Aqaba, Jordan (1917 AD)
The Battle of Aqaba, a relatively minor engagement of World War I, has nevertheless loomed large in the public imagination for nearly a century. This is due to the romanticized idea of the great Bedouin cavalry charge which stormed as if from nowhere out of the desert, under the leadership of one of the war’s most famous leaders, T.E. Lawrence. This action was the first truly major victory of the Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire, and was a decisive turning point in the war in the Middle East. The Battle of Aqaba was famously depicted in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had dominated the Arabian Peninsula, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Periodic uprisings against the Ottomans had long yielded few victories, though the Turks were never able to defeat the Arabs entirely. At the outbreak of World War I, the Bedouin tribes of Arabia saw their chance, and made an alliance of sorts with the Entente powers, notably Britain, against the Ottomans.
Encouraged by the British, who desired to open a new front in the Middle Eastern theater, the Arab tribes broke out into a full-scale revolt in 1916. This forced the Ottomans to commit significant forces to the region, which was the main British objective. The British sent officer T.E. Lawrence to Arabia to represent them and advise the Bedouins. What they did not expect was Lawrence taking a leadership role in the revolt.
In early 1917, with the ridicule and without the support from the British, Lawrence conceived of a plan to take Aqaba, a small but highly strategic port on the Red Sea. Leading a band of Bedouins across the open desert, he arrived in the area of Aqaba where he gathered additional strength. The Turks did not expect an attack from this direction, and when the Arab army arrived in Aqaba, they all but took the Turks by surprise.
Fighting took place mainly around a small fortified blockhouse that guarded the landward approach to the city. In one of the last great cavalry charges of history, Bedouin horsemen and camel rides surged out of the desert and overwhelmed the defenders in short order. Aqaba finally fell, securing a critical strategic flank for the British, and making T.E. Lawrence a household name and war hero.
The Battle of Aqaba took place primarily near the blockhouse and along the road to the northeast of the city. The remains of the blockhouse can still be visited. The most popular battle-related site is the great flagstaff near the shoreline where the banner of the Arab revolt was raised after the victory. Also of interest outside of Aqaba is Wadi Rum, a hill where Lawrence and his men rested after crossing the desert.
The Aqaba battlefield, such as it is, is just northeast of Agaba, approximately 220 miles south of Amman. The sites of Wadi Rum are approximately forty miles west of Aqaba. All relevant sites in Aqaba are open with no charge for admission. Wadi Rum can be toured under the auspices of a Bedouin guide. Web: www.aqaba.jo (official tourism website of Aqaba).