Aqaba has been an inhabited settlement since 4000 BC profiting from its strategic location at the junction of trading routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe. The early settlement was presumably Edomite in ancient times. It was a centre of the Edomites, and then of the Arab Nabataeans, during the first century B.C. who populated the region extensively. The oldest known text in Arabic alphabet is an inscription found in Jabal Ram 50 km east of Aqaba.
The Bible refers to the area in (1 Kings 9:26): "King Solomon also built ships in Ezion-Geber, which is near Eloth in Edom, on the shores of the Red Sea." Eloth (or Elath), which inspired the naming of the present-day Israeli city of Eilat a little further along the coast, probably refers to an Iron Age port city on the same ground as modern Aqaba.
The Ptolemaic Greeks called it Berenice, and the Romans Aila and Aelana. Aqaba reached its peak during Roman times, the great long distance road the Via Traiana Nova led south from Bostra through Amman, terminating in Aqaba, where it connected with a west road leading to Philistia and Egypt. Around 106 AD Aqaba was one of the main ports for the Romans. In the year 410 A.D. Aqaba (known then as Ayla) became the garrison of the Roman 10th Legion of the Sea Strait (Legio X Fretensis). Ayla was the home origin of what came to be known as the Ayla-Axum Amphoras.
Soon after the Islamic conquests, it came under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate, and thereafter passed through the hands of such dynasties as the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids and Mamluks. The early days of the Islamic era saw the construction of the city of Ayla, which was described by the geographer Shams Eddin Muqaddasi as being next to the true settlement, which was lying in ruins close by. The ruins of Ayla (unearthed in the 1980s by an American-Jordanian archeological team) are a few minutes walk north along the main waterfront road.
Some stories in the famous Arabian Nights also refer to Sinbad adventures to take the sea from this port city of Ayla.
During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Jerusalem controlled the area and built their fortress of Helim, which remains relatively well-preserved today. In addition to building a stronghold within Aqaba, the Crusaders fortified the small island of Ile de Graye (now known as Pharaoh's Island, near the shore of Sinai), now lies in Egyptian territorial waters about 7 kilometers west of Aqaba.
By 1187, both Aqaba and the island had been recaptured, for Muslim rule, by Saladin. The Mamluks took over in 1250 and rebuilt the fort in the 14th century under one of the last Mamluk sultans, Qansah al-Ghouri.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the Mamluk dynasty had fallen into decline and the area came under the influence of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire. During the following period, the city declined in status, for 400 years remaining a simple fishing village of little significance. The port of Aqaba quickly regained its importance after the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway, that connects the port to Damascus and Medina.
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