The beautiful Red Sea city of Aqaba. Relax and feel the culture or get busy with some of the best diving in the world!
With its year round warm climate, sandy beaches and coastal waters rich in corals and exotic fish, Aqaba offers sun seekers and water sports lovers the perfect beach holiday and a great deal more.
Small and friendly, Aqaba is easy to get around and has a rich mix of history, culture, shopping and good food. It invites its visitors to relax, to take their time to explore, to enjoy its ancient past and modern facilities, its lively night life and quiet corners. A long history as a port and trading centre is reflected in the warm welcome the city extends to all visitors. Today Aqaba is a thriving centre of business as well as of tourism, with a tax and duty free status that makes it bargain day every day for shoppers.
Aqaba’s accommodation ranges from luxury five-star to simple hotels and camping options. New developments are adding hotels, recreational facilities, including world class golf courses, as well as lagoons, new beach front and residential accommodation that are providing visitors with ever more holiday options.
But Aqaba is a lot more. While its front yard is the sea, Aqaba is the oasis with a difference and its back yard is the Jordanian desert. It is the ideal base from which to explore the dramatic landscapes of Wadi Rum, the intriguing Nabatean city of Petra and much more. Take off for a day exploring Jordan’s rich and varied desert landscapes and then come back for a late afternoon swim or stay overnight to star gaze and enjoy the delights of the bedouin tent. Spend a day floating in the Dead Sea or exploring Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Lose yourself in the natural beauty of the Dana and Wadi Feynan nature reserves. Catch a boat to nearby Nuweibeh and Taba or to Faraoun Island. Float over Wadi Rum in a hot air balloon or sky dive by the sea. Aqaba has all this and more.
AQABA OF THE PAST
Archaeological excavations are bringing to light ever more of Aqaba’s rich history, which can be traced back as far as the Iron Age. Very little of the once extensive Byzantine town of Aila now remains as many of the stones from its buildings were later re-used for new settlements, and modern Aqaba now covers much of it, but traces can still be found. One highlight is the remains of a two-storey mud brick building that dates from the late 3rd or early 4th century. The building’s architectural style and the presence of fragments of a glass oil lamp and an altar table found on the site suggest that it was a church, and possibly the world‘s oldest known purpose-built place of Christian worship.
The early Islamic city of Ayla, notable as the first Islamic city to be built outside the Arabian Peninsula, served neighbouring Palestine as a port and was also a store house for the Hejaz. It was once an important stopping place for Egyptian pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Today, right in the heart of Aqaba’s seafront hotel district, you can see the remains of city walls, gates, a large mosque and other buildings. The site is well marked and has informative panels detailing its history and importance.
An inscription in Arabic at the entrance gate to Aqaba’s Mamluk Fort (Aqaba Castle) tells us it was built in the reign of Qansur Al-Ghuri (1501-1517). Since then it has had a chequered history that has mixed periods of enlargement and renovation with periods of serious destruction. Throughout its long history the fort has served as a caravanserai for pilgrims travelling to Mecca as much as a military site. Its worst destruction came with the bombardments during the First World War but today it has been partially rebuilt and visitors can walk around the fort in comfort. The Hashemite Coat of Arms was placed above the main doorway of the fort by Sharif Hussein of Mecca during the Great Arab Revolt of 1916 when he led Arab forces to begin the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Close by is the Aqaba Archaeological Museum with a collection of artefacts that give insight into the city’s trading past. It has a small but rich collection of pottery, coins and other artefacts from Iraq, Ethiopia, Egypt and as far away as China. Particular treasures include the first milestone of the Roman Via Nova Traiana with its inscription stating that the Emperor Trajan opened and built the road from Syria to the Red Sea. The museum also has a collection of gold coins from the Fatamid era that were minted at Sajilmasa in Morocco.
In the same complex you can visit the house of Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, the great-great-grandfather of Jordan’s current King Abdullah II. He lived in the house for six months after the First World War and its rooms still house a collection of rifles, copper and silver bowls, coffee pots and mills, mansaf trays (for Jordan’s traditional mutton and rice dish) and other typical items of the period.
Leave the complex and visit the Great Arab Revolt Plaza with its giant flag. The 20×40 metre flag sits atop a 137 metre flag pole and is the tallest unsupported flag pole in the world commemorating the Great Arab Revolt. The Plaza is one of Aqaba’s busiest meeting places with coffee shops and small eating places and is used for concerts and other special events.
You can also enjoy a 25 minute large-as-life tour of Jordan’s natural and cultural treasures with the Jordan Experience and learn something of its history along the way. The mix of exhibitions and wide-screen film footage taken from a small plane gives a life-like instant tour of Jordan with some real surprises from seats that move and vibrate to give the full effect of actually flying over the country.
Aqaba has many other water sports to suit all ages. They range from parasailing, water skiing and jet skis to canoeing, banana, tube rides and pedalos. You can take a sunset cruise or try the delights of a barbeque at sea or go further abroad on overnight stays. Coastal and deep sea fishing trips are also available. The Royal Yacht Club can accommodate up to 150 boats while companies in Aqaba rent out yachts for tours of the Red Sea area. You can also go for a sail on a catamaran, learn to sail or rent one yourself.
