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Eilat, Israel - Background and History

Updated on March 12, 2013

Photo of the Mountains of Eilat

Eilat is a popular tourist destination for people from Israel and foreign tourists alike.
Eilat is a popular tourist destination for people from Israel and foreign tourists alike.

Eilat is a busy seaport in the southernmost region of Israel. The Gulf of Eilat is a branch of the Red Sea, through which the city can maintain maritime connection with much of the world. The location of the city adjacent to both the sea and the Sinai Peninsula relates to its importance in the history of Israel and the entire region.

The history of Eilat begins deep in the past, previous even to the biblical era. Archaeologists have determined that the site was in existence during the 7th millennium BC. Ancient records in Egypt indicate that the area was an important focus for mining operations and for trade with Egypt itself. Trade items such as frankincense, myrrh, linen and copper jewelry passed through the city’s busy docks.

Old Testament scholars believe that the patriarch Abraham, mentioned in the book of Genesis, sojourned in the region. The Israelites, after their flight from Egypt in the book of Exodus, spent some time wandering in the desert region around Eilat, before Moses led them on lands east of the Dead Sea.

Eilat was also apparently a crucial zone for the defenses of the Kingdom of Israel when David ruled. His son, Solomon, developed the port and based a navy there some ten centuries before the Christian era. Allegedly the famous Queen of Sheba traveled through this port on her way to see King Solomon. Besides serving as a port, Eilat was also home to copper-based industry.

From there the history of the city becomes more turbulent. Generations later, a storm destroyed the navy built by King Jehoshaphat. Syria took the town from Israel when Ahaz was King, and after that the town experienced numerous changes of possession. Eventually, the Turks built a new port at Aqaba, not far from Eilat, and the city’s influenced waned for centuries.

In 1949, Israeli forces seized the town without a fight just before the end of hostilities in the Israeli War for Independence. Initially, little could be done with the now-tiny town on the southern coast of Israel, though tourism was immediately a source of revenue and development. Since the Sinai War opened the Straits of Tiran in 1956, however, Eilat has grown slowly into a prosperous resort and seaport, and many tours to Israel pass through here.

As in the past with the Kings of Israel, the town continues to be a crucial point in Israel’s defenses and a conduit through which it can maintain communication and trade with the rest of the world.

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