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Eilat - a garden city where the desert meets the sea

Eilat is a bustling Red Sea port and sought after tourist destination with a history as a Jewish city going back 3,000 years.

Comment from a reader : "You put a lot of effort into your most comprehensive history of Eilat. Even managed to teach me, an ex-Eilati, a few new things"

Panoramic view of modern Eilat

The Great Rift Valley

Eilat is an ideally situated international port located at the intersection of the southern apex of the Negev Desert and the most northerly point of the Red Sea. This junction is also at the crossroads of Africa, Arabia and western Asia while the Red Sea opens up routes to India, east Africa and the Far East. The narrow gulf connecting Eilat with the Red Sea is known as either the Gulf of Eilat or the Gulf of Aqaba, both names being officially acceptable. The Gulf of Eilat, my name of choice, is an area blessed with magnificent coral reefs, as is much of the Red Sea. The geological formation known as the Great Rift Valley, which extends all the way from Mozambique in Southern Africa to Lebanon, follows the course of the Red Sea into the Arava Valley, through the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley into Lake Kinneret, with Eilat being the point at which the Dead Sea Rift meets the Red Sea Rift. The prevalence of earthquakes in much of Israel is the result of movement in the tectonic plates to the east and west of the Rift Valley. Now let's have a look at some history of the ancient port city of Eilat.

The earliest mentions of Eilat are to be found in 4,000 year old 12th Dynasty Egyptian records, which reference Eilat as the port used for shipping copper from the Timna Mines in the Negev to Thebes, capital of Egypt. The time frame of these records coincide more or less with the Biblical records of the captivity of Joseph, circa 1800 BCE, which leads me to a small digression. Archaeological tests indicate that a significant drought affected Egypt during that period, adding credence to Joseph’s prophecy of 7 dry years. Records also show that a canal was built at the time to divert water from the Nile River to Lake Quran, situated in one of ancient Egypts most fertile regions, which was drying out as a result of the drought, portending an imminent food shortage. Most interestingly, the ancient Arabic name for the canal is Bahr Yusuf, which translates to Joseph's Canal, lending credence to the Biblical record that Joseph occupied a leadership position making him responsible for the preparations to deal with the expected drought that he had prophesied. The building of the canal could well have been one of the measures taken by Joseph to ameliorate the effects of the drought.

Joseph's Canal

Biblical Eilat

Back to Eilat, which is mentioned in the Bible as having been one of the 4 waystations in the area of Eilat at which the Children of Israel had rested after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Much later Eilat was captured from the Edomites during the reign of King David, while his son Solomon restored the port to its former importance as a Red Sea trade centre, although the actual port was named Ezion Geber. Solomon’s fleet that was dispatched to collect gold from the fabled “Land of Punt'', is recorded as having departed from the port of Ezion Geber. The Edomites recaptured Eilat during the reign of Judean King Ahaz circa 720 BCE, after which it became an important Edomite trading port for the next 300 years. During the Roman era a road was built linking Eilat with the important Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan, with the ruins of that city now a favoured tourist destination featuring regular tours from Eilat to Petra. (when there is no coronavirus) During the Muslim era a significant copper smelting industry existed close to Eilat’s northern border during the 200 year hundred period between 700 and 900 CE.

Position of Ezion Geber on the eastern shore of Eilat Bay

Ancient Arab documents dating back to the time of Mohammed relating to his conquest of the southern areas of the Negev mention an agreement between him and the Jews of Eilat confirming their right to practice their religion and retain control of Eilat, in return for an annual tax. This agreement was rescinded after the death of Mohammed, when the whole area, including Eilat, was occupied by Muslim forces in the mid 7th century. The primary importance of Eilat during the period of Islamic rule was as a way station for Muslim pilgrims journeying to Mecca. During the period of the British Mandate Eilat was known by the Arabic name of Umm Al-Rashrash and is still referred to by that name with the epithet “occupied”, in the Arab press.

Umm Al-Rashrash becomes Eilat

Despite the fact that the 1922 League of Nations Mandate and the 1947 United Nations Partition plan both called for Eilat to become an integral part of a future Israel, the British police fort at Umm Al-Rashrash was handed over to Arab League forces prior to the end of the British Mandate over Palestine. Prompted by the British government, the Kingdom of Transjordan claimed sovereignty over most of the southern Negev. The British motivation was to have the entire region between the Suez canal and Jordan under its sphere of influence, while denying Israel vital access to the Red Sea. Some reports (unconfirmed) mention that the southern Negev in Jordanian hands would allow an oil pipeline to be laid from the oilfields in Iraq, through Jordan and across the Sinai Peninsula to the Mediterranean, bearing in mind that Iraq, Jordan and Egypt all fell within the British sphere of influence at that time. During initial ceasefire talks in January 1949, Jordan’s king Abdullah was insistent on retaining control of the southern Negev as instructed by his British masters.

Israeli advance on Umm Al-Rashrash - Operation Uvda (Fact)

Negev Brigade route in black - Golani Brigade route in red

Photo thanks to Wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License

David Ben Gurion and the new Israeli government were well aware of the strategic importance of a Red Sea port for the future of the nascent Jewish state. Detailed plans were prepared for a military operation to thwart Jordanian and British designs on the region and secure the southern Negev for Israel. Codenamed Operation Uvda (Fact in English),the plan called for Israeli forces to establish the fact of Israel’s sovereignty over the entire Negev, in terms of the United Nations Partition plan. Responsibility for Operation Uvda was given to the Alexandroni, Negev and Golani Brigades and commenced on 5 March 1949. While Alexandroni was tasked with securing Ein Gedi, Masada and the Dead Sea region, the Negev and Golani Brigades were tasked with getting to Umm Al-Rashrash with all haste to dislodge the Jordanians forces holding the former British police fort. Four days later, by 9 March, the Alexandroni Brigade had achieved its objectives, while the respective commanders of the Negev and Golani Brigades, Nahum Sarig and Nachum Golan were ready to advance on Umm Al-Rashrash. The Negev Brigade would approach from the west while the Golani Brigade would move in from the east, as can be seen on the map above.

A reconnaissance flight on the morning of 10 March established that the Jordanian forces had abandoned the police fort and the race was on between the two brigades to be the first to reach Umm Al-Rashrash. The contest was won by a company of the 8th Battalion, Negev Brigade, commanded by Avraham “Bren” Adan. The first priority was to hoist the National Flag over the fort, signifying Israel's authority over the southern Negev. For unknown reasons no flag was available and an improvised flag, which became known as the Ink Flag, was made, using a white sheet and blue ink. The raising of the Ink Flag signalled the end of Israel’s War of Independence and confirmed it's sovereignty over the entire Negev.

Avraham “Bren” Adan raising the Ink Flag at Umm Al-Rashrash

Eilat is reborn

The modern city of Eilat was established in 1951, very rapidly becoming important as Israel’s gateway to the Red Sea, particularly following Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal to all Israeli shipping. During 1956, in an attempt to strangle Israel, Egypt closed the Strait of Tiran, to Israeli shipping. The Strait is the passage and only approach from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Eilat. The closure effectively denied maritime access to Eilat, which was a major factor in persuading Israel to join Britain and France in a war against Egypt, which became the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Prior to the Six Day War of 1967, Egypt one again closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. With almost 90% of Israel’s oil supplies coming in through Eilat, this was considered an act of war, one of several factors that resulted in the preemptive air attack on Egypt by Israel on 5 June 1967, a raid that destroyed almost the entire Egyptian air force while it was on the ground. This signalled the start of the Six Day War, with Israel’s victory against the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq changing the face of the Middle East.

Eilat in 1953, two years after is founding

Image attribution: Attribution 2.5 Generic , ארכיון הצילומים קק ל, הצלם ג'ו מלקולם

Avraham Zakai

The development of Eilat began with the construction of the airport, which was opened on 28 February 1950, followed by the influx of a small number of pioneers who joined the military personnel and port officials as the first residents of the small settlement. The first Jewish civilian governor of the Eilat District was Avraham Zakai, who arrived there after a long, arduous and tragic journey. He was born as Kurt Rein in the Sudetenland in 1922, becoming a member of a Zionist youth movement as a thirteen year old. The Rein family fled the region shortly before the 1938 Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, the consequence of British and French appeasement of Hitler in the vain hope of preventing a European war. Seventeen year old Kurt decided not to remain in Czechoslovakia with his family, but rather move to Palestine, leaving his parents, sister and a niece behind, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. Following his arrival in Palestine, he changed his name to Avraham (Avi) Zakai and joined the Haganah paramilitary defence movement.

