In the Bible we are twice told that Solomon, with the help of the Phoenician king Hiram, built a fleet of ships that sailed from Ezion-Geber (ETZ-yon GEH-ver)a near Eloth (Ay-LOHT) on the Red Sea.
We are now in a position, I believe, not only to understand the maritime background of this joint venture—the most celebrated naval enterprise in the Bible—but also to identify Ezion-Geber and Eloth.
The two Biblical passages—one in 1 Kings and the other in 2 Chronicles—are short enough to quote in full. The differences are minor: In 2 Chronicles, Hiram’s name is misspelled as Huram. In 1 Kings, Hiram makes 420 talents of gold available to Solomon; in 2 Chronicles, it is 450. But the basic story is the same.
Here are the two versions, first, 1 Kings:
“King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber which is near Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. Hiram sent his servants with the fleet, mariners who had knowledge of the sea, to serve with Solomon’s men. They came to Ophir (O-FEER), where they obtained 420 talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon” (1 Kings 9:26–28).
Now 2 Chronicles:
“Then Solomon went to Ezion-Geber, and to Eloth, on the seacoast of the land of Edom. Huram [Hiram] sent him, under the charge of his servants, ships and a crew that had knowledge of the sea. They went with Solomon’s men to Ophir, and obtained there 450 talents of gold, which they brought to King Solomon” (2 Chronicles 8:17–18).
Solomon had previously sought assistance from Hiram, king of Tyre, when Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Here is the Biblical description of that joint effort:
“King Hiram of Tyre sent his officials to Solomon when he heard that he had been anointed king in place of his father; for Hiram had always been a friend of David. Solomon sent this message to Hiram: ‘You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the enemies that encompassed him, until the Lord had placed them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me respite all around; there is no adversary and no mischance. And so I propose to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord promised my father David, saying, “Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for My name.” Please, then, give orders for cedars to be cut for me in the Lebanon. My servants will work with yours, and I will pay you any wages you may ask for your servants; for as you know, there is none among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.’
“When Hiram heard Solomon’s message, he was overjoyed. ‘Praised be the Lord this day,’ he said, ‘for granting David a wise son to govern this great people.’ So Hiram sent word to Solomon: ‘I have your message; I will supply all the cedar and cypress logs you require. My servants will bring them down to the sea from the Lebanon; and at the sea I will make them into floats and [deliver them] to any place that you designate to me. There I shall break them up for you to carry away. You, in turn, will supply the food I require for my household.’ So Hiram kept Solomon provided with all the cedar and cypress wood he required, and Solomon delivered to Hiram 20,000 kors of wheat as provisions for his household 034and 20 kors of beaten oil. Such was Solomon’s annual payment to Hiram” (1 Kings 5:7–11; see also 2 Chronicles 2:2–15).
Even earlier, Hiram had supplied cedars for King David’s palace (2 Samuel 5:11; 1 Chronicles 14:1–2).
So there was an established relationship on which Solomon and Hiram could build in embarking together on a joint maritime venture of great magnitude and not inconsiderable risk.
Solomon’s kingdom had a long Mediterranean coastline, but the Hebrews were not notably a seafaring people, so it made sense for Solomon to team up with his old friend Hiram on a maritime venture. The Hebrews apparently had relied for years on a close trading relationship with the indigenous people on the coast—Canaanites whom scholars refer to after about 1000 B.C. as Phoenicians. The Phoenicians’ Tarshish (Tar-SHEESH) ships sailed to the very farthest part of the Mediterranean—and perhaps beyond.
While the Phoenicians and Israelites shared the Mediterranean coastline of Palestine, in the south was a sliver of the Red Sea to which Solomon, but not Hiram, had access. Now known as the Gulf of Eilat (ay-LAHT) (in Israel) and the Gulf of Aqabah (AH-ka-ba) (in Jordan), this waterway provides a gateway to the east 035coast of Africa and to the countries of the Indian subcontinent.
Solomon and Hiram were doubtless well aware of the trading potential of this outlet; they must have known that through these waters the Egyptians had for centuries ventured to and returned from the legendary land of Punt with gold and silver, ivory and apes as immortalized in the hieroglyphic text and colored reliefs of Queen Hatshepsut’s (Hot-sheep-SOOT) (1501–1479 B.C.) mausoleum near Thebes. Solomon’s desire to emulate his Egyptian neighbors was no doubt frustrated by a lack of maritime expertise. So he turned to his trusted associate King Hiram—and a formula for a maritime partnership was agreed upon: Solomon would provide access to the Red Sea and unlimited labor; Hiram would contribute his maritime skills and the famed Cedars of Lebanon for the building of the ships.
