Having had our fill of beach life, we moved up the road to our accommodation at Al Jawad Suites in Aqaba city. Clean, spacious, great wifi and entirely modern, Al Jawad Suites was a very welcome change and has me back in the good books with the fambam.
Despite the upgrade in digs, one member hadn’t quite realised we’d moved on and was struggling to readjust.
Aqaba city is situated at the northernmost tip of the Gulf of Aqaba where four countries are within spitting distance of each other. Jordan’s only coastal city is a mere three kilometres from the Israeli city of Eilat, eight kilometres down the road from which is Egypt. Back on the Jordanian side of the Gulf of Aqaba, Saudi Arabia is also less than 20 kilometres away.
Nicknamed the Bride of the Red Sea, it is a weird city from a tourists point of view. Considering it is vying for the tourist dollar there is a lot more it could do to promote itself, beyond the considerable attractions that come associated with the Red Sea. The majority of historical attractions are either underpromoted, underdeveloped or underwhelming. A bride she might well be, but given the surprising lack of effort that has gone in to this facet of things, a shotgun bride might be a better way to describe her. Despite all this unfulfilled potential Aqaba still is a pleasant place to spend a couple of days in, with a number of sites worth investigating.
Ruins of Ayla
The ancient city of Aqaba began life as Elath as a bishopric under Byzantine rule. After Islamic conquest around 650 AD, it was renamed Ayla and became the first Islamic city outside the Arabian peninsula. A small amount of ruins are left from these earlier times, where entrance can be gained for free through a small gate near the Aqaba Gateway food precinct. Some panels on site provide a modicum of information when walking about, which can easily be covered off in fifteen minutes.
Aqaba Fort, also known as Aqaba Castle or Mamluk Castle, was another castle originally built by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Subsequently destroyed after Saladin conquered the area later in that century, it was then rebuilt in the early 16th century by the Mamluk’s. The city was under Ottoman rule in the early 20th century when it earnt its place in history, which for most of us, came to our attention through the historically blemished movie Lawrence of Arabia.
What is true, is that Lawrence and an Arabic 500-man strong force captured Aqaba after having spent close to eight weeks in the desert. The main battle, however, was fought against a smaller number of Turkish soldiers at an outpost outside of Aqaba at Aba el Lissan. Regardless, this act formed a significant part of the Great Arab Revolt aimed at creating a unified and independent Arab State, which the British promised but later failed to recognise.
Unfortunately, the Fort is currently closed and has been for some time, with no date provided for reopening. It is still worth visiting, however, to have a quick look at the outside defences.
Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s House
Right beside Aqaba Castle, a Visitor’s Centre sign hangs above a doorway. This is the entranceway to Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s house that was built in 1917. Who is Sharif Hussein bin Ali, you might well ask. He was Sharif and Emir of Mecca before proclaiming the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and then going on to be King of the Hejaz in modern day western Saudi Arabia. Belonging to the Hashemite family which rules Jordan today, he is said to be a 37th-generation direct descendant of Muhammed.
A man of principle, after World War I Hussein refused to back a number of the British and French Treaties and Declarations, which resulted in him losing British support and subsequently his kingdom. However, his sons Faisal (played by Alec Guinness in the movie Lawrence of Arabia) and Abdullah were made rulers of Iraq and Transjordan (the precursor to modern day Jordan) respectively, making him effectively the father of Jordan.
Again, there isn’t much to see here, beyond the pretty courtyard, which is surprising given the historical role and revered status that Hussein surely must be held.
The Aqaba Archaeological Museum was also supposed to be housed here as well, but you guessed it, it has been permanently closed.
Arab Revolt Plaza and Giant Flat of Aqaba
As was the Arab Revolt Plaza where the Giant Flag of Aqaba was erected in 2004 to commemorate the Great Arab Revolt of 1916. At a height of 130 metres, this is/was the 6th-tallest free-standing flagpole in the world and something that supposedly could be seen from Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque
What wasn’t closed and what we definitely should’ve visited, was the Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque. A beautiful mosque that is able to be visited by non-Muslims, from afar it reminded us a little bit of a scaled down version of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi due to its completely white exterior. That’ll have to be on the “we’ll visit next time we’re here” list.
If you’re looking for a quiet shisha (or hookah as its called in other places) with some cheap eats, Aqaba’s waterfront area is worth checking out. You’ll definitely find more locals than tourists here, a lot of whom could be seen seated close to water’s edge eyeballing the Israeli’s across the sparkling water.
If you’re looking for something more Western aligned in taste, Aqaba Gateway serves up a variety of international eateries, including all time greats such as Subway and McDonalds. There’s a more than a few places to grab a beer here (Rover’s Return and Irish Pub), but choose to have a local cleansing ale in the courtyard at Suzana’s, in this case a lovely Jordanian craft beer called Carakale. Fifty metres down the road in the Marina area has a number of tidy cafes which provide a nice view out to the modern yachts and boats berthed here.
The liquor store situated in the Marina also provided the cheapest beer and wine we could find. As befitting Aqaba’s lower tax status prices here were about 50% lower than what we got in Amman.
How is it that the world's oldest, purpose-built Christian church is so little celebrated or known? Older than both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity (which we are due to visit shortly), the Aqaba Church doesn’t just fly under the radar, but seems to have slipped into the Bermuda Triangle.
The church was originally built of mud-brick over stone foundations, which probably explains why there isn’t that much to see nowadays, but somehow I still feel cheated that there isn’t more done to showcase what really is a significant archaeological discovery.
Aqaba Bird Observatory
Not quite sure I should provide some details on something I never visited but not having any knowledge on something hasn’t stopped me before from having an opinion, and I’m not about to let it stop me now. I founbd the Aqaba Bird Observatory when looking up places to run and thought I’d head out there to see it for myself. Situated near the South Wadi Araba Crossing Border with Israel, the observatory is an important site for many European and African migratory species, with the best visiting seasons being in Spring and Autumn.
If you decide to head out and pay the 7 JD entrance site, by this point I’m really only talking to the twitchers out there, you need to be aware that there is a military check post where you will be asked for your passport. As mentioned, I was out running and still was asked for mine. As I usually don’t carry one with me when out running that was the end of my excursion. Again, it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning had it not been another impediment stopping a potential tourist from visiting something of interest. Yes, I get that security is a big deal here near the border with Israel, but it seemed to sum up the overall attitude of not being overly concerned about catering for tourists.
I feel I’ve probably been a bit harsh on Aqaba. As mentioned earlier, it still is a pretty good place to visit. There are some very nice residential neighbourhoods and all the signs point to a city that is looking much more to the future than its past. Out running I passed a huge exclusive mixed-use development complex, Ayla Oasis, which will add an additional 17 kilometers of waterfront to the Aqaba coastline. The accompanying billboards look to be targeting wealthy western and local clientele.
Prices for what I’m guessing are single room apartments on the golf course were advertised as going for as little as 535 JD ($1,100) per month. With everything Aqaba has going for it that seems like a steal.
On our last night I looked out at the nearly full moon rising above the craggy ranges to the east of Aqaba. The wind was now picking up and on it I could faintly hear a name being repeated. That name was Lawrence and it was to a Wadi popularised by him, that we would next be heading.