Eilat: Wish I Were There

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but I woke up to a morning so rainy and cold that I immediately wished I were in Eilat. Actually, I immediately wished I could roll over and go back to sleep (the insistent buzz of my alarm informed me I could not) – but my very next thought was of Eilat.

Perhaps the builders of Jerusalem felt the same, for winding between the Machane Yehuda market and the neighborhood of Nachla’ot is a street bearing the name of the beautiful Israeli coastal city. So as the rain poured down outside, I prepared to embark on a (virtual) stroll down Eilat Street – and an exploration of the city itself.

Now most associated with some of the best diversions that modern Israel has to offer – lively beaches and nightlife, sumptuous hotels, and incredible snorkeling and dive clubs – the area of Eilat was first associated with elements far different: trade ports, copper mines, and elaborate tombs dating to the seventh millennium before the Common Era. But believe it or not, these features are just as compelling as Eilat’s contemporary attractions; the copper mines, for example, are the oldest in the entire world, and Eilat’s thriving port linked what is now the Holy Land with the commercial centers of the ancient Near East. Fun fact: Did you know that linen was available in prehistoric Israel? Well, it was, and it was imported through Eilat. Fun fact number 2: Remember the frankincense and myrrh with which the three wise men gifted baby Jesus? These were first brought to Israel from ancient Ethiopia – and they, too, came through the port of Eilat.

Eilat appears in the Book of Exodus; after crossing the Red Sea but before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites spent a significant amount of time wandering Eilat’s environs. In the period of the Israelite kings, the city served as a border between Edom and Midian – and came under Jewish sovereignty when King David conquered Edom about a thousand years before the Common Era. And while King David’s son Solomon is probably not the historic possessor of the extensive copper works in Eilat’s area, the modern-day Timna Park – adjacent to Eilat – maintains an incredible copper attraction known as King Solomon’s Mines.

But let’s fast-forward a couple of thousand years, to the era of the State of Israel – and Eilat’s role in it. Although Eilat was not widely accessible until 1958, when the road linking the city to Beersheva was completed; although Eilat was declared a town only in 1959; and although Eilat did not emerge as a major destination for tourists until after the Six-Day War, Eilat’s significance in the history of the State was established much earlier on.

According to the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, the southern Negev Desert – which included present-day Eilat – would be part of the Jewish State; but as the War of Independence ground to a close and armistice talks began, Jordan asserted a claim to the area. In order to confirm its sovereignty over the Negev, the Israeli Defense Forces mounted a campaign known as Operation Uvda in March 1949.

Operation Uvda proved successful – and would prove to be the last campaign of the War of Independence. When the operation – and the war – concluded, an Israeli flag was raised to signify that the Negev was safe in Israeli hands. The flag was raised in a village then known as Umm Rashrash – a village that 67 years later is home to some of the best diversions that modern Israel has to offer – lively beaches and nightlife, sumptuous hotels, and incredible snorkeling and dive clubs. The flag was raised  and the War of Independence was brought to a close  in a village that today bears the name Eilat.

I could end there, but you have to hear more about the flag. The IDF battalion that claimed the Negev realized too late that it had no Israeli flag on hand – no official marker of the sovereignty it had come to assert. So the brigade commander ordered his unit to improvise – and with typical Israeli ingenuity, they did. A white sheet was procured, two blue stripes were drawn with ink, and a Star of David was torn from a first-aid kit and sewn in the middle of the sheet. A photo of the flag-raising taken by soldier Micha Perry became one of the famous images of the war, the makeshift standard was given the name the Ink Flag, and – well – the rest is history.