According to Philo of Byblos (30 B.C.–40 A.D.), who quotes the Phoenician historian Sanchoniaton, Hiram sent 800 camels laden with timber to Ezion-Geber for the building of ten ships.1
Apparently, the partnership prospered and continued for many years. According to 2 Chronicles:
“The King’s ships traveled to Tarshish with Huram’s [Hiram’s] servants. Once every three years the Tarshish fleet came in, bearing gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks” (2 Chronicles 9:21).
Some scholars interpret this passage as indicating a complete circumnavigation of the African continent, a voyage that, according to Herodotus, was also accomplished by Phoenicians enlisted by Pharaoh Necho II.2
Since the expeditions into the Sinai desert in the early part of the 19th century, travelers have been intrigued with locating the ports of Ezion-Geber and nearby Eloth. But they could give us little more than guesses. No archaeologically grounded claim was made until well into the present century. In 1938 Nelson Glueck, the eminent archaeologist, rabbi and director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, announced that his excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh (el-Khe-LEY-feh), a small mound just a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Eilat/Aqabah, had convinced him that this was the site of Ezion-Geber. Today Tell el-Kheleifeh is in Jordan, just west of the city of Aqabah.
In Rivers in the Desert, published in 1959, Nelson Glueck wrote:
“The whereabouts of Solomon’s long-lost port of Ezion-Geber was for centuries an unfathomable 036mystery, because no one paid attention to the Biblical statement that it was located ‘beside Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea in the land of Edom’ [1 Kings 9:26]. And that is exactly where we found it, in the form of a small, sanded-over mound of Tell el-Kheleifeh on the north shore of the Gulf of Aqabah, which is the eastern arm of the Red Sea.”3
Glueck reasoned that Eloth and Ezion-Geber were different names used at different times for the same site. The identity of Tell el-Kheleifeh as the elusive port was for him “beyond all question of doubt … Tell el-Kheleifeh had to be Ezion-Geber:Eloth!”4
Glueck’s identification was based on what he thought was a large copper smelting refinery incorporating a substantial furnace room with a complicated system of flues. Glueck dated this refinery at Tell el-Kheleifeh to the time of King Solomon. Glueck also pointed to what he thought was copper slag at the site and extensive sulfuric discoloration of the walls of the smelting furnace. The location of the site itself was significant. It was positioned precisely where the north winds from the Aravah (Ah-ra-VAH) (the valley that extends south from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Eilat/Aqabah) were at their very strongest, thus furnishing the best draft for the furnace. Glueck dated the pottery he found at the site to King Solomon’s time (tenth century B.C.). He also found a casemate wall (two parallel walls with intermittent cross-walls called casemates that create, in effect, internal rooms within the wall), which was typical of the Solomonic period.
Glueck’s identification of Tell el-Kheleifeh as Ezion-Geber was based principally on the assertion that this was primarily a site for industrial production of copper and that Solomon’s wealth was based on this commodity. Glueck also pointed out that the site was integral to the vast Aravah valley mining area that he dubbed “King Solomon’s Mines.” In Glueck’s own words, Ezion-Geber was the “Pittsburgh of Palestine.” For 20 years Glueck’s conclusions were accepted. The identification of Ezion-Geber with Tell el-Kheleifeh found its way into almost every book on Biblical archaeology.
But in the minds of some, doubts lingered. The dean of Biblical archaeologists, William F. Albright, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote in The Archaeology of Palestine: “Just how production of copper was accomplished remains a mystery to specialists in metallurgy who have studied the problem.”5
Then in 1962 Beno Rothenberg, who had served as Glueck’s chief assistant and photographer, published a paper entitled “Ancient Copper Industries in the Western Arabah” in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly.6 Under the auspices of Tel Aviv University, Rothenberg had carried out his own surveys and excavations in the western Aravah, in the course of which he reconsidered Glueck’s interpretation of the Tell el-Kheleifeh materials. As a result, Rothenberg disputed Glueck on almost every point. According to Rothenberg, Glueck’s “furnace room” was in fact a large grain store; the sulfuric discoloration of the walls came about from the final destruction of the building by fire and not from industrial processes; there was no evidence of large quantities of slag that would ordinarily be associated with copper production; the so-called flue holes in the furnace room walls were holes for wooden beams. (Rothenberg found remains of burnt wood in some of the holes, all that was left after the building was destroyed in a fire.) Moreover, the site was not situated in the windiest location in the valley; official records showed the windiest site was farther to the west. Finally, the pottery dated to King Solomon’s time could not be reliably dated so early.
