Welcome to Aqaba, Jordan, a city rich in history and adorned with fascinating historic tourist attractions. Nestled along the Red Sea, Aqaba offers a unique blend of ancient wonders and natural beauty that captivates visitors from around the world.
Immerse yourself in the stories of old as you explore the Aqaba Archaeological Museum, housed in a former palace and showcasing artifacts from different periods, including captivating Bronze Age discoveries.
Aqaba offers visitors a captivating blend of history and symbolism with attractions like the well-preserved Mamluk Fortress, the ancient Aqaba Church ruins, and the prominent Aqaba Flagpole located in the Arab Revolt Plaza.
Step back in time as you wander through the ruins of the Islamic city of Ayla, with its well-preserved stone walls, intricate mosque, and intersecting streets. Uncover the secrets of early Islamic town planning and immerse yourself in the religious practices of the past.
In this article you can read about the history of Aqaba, and the tourist attractions you should not miss if you are a history buff.
A brief history of Aqaba
Aqaba, is a city with a rich history dating back to the Chalcolithic period around 4000 BC. Excavations at Tall Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan and Tall Al-Magass revealed thriving settlements engaged in large-scale copper production. The absence of written historical sources makes this period somewhat mysterious, but archaeological findings suggest the presence of religious sites and advanced irrigation systems for cultivating grapes, olives, and wheat.
Around 1500 BC, the Edomites, rulers of Edom south of the Dead Sea, established the port of Elath in Aqaba. Assisted by the Phoenicians, they developed a maritime economy and capitalized on Aqaba’s strategic location at the crossroads of trading routes between Asia and Africa.
The city witnessed prosperity when the Assyrians diverted their trading routes to Aqaba due to ongoing wars in the east. Subsequently, it was conquered by the Babylonians and later fell under the rule of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
By 300 BC, during Greek rule following the Wars of Alexander the Great, Aqaba emerged as a significant trading city in the Arab world. The Nabatean kingdom, with its capital at Petra, exerted considerable influence over Aqaba.
After the Roman conquest in 64 BC, Aela (also known as Aila) became the city’s name, and it thrived as a major port. It played a crucial role in Roman trade routes, with the Via Traiana Nova connecting it to Bostra and Roman Egypt.
During Roman rule, the Aqaba Church, considered the world’s oldest purpose-built Christian church, was constructed between 293 and 303. Aela also became a Christian bishopric, with bishops participating in important councils. The city witnessed significant transformations over time, including the establishment of a citadel as part of the Roman southern defense system.
In the 6th century, Procopius of Caesarea mentioned a Jewish population in Eilat, the area surrounding Aqaba. Islamic armies conquered Aila in 629, leading to the decline of the ancient settlement and the establishment of a new Arab city called Ayla. Excavations in 1986 unveiled the Early Muslim city, characterized by its fortified structure and urban layout.
From the 7th to the 11th centuries, Ayla thrived under Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid rule. Its strategic position facilitated trade between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, making it an important stop along the route to India. Ayla was mentioned in various stories of the Arabian Nights and some Arab sources are mentionining the city as having a mixed population of Jews and Christians. It also served as a station for pilgrim caravans en route to Mecca.
During the Crusader and Mamluk periods, Baldwin I of Jerusalem captured Aqaba in 1115, establishing the fortress of Elyn to control the region’s trade routes. The city was captured in 1170 by a squadron sent by Saladin as he was besieging Gaza, and despite some raids, the Crusaders never fully regained control of the city. In the early 16th century, the Mamluks rebuilt the old fort as Aqaba Fortress, but the area remained a small fishing village for the next four centuries.
Aqaba gained significance during World War I when it was captured by Arab forces, led by T. E. Lawrence, after the Battle of Aqaba. The British used the port to supply the Arab forces. In 1918, Aqaba and Ma’an were incorporated into the Kingdom of the Hejaz, and later, Aqaba became part of the British protectorate of Transjordan.
