Aqaba History and Sites
Aqaba's history dates back to the 4th millennium BC. The name of Aqaba was given to the port city in the 14th century when it was ruled by the Mamluk Sultan based in Egypt. Previously, it was known as Ayla, a name which archaeologists and historians have often interpreted as the twin version of Eilat.
Tell Al-Khalifeh, inside the Jordanian-Eilat border, some 3 km north of modern Aqaba, was initially identified with Ezion Geber, mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, where King Solomon (pbuh) built a fleet that sailed to Ophir (Somalia) and returned with 420 talents of gold. But recent excavations indicate that the site was found after the 8th century BC and served commercial and industrial purposes: for smelting copper and as a halting place for caravans.
During the 1st century BC, the Nabataeans, who raised livestock and pirated merchant ships in the Red Sea, inhabited Ayla. Around 106 AD, the Romans used the town as one of their main trading stations en route to the sea. Ayla came under Islamic rule in 630 AD, when the spread of Islam from Hejaz reached the peoples of the Red Sea. During this time, the port was known as the "Door to Palestine".
Just prior to Islam the Ghassanid Phylarchs (a tribe from western Arabia) controlled Ayla on behalf of Byzantium, and its bishop at Ayla attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. Excavations initiated in 1994 by a team from North Carolina State University, located the Nabataean-Roman town of Ayla 2 km from Tell Al-Khalifeh, in the Circular area of modern Aqaba.
The walled city of Ayla was constructed during the early days of the Islamic era, a rare example of early Islamic urbanization policy. Its layout is marked by axial streets leading to 4 gates and intersecting in the middle, where a tetrapylon (4 interconnecting arches) was set up, thus recalling the plan of Roman legionary camps. Unearthed in the mid-1980s by an American-Jordanian archaeological team are the remains of Islamic Ayla, located along the main waterfront road, near the hotel district.
Islamic Ayla benefited from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and continued to prosper until the end of the 12th Century when the city suffered from a series of earthquakes, Bedouin raids, and Crusader attacks. During the 12th century, Crusaders wrested Ayla from Muslims and built a castle on Pharaoh's Island. When Saladin captured Aqaba in 1182 AD, the castle became known as Saladin's Castle.
The Aqaba Fort was rebuilt in 1587 AD under one of the last Sultans of the Mamluk era and has been substantially altered several times since then. The Hashemite Coat of Arms was placed above the main doorway during the Great Arab Revolt of World War I. Running around the first bay of the passageway is a band of Arabic inscription which gives the name of the Mamluk Sultan, Qansweh El-Ghuri (1501-1516 AD), responsible for building the fort (The fort is open daily and entrance is free).
By the beginning of the 16th century Aqaba had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The city declined in status and for about 400 years remained a simple fishing village of little significance. During World War I, Ottoman forces withdrew from the town after the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite Leader of the Great Arab Revolt, attacked them in 1917. T. E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, took part in this campaign.