Rothenberg’s arguments appeared irrefutable, and in 1965, in an article in The Biblical Archaeologist, Glueck recanted:
“It had been our thought, which we now abandon, that the apertures served as flue-holes … these apertures resulted from the decay and/or burning of wooden beams laid across the width of the walls for bonding or anchoring purposes. … [O]bviously then, this structure could not have functioned as a smelter. … We believe now, as Rothenberg has suggested, that this structure with its purposely high floors was also designed and used as a storehouse and/or granary. … [A] coarse, handmade type of pottery was found that at the time was new to us, and that for a brief while appeared to us to be utilized for crucibles. We soon abandoned this idea when it 038became apparent how common this pottery was at contemporary sites in the Negev.”7
Glueck also revised his view of the natural advantages of the location of Tell el-Kheleifeh:
“The location of the tell in the middle of the southern end of the Wadi Aravah, its possession of the first potable water, however brackish, as one comes from the western side of the north shore of the gulf, and the fact that the shoreline in front of it is free of rocks and that small boats could have been drawn up on it or anchored close to it, add up to the sum of its natural advantages. The site, however, is easily bypassed. Its position is not a commanding one.”8
Glueck’s disclaimer came as a shock to Biblical archaeologists who had hung on his words for decades. The editor of The Biblical Archaeologist, introducing the article, observed: “Glueck’s new ideas on the matter are extremely important, and they demonstrate a capacity to change cherished convictions gracefully.”9
Glueck’s identification of Tell el-Kheleifeh as Ezion-Geber/Eloth was disproved, as we have seen, largely on metallurgical evidence: There was no large-scale commercial activity here. Thereafter, an exhaustive restudy of Glueck’s excavation materials by Gary Pratico, demonstrated that the earliest occupation of the site was post-Solomonic.b
Even if Glueck’s identification of the site had remained unchallenged on metallurgical grounds, his theory was seriously flawed on maritime grounds. The coastline at Tell el-Kheleifeh is a sandy beach with shallow water—totally unsuitable for small craft, let alone for a substantial merchant fleet. It is inconceivable that Hiram’s naval commanders would have given this site a second glance. It could not have been used as a port.
Thus, in 1965, with Glueck’s disclaimer, the identification of the site of Ezion-Geber was once more uncertain. It had to be somewhere in the north of the Gulf of Eilat/Aqabah. But where? The 19th-century traveler Friedrich Von Schubert (1837) had suggested in passing that the island Jezirat Faraun (Jeh-ZEE-raht Far-ROON) was a possible candidate.10 The name, in fact, means Pharaoh’s Island. This offshore island, known popularly today as Coral Island, is some seven miles south of modern Eilat and 900 feet from the Sinai shore. It is not particularly large—approximately 1,000 feet from north to south and 200 feet from east to west. It consists of three hills. The northernmost hill takes up half the length of the island and is surmounted by a Moslem fortress dating to the 12th century A.D.; the two southern hills contain Byzantine ruins. Incidentally, 039“Coral Island” is a misnomer, for it is composed wholly of granite. Breathtaking coral formations line much of the Gulf of Eilat/Aqabah coast, but none surround Coral Island.
The Moslem caliph Saladin fortified the island in 1170 A.D. The French Crusader Reynald de Chattillon laid siege to the island (which was then called the Isle de Graye) while plundering towns on the Red Sea and raiding pilgrim ships bound for Mecca. In 1217 a Christian pilgrim named Thietmar visited the island and reported that he found it inhabited by both Saracens and Christians, as well as “French, English and Latin slaves who fished here for the profit of the Sudan.”11 According to the medieval historian Abufelda, the island was abandoned about 1300 A.D. Except for the occasional garrison of troops during the 400 years of Ottoman rule, the island was apparently never inhabited again.
