Ya’qubi (9th century), tells us that Muhammad gave his cloak to the ‘King of Eilat’, Yuhanna son of Ru’ba (Yochanan ben Reuven). It’s unclear whether this king was Jewish. He represented both Jews and Christians when speaking with Muhammad, and there are some opinions he was Christian. But there are several sources that tell us he was Jewish. Estakhri, a 10th century geographer, writes that the Jews of Eilat kept the document they got from Muhammad. Makrizi (15th century) says as follows: Eilat had many mosques and many Jews who say they have the cloak of the Prophet, who sent it to them as a guarantee (collateral), and it was made of Adani cloth, wrapped in other cloths, so that you could only see a bit of it.”
It is also much more likely that the people wanting to strike a deal with Muhammad were the Jews, who hated the Christian Byzantines. In Prof. Moshe Gil‘s opinion, the semi-autonomous Jewish community of Yotva (Tiran Island), which existed in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, stretched from Tiran to Eilat, along the coast of the Gulf of Eilat.
Similar stories are told about the other communities. 9th century historian Al-Baladhuri wrote that he met an Egyptian who saw the signed treaty kept by the Jews of Maqna with his own eyes, written on red parchment in fading script. The Egyptian dictated the contents of the treaty to Al-Baladhuri. The story is repeated again by Yaqut al-Hamawi in the 13th century. A similar tale about the Jews of Adhruh and Jarba is told by Al-Bakri (11th century).
What is clear from all these stories, is that the area had a significant Jewish population, which existed for hundreds of years after the Muslim conquest.
We hear about the Jews of the area in other contexts as well. In the early 9th century there were repeated rebellions against the Abbasids, both by Muslims and non-Muslims. It is important to stress here that until the Crusader era, the majority of the population in Israel was Christian, not Muslim.
Around the year 800 a Jew named Yahiya ben Yirmia (Jeremiah) led a rebellion together with two Muslim deputies. Yahiya came from the Moab region (southern Trans-Jordan), and there is much more to write about the Jewish communities there.
In 807 another rebellion broke out, centered around Eilat. The rebels, led by a man named Abu’l Nida, revolted against the high land-taxes, which were imposed exclusively on non-Muslims, though the rebels were later joined by Bedouin tribes. The rebellion lasted for several years before it was put down. This rebellion was followed by the wholesale destruction of churches and Samaritan synagogues throughout the land, though it’s unclear if this was retaliation or a coincidence, since in the meantime the Muslim Calif, Harun al-Rashid, died, which started off an inheritance war. Prof. Moshe Gil points out that through Jews aren’t mentioned specifically, it is quite likely Jewish synagogues were destroyed as well.
(*) Eilat is, of course, known today as Aqaba. The city was called “Ayla” by the Romans. By the 12th century Muslim geographers referred to it as “Aqabat Ayla” (Pass of Ayla), which was later shortened to “Aqaba.”
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