Eilat
The Read Sea at sunset



The resort city of Eilat is situated on a sole land bridge between Asia and Africa, and is the most southern point of Israel. There is a beautiful coral reef along its Read Rea shore. Serene granite mountains from the north are the impressive background for the city.


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HISTORY

THE CORAL REEF

OTHER ATTRACTIONS IN EILAT

GETTING THERE

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History

Craves and prehistoric temples dating back to the Neolithic Age indicate that people lived in the Eilat region at least as long as 10,000 years ago. It may be they who invented the stone plow, and who first used wood as a form of worship (veneration of Ashera, goddess of fertility, and related to successful crops). Eilat was well-known in Chalcolithic times for the level of metallurgy that developed at the copper mines of Timna.

In the days of King Solomon, Eilat was the only port available in the Kingdom of Israel. A joint Israelite-Phoenician fleet sailed from Eilat to develop trade links with Africa and India.

During the Hellenistic period the Nabateans used Eilat's Red Sea port for their lucrative spice trade. The Romans annexed the Nabatean kingdom in 106 C.E. and built a new road from Eilat to Damascus, setting up outposts along the route to protect the precious spices.

Two hundred years later the Romans based their 10th legion in Eilat and forced Christians to work in the copper mines in Jordan. Shortly afterwards, however, under the Bysantines, Christianity became the state religion. Led by a bishop, a large Christian community developed in Eilat. Until the tenth century a small group of Jews also lived in the town.

Under Moslem rule, which began in the seventh century, Eilat was a meeting point for tens of thousands of pilgrims. Their caravans jorneyed from Damascus and Cairo to Mecca and joined up in Eilat.

In 1115 the Crusaders conquered Eilat. At first they only charged moslem pilgrims a fee for passing through their lands, but later they became more greedy and decided to attack Mecca. After transporting wood across the desert by camel, they constructed boats at Eilat and set sail for Islam's holiest city. The attack failed and provided a rallying point which united the previously divided Moslem world against the Crusaders.

Beginning in the late 19th century, steamships brought pilgrims from Egypt directly to Mecca, bypassing Eilat. The opening of the Hejaz Railroad in 1907, which also circumvented Eilat, was a death blow to the city. Once host to tens of thousands of pilgrims, Eilat became a neglected outpost on the fringes of the Turkish Empire.

Eilat witnessed frequent clashes between the Turkish and British Empires during the early 20th century. Eventually they agreed that the border between them would begin at Taba, some 10 kilometers south of Eilat. During the British Mandate the town remained neglected, consisting only of a small police station.

The dramatic liberation of Eilat by the Israel Defense Forces in March of 1949 marked the end of the War of Independence. Cease-fire agreements that Israel signed with Jordan and Egypt placed Eilat and all of the Negev within the boundaries of the new Jewish state.

Since then the city has taken on new life. Modern Eilat was founded in 1950, and today the city is internationally famous as a popular resort. International festivals of classical and jazz music are held there every year.

The Coral Reef

The Eilat coral reef is the northern part of the Red Sea's 4500 km of coral reefs, and the most northern one in the world. The warm water temperatures of the sea and its clear water create the environment suitable for corals.

Coral reefs are build mainly by coral polyps - miniature tubular creatures having only one opening surrounded by tentacles. Some varieties of these polyps, called stone coral polyps, secrete calcareous material extracted from the water, creating a protecting skeletom within its soft tissue. Most stony coral reefs are built by numerous interconnecting colonies of polyps. When the polyps die, they leave behing their skeleton, forming a base for other polyps and eventually create huge rock walls of the reef.

A reef provides food and refuge and is an excellent habitat for many life forms. In addition to corals (both hard ans soft, sponges, sea anemons, sea stars, cucumbers and urchins), the Read Sea coral reefs are inhabited by tropical fish of the most fantastic forms and colors. The area is also inhaboted by dolphins, sharks and even sea cows and whales.

The part richest in marine life within Israeli borders is located within the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, some 8 km south from the city, in the direction of the Egypt town of Taba. Masks and snorkels, as well as life jackets can be rented on the place.

The highlight of the Reserve is the Coral World park that includes a collection of aquariums and the Underwater Observatory. It has three big pools for sharks, rays, sea turtles and other big creatures. Other pools show species of coral fish that cannot be seen from the underwater observatory. Each aquarium represents a separate area of the coral reef and contains life forms associated with particular corals at different depths. A unique exhibit of flashlight fish is shown in a completely dark room, illuminated only with their luminescent organs.

The fish tanks can be observed through panoramic windows in a nearby room or from the boardwalk above. All tanks are operated by a natural seawater "open system": the water is pumped directly from the sea without any filtration.

The underwater observatory is a tower entering into the depths of the sea, connected to the shore by a 100 m. bridge. There are two observation rooms at the depth of 5 m. The transplantation of living coral heads around the tower has created a new habitat for thousands of sea creatures that move around, free to stay or leave. You can pass hours in the two adjoining halls of the observation tower, looking at still corals and moving sea anemons of every possible form, and tropical fishes moving among them and looking at tourists.

There is also an observation desk atop the tower, offering a splendid view of the gulf of Aqaba, and the nearby Eguptian and Jordanian territories.

The most recent attraction at the Coral World is the Oceanarium - a virtual reality show. The plot of the show more or less resembles science fiction animation films. However, the pictures are really beatiful, and the chairs rocking and inclining in full tune with the events manage to cheat your instincts, and make you believe for a moment that the events are real.

Other Attractions in Eilat

On a sea shore, to the north of the Coral Reef, there is a Dolpin Reef facility where visitors can observe dolphins, and even swim and dive with them. The big area for the dolphins is not closed, so they are free to go away and return. The place also offers a dolphin therapy program for children.

Eilat is an ideal place for birds observation. Its unique position as the only land bridge between Asia and Africa makes it one of the world's most important bird migratory routes. Fall and spring are the main migratory seasons, but birds can be seen crossing continents every month of the year, except in May and June.

A trail for observing birds goes from Eilat along the sea coast towards the Jordanian border, then turns north along the salt ponds; there are signs showing the way. The best time is an hour before sunset.

There are also guided tours organized by the International Bird Watcher Center. In spring there are visits to a ringing station, where staff from the center ring the birds so that they can keep tabs on their flight.

Eilat is surrounded with spectacular mountains - the Eilat mountains from the west and the Jordanian Edom mountains from the east. One of famous places is the Timna park - the site of ancient copper mines. Today the place is known for its beatutiful colored rocks, stunning cliffs and canyons. The most impressive formation is so-called Solomon pillars - natural 50-m high red pillars carved from the stone by streams of water. Timna is some 25 km north of Eilat along the Highway 90.

Mountains begin immediately to the north-west from Eilat. I was in a jeep tour that brought us from the city to the complete wilderness in 20 minutes. On our way back the route went directly from between the mountains to the northern residential blocks of Eilat.


Mountains near Eilat


Getting There

The most convenient way to get to Eilat is by plane (never had a chance). By car, it is only few kilometers before the southern end of Road 90 (the Arava Road).


References:
Aviva Bar-Am, Israel Shalem, Israel's Southern Landscapes
David Fridman, Tony Malmqvist, The Wonders of the Read Sea

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