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Aqaba Cruises

Aqaba, Jordan

About Aqaba, Jordan

The largest city on the gulf, scenic Aqaba is set amid coffee-colored desert hills. With its central location between Africa and Asia, the city has played a significant role in the region’s trade for thousands of years. Set on the west side of Jordan’s southern border, at the very farthest inland point of the narrow Gulf of Aqaba, Aqaba provides Jordan with its only access to ocean waters; the gulf connects to the long, narrow Red Sea and then the open expanse of the Indian Ocean. Aqaba’s prosperity rests in its position as Jordan’s sole seaport, and also in the pristine snorkeling and dive sites that lure underwater explorers from all over the world. Amid the large fringing reef systems of the Red Sea are some of the most unusual coral formations in the world. Those in the Gulf of Aqaba, in particular, are among the world’s most biodiverse.

Aqaba’s history also draws inquisitive travelers. Due in part to its strategically important location, the richly textured city, inhabited since 4,000 BC, has changed hands many times over the centuries. In 1917, T.E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia) led troops in the Battle of Aqaba here. The white-robed English ally helped the Arabs run the Turks from the city’s fortress during a camel charge. Famously, Lawrence used nearby Wadi Rum, a vast desert canyon, as base camp during the campaign. Today’s Aqaba is a resort city offering a small-town atmosphere.

Aqaba Lifestyle and Culture

Jordanians are a very friendly and sociable people. They are often likely to greet strangers on the street, offering a warm “ahlan wa sahlan,” meaning “I welcome you.” Some of this hospitality comes from the Bedouin tradition of karam, a long-valued generosity of spirit typified by the host who sips the coffee of his guest first to make sure it is of the right temperature and then serves plate after plate of food.

You may have the opportunity to hear traditional Jordanian music, based on the Arabic five-tone scale and featuring elaborate rhythms. Songs with lyrics are more common than instrumental pieces, and they often address universal themes such as love, death and honor. Accompanying instruments may include the oud, predecessor of the European lute; the ney, a woodwind instrument; the single-stringed rababah, similar to a violin; and the bagpipe-like gerbeh. Small lap drums are used to tap out the complex Jordanian rhythms.

Aqaba Sights and Landmarks

Visible from almost anywhere in the city, the Giant Flag of Aqaba is even more impressive up close. The enormous canvas hangs upon the second-tallest unsupported flagpole in the world, so large that the interior of the pole is equipped with a two-person maintenance elevator. Often mistaken for Jordan’s national flag due to the strikingly similar colors and design, it in fact honors the Great Arab Revolt, a 1917 uprising against Ottoman rule in which Grand Sharif Hussein bin Ali played a large role.

Another city landmark is the Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque. Beautifully lit at night, this stunning, elegant white structure with its soaring minaret is a gleaming centerpiece of the city. As for Aqaba’s historic centerpiece, the Aqaba Fortress, also known as Mamluk Fort, stands resolute along the coast. This is the edifice from which a bold camel charge led by Lawrence of Arabia famously drove out the occupying Turks in 1916.

Aqaba Entertainment and Activities

The Aqaba Archaeological Museum, located in the Old Town in Great Arab Revolt Square, occupies a grand stone building originally built as a home for Grand Sharif Hussein bin Ali. Its fascinating exhibits and artifacts illuminate various periods in the city’s history.

Along the waterfront, ruins of the ancient city of Ayla were excavated in the late 20th century. This fascinating site provides a glimpse of the first Islamic city to be founded outside the Arabian Peninsula and is a rich collection of early Islamic architecture. What remains of its defensive stone wall, built during the Byzantine Empire, stands around 10 feet tall. The ancient city’s church dates to around 200-300 AD. Adjacent to Ayla are the ruins of a later 7th-century Muslim city. It was enclosed by its own stone wall, the ruins of which stand around 15 feet.

Aqaba’s most dazzling sites just may be underwater, however. With its magnificent coral and ocean biodiversity, the Gulf of Aqaba is a great spot for snorkeling or a glass-bottom boat tour.

Aqaba Restaurants and Shopping

Food is central to Jordanian culture and is always shared with great hospitality. Lamb, chicken, grains, vegetables, legumes, fruit and yogurt, and delicious flatbreads are on most menus. Dates and fish are especially common in local Aqaba cuisine. Jordan’s national dish is the Bedouin specialty mansaf. This lamb entrée is seasoned with herbs, cooked in dried yogurt and sprinkled with almonds, other nuts and pine kernels. Presented on a large serving platter, mansaf is designed to be feasted upon; it represents not only a beloved dish, but a social tradition.

Embroidery has deep roots in Jordanian culture, long considered essential for girls to learn. Today, it has been incorporated into Jordanian high fashion. Vibrantly colored throw pillows showcase intricate embroidered or cross-stitched designs, inspired by nature or geometric shapes. Look for such handmade items at a local souk, where a bit of haggling over price is appropriate and expected. Or stop by the Jordan Design and Trade Center, established by Queen Noor’s charitable foundation to provide economic opportunities for rural women while preserving Jordanian handicraft traditions. Decorative sand bottles are another popular art form, probably inspired by the 20 distinct colors of natural sandstone that can be found in the region. Browse the South Kingdom Bazaar for these and countless other crafts.