A resort town of roughly 70,000 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 this in).
Unless you’re going by plane from Tel Aviv (an hour flight to the new Ramon International Airport that opened in 2019), 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 water sports.
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.
The 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.
Even 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.
And there’s plenty of activities outside the water, including rappelling on craggy cliffs of the desert mountains, hiking in the desert and mountain biking.
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 Center.
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
About 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 Egyptian visa.
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 (I 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 Jehoshaphat 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 Solomon.
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 the kingdom.