Explore the culture of a real living community on the Red Sea
Take a walk to the Fishermen Harbour before the sunset to watch the Aqabawi fishermen coming back from their fishing trips carrying the catch of the day.
Visit the Islamic city of Ayla
Known as the first Islamic city to be built outside the Arabian Peninsula, Ayla served as a port and a storehouse for the Hejaz as it neighboured Palestine. It was once an important stopping place for Egyptian pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Today, right in the heart of Aqaba’s seafront hotel district, you can see the remains of city walls, gates, large mosque and other remains. The site is well marked and has informative panels detailing its history and importance.
The search for traces of Aqaba
Excavations are slowly revealing the outlines of the Byzantine town of Ayla, although stones from its buildings were often reused in later settlements and most of the old settlement is now covered by modern Aqaba. One of the highlights, the remains of a mud-brick building that dates from the late 3rd or early 4th century, is thought to be the world’s oldest known purpose-built church.
Step into the Aqaba Castle
An inscription in Arabic at the entrance gate tells us Aqaba’s Mamluk fort (now known as Aqaba castle) was built during the reign of Qansuh Al-Ghuri (1510-17). Since then, it has had a turbulent history. Periods of expansion and renovation intervened with severe destruction of the stronghold. The fort has served as a caravanserai for pilgrims travelling to Mecca as much as an important military fortification.
Visit Aqaba Museum and look back in time
Not too far from Aqaba’s Mamluk fort, you can find the Aqaba Archaeological Museum. The museum exhibition displays a rare collection of artefacts that gives a good insight into the trading past of the city. It has a small but rich collection of pottery, coins and other items from Iraq, Ethiopia, Egypt as well as from remote China. The first milestone of a highway built by the Roman Emperor Trajan to link Aqaba with Syria is one of the most precious treasures.
Visit the House of Sharif Hussein bin Ali
Located next to the historical Aqaba Castle, Sharif Hussein bin Ali’s house was built in 1917 by the people of Aqaba in the style of Hijazi homes. The great-great-grandfather of the present King lived in it for a few months between the World Wars.
Salute the flag by visiting the Great Arab Revolt Plaza
The 20×40 meter flag sits atop a 137-meter flagpole and is the tallest unsupported flagpole in the world commemorating the Great Arab Revolt.
Design your own jewellery
Aqaba is home to a thriving local jewellery industry based on semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, amber and amethysts. Look for matching necklace and earring sets, bracelets and rings that make light, easy-to-carry presents for family and friends back home. If you do not see exactly what you want, most shops are happy to create something tailor-made, usually within a matter of hours and at no extra cost.
Your name, sand written
In Aqaba, the sands of time are poured elegantly into small bottles to form desert scenes. Watch the craftsmen at work. If you have a particular request in terms of colours, theme or choice of names to be enshrined in the sand, the craftsmen will be happy to oblige, giving you a truly unique souvenir.
Spice up your life
Wondering about the elusive but mouth-watering flavours of the local food? Try the local grocery stores where spices of all kinds are available in “tourist-friendly” packs ready for you to take home. Saffron, allspice, cardamom, ginger, cumin and all types of peppers are just a few to choose from. The tantalizing aromas of the spices will lead you to the right shops. While you are there, check out the freshly packed almonds, pistachios and other nuts on sale at very tempting prices.
Go for gold
If your tastes turn to something a little more up-market, try one of the gold shops in the centre of town. They offer a range of gold jewellery that includes locally worked 21-carat gold at unbeatable prices.
Ins and outs of the souk
The Aqaba souk is not the most ancient in the region but is well worth a leisurely wander for its eclectic mix of shops. Some shops serve the daily needs of the locals and give an insight into local life, others are oriented towards tourists. This is the place to find handicrafts, inexpensive beachwear, a new watch or maybe a surprising novelty.
Explore the places of worship
With its pristine white structure, intricate glass windows and soaring minarets, Al Hussein Bin Ali mosque is a beacon of Islamic architecture and a moving sight among the hustle and bustle of city life. It also boasts the largest dome among Jordan’s’ mosques. Another worth visiting place is the Church of Stella Maris, with its modern style forms and intense lighting. For more options outside the city centre, go to Masjid Sheikh Zayed where you can enjoy the simplicity of its design, choice of colours and intricate textures in addition to the panoramic view of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The fine art of Henna
For centuries Arab women are using the Henna plant for hair and skin treatments and enjoying its beautifying benefits. Even today, they use it alongside modern cosmetics. One, very special occasion to use henna is the Leylat Al Henna, or “Henna Night”. The night before a wedding gives a chance for the bride and her female guests to get together to sing and dance while the bride herself is beautified with elaborate Henna tattoos on her hands and feet. Today beauty salons can provide pretty, non-permanent tattoos for all simple or lavish occasions.
Spend a Day with an Aqabawi
Aqaba definitely enjoys a peaceful, curious and friendly population. The locals are a unique mixture of Hijazi, Bedouin, and Egyptian and Levantine blood. As a people, they are known for their extreme chivalry and hospitality. Most of Aqabawis will welcome you and be pleased to share a story or two over a cup of tea or coffee. It is often thought that the people that reside by the sea are more open and exposed by having travellers pass through.