Gulf of Aqaba – History and more

The northern portion of the Red Sea is divided by the Sinai Peninsula into the Aqaba Gulf in the east and the Gulf of Suez in the west.

The Gulf of Aqaba is located along the southeastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula and to the west of the Arabian Peninsula. Aqaba Gulf is bordered by the countries of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf of Aqaba forms an integral part of the East African Rift System and was created by seismic activity along the Afro-Syrian Rift.

This semi-enclosed, deep, narrow body of water is approximately 160 km long and has a maximum width of 24 km and a depth of 1,850 m at its deepest point.

The Tiran Strait connects Aqaba Gulf with the Red Sea. it’s also serves as a connecting point between the continents of Asia and Africa.

Gulf of Aqaba – History

Early history

Excavations at Tall Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan and Tall Al-Magass in Aqaba revealed that the city has been an inhabited settlement since 4000 BC, with a thriving copper production on a large scale.

This period is largely unknown due to the absence of written historical sources. Archaeologists from University of Jordan have discovered the sites, where they found a small building whose walls were inscribed with human and animal drawings, suggesting that the building was used as a religious site.

The people who inhabited the site had developed an extensive water system in irrigating their crops which was mostly grapes and wheat. Several different-sized clay pots were also found suggesting that copper production was a major industry in the region, the pots were used in melting the copper and reshaping it.

Scientific studies performed on site revealed that it had undergone two earthquakes, with the latter one leaving the site completely destroyed.

The Edomites, who ruled over Edom just south of the Dead Sea, are believed to have built the first port in Aqaba called Elath around 1500 BC, turning it into a major hub for the trade of copper as the Phoenicians helped them develop their maritime economy.

They profited from its strategic location at the junction of trading routes between Asia and Africa.

Classical antiquity

Around 735 BC, the city was conquered by the Assyrian empire. Because of the wars the Assyrian empire had in the east, its trading routes were diverted to the city and the port witnessed relative prosperity. The Babylonians conquered it in 600 BC.

During this time, Elath witnessed great economic growth, which is attributed to the business background of its rulers who realized how important the city’s location was. The Persian Empire took the city in 539 BC.

Aqaba Church, considered to be the world’s first purpose-built church.
The city continued to grow and prosper which made it a major trading hub by the time of the Greek rule by 300 BC, it was described by a Greek historian to be “one of the most important trading cities in the Arab World”. The Ptolemaic Greeks called it Berenice.

The Nabatean kingdom had a large population north of the city, the ones who had built Al-Khazneh in the city of Petra, they outnumbered the Greeks which made the capture of the city easy. One of the oldest known texts in Arabic alphabet is an inscription found in Jabal Ram 50 kilometres (31 miles) east of Aqaba.

Both Petra and Aela were under strong Nabatean influence despite Roman rule. Aela reached its peak during Roman times, the great long distance road the Via Traiana Nova led south from Bostra through Amman, terminating in Aela, where it connected with a west road leading to Philistia and Egypt. Around AD 106 Aela was one of the main ports for the Romans.

It was the home origin of what came to be known as the Ayla-Axum Amphoras. By the time of Eusebius, Aela became the garrison of the Legio X Fretensis, which was moved to Aela from Jerusalem.

Did you know ?

Aela came under Byzantine Empire rule in AD 300, where the Aqaba Church was constructed, considered to be the world’s very first purpose-built church. The city became a Christian bishopric at an early stage. Its bishop Peter was present at the First Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, in 325.

Beryllus was at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and Paul at the synod called by Patriarch Peter of Jerusalem in 536 against Patriarch Anthimus I of Alexandria, a council attended by bishops of the Late Roman provinces of Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Tertia, to the last-named of which Aela belonged.

Medieval period

According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad himself in the Expedition to Tabouk of 630 reached, and extracted tribute from, Aila. Aila fell to the Islamic conquest by 650, and the ancient settlement was left to decay, while a new Arab city was established outside its walls under Uthman ibn Affan., also known as Ayla (Arabic: آيلة‎). The geographer Shams Eddin Muqaddasi describes Ayla as nearby the ruined ancient city.

Despite its economic importance, Aqaba faced numerous challenges during the Medieval period, including invasions, conflicts, and changes in trade patterns. The Crusades, for instance, brought periods of instability and warfare to the region as European powers vied for control over the Holy Land. Nevertheless, Aqaba managed to retain its significance as a vital nexus of trade throughout these tumultuous times.

By the late Medieval period, shifts in global trade routes and the decline of centralized empires led to a gradual decline in Aqaba’s prominence. The rise of maritime powers such as Venice and Genoa, coupled with the opening of new trade routes, diverted commerce away from the Red Sea. Additionally, the discovery of alternative sea routes to the East diminished Aqaba’s role as a crucial waypoint for trade between Europe and Asia.

