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And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Ezion-Geber, which is beside Eloth (Eilat), on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom

1 Kings 9:26

Excavations at Tell al-Khalifa, 4km west of central Aqaba and right on the border of Jordan and Israel & the Palestinian Territories, have revealed the ancient world's largest copper smelters, thought to be the biblical site of Ezion Geber. Smelting was carried out here from the 10th to 5th centuries BC, with ore coming from mines in Wadi Araba. Ezion Geber was also the ancient port from which King Solomon's fleet departed for the gold mines of Ophir (an unidentified location, possibly Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea or Yemen).

As trade with southern Arabia and Sheba (present-day Yemen) developed, the area around Aqaba thrived thanks to its position on one of the Middle East's major trade routes, with routes leading north to Petra, Damascus and Bosra; west to Egypt and Palestine; and south to Arabia. The recent discovery in Aqaba of ceramics from China and Aksumite coins from Ethiopia highlight the cosmopolitan nature of the port.

The town was occupied by the Ptolemies from Egypt during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, and then the Nabataeans from about the 3rd to 1st centuries BC. During Roman times the town was renamed Aqabat Ayla (Pass of Alia) and it housed a garrison of legionaries.

Intriguingly, archaeologists working at Ayla recently unearthed a late 3rd-century church, thought to be the world's oldest purpose-built church (earlier churches have been found but these were built for other purposes and later converted). The sanctuary was used for less than a century before it was destroyed by an earthquake.

In the 10th century, a Muslim traveller described Aqaba as 'a great city' and a meeting place of pilgrims en route to and from Mecca. In AD 1024 the town was sacked by local tribes and in 1068 a huge earthquake split the old city of Ayla in two, consigning the town to a minor historical role.

The Crusaders occupied the town in 1116 and fortified a small island nearby - then called Ile de Graye, but now known as Pharaoh's Island. By 1170 both the port and island were in the hands of the Ayyubids, under Saladin (Salah ad-Din). In 1250 the Mamluks took over. By the beginning of the 16th century the town had been swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, and lost much of its significance when the main trading area of the region was moved to Baghdad in the middle of the 16th century.

For about 500 years, until the Arab Revolt during WWI, Aqaba remained an insignificant fishing village. Ottoman forces occupying the town were forced to retreat after a raid by the Arabs and TE Lawrence in 1917. From then on, the British used Aqaba as a supply centre from Egypt for the push up through the Trans-Jordan and Palestine regions.

After WWI, the border between Trans-Jordan and Saudi Arabia had still not been defined, so Britain arbitrarily drew a line a few kilometres south of Aqaba. The Saudis disputed the claim but took no action. As the port of Aqaba grew, the limited coastline proved insufficient, so in 1965 King Hussein traded 6000 sq km of Jordanian desert for another 12km of coastline with Saudi Arabia.