Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Aqaba

View of the Gulf of Aqaba from the main water road
If we are to rely on biblical scriptures, Aqaba has been continuously inhabited since the fourth millennium BC. It is mentioned as Ezion-Geber, where King Solomon built ships on the shores of the Red Sea, near Eilat in Edom (Kings 9:26). Recent archaeological excavations, however, date the site to the 1st century BC, when it was populated by the Nabateans. The Romans called it Ayla, and at the time of the advent of Islam, it was administered by the Ghassanids (Ghassasina, a Christian Arab clan from the northern Hijaz) on behalf of Byzantium. It lied at a vital junction of trading routes between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The small settlement of Ayla expanded and prospered under the Ummayid and Abassid Caliphates, because of its strategic position on the road of annual pilgrimage (Hajj) convoys to Mecca, from Egypt and the Levant. The ruins of this old settlement were unearthed in the mid eighties by an American archaeological team, and can be seen today near the hotel district.

Ruins of the Ayla fort near the hotel district at Aqaba

Ayla fort ruins at Aqaba
Crusaders occupied the area during the 12th century, and one of their fortresses still stands today on the main water road. Saladdin (Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyoubi) recaptured Aqaba, and his successors, the Mamluke Sultans of Egypt, rebuilt the fort during the 14th century. The name of Sultan Qansah Al-Ghouri (1516 AD) is inscribed in Arabic on one of the forts doorways.

The town declined and was reduced to a small fishing village during the 4 centuries of Ottoman dominion. During WWI, the Arab army of the Hashemite Sharif Hussein bin Ali (ancestor of the present Jordanian ruling family), led by T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, raided and captured Aqaba during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917.

The Arab flag of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, which is the prototype of most present day Arab flags

The Arab flag at Aqaba
The port of Aqaba then became part of the British protectorate of Transjordan, now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is Jordan’s only seaport. It has also been a major port of entry for Iraqi imports since the 1980s.

Unloaded cargo containers at the Aqaba port

Unloaded cargo containers at the Aqaba port
Aqaba borders the seaport of Eilat, Israel, and it’s possible to cross the border on foot or by taxi through the Rabin passage. Ferryboats also take passengers to the Egyptian resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh. The cities of Aqaba, Eilat, and the Egyptian Taba form the triangular head of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Aqaba, Jordan in the foreground, Eilat, Israel in the background

Aqaba, Jordan in the foreground, Eilat, Israel in the background
The triangular building across the gulf is Taba in Egypt

Taba in Egypt, across the Gulf of Aqaba
It’s a popular destination for tourists visiting Jordan to enjoy water sports, such as scuba diving, water skiing, windsurfing and fishing. The gulf’s waters are inhabited by hundreds of species of coral, fish and other invertebrates (we learned that the hard way as you’ll see shortly). Tourists taking a short cruise or diving in the gulf might come across turtles, eels and dolphins amid the resort’s world famous coral reefs. The Red Sea’s waters looked marvelously cool and crystal-clear even though the heat was smoldering at 50 C, briefly reminding us of Baghdadi summers.

I spent less than a day at Aqaba, so I didn’t get to check out most of it, except the beach resort near the Yemaniah coral reef

Beach resort at Al-Yemaniah in Aqaba
We had a short swim at the resort, until an unsuspecting Iraqi friend of ours was pricked in the foot by the spines of a black sea urchin (Diadema antillarum). The girl was screaming in agony as we desperately tried to pluck out the long black spines. They seemed so brittle, almost wax-like, and the ends obstinately refused to come out of her sole. We carried her to the shore, where two Jordanian lifeguards then proceeded to burn out the ends with a cigarette and to slap the sole with a slipper, responding to our skeptic looks that this was the best treatment available. A lebanese lady suggested that a child pee on the puncture. All the while, the young girl was shrieking and writhing under the hands of the pitiless lifeguards.