Modern history

During World War I, the Ottoman forces were forced to withdraw from Aqaba in 1917 after the Battle of Aqaba, led by T. E. Lawrence and the Arab forces of Auda abu Tayi and Sherif Nasir. The capture of Aqaba allowed the British to supply the Arab forces.

In 1918, the regions of Aqaba and Ma’an were officially incorporated into the Kingdom of the Hejaz. In 1925, Ibn Saud the ruler of Nejd with the help of his Wahhabi Ikhwan troops successfully annexed the Hejaz, but gave up the Ma’an and Aqaba to the British protectorate of Transjordan.

In 1965, King Hussein, through an exchange deal with Saudi Arabia, gave 6,000 square kilometres (2,317 square miles) of desert-land in Jordanian territories in exchange for other territories, including 12 kilometres (7 miles) of an extension of prime coastline south of Aqaba, which included the magnificent Yamanieh coral reef.

Aqaba was a major site for imports of Iraqi goods in the 1980s until the Persian Gulf War.

Aqaba Fortress

The city prospered from 661 to 750 under the Ummayads and beyond under the Abbasids (750-970) and the Fatimids (970-1116). Ayla took advantage of its key position as an important step on the road to India and Arab spices (frankincense, myrrh), between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula. The city is also mentioned in several stories of the Arabian Nights.

The medieval city was excavated in 1986 by a team of the University of Chicago. Artefacts are now on exhibit at Aqaba Archaeological Museum and Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The city was inscribed in a rectangle 170 × 145 fortified meters, with walls 2.6 meters thick and 4.5 meters high, surrounding a fortified structure, occupying an area of 35 × 55 meters. 24 towers defended the city.

The city had four gates on all four sides, defining two main lines intersecting at the center. The intersection of these two channels was indicated by a tetra pylon (a four-way arch), which was transformed into a luxury residential building decorated with frescoes of the tenth century.

This type of urban structure, called MSIR, is typical of early Islamic fortified settlements.

Baldwin I of Jerusalem took over the city in 1116 without much resistance. The center of the city then moved to 500 meters along the coast to the south, and the crusader fortress of Helim was built, as well as Pharaoh’s Island (now in Egyptian territorial waters about 7 kilometres (4 miles) west of Aqaba). The city declined in the late 12th century due earthquakes and attacks by Bedouins and Mamluks forces.

Ayla remained under the control of the kingdom of Jerusalem from 1116 until 1187, when it was captured by Saladin. The settlement by this point had essentially disappeared, and the site became known after the nearby mountain-pass, as al-ʿAqaba. The old fort was rebuilt, as Aqaba Fortress, by sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh Al-Ghuri in the early 16th century. For the next four centuries, the site was a simple fishing village of little importance.

áqaba jordania
Is it worth it to go to Aqaba Gulf ?
  • It’s very easy to get there, especially with Turkish Airlines, Ryanair, EasyJet, Wizz Air and other flights routing from everywhere.
  • Free visa, one of many benefits to this gulf provided and controlled by ASEZA (Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority).
  • The variety of beaches including privates and public.
  • Great in conditions reef with crystal clear water all around the year is a dream to divers.
  • Jordan is perfectly safe, perhaps safer and more politically-stable than most European countries. In terms of hassle, Aqaba folk in particular are very courteous and friendly.
Why is the Gulf of Aqaba important to Israel?

Because of the location of the city of Eilat, which contains a major port.
Israel’s access to the Gulf of Aqaba along is southernmost tip allows Israeli trade of goods with the East Coast of Africa and with Asia.

The Gulf of Aqaba stretches north from the Straits of Tiran to a point where the border of Israel meets the borders of Egypt and Jordan.

At this northern end of the Gulf are three important cities: Taba in Egypt, Eilat in Israel, and Aqaba in Jordan.

All three cities serve both as strategically important commercial ports and as popular resort destinations for tourists seeking to enjoy the warm climate of the region.

What is special about the Gulf of Aqaba?

Aqaba especially rich in coral and other marine biodiversity and has accidental shipwrecks and vessels deliberately sunk in an effort to provide a habitat for marine organisms and bolster the local dive tourism industry.

The city of Aqaba has one of the highest population growth rates in Jordan in 2017, and only 44% of the buildings in the city had been built before 1990. A special census for Aqaba city was carried by the Jordanian department of statistics in 2007, the total population of Aqaba by the census of 2007 was 98,400. The 2017 population estimate is 198,500. The results of the census compared to the national level are indicated as follows:

Demographic data of the city of Aqaba (2017)
1 Total population 198,500
2 Growth rate 4.3%
3 Male to Female ratio 56.1 to 43.9
4 Ratio of Jordanians to Foreign Nationals 82.1 to 17.9
5 Number of households 18,425
6 Persons per household 4.9
7 Percent of population below 15 years of age 35.6%
8 Percent of population over 65 years of age 1.7%

ِIslam represents the majority of the population of Aqaba, but Christianity still exists today. Approximately 5,000 Christian families live in the city. There are several churches in the city and one Christian school called Rosary Sisters School Aqaba.

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