Perhaps reissuing the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, might attract more people to Jordan as film tourism is big business these days – witness the rush to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings films sites and Northern Ireland and Croatia for Game of Thrones sites. And, it’s easier for us to reach Aqaba today than it was for Lawrence when he set out across the desert with the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt, in 1917.
Not far from Amman and set in a palm-fringed, sandy bay backed by purple coloured mountains and just a few kilometres from the border with Saudi Arabia, Aqaba boasts several excellent seafood restaurants, coral reefs that are a mecca for international divers and deep, indigo-coloured waters that teem with colourful marine life. Some of the world’s best snorkelling and wreck diving is available at the Royal Diving Club just outside town where day membership for about fifteen dinars gets you a private beach, fresh-water swimming pool, changing rooms and a restaurant. If you want to see the underwater wonderland but don’t want to get wet, glass bottomed boats leave from the two public beaches in the port.
However, there is a caveat. I understand that since my visit to Aqaba, the place has somewhat deteriorated and although nothing can take away from the glorious waters and the beautiful fish, I understand that the showers and other facilities leave a lot to be desired and the Jetty has been closed off. There is a plus side though, fewer people now use the Diving Club and you may have the place to yourself.
At one time 50,000 cars a month passed into Iraq through this Economic Free Zone but no longer. However, the duty-free prices in Aqaba makes it an attractive place for shopping with the accent on jewellery, hand-woven rugs and carpets, finely decorated daggers and swords and the Dead Sea health products that spill out of the numerous little shops that cluster up the hilly streets. Lapis Lazuli and turquise are especially good buys here.
The shopkeepers are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators and there is no pressure on you to buy the goods you are admiring. No one tries to sell you a kaftan when you stop to finger the beaded silk robes outside the shop, no one offers you an immediate discount if you will just step inside, nor are there beggars importuning for your spare coins.
Aqaba is a perfect place to stop off for a day’s relaxation by the sea if you are mentally and physically tired from walking around Petra and absorbing the history of that lovely place, and perhaps less so, walking around Amman. I confess I went there because of the film as Lawrence of Arabia has always been one of my favourite films and I well remember the scene where Lawrence led the charge “To Aqaba” and I had to see for myself. Not a bit like the film, of course, But Wadi Rum didn’t disappoint (up next).