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Archaeology in Israel: The Eilat Region

Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel, is located on the northern shore of the Red Sea.

The location of biblical Eilat has been identified as that of present-day Akaba in Jordan, which has the only water source in the region. Akaba is located across the gulf from present-day Eilat.

Eilat is mentioned several times in the Bible, mainly in connection with King Solomon: King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Etzion-Geber near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. (1 Kings 9:26) The ongoing conflict between Solomon - and later kings of Judah - and the Kingdom of Edom over control of Eilat was primarily for economic reasons, since it was on the trade route from the East to the Mediterranean ports.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Eilat was a fort protecting the southern border of the empire against incursions of nomadic Arabian tribes. In the Middle Ages, the region became important as a crossroads for Muslim pilgrims en route to the Hejaz and its holy cities, Mecca and Medina.

At first glance the desert region of Eilat appears unsuited for human settlement. However, a large number of surveys and excavations carried out near the city since the 1980s have provided evidence of agricultural settlements, encampments and cult sites which existed there over the past several thousands of years. The sites described below are examples of periods when the region flourished; during other periods the "desert" returned and human activity became minimal.

Prehistoric Sites in the Uvda Valley

This valley is located in the mountainous region northwest of Eilat. It is covered with rich alluvial soil from the surrounding mountains. In Neolithic times (8th-4th millennia BCE) there was more rainfall in this region than there is today. This created a savannah environment, permitting human hunter-gatherers to live on wild grains and on the meat of hunted animals (deer, gazelle, wild ass and birds).

The Nahal Ashrun site, in the eastern part of the valley, has been almost completely excavated. This site, of some 400 square meters, dates from the 8th-7th millennia BCE and consists of several dozen rounded stone dwellings, two to four meters in diameter, built close together. The inhabitants of this Neolithic village were hunters, as evidenced by hundreds of flint arrowheads and bones of undomesticated animals found in the dwellings; they also gathered wild grain, which they ground on the primitive grindstones found in the settlement.

Another cult site in the Uvda Valley, an open-air sanctuary, consists of a 12 x 12 m. square courtyard surrounded by a low stone wall. The corners of this structure correspond to the four points of the compass. Three conical basins containing ashes were found in the courtyard and in the center of a ritual cell stood sixteen 20 to 30 cm. high upright stones. Carbon-14 tests provided a 6th millennium BCE date for the site.

A short distance from the sanctuary, a group of sixteen life-size representations of animals, made of small rectangular pieces of limestone, were found embedded into the ground. Fifteen of them face east and represent leopards with square heads, huge eyes, four legs and an upward-curving tail. One horned animal faces west, the slightly twisted horns suggesting an antelope. Is it possible that this was a cult-site where supplication to the gods for protection of the shepherds and their flocks against predators (leopards) was practiced thousands of years ago?

During the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), an agricultural revolution took place in the region. Hunting and gathering of grain were replaced by cultivation of barley and wheat and by herds of domesticated goats and sheep. Small settlements with planned stone dwellings and stone-lined grain silos dug into the ground were uncovered throughout the valley. Harvesting of the grain was done with sickles of bone or wood, into which toothed flint blades had been inserted; the grain was ground on grindstones, many of which were found in the dwellings.

The Roman Fortress at Yotvata

The fortress is located in the Arava Valley, some 40 km. north of Eilat. Built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 -305) as part of a line of border fortresses (limes) in the Negev, it was manned by cavalry and camel riders to protect the trade route against marauding Arab nomads. The fortress was a typical Roman military building D a square of 40 x 40 m., surrounded by a wall with four projecting towers at the corners. The lower part of the wall was built of stone, while the upper part was made of sunbaked mudbricks. The only gate was in the eastern wall, facing the road along the Arava Valley.

At the foot of the gate a carefully dressed limestone slab measuring 67 x 58 cm. was found, inscribed with Latin text in the rectangular frame and the two "ears", one on each of its sides. Of the nine lines of text, two and a half lines were intentionally obliterated. The inscription is dedicated to Emperor Diocletian and his three co-regents and commemorates the construction of the gate-wing of the fortress under the supervision of the governor, Priscus.

The inscription reads:

For perpetual peace
Diocletian Augustus and
Maximian Augustus and
Constantius and Maximianus the most noble Caesars
erected the wing with the gate,
by care of Priscus
the governor of the province
of (Syria Palestina?)
(left "ear") Numerous vows for the twenty year jubilee
(right "ear") Numerous vows for the forty year jubilee

Settlements of the Early Arab Period

In Wadi Tawahin, about 4 kms. north of Eilat, an industrial site of the Umayyad period (7th to 8th centuries) was excavated. It consisted of several round and rectangular one-room structures. Many round diorite grinding mills and stone anvils for crushing were found in and around these structures. On the floors, and especially near the mills, a white powder was found which chemical analysis showed to contain minute quantities of gold (one gram per one ton of rock), indicating that the site had served for processing gold.

At Ein Evrona, located a few kilometers north of Eilat, remains of a farmstead of the early Arab period (7th - 9th centuries) were excavated.

Water for irrigation was collected by means of a very sophisticated man-made system. A deep well was dug into the aquifer at the foot of the mountains; from it, a series of shafts with connecting tunnels was dug. The water flowed through the tunnels by gravitation and then along an open ditch to the cultivated fields. The water system at Ein Evrona was explored over a length of one kilometer, of which 600 meters are a subterranean tunnel, wide and deep enough for a man to walk through. The fields of the farm had enclosure walls and dams and they were prepared with much care. Three buildings were excavated, one of them consisting of two rooms.

It is assumed that this was a viable farm which probably also provided services to the caravans passing through the Arava.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry