Call: Aqaba, Jordan
that Lawrence of Arabia lurking in the hills above Aqaba?
This small port town used to have a key role in the region,
now it is a figurative and literal backwater.
"We’ve taken Aqaba,"
mutters a crusty Peter O’Toole when he encounters a tad bit of
difficulty ordering a lemonade with ice at the British officer’s
club in Cairo because of his turban and robes, filthy and tattered
after crossing the Sinai to report his victory. The small port town
he had recently conquered was a critical gateway to a large area of
southern Palestine and what is today Jordan. It was also the
underbelly of the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1917, and O’Toole’s
real-life character, the quirky killer T.E. Lawrence [of Arabia]
used the port as a staging area for guerrilla attacks which hastened
the downfall of the Turkish side of the Axis powers in World War I.
Surrounded by impenetrable desert, Aqaba was defended by artillery
that pointed only toward the sea. Lawrence accomplished the
impossible by crossing the Negev desert from the north with his Arab
comrades who crushed the Turkish troops, mainly because the tassels
on their silly hats could swivel all the way around, but their big
guns could not. Nuts.
Getting to Aqaba by ship means a
long voyage 1,200 miles up the Red Sea until one reaches the Sinai
Peninsula. Turn to port and you’re in the Khalij as-Suways, a
desert dead end just like its twin, the Gulf of Aqaba to starboard,
until 1869 when a French company dug the Suez Canal and made Aqaba a
port of much less importance. The final version of the canal, which
had been built and then left to deteriorate by both ancient
Egyptians and Romans, rendered Aqaba a figurative and literal
Today the Aqaba region may be the
only place in the world where the borders of four nations converge
on a small body of water, all of which are within a short ferry ride’s
distance of each other. But instead of a vibrant nexus of diverse
Arabic and Semitic cultures, the quartette more closely resembles
the center of a left over pizza of middle eastern misery, hold the
human rights. Consider the toppings: The Hashemite Kingdom of
Jordan--a place where the government can permanently or temporarily
close any newspaper or media outlet for publishing anything with
which it disagrees; Egypt--a society so deeply divided that southern
Egyptians are not even trusted with butter knives in public places
up north; Saudi Arabia--a place where the same royal families who
are entrusted with guarding the holiest sites in Islam run lucrative
black markets supplying the staples of whatever the Koran forbids,
and where women are essentially reproductive chattel (but don’t
get too excited--women in the U.S. weren’t allowed to vote until
1920); and finally, Palestine/Israel--the beneficiary of the great
Zionist experiment, billed as "a land without a people, for a
people without a land." The slogan could easily be updated to
something like "a land with a people who can be forced
out and subjugated through intimidation and violence, for a people
who will do so, provided they get a handsome subsidy from U.S.
One thing Aqaba does have going
for it is great scuba diving. The crystal clear saline waters have
been protected by relatively light shipping traffic and limited
onshore development, as well as a clause in the 1994 treaty between
Israel and Jordan creating the Red Sea Marine Peace Park. Aqaba,
Jordan--you can get there from the San Francisco Bay in just 40 days
traveling at 10 knots via the Panama Canal, Europa Point, and the
Suez Canal, a mere 9,628 miles away.
Port of Call is a regular feature
that takes a humorous historical look at ferry important places
around the globe each month, exclusively in Bay Crossings.
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