The island was frequently visited by 19th-century travelers and explorers. The famous English traveler Sir Richard Burton astutely described the island’s importance as an anchorage: It must have been, he said, “an excellent harbor of refuge in the wildest weather.”12 In 1838, Lt. J. R. Wellsted of the British navy sailed the area. He relates that when he got caught in a storm, “We hoved close to the island, where we were most sheltered.”13
Modern scholarly interest in the island was revived by Beno Rothenberg following his short visit to the island in 1956, when he and architect Avia Hashimshoni, along with students from the Haifa Technion University, spent several days mapping the island and recording its architectural installations. They drew particular attention to the remains of a low-level sea wall around the entire perimeter of the island and the existence of a small harbor. They gave a detailed account of the buildings on the island and collected a quantity of pottery. On the basis of this pottery, Rothenberg proposed a much earlier occupation of the island than the Byzantine date that had been suggested by Glueck. This information, with Hashimshoni’s map of the island, was published in Rothenberg’s book.14
I first visited Jezirat Faraun in 1967 in the company of Dr. Elisha Linder, the founder of underwater archaeology in Israel, and divers from the Israel Undersea Exploration Society. The purpose of our visit was to conduct a preliminary survey of the underwater terrain around the island, which we expected to yield material of historical and archaeological interest.
I had long been familiar with Jezirat Faraun from my copy of David Roberts’s charming lithograph of the island. Roberts’s own affection for the island is reflected in the drawing: In the foreground the artist has placed himself putting the final touches to his sketch while his dragoman (guide and interpreter) waits with ill-disguised impatience, and even the camel appears indignant and restless. The rest of the caravan, being less tolerant, has commenced its journey northward toward Aqabah.
I shared Roberts’ fascination with the island. When I first saw it in 1967, any objectivity I might have had immediately took second place to wonderment as I viewed this place of extraordinary beauty. I have visited Jezirat Faraun many times since then. For me, it is a place of great tranquility and even, at times, spirituality. I find there what Bishop Trevor Huddleston called “the kind of stillness in which God speaks.”15
My immediate interest as an architect was in the shoreline wall described by Rothenberg and Hashimshoni. But this had to be put aside for a while until we completed our underwater work.
On the sea bed we found a quantity of Late Roman/Byzantine pottery (330–640 A.D.). More pertinent, I was struck by how still the sea was in the area between the island and the mainland. It remained comparatively calm even when the open sea to the east of the island was choppy. Any sailor would immediately recognize the area between the island and the shore as a natural anchorage. Much later, I found a 1909 British sailing chart for the Gulf of Aqabah that identifies this area as the “Faraun Island Anchorage.” Several 19th-century travelers also observed that this was the only natural anchorage in the entire northern part of the gulf. The modern ports of Eilat and Aqabah, by contrast, are wholly artificial constructions.
Between dives we devoted our time to exploring the island and in particular the perimeter wall described by Rothenberg and Hashimshoni. Not only was it of substantial proportions, it also contained many well-built, projecting towers.
One feature in particular affected and directed all my future thinking. On the southwestern edge of the island, in a low area between the two southern hills, there is a pool, identified by Rothenberg and Hashimshoni as a harbor. A bar separates this pool from the natural anchorage. On close examination, I found that this bar was an integral part of the perimeter wall. Only a narrow channel linked the pool to the sea. Masonry blocks lined this channel, and on each side of the channel there was the base of a tower. The pool was not a natural body of water, but was indeed an artificially constructed boat basin—a small harbor!
What at first was intended as a modest underwater survey now appeared to be developing into a project of both archaeological and maritime importance. Personally, I became aware that my professional interest as an architect and my avocational interest as an archaeological diver were melding, and I soon had an overwhelming sense of identification with the marine engineers and architects who had created this fascinating complex long ago.
Here was a perfectly natural anchorage between the mainland and the island; on the island a massive perimeter wall had been built that incorporated an artificially constructed harbor. We knew that the site was important in the Crusader period and during the Byzantine period; Rothenberg suspected it was also important considerably earlier. Much work remained to be done.
