A resort town of 20,000 and bustling port, combining sea
and desert, Eilat lies at Israel's southernmost tip.
The sun always shines
in Eilat (it rains about a half dozen days a year) and the average daytime
temperatures rarely dip below 70°F (21°C), even in winter. During the
summer, temperatures can soar well above 100°F and the water can feel
almost like a Jacuzzi. Even in mid-winter, the average daytime water
temperature stays above 68°F (20°C). Make sure to drink lots of water,
keep your head covered and wear sun screen (your mother asked me to put
Unless you're going by plane from Tel Aviv (an hour
flight), it's a very long schlep (about a four hour drive from Tel Aviv or
Jerusalem), but one you'll be glad you took, especially if you're into
Eilat is a great place for water skiing and swimming. The
calm surface of the sea is also ideal for boating activities: sailboats,
rowboats, kayaks and motor boats.
main attraction of Eilat is diving in the Red Sea (actually an inlet from
the sea known as the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba), one of the world's most
spectacular underwater preserves. You can see brightly colored coral and
fish and may see everything from a venomous lionfish to a moray eel to a
shark to a sea turtle to a manta ray.
if you're not a diver, you can enjoy the magnificent coral reef from the
surface with a snorkel and mask or on a glass-bottom boat ride (though you
usually don't see nearly as much). If you want a really unique view (and
don't mind spending the money), try an underwater safari in a submarine
(yup, it's a real one) that holds 50 people and takes you 200 feet below
the surface. And, if you're really a landlubber, there's the Coral
World Underwater Observatory that lets you enjoy the wonders of the Sea as
if it were an aquarium. One of only four in the world, the observatory
offers a kaleidoscopic view of the reef and sea life 15 feet below the
surface. One of the newer Eilat attractions is Dolphin Reef, where you can
swim and dive with dolphins.
there's plenty of activities outside the water, including rappelling on
craggy cliffs of the desert mountains, hiking in the desert and mountain
Less well-known is the fact that Eilat is one of the
best places in the world for bird
watching. Approximately one billion birds traverse the
area between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan mountains, making
southern Israel the site of one of the greatest concentrations of migrating
birds in the world. The migration from Europe to Africa takes place
from September to November and the return flight begins in March and lasts
through May. Eilat is the headquarters for the International Birdwatching
If the searing heat hasn't sapped all your energy, Eilat
is also known as a great place to party at night with lots of restaurants,
bars and nightclubs. It's also a good place to shop because the city is a
free trade zone with no VAT.
Into the Desert
17 miles (27 km.) north of Eilat is the Timna Valley National Park. This
desert area is another good place for hiking, jeep tours and camel rides.
It is the site of ancient copper mines said to be run by King
Solomon. The most striking site is "The Mushroom." Once you
see it, you'll immediately understand how this sandstone rock formation got
its name. Another impressive formation is Solomon's Pillars. Timna also has
an artificial lake and has become a popular recreational area for Israelis.
Also in the area is the Hai Bar wildlife reserve. This
8,000-acre sanctuary is home to many rare and endangered desert animals.
You can take a tour through the reserve, though it's unlikely you'll see
too many of the animals during the hot part of the day unless you go to a
special dark room where some of them can be viewed. Rest assured, however,
leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, gazelles, ostriches and many other species live
in the park.
When Israel signed its peace
treaty with Egypt, the desert where Moses led the Israelites for 40 years and received the Torah became Egyptian territory. Today, Sinai is largely off the main Israeli
tourist route, though seaside resorts along the Gulf of Aqaba are booming.
It is still possible to travel through the desert and make the strenuous
hike up to the Byzantine monastery of Santa Katerina on Mt. Sinai. The Egyptian consulate in Eilat
offers a "Sinai Only" pass to tour the immediate region. To go
further south, beyond Sharm-el-Sheik, or to cross the Suez Canal into the
main part of Egypt, you need an
The derivation of Eilat's name is unclear. It may come
from the Hebrew word, ayil, which means "ram." These
animals grazed here in the time of Abraham.
In the Bible, the
Israelites "passed by the way of the plain of Elath" and
"encamped at Etzion Gaber" (Numbers 33:35 and Deut. 2:8-9). King
David is believed to have established his southernmost defense line here.