In recent history, Aqaba has experienced population growth and development. In 1965, King Hussein exchanged 6,000 sq km of Jordanian desert land with Saudi Arabia for other territories, including 12 km of coastline south of Aqaba, where is located the Yamanieh coral reef.
The Mamluk Fortress of Aqaba
The Aqaba Castle, also known as Aqaba Fort or Mamluk Castle, is a historic fortified caravanserai in Aqaba. It dates back mainly to the 16th century and served as a military stronghold before World War I. During the Arab Revolt in 1916, the fort witnessed a significant victory when it fell to an Arab camel charge led by Lawrence of Arabia. Aqaba became a major supply base for the advancing Arab Revolt.
Adjacent to the fort is the Aqaba Flagpole, displaying the flag of the Arab revolt. The Aqaba Archaeological Museum now occupies the building that once served as Sharif Hussein’s residence in 1917.
The fort’s history can be traced back to the Crusader/Ayyubid period, where a garrison was left behind by the Crusaders in a small fort near the dilapidated city of Ayla. The existing Mamluk structure was built south of Ayla, credited to Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad in the 14th century. However, the current building mainly represents two construction phases, with inscriptions praising Mamluk sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh Al-Ghuri and Ottoman sultan Murad III.
Originally built as a khan (inn) for Muslim pilgrims, the fortified structure later became a military position to protect the pilgrimage route. Archaeological investigations reveal multiple stages of occupation, including a 13th-century khan and a 14th- or 15th-century khan that corresponds to the current building. The fort underwent renovations and transformations over time.
The fort’s design features a rectangular 56.5m x 58m shape with towers protruding from the corners, including a two-story set of chambers for lodging and safety. Although designed to appear symmetrical, with the two towers creating the illusion of equal size and the gate seemingly positioned in the middle of the wall connecting them, one tower is larger, and the gate is slightly westward.
The castle’s lower grounds trace back to early Islamic times, predating the Mamluk fort. Unfortunately, these remains were destroyed during the Crusaders’ attack and settlement in Aqaba.
The fort served as a caravanserai and later underwent renovations during Ottoman rule to accommodate pilgrims traveling to and from the holy lands. During the Arab Revolt, some chambers were repurposed as military barracks. The Hashemite Coat of Arms adorns the main gate, commemorating the 1917 Arab victory.
Today, the Aqaba Castle remains an important tourist attraction, drawing visitors who explore its historical and cultural significance. Its proximity to the main market and the beach makes it easily accessible. Despite the destruction it endured, the fort represents a valuable part of the city’s heritage and adds to its civilization and culture.
The Aqaba Church ruins
Aqaba Church, located in Aqaba, Jordan, is a historic 3rd-century church that holds the distinction of being the oldest-known purpose-built Christian church in the world. Unearthed in 1998, its construction dates back to the late third or early fourth century, making it older than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church’s peripheral location within the Roman Empire likely saved it from destruction during the Great Persecution.
The discovery of the church in Aqaba challenged the belief among historians that early churches in Jordan only emerged in the late 4th century. Led by archaeologist S. Thomas Parker, the excavations revealed the church’s basilical form, eastward orientation, and unique architectural style.
The presence of specific artifacts, such as glass lamps and a bronze cross found in a nearby tomb, indicated its Christian nature. The existence of a bishop from Aila (Aqaba) participating in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 further attested to the Christian presence in the region.
The church, measuring 85 feet by 53 feet, followed a large three-aisled basilica design with a narthex. It was constructed using mud-brick over stone foundations, potentially featuring a vaulted nave and aisles with arched doorways. The building’s height reached up to 4.5 meters, and it included a chancel area, rectangular apse, and a potential second-story indicated by the remains of a staircase. A cemetery with 24 skeletons was found adjacent to the church.
During its early years, the church accommodated around 60 worshippers, and it was later expanded to hold up to 100. However, the church was destroyed during a devastating earthquake in 363. Despite its destruction, the church’s ruins were preserved to a remarkable height due to being filled with wind-blown sand.