In 1968 I returned to the island to lead a fully equipped British/Israeli joint expedition for a 040three-week season. Our underwater research revealed additional Byzantine pottery and some medieval glazed ware. The harbor and its entrance were surveyed in more detail, and on the seaward side our divers located two mounds of collapsed building stones. One mound is vaguely circular in plan, about 7 feet in diameter and 7 feet high. The other, a little farther south, is boomerang-shaped, one leg about 22 feet long and the other 18 feet. Both these mounds of stone have the appearance of just having been dumped, but I think it more likely that they are the remains of purposely built piers now obscured by a collapsed superstructure. The position of these mounds would correspond to the siting of marine “dolphins”—mooring piers just outside a harbor entrance. Such “dolphins,” as they are known to sailors, are common at many harbor entrances.
Even more exciting was the discovery of two stone jetties sticking out into the water from the mainland beach. The southern one is a few inches below the sea’s surface, but it is very distinct in outline. Although much of the stonework is missing, the main structure is well preserved. It is 46 feet long and 19 feet wide. The blocks from which it is made vary in size up to 3 feet square.
The northern jetty is above sea level, but is far less clear in outline and could be mistaken for an outcrop of natural rock; its unmistakable linear character, however, reveals it to be a manmade structure. Even more extensive submerged remains can be seen here from the air.
Between the island and the mainland we found what is, in effect, an underwater isthmus. This isthmus is the cardinal feature from which the entire anchorage complex has developed. The anchorage takes up the whole of the channel between the island and the mainland. During our work, we frequently observed that when the open sea was turbulent, the anchorage was relatively calm. A heavy swell seawards would be accompanied by minimal wavelets west of the island. The isthmus, a broad, sandy plateau that extended from the harbor entrance, provided both good holding ground and excellent shelter over a wide area.
The comparative calm of the anchorage can be accounted for principally by a feature of the mainland approximately one mile south of the island. A sandy wadi (or dry river bed that flows in torrents once or twice a year) empties into the sea at that point (see plan). Over the millennia, torrents have occasionally flowed down this wadi into the sea carrying sand with them. This has created a sandy plateau extending about half a mile into the sea south of the island. As a result, the gulf’s predominantly southern swell is deflected seaward of the island, instead of rushing into the anchorage between the island and the coast.
The artificially created harbor within the island is adjacent to the stillest part of the anchorage. This cannot have been accidental. Indeed, the placement of the harbor, and especially its entrance, displays a design logic and an ingenuity that we cannot help but admire.
The harbor basin is not particularly large, measuring approximately 180 feet by 90 feet. Now it is very heavily silted, but even so the outline can easily be made out (see photo).
The perimeter wall that encircles Jezirat Faraun forms in part the breakwater between the harbor and the sea anchorage. The wall is interrupted only by the harbor entrance, which is flanked by two towers. The plans of the towers are dissimilar. The southern tower sits square to the harbor entrance and the perimeter wall. The northern tower, however, turns inwards toward the harbor entrance; moreover, this tower’s inner corner has been rounded. This subtle architectural detail relates to the slight but perceptible characteristic of the current movement observed within the anchorage. We found that a boat that was loosely moored just north of the harbor would of its own volition move gradually in a southeast direction into the harbor entrance. The designers of the harbor no doubt also observed this phenomenon and planned their entrance accordingly.
All that now remains of the towers at the harbor entrance are the lowermost courses. These are of cyclopean blocks (a type of stone construction that uses large irregular blocks without mortar) and are similar in design and construction to the other towers that are an integral part of the perimeter wall. This fact, and the clear bonding of the southern harbor entrance tower to the main wall, shows that the harbor and the 041wall are integrated, built as part of a total concept.
Northeast and east of the harbor are remains of substantial buildings. There is a paved area between these buildings and the edge of the harbor. A small submerged slipway, found at the northeastern edge of the harbor, is paved and slopes to a slight fall.
A clue as to how the harbor was constructed can be seen in a short stretch of the harbor lining at the northern end of the basin. This consists of regularly laid ashlars (squared blocks). These can be related to the inner face of the southern tower at the harbor entrance and to the intermittent visible blocks on the perimeter of the harbor basin. The harbor lining and its relationship to the southern tower and to the perimeter of the harbor basin give the impression that the harbor sits on what was originally a small sandy bay; apparently the harbor basin was formed by separating the bay from the anchorage by means of a mole (a wall in the sea built to form a harbor) erected on an artificially formed foundation. The island’s perimeter wall very likely was extended upon this mole.
The perimeter wall around the island is of the casemate type; that is, it is comprised of an outer wall, an inner wall and transverse walls creating casemate rooms. The outer wall is itself of composite construction, made up of an outer skin of cyclopean stone blocks and an inner skin. Sandwiched between the two skins is a concrete-filled cavity, producing an outer wall with an overall thickness of some 12 feet. Then come the casemate rooms and the inner wall. The total thickness of the perimeter defense wall, including the casemate rooms, averages 20 feet.
The nine towers of the perimeter wall are also impressive. Constructed with cyclopean blocks precisely laid, each tower varies in size, but in general is square in plan. It is evident that the best-preserved tower, the one facing the mainland, has foundations that antedate its upper parts, the lowest being of large blocks repeating the casemate walls and the upper courses formed of small masonry blocks similar to the stonework of the medieval buildings on the northern hill (see photo). Moreover, while the base of this tower is square, the upper part is semicircular.
Now we must turn to the difficult problem of dating. In the absence of a systematic excavation, the dating of the perimeter wall, as well as the harbor and jetties, must be conjectural. Some scholars have expressed the view that these structures are all Byzantine, but it is not implausible that they belong to earlier periods of occupation. Pottery found on the island by Rothenberg in 1972 and a small quantity collected by us in 1968 has been dated to Iron Age I (1200–930 B.C.) Rothenberg’s excavation of the Hathor (Khat-KHOR) Temple at Timmah,16 north of Eilat, has produced evidence of an Egyptian mining operation in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age I (14th–12th centuries B.C.). From this Rothenberg has concluded that the island was an Egyptian mining harbor of the Ramessid pharaohs. Rothenberg also points to the remains of a small metallurgical installation on the island, as well as a quantity of fayalite stag (an iron-based silicate), evidence of small-scale iron-smelting activities on Jezirat Faraun.
Can we say that this is Ezion-Geber of Solomonic times? The firm dating evidence has not yet been found. What we can say is that there was an impressive maritime installation of considerable complexity at Jezirat Faraun: a fortified island with an enclosed harbor adjoining a large natural anchorage, with jetties located opposite the island on the mainland.
But even if we discount all the manmade structures of this anchorage complex, the most convincing argument for its identification as Ezion-Geber still remains—the natural formation of the island and its geographical disposition. The part of the casemate wall that seals the small harbor was originally built on an entirely artificial foundation enclosing what had been a small natural bay; thus, in its most primitive form, the harbor is an island with a small protected bay separated from the mainland by a natural anchorage.
Perhaps the reader, will join me in a flight of fancy as we travel back to the time of King Solomon. Imagine that the king has approached Hiram with his proposal for a fleet to sail the Red Sea. Hiram’s first reaction would be to inquire whether there was a suitable port for this kind of an operation. Before embarking on an enterprise of this magnitude, Hiram, whose kingdom included many maritime experts, would undoubtedly have sought their views. He probably dispatched his reconnaissance team to the Red Sea with instructions to seek out an area suitable for a port. What follows might well have been the report that Hiram received from his chief mariner:
“Sir, I arrived in Eloth a few days ago and have been busily engaged in carrying out a reconnaissance of the seashore with the object of finding a suitable location for a harbor for, as you will understand, a fleet without a safe shelter is doomed.
“I had hoped that I might find a good site close to King Solomon’s city Eloth, but I have walked far along the shore both to the west and to the east, and I have found nothing but sand and shingle beaches. At no place is there a part of the sea that is protected from the storms that arrive very quickly 042in these parts. The servants of King Solomon, however, have told me of an island that is called Ezion-Geber; they say that their fathers recall stories of ships of the pharaohs being anchored here many years ago.
“I went therefore to Ezion-Geber, where I had been told that there is a channeled sea between island and mainland that remains calm when the sea elsewhere is turbulent. Indeed, I have found this to be true, and I am satisfied that this is the best haven in the region.
“The journey from Eloth to Ezion-Geber took us two and a half hours, and on the way we passed a place where there were many trees and water wells. I recommend therefore that this island be built upon so that it can be made into a very suitable port. As you know, we have in our homeland and in the great sea to the west very similar anchorages, and it is our custom to build a small protected harbor on the island so that in severe emergencies the most important vessels may be brought in from the anchorage.