The area was developed by his son, Solomon, who built a navy that he used
to bring back gold and spices from the land of Ophir (1 Kings, 9:26). The
Queen of Sheba was also supposed to have passed through Eilat on the way to
see the King in Jerusalem.
King Jehoshophat of Judah also built a navy in Eilat,
but it was lost in a storm. During the reign of King Ahaz, Eilat fell
to the King of Syria. From that point on, the city changed hands -- and
names -- many times. The Egyptians called it Berenice and the Romans Aila.
Eilat's importance gradually declined, particularly after the Ottoman
Turks built a new port at nearby Aqaba. Up until 1949, Eilat was little
more than a small Turkish police station called Um-Rashrash. The ancient
site of Eilat with remains from the Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval
periods has been located north of present day Aqaba.
On March 13, 1949, Israeli forces occupied Eilat in the
"Operation Uvdah" ("Established Fact"), in the last
military move in the War of Independence. According to the United Nations
partition plan, Eilat was to be the southernmost tip of the Jewish state.
In December 1949, members of the Kibbutz ha-Me'uhad set up a temporary
camp in Eilat. Since Israeli independence and the opening of the Straits of Tiran in the 1956 Sinai War, the town
has gradually grown into the major resort it is today.
The Cause of War
The Red Sea area is beautiful, but it is also important
to the political history of Israel. Your first thought might be of the
biblical story of Moses parting the Red Sea when the Israelites left Pharaoh's Egypt, but both
biblical scholars and archaeologists believe the biblical reference is to
the Sea of Reeds, which no longer exists and was in a different location.
Eilat was, however, an important port dating to the reign of King
The Red Sea played a role in more recent Jewish history.
If you look at the map, you'll notice Israel is not the only riparian
nation. On the northeast end of the Gulf, Jordan borders the Sea. Its port of Aqaba is just three miles (5 km.) east of
Eilat. Most of the eastern shore is Saudi
Arabia; yes, Saudi Arabia (bet you didn't realize it was so close to Israel -- 12 miles south of
Aqaba). And, the territory at the southern tip, and across the sea guarding
its entrance is Egypt.
Shortly after Israel's victory in its War
of Independence in 1948, and again in 1967, Egypt blockaded the Strait of Tiran leading from the Red Sea into the Gulf of
Eilat (which stretches 140 miles from Eilat to Sharm-el-Sheikh), preventing
Israeli shipping from moving in or out of the port of Eilat and thereby
cutting Israel's lifeline to Africa and the Far East. The Israelis
considered this an act of war and was one of the reasons for attacking Egypt in what became the Sinai
Campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day
War of 1967.
In the first war, Israel captured all of the Sinai
desert and controlled the entire peninsula adjacent to the Gulf. Under pressure
from President Eisenhower, Israel withdrew and a UN
peacekeeping force was deployed to insure Israel's freedom of shipping.
In 1967, the force was withdrawn at the request of
Egyptian President Nasser (in violation of the UN agreement creating the
force) and he again blockaded the strait. In the brief war that followed,
Israel reconquered the area. This time, it held the area along the Sea
until signing a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Israel withdrew from the area south of Eilat in 1982, though
it tried to hold the small town of Taba near the southern tip of the Gulf
where it had built a tourist resort. After international mediation,
however, Israel agreed to return Taba to Egypt in 1988.
Israel's relations with Jordan have been less rancorous and, since the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian
peace treaty in 1994, a number of cooperative projects have been
developed for the Eilat/Aqaba region, including one to protect
the Gulf. Just north of Eilat it is possible to book a trip to Jordan
to visit Petra. A tourist visa is required to enter Jordan.
The largest riparian state, Saudi
Arabia, remains technically at war with Israel. Though it has never
played a major role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, beyond financing Arab
forces, Israel has remained concerned about the Saudis'
massive arms buildup. Indeed, when you travel south of Eilat and can
look across the Gulf and see Saudi
Arabia, it is easier to understand why Israel's friends have been
concerned over the years about the sale of sophisticated U.S. aircraft to