ELATH (in modern Israel, Eilat ; Heb. אֵילַת, אֵילֹת, אֵיוֹת), ancient harbor town in Transjordan at the northern end of the Red Sea near *Ezion-Geber. Elath is first mentioned in the account of the Israelites' wanderings in the desert during the Exodus (Deut. 2:8). 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 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. 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. The ancient site of Elath with remains from the Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval periods has been located north of Akaba.
Modern Eilat is 3 mi. (5 km.) west of *Akaba along the coast. The site, a wasteland bearing the Arabic name Umm Rashrash, was included in the future Jewish state in the un partition plan of 1947. In fact, it was occupied by Israel forces on March 13, 1949, in the bloodless "Operation Uvdah" ("Established Fact"), which was the last military move in the *War of Independence. A first step in establishing a civilian settlement was made in December 1949 when members of Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me'uḥad set up a temporary camp on the Eilat shore. They transferred their settlement in 1962 about 2 mi. (3 km.) further north, where it became kibbutz Eilot. The first water pipeline was laid in 1952 to Eilat to take water from the *Be'er Orah and *Yotvatah wells which, however, are strongly saline (1,500 mg. chlorine content per liter and with a strong magnesium content). In the ensuing years, the first dwellings were built. By December 1952 Eilat received local council status. As long as the Straits of Tiran were closed to Israel-bound shipping, Eilat's growth was extremely slow (275 inhabitants in 1953, 520 in 1956). A few services to excursionists, experimental coastal fishing, and mineral exploration provided the inhabitants' principal occupations. The turning point came with the opening of the straits in the *Sinai Campaign (1956). Two months later, Eilat's population increased to 926 inhabitants. In view of its outstanding importance for Israel's development, Eilat was given city status in March 1959, although it had only 3,500 inhabitants, still far from the 20,000 population mark which in Israel normally warrants the accordance of this status. In 1963, the population rose to 7,000, and by 1968 reached 12,100, 80% veteran Israelis or Israel-born and the rest immigrants who were less than five years in the country. In the mid-1990s, Eilat's population reached 33,300 and by the end of 2002 it was already 42,100, spread over an area of 30 sq. mi. (80 sq. km.). Eilat's town planning, taking the local topography into account, endeavored to direct most of the city's living quarters to the hills rising at a short distance from the beach, to altitudes of 100–400 m. above sea level, where the climate is slightly cooler than on the shore. The many narrow gorges cutting through the hilly area make planning and communications difficult.
The renewed blockade of the Tiran Straits in May 1967 by Egypt threatened Eilat's existence and future as Israel's gateway to East Africa, South and East Asia, and Australia. That move led to the *Six-Day War, in which the Egyptian plan (according to documents found in Sinai) to cut off the city from the interior of Israel by pushing through to Jordanian territory in the Aravah Valley was foiled by Israel's victory, which subsequently accelerated Eilat's progress. From time to time in the period following June 1967, Arab saboteurs made attempts to attack Eilat despite the Jordanian government's fear that Israel's countermeasures against Jordan's only port, Akaba, would constitute an incomparably heavier blow for Jordan.
Great efforts were directed to creating the city's infrastructure. In 1957 the Eilat–Mizpeh Ramon–Beersheba road was built, and opened to traffic in January 1958. In 1967, the Eilat–Sedom highway was put into use. In 1969, construction began on the road leading from Eilat southward to Sharm el-Sheikh. With the sea bottom sloping steeply from the Eilat shore, port building there is relatively easy. From 1957 the original anchorage was repeatedly enlarged to cope with the mounting sea cargo traffic, and an oil port was installed in the southwest of the city. A new port was built at an investment of il 20,000,000 (about $ 5,700,000) and opened in 1964; in 1968, it employed 500 laborers and handled approximately 1,000,000 tons of import and export goods. Mineral exports (potash, phosphates, copper) through Eilat amounted to 110,000 tons in 1966/67. Because of Eilat's distance from Israel's central sectors, air communications are vital. The Elath airfield, situated just east of the city, was enlarged, and in 1969 10–12 daily flights (operated by Arkia Company) connected Eilat with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The city's water shortage was gradually reduced by seawater desalination. An experimental plant employing the freezing method, developed by Alexander *Zarchin, was closed down after a few years of operation. In 1965, a thermal distillation plant was opened, which simultaneously supplied electricity to the town; its daily capacity was 4,000 m3 (over a million gallons) of practically salt-free water which, when blended with brackish spring water, made the latter potable. In 1970 another plant was opened with a capacity of 2,000 m3 (c. half a million gallons) a day.
Air conditioning is an absolute necessity in the Eilat climate and the local "desert cooler," which is relatively inexpensive to operate, reduces the temperature, and increases air humidity, was gradually introduced in all buildings in the city. The first 16 in. oil pipeline connecting Eilat with Haifa was laid in 1958/59. Work on the large 42 in. pipeline from Eilat to Ashkelon began in 1968 and was finished in 1970. A decisive factor in Eilat's economic life were the *Timna Copper Works, which in 1968 employed 1,000 workers, nearly all residing in Eilat. However, in 1975 they were closed due to economic difficulties. Local industry, mostly small and mediumsize enterprises, included branches connected with the local building trade, several jewelry workshops (for processing the malachite "Eilat stone"), diamond-polishing plants, fish processing, metal products, and gypsum. Tourism and recreation always constituted one of the major branches in Eilat's economy. In 1968, Eilat had a marine museum and a modern art museum, municipal libraries, a concert and lecture hall, and an amphitheater. In 1970 the city's hotels had 2,000 beds; at the turn of the 20th century around 11,000 in five hotels, with considerable income derived from tourist services. Tourism was the main reason for the great Eilat shoreline project, providing for a number of artificial lagoons and land tongues. To encourage tourism further, the city received a vat exemption in 1985. One of the city's tourist attractions is the coral reef in the Gulf of Elath where the diversified marine species of the Red Sea can be observed. Every year Eilat hosts two major cultural events: a jazz festival and a classical music festival with international participation.
[Izhak Noam /
Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
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. Website: www.eilat.muni.il.