Elath, or as it is more commonly known, Eilat (Heb. אֵילַת, אֵילֹת, אֵיוֹת) was an ancient harbor town in Transjordan at the northern end of the Red Sea near Ezion-Geber. 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.
Elath is first mentioned in the account of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert during the Exodus (Deut. 2:8). King David is believed to have established his southernmost defense line here. His son, Solomon, built a “navy of ships” at Ezion-Geber beside Elath; from there it sailed to Ophir manned by his servants and those of Hiram, king of Tyre (I Kings 9:26; I Chron. 8:17).
Later Uzziah (Azariah), king of Judah (785–733 B.C.E.), rebuilt Elath restoring it as the port of Judah on the Red Sea (II Kings 14:22) but after his reign Judahite control of the Negev ceased. In the Hellenistic period it served for a time as a Ptolemaic port called Berenice (Jos., Ant., 8:163) and it is later mentioned as a Nabatean port (re-named Aila) from which an important commercial highway led to Gaza (Strabo, Geography, 16:2, 30; Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 5:12).
Aila continued to be a major commercial and military port in Roman and Byzantine times. In the third century, the Tenth Legion, together with its headquarters, was transferred there from Jerusalem and it was thereafter a key point in the Byzantine defense system in the south of the country. The Byzantines also developed a trade route as an alternative to northern trade routes blocked from the east by the Persians. The Port of Eilat was built by them and was used for transporting goods from India and Ceylon.
The Jewish population in the neighborhood of Aila was augmented by Jewish tribes expelled from Arabia by Muhammad during whose time the Muslims gained control of the town, which was called in Arabic Akaba. The Mamluks improved the pilgrims’ route to Mecca and built a bridge at the Eilat crossing.
A Jewish community continued to exist there until the middle of the tenth century and possibly until the Crusader period. In 1116, Baldwin I, king of Jerusalem, captured the port; the fleet of Reynaud de Chatillon sailed from there to harass Arab maritime trade in the Red Sea.
Saladin, who brought the Crusaders’ rule to an end in 1170, erected a fortress at Akaba. By the 14th century the town was almost completely deserted and only under Turkish rule was an attempt made to develop it.
In June 1906, Aqaba was occupied by the British. The Zionists settling in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century believed the area should be part of a future Jewish state. David Ben-Gurion foresaw the city becoming a port and commercial center connected by rail to Jerusalem and Beersheba, which would facilitate trade through the Indian Ocean.
In 1947, Yigal Allon proposed deploying the Palmach to conquer Eilat with volunteer reinforcements from South Africa. The plan was not implemented but Israeli forces captured the city on March 13, 1949, as part of “Operation Uvdah” (“Established Fact”) during the War of Independence. According to the United Nations partition plan, Eilat was to be the southernmost tip of the Jewish state.
Up until 1949, Eilat was little more than a small Turkish police station called Um-Rashrash. 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 with a population of roughly 70,000.
Eilat is a popular tourist destination and getaway for Israelis with many clubs and restaurants. The main attraction is diving in the Gulf of Eilat, one of the world’s most spectacular underwater preserves. Eilat is also 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.
In January 2019, a new airport opened in Eilat. The Ramon International Airport situated in the Timna Valley about 10 miles north of Eilat will replace the old Eilat City Airport. It is named for Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, and his son Asaf, who died six years later when the F-16 fighter plane he was flying crashed during a training exercise.
Y. Ben-Zvi, She'ar Yashuv (1937), 97–119; N. Glueck, The Other Side of the Jordan (1940), 86–113; idem, in: AASOR, 15 (1934–35), 46ff.; A. Konikoff, Transjordan (1946), 80–82; The Israel Exploration Society, Elath (Heb., 1963); Z. Vilnay, Guide to Israel (19663); Aharoni, Land, index; Avi-Yonah, Geog, index; Press, Ereẓ, 1 (19512), 16–17. MODERN: Fenton and Steinitz, in: Ariel, 20 (1967), 61–72.