“A harbor at Ezion-Geber will also provide a means of unloading conveniently. It will not be difficult to provide such a harbor at Ezion-Geber, for there exists on the island a small bay facing the mainland. The sea here is shallow, and we can easily separate the bay from the anchorage by building a mole across the open side of the bay. We shall leave a narrow entrance into the harbor, and on this mole we shall build a wall that we will then continue around the whole of the island. Within this wall we will build a series of towers in strategic positions, similar to the walled towns with which your Majesty is already familiar, having built several of them.
“But it will not be necessary for the boats to be built here, for they can be built at Eloth, which is better for the housing of your artificers. The boats will be launched at Eloth and sailed to Ezion-Geber, where they will be moored in safety.
“I also recommend that the road from the city of Eloth to the mainland opposite Ezion-Geber be cleared of rock and obstruction, for there will be much traffic here. Opposite the island we will build such moles as are necessary so that goods and men can be conveyed conveniently to and from the island.
“This island of Ezion-Geber is the place where you must harbor the fleet, for there is no other place.”
This plan, which I have attributed to Hiram’s chief mariner and which closely follows what we found at Jezirat Faraun, is in fact the plan that was used at numerous Phoenician harbors in the Mediterranean, as suggested in this fictional report. Among these harbors are some very famous ones, as well as less well-known ones:
Phoenician Tyre was originally an offshore island upon which protective walls and jetties were constructed. The permanent causeway that now links the island to the mainland was constructed later by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.
Sidon is a boomerang-shaped offshore island with a rock-cut quay facing the mainland.
Arwad, another Phoenician city, north of Sidon, is an offshore island with a natural double harbor on the sheltered landward side. It includes an esplanade at sea level and a sea wall constructed of colossal blocks.
Atlit in Israel is a rocky promontory flanked by bays on the north and south. In the north harbor are two small islands with breakwaters jutting out and nearly linked to similar breakwaters extending from the mainland. This is probably one of the best preserved Phoenician harbors.c
At Motya in west Sicily, the Phoenician harbor is an offshore island. It has an exceptionally long breakwater and a harbor on the island entirely cut from the sea. Similar harbors are found at Carthage in modern Tunisia; at Mahdia, south of Carthage; and at Monastir a little farther south.
A study of the evolution of ancient Mediterranean harbors makes it clear that Bronze Age sailors initially used natural anchorages, such as bays behind headlands, river estuaries, deltas and shelters behind offshore islands. The mariners of Phoenicia were the first to adapt and improve natural anchorages and harbors on their own Mediterranean coast. These same natural features and engineering improvements are repeated at Jezirat Faraun. The Phoenician Mediterranean harbors and Jezirat Faraun share common denominators—either an offshore island or a reef fairly close to the mainland, with constructional improvements in the form of breakwaters and often the building of small enclosed harbors.
Although Jezirat Faraun would serve well as a port, it was much less suitable for storage and distribution of merchandise. It is likely that the ocean-going ships of the Solomon-Hiram fleet would unload at the island into secure storehouses, but thereafter the merchandise would be transported by smaller craft for the seven and a half mile journey to the head of the gulf, to the terminus of the traditional land routes between Syria, Egypt and Arabia. Thus Ezion-Geber functioned as a port and Eloth as a storage depot and caravanserai. The Biblical account stresses that the two sites were different entities: “Ezion-Geber which is near Eloth” (1 Kings 9:26) and “Solomon went to Ezion-Geber and to Eloth” (2 Chronicles 8:17).
Tell el-Kheleifeh might still fit the location of Eloth, although no pottery securely datable to the Solomonic period has yet been found there. (Unfortunately, Glueck threw out most of the common wheel-made pottery he excavated; he did not realize this common wheel-made pottery was far more reliable for dating purposes than the handmade pottery he saved.)
If Solomonic Eloth is not at Tell el-Kheleifeh, it probably lies buried somewhere beneath the sands of modern Eilat or Aqabah; but the site of Ezion-Geber is surely the island of Jezirat Faraun.
In the Bible we are twice told that Solomon, with the help of the Phoenician king Hiram, built a fleet of ships that sailed from Ezion-Geber (ETZ-yon GEH-ver)a near Eloth (Ay-LOHT) on the Red Sea. We are now in a position, I believe, not only to understand the maritime background of this joint venture—the most celebrated naval enterprise in the Bible—but also to identify Ezion-Geber and Eloth. The two Biblical passages—one in 1 Kings and the other in 2 Chronicles—are short enough to quote in full. The differences are minor: In 2 Chronicles, Hiram’s name is misspelled as […]