A boat trip takes you to Faraoun Island with its fairytale Crusader castle, built by King Baldwin’s army in the 12th century, and later conquered by Saladin, where you can imagine yourself back in the days of the Crusaders and Saracens. The island lies 17 kilometres from Aqaba and also offers great diving and snorkelling. The Egyptian coastal resorts of Taba, Nuweibeh, Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh are all within easy reach for a day of shopping, windsurfing, diving and snorkelling. Trips to the coastal towns can be combined with a visit to the St Catherine’s Monastery deep in the Sinai Desert or to the unique Coloured Canyon, located 250 meters below sea level.
ON DRY LAND
Away from the water, Aqaba offers special sporting experiences including hot air ballooning over Wadi Rum, sky diving and micro light flying, kite boarding, kite wings and horse riding. You can explore the city itself easily on foot, by bicycle or motor bike, on high from the back of a camel or at ease with an old-style horse and carriage.
Aqaba offers a special treat for bird watchers. It is a major stopping place for migratory birds on their autumn and spring journeys to and from Africa. Now the Jordan Society for Sustainable Development (JSSD) (Tel: +962 (0) 6 586 6602/03) has transformed a disused treatment plant into the Aqaba Birds Observatory. (Tel: +962 (0) 3 202 2966) Throughout the rest of Jordan, over 350 bird species have been recorded, contact the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) for tips and information on the best locations. The Dana Nature Reserve is one good choice and can be visited from Aqaba on a day trip or overnight stay.
Aqaba is a town that is made for leisurely exploration on foot. Its wide, tree-lined streets and low rise architecture add to the feeling of a relaxed and comfortable sea side town and invite you to explore its shopping areas, restaurants and cafés or just to find a comfortable spot, order a cold drink or ice-cream and watch the world go by.
Do not forget that all of Aqaba is a Duty Free Zone so virtually everything on offer in its shops, large and small, is keenly priced. Look out for the traditional Duty Free choices such as electronics, perfume and alcohol, but remember that Aqaba is also a prime spot for finding less predictable bargains such as high quality locally made men’s suits, garments and exclusive brands of local olive oil.
The Aqaba souk is within easy walking distance of all hotels and is open for business seven days a week. This is the place to pick up the spices that give Arabic food its special flavour. Allspice, cardamom, ginger, cumin, peppers and saffron are available in “tourist friendly” packs ready for you to take home. You can also order your own personal blend of freshly ground coffee or pick some freshly packed almonds, pistachios and other nuts on sale at tempting prices. For something a little more extravagant, the gold and jewellery shops in the souk stock a range of gold jewellery that includes locally worked 21 carat gold at unbeatable prices. All work is stamped with its carat value so the quality is guaranteed.
You can find local handicrafts in both the souk and in the shopping areas adjacent to the beach front hotels. Jewellery based on semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, amber and amethysts is one speciality. Look for matching necklace and ear ring sets, bracelets and rings that make light, easy-to-carry presents for family and friends back home. If you do not see exactly what you want, most shops are happy to create something tailor-made, usually within a matter of hours and at no extra cost. Other treats include local embroidered items, silver jewellery, pottery, and rugs. Look out for the craftsmen and women at work at their looms and potter’s wheels.
Sand bottles are another Aqaba speciality. Watch as the craftsmen create pictures from grains of sand that reflect the vibrant colours of the desert. They will be happy to add your name or that of your family or friends to create your unique memory of your visit to Jordan. The Noor Al-Hussein Foundation, opposite the Aqaba Archaelogical Museum, has a range of handicrafts from its village development projects around Jordan. The foundation has played a pioneering role in developing handicrafts in Jordan over the past 20 years and showcases some of the best work available.
Not all Aqaba’s shopping attractions are of the traditional kind. The city now has a number of modern malls with their mix of outlets for clothes, household goods and electronics, and comfortable places for a coffee or snack. Options include the Dream Mall, the City Centre Mall, Shweikh Mall and Aqaba Gateway.
Enjoying good food, an invigorating cup of coffee or a refreshing ice-cream has never been easier in Aqaba. A full range of eating options can be found from popular local restaurants serving traditional Jordanian dishes to specialist fish restaurants, international fast food names and fine dining at the five-star hotels. Cool off with Italian style or traditional Jordanian ice-cream or a fruit juice freshly squeezed as you wait. You can also spend a quiet evening in one of Aqaba’s pubs or bars.
Drive just 45 minutes north of Aqaba to Wadi Rum with its unique combination of striking desert landscape, desert wildlife, archaeological riches and a still authentic bedouin culture. Wadi Rum is a natural reserve managed by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. It organises entry to the site and trips to explore its dramatic landscape of granite and sandstone hills and valleys. Their ever changing colour palette includes beiges, apricots, pinks, oranges and reds, depending on the time of day and the season of the year.
