24 Hours in Aqaba
Known for its glass-bottomed boats, Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city – and much more than a tourist pitstop
At the top tip of the Red Sea, Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city. Once considered something of a backwater, or else known by tourists as a spot where feet caked with dust from Petra could be washed in warm waters before stepping back on the coach, Aqaba is currently undergoing a contemporary regeneration that will see the sleepy port town shake off its daytripping image and become a model of trade and tourism.The city’s ancient name of Ayla derives from an Arabic word meaning ‘that which is about to fall’, a nod to the city’s susceptibility for experiencing earthquakes. Today’s Aqaba, however, is a seat of stability for Jordan, at least economically – evidence of which dots the cityscape in the form of towering cranes. New plans will see the creation of another 6,000 new hotel rooms – a five-fold increase on the current number – allowing Aqaba to compete with neighbouring holiday destinations, such as Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt.
As the once key ancient port – on account of its access to both Asia and Africa – clears the dormancy of its post-Ottoman period with world-class diving sites and yacht tours, young Jordanian entrepreneurs are beginning to look beyond the ubiquitous glass-bottomed boat business, setting up shop, instead, with contemporary, creative ideas.
Aqaba isn’t losing any of its charm, however. Jordanian families still turn out for sunset on the beach in droves, while teenage boys perch on the nearby dock and leap into the Gulf below. Despite the flourishes wrought forth by the flutter of expansion related to tourism and trade, the city remains a far flung corner of Jordan, awash in the comforts of local delicacies, abundant artistry and a rich history.
9:00am – Bakdash
Raghadan Street, nestled just behind Aqaba’s Al-Hussein Bin Ali mosque, is a short but winding strip peppered with cafés, restaurants and local merchants hawking fresh produce ripe for a pick-and-mix breakfast. Hani Ali, the first shop on the street, is a modest bakery that’s popular among locals for its range of freshly baked pastries. Amidst the baklawa and ftira are trays of Palestinian knafeh – Hani Ali’s own version is a local favourite, with a layer of local Aqabwi cheese added to the recipe.
Those spending the morning at the beach can head to Bakdash on Pizza Street, not for a pizza but to pick up a scoop of booza, a Levantine style of ice cream made from an elastic, doughy paste. Run by Majdi Bani Melhem and Saleh Rsheidat, Bakdash, which has been open for just two months, was inspired by Damascus’ infamous Souk al Hamidiyeh kiosk of the same name. ‘We use natural ingredients, such as mastic, sahlab, fresh cream and butter,’ says Bani Melhem. ‘Our Arabic flavours, like toot shami, are the most popular.’ Head to the new coffee shop next door to fashion an affogato, where qahwa is freshly brewed in a rakweh and buried in sand to keep it piping hot.
11:00am – Noor Al Hussein Foundation
Northern Aqaba has in recent years played host to a rising number of educational institutions, such as the leading primary schools in the quaintly removed northern Al Rashidiya neighbourhood. One such organisation investing in Jordan’s future generations is the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, a non-profit non-governmental entity which since 1985 has sought to mitigate poverty by promoting micro finance, job creation and community development, among a host of additional services. The foundation’s Aqaba branch has applied these aims to local unemployed college graduates and underprivileged women. Situated within a compound just alongside a primary school, the organisation’s unassuming one-floor facility plays host to a buzzing assortment of young adults and older homemakers, each utilising tools the foundation has on offer.
‘With our computer stations, a business development incubator and nursery we are able to provide the community with the type of help our impoverished areas need. With this branch of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation we are able to bring great services to Aqaba. Programmes around the healthcare centre and development plans for making money for locals through art is very important for us,’ says Muhammad Al Zoubi, the foundation’s Community Development Manager. The foundation’s efforts can be found partly at its beachside showroom, which sells jewellery, embroidery, pottery and shawls designed and manufactured by Aqabwi women in Al Rashidiya.
2:00pm – Sayadieh at Stacoza
Across town from the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, past the many restaurants which line the streets of the city centre, is Aqaba’s Old Town. Neighbourhood fishmongers present the finest tween, hamra and hamour the Red Sea has to offer. Positioned along a narrow lane are a handful of rustic restaurants, each poised to dish up the fish caught from nearby. Stacoza (‘lobster’ in Arabic) is a small and locally-treasured restaurant perched just above the Old Town on Al Manara Street, displaying its own collection of fresh catch just beyond the restaurant’s 15-seat dining room. With outdoor tables and a view of the sea, Stacoza is nearly at capacity as its lunchtime regulars dig in. Slightly removed from central Aqaba and its tourist friendly dinner options, it’s an intimate family diner where the servers know the patrons on a first name basis.
‘Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish, our most common. But, when my friends come from Amman I invite them over for some sayadieh. This is standard Arabic beach food. The difference between ours and others is the rice and the soup. Sayadieh’s rice is cooked with onions so that it becomes brown,’ explains local business owner and Stacoza regular Mohamed Hillawi. A heaping portion of Stacoza’s sayadieh soon arrives steaming hot, with a bed of brown rice garnished with almond slices, resting below the two kilogramme selection of carefully-selected tween. Tabbouleh, hummus and sliced tomatoes round out the meal.
5:00pm – Al Aqaba Castle
Al Manara Street rolls downward toward the beach, coming to an end just shy of the Aqaba Heritage Museum. A relic of an era long gone, the centrepiece of the site is the Aqaba Castle. A stonewalled fort sitting 100 metres from the sea, the crumbling ruins rest in the shadow of the city’s massive flag pole which flies Jordan’s national colours of white, black, green and red, a remarkable juxtaposition between ancient Ayla and present-day Aqaba.
This place is the beginning of Jordan as we know it today
Originally an island fortress located in what is now Egypt, the castle was moved to the Jordanian shore in the 14th century by Mamluk sultans. Having existed for centuries as a strategically symbolic capture for warring factions, the castle now stands as a point of pride for the modern era. The ocean’s waves tickle the air mere metres away from the museum, offering the constant stream of beachgoers respite among the fort’s striking architecture. An attached facility exhibits pottery, teapots, lamps and other ancient artefacts, acting as one of the city’s few art galleries. Irbid native Osama Odat wanders through the small display, an indoor facility which complements the free, self-guided tours of the castle. ‘This place is the beginning of Jordan as we know it today. It is the castle of a great Jordanian, Hussein Bin Ali, and so I’ve come here to visit and learn more of my country’s past,’ Odat says.
8:00pm – Souk by the Sea
A large mural just off of Aqaba’s central thoroughfare cheerfully lines a wall leading to Souk by the Sea. The evening market is on hand every Friday and offers local artisans the opportunity to showcase their wares while encouraging tourists to stimulate the local economy. Running every October to May, the market’s stands are manned by local students and merchants, each hawking homemade jewellery, cosmetic mud sourced directly from the Dead Sea, handbags, local tea and traditionally made goods. The souk is arranged in a maze-like formation, leading visitors through a dozen perky vendors armed with a sales pitch, each closely quartered in the market’s tennis court-sized space.
Aqaba is a relaxed place and perfect for art
On this particular evening, an arty troupe of college friends are presenting their latest sketches for a few dinars apiece, while also offering portraits drawn on the spot for 10 dinars. Aqaba engineering student Abdulaziz Baddad is keen to attend the weekly gathering as it gives him and his friends a platform for their work. ‘There are people coming every week to see our art. We’ve drawn a street painting nearby to represent Aqaba, and Souk by the Sea allows us to show our work even more. Aqaba is a relaxed place and perfect for art. We’re happy to receive more visitors to what is Jordan’s best city,’ he beams.
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