Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Lawrence Durrell, a writer particularly charmed by islands, opens his travel book on Rhodes, Reflections on a Marine Venus, with the discovery of a word for those like himself afflicted with a disease known as Islomania, an "affliction of the spirit" that makes one unable to resist islands, indeed, that fills its sufferers, referred to as 'islomanes', with "an indescribable intoxication".* I myself have never lived on an island, unless, as we were taught in my childhood, Australia can be regarded as the world's largest island (an alternative to it being regarded as the world's smallest continent), a contention that antipodean islomanes like myself may find attractive. Indeed, I count myself as a happy sufferer of this enchanting disease, for, if I have never lived on an island, I have visited them often enough and have been captivated by them since childhood; from the time we swam out to a tiny island that in reality was nothing more than a sand bar in a little sandy cove east of Melbourne where my uncle had taken us on one long-distant, stifling Sunday. There was a magical childhood trip with my father and younger brother to Tasmania and a motorbike ramble across Corfu in my back-packing days. I have had the fortune of attending a workshop in blue and white dreamy Paros, of taking excursions across the beautiful pine and stone landscapes of Cyprus, as full of the past and present as my own country. And I have enjoyed numerous unabashed tourist trips with my wife to such famed islands as crowded Capri and happily neglected Torcello. Larger islands, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, for all their delights are too substantial to think of in islomanian terms. But these smaller islands have this magic, and the smaller they are the greater their charm.
In 1116 King Baldwin I with a retinue of two hundred knights travelled down to the far southern reaches of his kingdom. According to the chronicler Fulcher of Chartres they reached the city of Elim (Ailah) on the shore of the body of water today alternately known as the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba, named for the two neighbouring cities that sit at the northern end of that extension of the Red Sea where the borders of Jordan, Israel and Egypt converge.** On the approach of the Franks the citizens of Ailah fled by boat, possibly to a tiny rocky island off the eastern shore of Sinai know today variously as Pharaoh’s Island, Jazīrat Fir‘aun in Arabic, Coral Island, Iy HaAlmogim in Hebrew, or Ile de Greye, a nineteenth century invented Frankish name distorted from the Arabic “qurayya”, meaning “small village”. It has been claimed that the Franks built the citadel on the island in the early 1160s and that it was later captured, refortified and garrisoned by Saladin in December 1170. In reality there is no evidence for Frankish occupation, nor, as is sometimes stated, for it having been used by Reynald de Châtillon, the impetuous Frankish lord of Kerak as an outpost for his abortive attempt at a naval blockade of the Red Sea in 1182-83.
Whether or not the Franks ever occupied the island, some interesting evidence has been found there for possible commercial activities, and it perhaps served a role in the commerce passing between Egypt and the kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Between 1975 and 1981, prior to its return to Egyptian rule, excavations on the island uncovered a hoard of about 1,500 textile and basketry fragments including items of clothing, rugs and cordage.*** These were dated by Carbon-14 to between the last quarter of the twelfth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century. Among the finds were cotton, linen and woollen fabrics, felt, goat hair cloth and silk, combined fabrics of silk with wool, linen or cotton, dyed cloths, cloth with woodblock printing, embroidery and brocading with silk threads.
Of the island itself, it lies 250 metres offshore, south of Taba on the eastern coast of the Sinai peninsula. It is a solid granite rock, roughly 300 metres long and 150 metres at its widest point. It has three hills, two on the north and a smaller one on the south. It has a tiny, shallow, sheltered harbour on its western side. The structural remains of the fortification occupy most of the northern hills and today have a dramatic but sadly over-restored appearance that has lost for the island some of its authenticity, and indeed its romance, potential tourist dollars as so often outweighing other considerations. It retains, nonetheless, a spectacular beauty, particularly when observed at certain hours of the day against the shimmering backdrop of the rugged purple mountains of Arabia beyond the deep azure stretch of the gulf.
* Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Harmondsworth, 1978, p. 15.
** Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem 1095-1127, trans. F.R. Ryan. New York, 1969, II.56, pp. 215-16.
*** A. Baginski and O. Shamir, "Textiles from Jaziret Fara'un (Coral Island), Archaeological Textiles Newsletter 18-19, 1994, pp. 4-6; "Textiles, Basketry and Cordage from Jaziret Fara'un (Coral Island)", Atiqot 36, 1998, pp. 39-92.