The Wadi Rum Visitors’ Centre is the first stopping place for visitors to the Protected Area. It has a list of tours ranging from just a couple of hours to all day and guides are organised according to a jeep rotation system. The Visitors’ Centre also has an interpretation room with panels in English, French and Arabic, a cinema hall showing a film on Wadi Rum, shops selling handicrafts made by the local bedouin women, a restaurant and restrooms and a Tourist Police Office. It is possible to book tours in advance or just to arrive on the day.
Options for exploring the area range from hiking and climbing to camel and horse tours, or trips by jeep and four wheel drive. Some climbs are available for fit beginners, including Jabal Rum, but most are more challenging and not really for amateurs. A camel trek really puts you at the heart of the desert experience and is an authentic and environmentally friendly way to go exploring. Most treks are just for the day but it is possible to arrange a longer excursion to either Aqaba or Petra. Tours by horseback are also possible.
Most visitors opt for tours by pick up or four-wheel drive. Rates for all trips are set at the Wadi Rum Visitors’ Centre and most of the key sites can be visited in trips of between one and six hours, although you can also hire a vehicle for a full day or for overnight excursions.
The major sites of interest in Wadi Rum include the spectacular natural rock bridge, the Khazali canyon with its rock inscriptions, sand dunes, the Barrah canyon, the Nabatean Temple and a number of sites that offer dramatic summer and winter sunsets and spectacular views.
Wadi Rum’s most recent population is the bedouin tribes who have traditionally raised camels, sheep and goats and moved in annual migrations in search of grazing areas. Today most of the bedouin have settled and depend on tourism-related activity as much as on their livestock for a living. They are now drawing on their knowledge of the natural and archaeological riches of Wadi Rum to act as guides for visitors and are also happy to introduce them to bedouin life.
There are no hotels in Wadi Rum but visitors are welcome to stay in a number of bedouin camps that offer a glimpse into the life of the people. From sleeping in a goat-hair tent to trying traditional food and relaxing evenings around the camp fire enjoying coffee, traditional music and leisurely talk, you can learn more about a way of life that has followed the rhythm of the desert for centuries.
You can discover more history in the desert at Humayma, about one hour and 15 minutes drive north of Aqaba. It was first established by the Nabateans as a stopping place on a major trade route extending from the Red Sea to Petra and later became an important station on the Via Nova Traiana and a major Roman fort. You can also see the traces of a number of Byzantine churches while, in a later period, Humayma was caught up in the struggle for dominance between the Umayyads and Abbasids, the first two dynasties of the Islamic era.
The Nabatean city of Petra invites superlatives and is not to be missed. It lies in the heart of the remote Shara mountains but was once a vital part of a major trading route connecting ancient Mesopotamia, Africa, China and India. The Nabatean traders prospered and built a city of rock that remains a place of magic with its ornate carved façades and ever-changing colours. The Nabateans were not alone in appreciating Petra’s location, the site also has fascinating Roman and Byzantine remains.
It is possible to spend a day on a comfortable walk through Petra or you can climb to the High Place of Sacrifice or to the Monastery, two of its highest points. They are easily accessible if you are reasonably fit and you will be rewarded with wonderful views. The High Place of Sacrifice involves a 30–40 minute climb. The climb to the Monastery is more demanding but it is one of the largest monuments in Petra with a 50-metre square façade, and the area has views over both the Petra basin and Wadi Araba.
Nearby Beidha was settled as early as 7200 B.C. and is one of Jordan’s oldest excavated Neolithic villages. It gives an intriguing insight into early settled life, with traces of semi-subterranean round houses and later corridor houses.
Petra and its environs are also first class walking territory. In the Wadi Turkmaniyyeh and Wadi Muaysreh ash-Shargiyyeh to the north, you can find an abundance of carved façades. In the beautiful and unspoiled countryside south of Petra you can find a mix of mountains and wadis (valleys) offering ample choices for wadi bed walks or more rigorous trekking. The scenery is spectacular and varied and includes mountain gorges, views over Wadi Araba, waterfalls, sand dunes and terraced fields.
DEAD SEA DELIGHTS
The Dead Sea is a comfortable day trip from Aqaba, where you can float in the lowest and most buoyant body of water on earth and visit its world-class spas. Complete your visit to the Dead Sea at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which is now accepted as the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Bethany Beyond the Jordan is rich in Byzantine archaeology, including baptismal pools and churches and the Rhotorius Monastery with its mosaic floor. It is possible to arrange baptisms at the site.
The Dana Nature Reserve is the perfect introduction to the spectacular scenery and teeming fauna of the Jordan Rift Valley. You can explore the reserve along guided or self-guided trails that range from one to six hours in length, and visit the Dana village to sample the villagers’ range of homemade jams, herbs and other foods all based on organically grown crops or wild foods. Dana has a small hotel and camping facilities for overnight stays.
Follow history from Nabatean to Islamic times, along a major trade route from the Red Sea to Petra. From an important station on the Via Nova Traiana and a major Roman fort, it was then a Byzantine settlement then it was caught in the struggle between the Umayyads and Abbasids at the dawn of Islam.
The first Crusader castle built in Jordan and still standing sentinel over the landscape. Both Mamluk and Ottoman rulers in Jordan subsequently rebuilt it and have left traces of their presence.