supposed to get into the influence zone of France.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

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 promises. 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, its territories were to be divided between the Great powers of the Allies. That was the opposite of what T.E. 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 WWI as the war to end all wars, but in the minds of the red revolutionaries, their war was supposed to just get started.

Minaret in Aqaba. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Aqaba after the First World War

After WWI, Jordan fell under British influence, who drew the borders between Saudi Arabia and Jordan just outside the boundaries of Aqaba. 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 12 km / 7.5 mi of Saudi Arabia coastline south of Aqaba, where all of the snorkeling and diving takes place today. With the growing city and the tourism in the region, this proved to be a very good deal for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which increased its total coastline to 27 km / 16.8 mi.

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Strategic Importance of the Middle East

Coal made the industrial revolution possible during the 19th century, but during 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 point, the Ottoman Empire is a 500-year-old state in its decline. One can only wonder what would have happened once the world turned from coal to oil. As more and more oil reserves were found in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, it became clear that this superpower of the past could become dominant again. At this time neither Germany, France or Great Britain had found oil reserves in their territories. For both Britons and French, the easiest way to secure access was dismantling the Ottoman Empire into their own influence zones.

Down the road by the Red Sea towards Saudi Arabia. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Geography of Aqaba

As the only port in Jordan, Aqaba holds a very important strategic value to the whole country. Undoubtedly, it iss 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 directions, it is surrounded by high desert mountains which keeps the weather pleasant in the city 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. It 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 T.E. Lawrence on a camel, in order to reach Cairo to inform his superiors of a successful capture of the Aqaba City.

Sculpture in Aqaba. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Places to visit in Aqaba

To me, Aqaba was a city of unexpected surprises. Without any research, it looks like a random city near any given sea, but like most places in Jordan – for its size – it is surprisingly rich in history and interesting sites.

Oldest church-on-purpose in the World. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Aqaba Church

Another amazing unexpected thing in this city is the first built-on-purpose Christian church in the World. Though it looks rather not much more than an average archaeological site, it dates as far as 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 a 95% Muslim country.

Fort of Aqaba. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Aqaba Fort

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 help from the 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.

Undersea diver in the Red Sea near Aqaba, Jordan. Photo by Simas Rad [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Palmtree.life

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Snorkeling in the Red Sea

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 are not going to be disappointed. If you want to learn more, read my article snorkeling in the Red Sea near Aqaba.

Undersea life in the Red Sea near Aqaba, Jordan. Photo by Simas Rad [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Palmtree.life

How to get to Aqaba

There are only three viable options to travel around in Jordan – by bus, by car or by plane.

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By Car

There is no clear option for the best road between Amman and Aqaba. Roads 40 + 65 provide more beautiful scenery but roads 15 + 45 should be easier to drive. Either way, it will take about 4 hours to complete.


Hiring a Local Driver

If you have experience, driving in Jordan is not that difficult, but it would help to know a trick or two. If you don’t want to drive yourself in a foreign country, you can always hire a professional local driver for a transfer from Amman to Aqaba. Booking in advance in a foreign country could be risky but GetYourGuide guarantees quality services and provides a full refund upon cancelation up to 24 hours before the trip, or if something went wrong with your order.


By Bus

The most reasonable public transport option in Jordan are buses. There are quite a few running between north and south, but the journey is rather long, it will take between 4 and 5 hours. For more details see the bus from Amman to Aqaba.

By Plane

A much less economic but faster option is to catch a flight between Amman and Aqaba. It is operated twice a day and will take just under an hour minus all the time spent in the airport. You can book your tickets here.

Local kids playing in Aqaba streets after a school. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

My impressions of Aqaba

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 the Northern parts. And there shouldn’t even be a question if you are a fan of the seaside, diving or snorkeling.

Walls of Aqaba fort. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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