Avraham Zakai as a member of the Palmach

Avraham Zakai was one of the founders of Kibbutz Dorot in 1942, then the most southerly Jewish settlement in the Negev. Dorot is about 10 kms east of Sderot, which was founded in 1951. The name Dorot is derived from the initials of famous Zionist pioneer Dov Hoz , his wife Rivka and daughter Tirza, who all died in a car accident in 1940. Hoz was the founder of Aviron Aviation in 1936, one of Palestine's first air services, while Rivka was the sister of Moshe Sharett, second prime minister of Israel. Dov Hoz Airport which served Tel Aviv until recently was named in his memory.

Back to Zakai, who participated in Operation Uvda and was a member of the military force that captured Umm Al-Rashrash. With the establishment of Eilat in 1950, Avraham Zakai was discharged from the army and appointed as the first Israeli civilian governor of the region. He was also appointed as the Director of the Negev Commission, which was tasked with developing the infrastructure of the southern Negev. Among its achievements, the commission established a tarred road between Eilat and Beer Sheva, drilled boreholes to supply the Arava with water and revitalised the Dead Sea Works, with Eilat becoming a major export centre for Dead Sea mineral products. Avraham Zakai recalled for military during the 1956 Sinai Campaign and then to participate in the Six Day War during which he was severely wounded.

Eilat becomes an oil terminal

With most the global oil supplies being produced in unfriendly Arab countries, Israel suffered an oil shortage from its inception. This was remedied by an agreement to purchase oil from Iran, which was concluded in 1956. Between then and mid 1957, three oil storage tanks were built in Eilat and an oil pipeline laid from Eilat to Beer Sheva. Another three storage tanks were commissioned in Beer Sheva and Iranian oil soon started flowing through Eilat. The oil was piped to Beer Sheva and transported by rail to the refineries in Haifa, establishing Eilat as Israel’s major oil importing terminal. Additional pipelines to Ashkelon with greater capacity have since been laid, followed by gas pipelines. Eilat now serves as a major import terminal for oil and as an export gateway for Israeli produced liquid petroleum gas (LPG) products.

Motor vehicles arrive in Eilat from the East

The increasing importance of Japan and South Korea as automobile manufacturers placed Eilat in an ideal position for the import of cars produced in the East. From statistics that are available, motor vehicle imports have become the most lucrative source of revenue for the Eilat Port Company, with 60% of Israel’s car imports coming in through Eilat. Of the 286,000 automobiles that Israel imported in 2016, over 170,000 came in through Eilat and were then transported by road and rail to the major population centres in Israel.

Eilat as a tourist destination

Besides its importance as an economic centre, Eilat has also become a sought after tourist destination, for locals as well as foreign tourists. The Eilat Marina with moorings for 250 yachts is the centre of a highly developed Red Sea cruising, diving and coral reef snorkeling industry, as well as providing mooring facilities for visiting yachts. South African born entrepreneur Morris Kahn established an underwater observatory and marine park which opened in 1974 and now attracts around 400,000 visitors annually. Kahn’s operating company, Coral World, has since opened underwater observatories modelled on the Eilat blueprint in localities as far afield as Maui in Hawaii, Perth in Australia and Palma de Mallorca in Spain. Another aquatic wonderland is Dolphin Reef where visitors can interact and swim with the dolphins.

While I could carry writing about the attractions of Eilat for another 10 pages, I will mention only two of the amazing inland tourist attractions, which are well worth a visit. Must visits are the oldest copper mining centre in the world at Timna Valley Park, and the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, which cares for endangered animal species, including several biblical animal strains that are still to be found in the area.

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Fascinating history, as always, thank you Peter! My education continues!

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