We left the beach immediately following that unpleasant incident. The girl was kind enough to offer her sole for my camera later, when she had calmed down and after my mother gave her an analgesic shot. The purplish marks are the sharp ends of the spines

Sea urchin punctures
I was too nervous to go into the water again, so this is what the black sea urchins look like (image courtesy of Wikipedia). Having no sea or beach resorts in Iraq, we were unfamiliar with the rogue. I was only thinking of sharks (a long childhood fear based on the Jaws movie), but from now I’ll be sure to watch out for sea urchins


Later, we had a hasty meal at Aqaba’s McDonalds. It was slightly more horrible than Amman’s

McDonalds joint at Aqaba
Much of the northern districts of Aqaba have been constructed during the last few years

Modern district in Aqaba
A short visit to a grand mall at northern Aqaba. A huge mural of King Abdullah II adorned the entrance. Murals and posters of King Abdullah are so abundant in Jordan these days. I don’t remember that much posters of his father, the late King Hussein, during his reign

King Abdullah mural on Aqaba mall
Veiled Fullah dolls, the conservative Arab version of Barbie doll, sold at a mall in Aqaba

Veiled Fullah dolls at a mall in Aqaba
Someone stubbed out a cigarette inside a coffee mug displayed at the mall

Cigarette stub in mug
A view of Aqaba from the mall

View of Aqaba
I’m experimenting with panoramic camera shots these days, so bear with me. This is a view of the granite mountains near the Aqaba checkpoint

Aqaba checkpoint
And guess who this brilliant chap is. This was a Jordanian security officer who scrupulously searched our baggage at the checkpoint

Jordanian security officer at the Aqaba checkpoint
Off we went to Wadi Rum (the valley of Rum), the largest valley in Jordan, just northeast of Aqaba, and 35 kilometres into the desert from the main Amman-Aqaba highway.

Famous as the base of British officer T.E. Lawrence during the Great Arab Revolt (most of the Lawrence of Arabia movie was filmed at this location), the valley is now a major tourist attraction. Tourists have the options of camping in the desert with the local Bedouin tribes, riding Arab horses, hiring camels for excursions into the desert with Bedouin guides, touring the landscape on foot, and mountain climbing.

Unfortunately, it was dark when we arrived there, so we didn’t get to explore the vast area. This is a view of one camping site at Wadi Rum, where scores of tourists were performing folk dances under the desert stars

A camp at Wadi Rum
A young local was offering his camels for a short ride

Local Bedouin kid at Wadi Ram
Damn. I feel like a tourist guide.

This is a map of the areas described above

Aqaba, Jordan
I’ll leave you with a few images from the drive to Aqaba. This is a motel near Al-Jiza, just south of Amman

Motel near Al-Jiza
Bedouin tents at Al-Qatrana

Bedouin tents at Al-Qatrana
Unlike what you see in the modern districts of Western Amman, and a few tourist resorts, most of southern Jordan actually looks like this

Al-Qatrana
Al-Hasa
Mosque near Al-Hasa
These barren areas were once strongholds of Hashemite loyalty. Today, they are the most hostile to the state and are home to heavily armed, militant Islamists, criminals and smugglers. Local tribes in southern regions often clashed with Jordanian security forces over the last two decades. They defied authorities by flying Saudi flags and often pelted officials with eggs and tomatoes.

The latest violence erupted in 2002, when demonstrators in Ma’an expressed their support for Osama bin Laden following the arrest of a local radical by the police. His alleged death under torture spurred intense clashes with the authorities, and locals attacked police stations and set them ablaze. The government responded by declaring a curfew and sending several thousand Special Forces troops and helicopters to subdue the city.

Southern cities such as Ma’an, Al-Karak, Al-Qatrana, and Al-Tafilah remain the most underdeveloped in the kingdom. Illiteracy and unemployment are rampant, and the local population feels politically, socially and economically marginalised in their own country. This has contributed to a volatile environment that continues to breed extremism and violence. With increased inflation, high bread and fuel prices and continuous delay in promised reforms, this situation could explode any moment in response to the slightest provocation and would threaten to undermine the Jordanian state.

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