Article from Special Issue Vol. 60, No. 718, October 1990


Pages 365-366

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THE JOINT expedition by Solomon’s and Hiram’s fleet of ships of Tarshish was based at Ezion-geber, somewhere in the Gulf of Elath (or Aqaba). This gave access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Their objective was a land called in the Bible Ophir. The Jewish scholars who translated the Scriptures into Greek in about 300 B.C. had no doubt that this was a name for India.

The record in 1 Kings 9:26 is definite that Ezion-geber is “beside Eloth”. In 2 Chronicles 8:17 the two locations are clearly in the same region, but are not to be confused. The name Eloth is still in use for modern Eilat, now a holiday resort and port. The only other places where the name Ezion-geber is mentioned are 1 Kings 22:48 and 2 Chronicles 20:36 in the context of a brief account of Jehoshaphat’s endeavour to emulate Solomon. This had dire results, “for the ships were broken at Ezion-geber”. That is all we read of it.

Commentators have tended to assume either that Ezion-geber was another name for Elath, or that it was situated alongside it. Both commentators and archaeologists have assumed that Ezion-geber was at the head of the gulf, but have failed to take into account the unsuitability of the coast for ocean shipping. The modern ports of Eilat in Israel and Aqaba nearby in Jordan have had to build facilities for the accommodation of ships which were not available to Solomon’s fleet.

Israel has not traditionally been a sea-faring nation. Solomon in his wisdom sought the aid of King Hiram’s Phoenician seamen for his bold overseas commercial venture. The ancient Phoenician historian Sanchoniaton (as quoted by Philo of Byblos) recorded that Hiram sent 800 camels laden with cedar wood for the building of Solomon’s fleet at Ezion-geber. It would be reasonable to suppose that the Phoenicians also had a hand in selecting suitable port facilities.

A glance at the many Phoenician ports around the Mediterranean coast reveals that they had a common feature. They were all typically sited where a small offshore island gave some protection from the open sea. Tyre is the prime example, for it was originally unconnected with the mainland. Other Phoenician ports that have a similar feature include Sidon, Athlit, Carthage, and Monastir.

In the Gulf of Aqaba the typical Phoenician site is not at the head of the gulf but about eight miles down water, where a granite island stands about 300 yards from the shore, and a sandy natural breakwater ensures a calm anchorage. This small island is known today as Coral Island (although it is not coral), or Pharaoh’s Isle. To the Crusaders it was known as Isle de Graye.

The island has a small artificial harbour formed with hewn stones, the remains of an extensive defensive wall and the ruins of towers and buildings. While most of these would appear to be dated from Roman and Byzantine periods, some of the hewn stones could well be from a much earlier occupation such as Solomon’s. While no definite proof has been found thus far, the site is so ideally Phoenician in character that it seems to be the only possible place for a sea-going navy to have been based.

The protected area of sea between the island and the Sinai mainland provides the only sheltered anchorage in the upper part of the gulf. The remains of stone piers on the mainland coast can be seen opposite the island, and a well-used overland route leads to the north. The evidence, such as it is, suggests that this island and its sheltered anchorage were the Ezion-geber of Solomon’s enterprise.

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