Cool waters and coral reefs. Snorkelling and scuba-diving. Beautiful sunsets. And sunrises. The world’s third tallest flagpole. The ruins of Ayla. The Gulf of Aqaba – on the right fork of the Red Sea in the north. With Israel and Egypt on the opposite side and Saudi Arabia beside, you have four nations virtually colliding at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. And there lies Jordan’s only port, Aqaba.
On the other side of the Gulf lies Eilat in Israel. A ten minute drive will take you to the Arava Border crossing, and another 10 minute drive will take you to Eilat. Don’t know about the formalities because we didn’t go. One has to cross the Israel- Egypt border to get to Taba in Egypt, which is another exotic place. I'd passed through the area many years ago on my way to the Great Pyramids.
The left fork of the Red Sea forms the Gulf of Suez at the head of which the Suez Canal connects to the Mediterranean. Between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba lies the Sinai Peninsula which belongs to Egypt. It’s the land bridge between Africa and Asia.
The area has a long and tortured history, no doubt on account of its strategic location. There are sites in the region dating back to 4000 B.C. The Hebrew Bible mentions the port of Ezion Geber which probably encompassed Eilat and Aqaba as well. Recent research indicates it’s pretty close to the place where the Israelites of the Exodus crossed over on their way to the Promised Land. And it wasn’t the Red Sea they crossed, but a lake. They say the year was 1500 B.C.E. But that’s another story.
Aqaba has ruins of an ancient third century church. The cabbie told us it’s the world’s oldest church, but we couldn’t help being sceptical. In my home state, Kerala, there are many first century churches – or so we believe. St. Thomas the Apostle came here in 52 A.D. and built seven and a half churches. The St. Thomas Church at Kodungallur is said to have been built in 52 A.D. Niranam Valiapally (St. Mary's Orthodox Syrian Church, Niranam, Thiruvalla) is believed to date back to 54 A.D. I wouldn’t bet on the others. And please don’t ask me about the fraction – nowadays I’m weak in mathematics anyway. And the story of the churches is yet another story!
So let me get back to Aqaba. We drove to Aqaba from Wadi Rum. The pre-arranged cab drive cost us 25 JOD.
Aqaba is a virtual playground for water babes. Not being so adventurous we settled for a flat bottomed boat. We paid 35 JOD. Our cabbie arranged the ride for us. It was a pleasant ride. The sun wasn’t too hot and the winds weren’t too cold. Sometimes the corals were visible from outside the boat as the sun’s rays penetrated the clear waters. There are around 25 diving spots we were told. I can’t swim, leave alone dive, so I didn’t even think about it!
The Aqaba flagpole, erected in honour of the Arab Revolt was a super disappointment. It didn’t even have a flag! They say it stands 427 feet tall and can be seen from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. I bet the pole can’t be seen unless there is a flag atop it.
Aqaba was known to King Solomon, later occupied by the Romans, the Islamic dynasties, the Ottomans and finally the British. During World War I the Arab Revolt ended with forces led by Sharief Hussein and T E Lawrence ousting the Ottomans from the area. Lawrence of Arabia is a name that evokes romanticism and awe, and many places in Jordan including Wadi Rum are linked to his historic exploits. We weren’t particularly partial to him as he was British - and we in India had enough of the British until the last century.
Construction of the city of Ayla started at the beginning of the Islamic era but was never completed. We went to look at the ruins – and we weren’t impressed. Just a few stones here and there. May be of interest to archaeologists and history buffs though. Interestingly, the Arabian Nights mentions Ayla as one of the ports that Sinbad the sailor visited.
We decided to give the Mamluk Fort a miss. We were in the city only 24 hours. They told us it’s a free port and everything is fairly priced but we didn’t go shopping.
King Hussein International airport is just 20 minutes drive from the town. You can fly to Amman for less than the cost of a cab ride. Royal Jordanian Airline operates two flights daily. There are international flights too but not to India, so we drove along the Desert Highway to Amman to catch our flight. It was a dry dusty path but the road was excellent and the hillsides, though barren, were unusually colourful.