The significance of the Aqaba Church lies not only in its age but also in its testament to the early Christian presence in the region and its architectural importance as a well-preserved example of a 3rd-century Christian basilica.
The Ancient Islamic City of Ayla and the ruins of the mosque
Ayla, the ancient Islamic city located in the center of Aqaba, was excavated between 1986 and 1993. The site revealed a 7th-century Muslim settlement enclosed by a stone wall, with U-shaped towers and gates at the center of each wall. Straight streets intersected at the city’s center, dividing it into quadrants. A tetrapylon (a four-way arch) marked the intersection and was later transformed into a luxurious residential building decorated with frescoes in the second half of the 10th century.
The northeast quadrant housed a rectangular mosque parallel to the qibla wall.The mosque was expanded in the 8th century, and a new market was constructed outside the southwest wall facing the sea. The Large Enclosure, believed to be the Congregational mosque, was built in the early Abbasid period after the 748 earthquake.
Excavations revealed multiple layers of clean gravel floors, and the plan of walls and columns was determined from foundations. The mosque had a broad courtyard with a peristyle colonnade on three sides, and the southwestern wall had a deep niche (mihrab). The mosque served as a place for religious services, public meetings, political ceremonies, court sessions, and education in religious and legal sciences.
By the 11th century, Ayla was in decline, and it fell to Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1116. The walled town was eventually abandoned, and a new settlement emerged south near the Mamluk castle. The orthogonal plan of Ayla resembled Roman legionary camps and the late Roman town of Aila, which accommodated the Legio X Fretensis. Ayla’s layout offers insights into the organization of early Islamic townships established as springboards for campaigns and territorial expansion.
Overall, the excavations at Ayla provide valuable information about the urban development, architecture, and social aspects of an early Islamic town, shedding light on the historical context of Arab Muslim settlements during that period.
The Aqaba Flagpole and the Arab Revolt Plaza
The Aqaba Flagpole in Aqaba, Jordan is a 430 feet tall flagpole, ranking as the 6th tallest free-standing and 7th tallest overall in the world. It proudly flies the flag of the Arab Revolt, symbolizing the Battle of Aqaba in 1917.
The flag’s colors hold symbolic meaning: red represents martyrdom, green signifies peace and sustainability, black symbolizes oppression, and white represents a promising future. The flagpole, completed in 2004, was the world’s tallest until 2008 when surpassed by the Ashgabat Flagpole.
Situated in the Arab Revolt Plaza, the site of a significant victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1916, the flagpole stands as a tribute to the Great Arab Revolt of 1916 – 1918.
It overlooks Al Hussein Bin Ali’s home, the leader of the revolution, and holds great historical and national significance. The plaza marks the first Jordanian territory where the forces of the revolution set foot and was also the site of the Arab Uprising’s first shot.
The Aqaba Flagpole’s prominence is visible from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, serving as a powerful symbol of pride and history.
The Aqaba Archaeological Museum
The Aqaba Archaeological Museum is the official museum of Aqaba, situated in its historic district near the fort and Aqaba Flagpole. Originally the palace of Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, built in 1917 after World War I, it was converted into a museum that opened on January 1, 1990. The museum showcases significant artifacts, including the notable “Lady of Aqaba” discovery from the Tall Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan archaeological site.
Among its exhibits are Bronze Age artifacts unearthed at the Tall Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan site near Aqaba, dating back to 4000 BC. These findings provide compelling evidence of Aqaba’s status as one of the oldest continuous settlements in the region, renowned for its vibrant copper production.
The museum’s collection also have artifacts from the 7th to the early 12th century AD and encompasses various treasures. Noteworthy pieces include a large Quranic verse inscription that once adorned the eastern gate of the city in the 9th century, as well as ancient golden coins from the Fatimid dynasty and coins from the kingdom of Segelmasa in Morocco.
Overall, the Aqaba Archaeological Museum is an esteemed cultural institution preserving and exhibiting artifacts that illuminate the rich history and heritage of Aqaba, offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the region’s ancient past.