The images that usually come to mind when one thinks of Jordan are tan-tinted. The buildings hewn from rock at Petra and the sand dunes at Wadi Rum are distinctively brown. But Jordan also has the blue of the sky and sea to boast of in Aqaba. Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city. It is situated at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea and – along with the earlier mentioned locations and is one of the major tourist attractions in Jordan. Famous for its warm water and rich marine life, it is best known today as a seaside and diving resort.
The diversity of the landscape in Jordan is apparent when one visits Aqaba, especially if you had passed through other Jordanian cities like Amman and Jerash, then Petra and Wadi Rum like I did. I was part of a group of fellow first-timers to Jordan and everyone seemed pleasantly surprised, despite the forewarning. “That is the city of Eliat in Israel,” our tour guide, Mohammed Khdeer, said, as he pointed across the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba which opens out into the Red Sea. We had just gotten on the boat that would take us on a Red Sea cruise. Eliat seemed close enough to touch if one just stretched far enough. It shares the waters of the gulf with Aqaba. A few miles away towards the mountains is Saudi Arabia, also visible from the boat.
The sea is calm and relaxing. Coffee or tea is served with snacks. It is fun just laying back and enjoying the scenery, especially with hills close to shore on one side, and planes landing at the airport in Eliat on the other. The importance of the Red Sea to Aqaba and Jordan can be seen from the traffic; commercial vessels on the waters side-by-side with tourist boats. The port at Aqaba is of strategic importance to the region. Aqaba is also a cruise ship port of call and provides easy access for cruise ship passengers to visit Petra and Wadi Rum, the opposite way of the journey we had taken.
With Jordan’s wealth of attractions, Aqaba has often been overlooked by modern-day visitors. However, it is a great base to explore various places of interest in southern Jordan. Day trips can easily be organized. Wadi Rum, for example, can be reached by camel, 4×4, or a car. Smaller watercraft dot the water as we advance further into the Red Sea; the young and daring are darting across on Jetskis, bouncing on the waves and enjoying every moment of it, as their excited squeals attest.
Fun below the Surface
The action is not just above water. The Red Sea is one of the most popular diving destinations in the world. The area is especially rich in coral and other marine life and has accidental shipwrecks and vessels deliberately sunk in an effort to provide a habitat for marine organisms and bolster the local dive tourism industry. You can swim with friendly sea turtles and dolphins as they dart amongst schools of colourful fish, and also see mantas and whale sharks. You can also experience some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. There are several dive centres in Aqaba with access to a variety of dive sites.
Aqaba has been an inhabited settlement since 4000 BC and has played an important role in the economy of the region. It was a prime junction for land and sea routes from Asia, Africa and Europe, a role it still plays today. The early settlement was presumably Edomite in ancient times. The oldest known text in Arabic alphabet is an inscription found in Jabal Ram 50 kilometres away from Aqaba. According to the Bible’s Old Testament, King Solomon built a naval base at Ezion Geber, just 3km from where the modern town of Aqaba stands today. “King Solomon also built ships in Ezion-Geber, which is near Eloth in Edom, on the shores of the Red Sea.” (1 Kings 9:26).
Since then, it has gone through many name changes and was known as Ayla under the Romans. When the Mameluk Sultans of Egypt took control of the region in the Middle Ages, they renamed the city Aqaba and, in the 14th century, built the town’s famous Mameluk fort. The Mameluks were followed by the Ottomans, who ruled Aqaba for four centuries. Aqaba was taken from the Ottomans in 1917 by Arab forces together with T. E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. At the end of World War I, the British secured Aqaba for Jordan.
In 1965, King Hussein of Jordan devised a plan to help Aqaba grow by trading land with Saudi Arabia. In return for 6,000 square kilometres of desert land in Jordan’s interior, the Saudis traded 12 kilometres of prime coastline to the south of Aqaba. In addition to the extra land for expansion of the port, the swap also gave the country access to the magnificent Yamanieh coral reef. It is a trade that highlights the importance of the Red Sea to Aqaba in particular and Jordan as a whole.
The offshoot is a growing resort city with many global brands offering four and five-star luxury hotels and beach resorts, catering to those who come for boat cruises on the Red Sea, fun in the sand, windsurfing, waterskiing, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. For those who prefer to keep their feet dry, all the deep sea wonders can be viewed through a glass-bottomed boat or by submarine. Of course you can just stay on the boat like we did and play music, inhale fresh (historic) air, enjoy the sunset and bid other boats and cruise ships bye as they go out further to sea, some for overnight excursions to neigbouring beach resorts.