A great black oil tanker, a thousand feet long, moves imperiously up a Red Sea shipping lane. Not far away an Arabian fishing dhow trawls for the large blue fish which abound there. Because the sea lanes are narrow and the traffic is as heavy as that on Fifth Avenue at high noon, an American naval ship, capable of 35 knots, idles along at ten knots an hour. There are yet other ships on this watery thoroughfare. To the east, pleasure steamers cruise serenely along the coast, their passengers lining the rails to enjoy the view of flat tablelands set unbelievably close to the shore. And to the north and south, freighters, holds stuffed with the world's goods, wait patiently for the sea lanes to clear.
Such a scene is by no means rare on the Red Sea. It is, in fact, a scene that recurs day after day, every day. Neither is it a scene born in the twentieth century. Compared to the Red Sea's long, long history as a commercial highway, the great Atlantic and Pacific shipping lanes are but youngsters. For four thousand years, and some say longer, the Red Sea has seen history made on her waters and along her shores. Today, far from being a relic, she is as vital as ever to world trade and transportation.
The Red Sea was born as a rift in the African continent millions of years ago. Raging fire tore through the earth's crust, and when the cataclysmic upheaval was silenced, the Red Sea had come into being. Like a finger pointing straight at the Mediterranean, she begins at the Strait of Bab-el-Mandab, near what is today the Aden Protectorate, and ends 1,200 miles to the north-northeast at the Isthmus of Suez. Her waters wash the shores of Saudi Arabia and Yemen on the east and Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt on the west. Through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandab Red Sea traffic reaches southward to all the ports of the Orient; through the Suez Canal at the northern tip, her trade sails to all the wharves of the Mediterranean, Europe and North America.
Free-flowing trade has always carried new civilizations with it, and the Red Sea has played a significant role in helping to bring together the world's cultures. Back in the days when Solomon was encouraging Hiram of Tyre to use the Red Sea as a trading route, the Queen of Sheba made her own use of the waterway. She not only visited Solomon, as familiar tales relate, but, according to a less familiar story, she smuggled many of his great treasures back to her own country on the Arabian Peninsula, sending her soldiers over the Red Sea with the loot.
But long before the days of the fabled Queen of Sheba, the Red Sea was being traversed by traders, adventurers and conquerors. The Phoenicians, as long ago as the twelfth century B.C., developed extensive trade routes up and down the coasts, establishing a base at what is now the port city of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Their course radiated also to India and Europe, and, in addition to the many material benefits they brought with them, they can be given much of the credit for diffusing various forms of alphabetic script. They used alphabetic writing in their colonies in North Africa and also spread the use of pictographs of Egyptian writing and the cuneiform script used in Syria. Thus the Red Sea helped bring written language to new peoples.
Centuries after the Phoenicians Cyrus the Great came from Persia through the Arabian Sea and up the Red Sea to hew out the largest empire the world had known to that time. In the sixth century B.C. Cyrus and his successors—Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes—conquered the region extending from India to Asia Minor and Egypt. The Red Sea served as one of their roads of conquest.
But within the Persian victory lay the seeds of defeat. Not content with what they held, the Persians attempted to extend their empire through southeast Europe. The Greeks not only threw them back, but, under Alexander, pushed on to take over all the territory the Persians had held. Greek culture won a foothold in the Middle East, and, under the reign of the Seleucids, held sway in Syria, and, with the Ptolemys, in Egypt.
Commerce was the life of Hellenistic economy. It made the great fortunes, built the great cities, and diffused Greek culture. A route to India then—as it was to be centuries later—was of crucial importance. One of the most traveled routes was that which ran across the Indian Ocean to Aden, then through the Red Sea to Suez and onward to Alexandria. It was for control for this vital route that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties fought—so fiercely, in fact, that weakened and exhausted, they were easy prey to the conquering Roman legions.
History relates that the soldiers of Mark Antony were tempted to turn and run when they thought they saw ships sailing across the desert. Cleopatra was indeed a sorceress! Quite the contrary. The Queen of Egypt, bottled up at Alexandria, was trying to get her fleet across the canal which had been cut from the Nile to the Red Sea. Had she succeeded, history might have been changed.
A waterway directly from the Nile to the Red Sea had been an old Egyptian dream. In 600 B.C. Pharoah Necho built a canal from the Nile near Heliopolis to the Red Sea near Suez, but the shifting sands of the desert choked it up. Darius I rebuilt it, with the same results. The luck of Ptolemy II, Cleopatra's ancestor, was no better. His canal was also inundated by the desert.
Access to the Red Sea has always been of paramount importance to those who lived near it. There is a belief that it was once wide open, at what is now the Isthmus of Suez. The legend is that Moses, looking for a path away from Egypt, found a high, narrow neck at this spot. Others say it was Moses who raised the narrow neck of land, which remained after he had crossed over it. At any rate, fossil finds prove the sea was once open at this point.
The Biblical reference to the Red Sea as being "turned to blood and the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river," is amply substantiated. Similar reports are found in the Iliad, the works of the historian Tacitus and in the logs of a number of navigators who sailed the Red Sea during the sixteenth century and later.
Such discoloration is found in many seas but is particularly common in the Red Sea. All waters contain plankton, living organisms, both plant and animal, ranging from microscopic bacteria to creatures as large as jellyfish. The organisms carry colored granules, frequently red, in their bodies. In shallow waters and coastal areas decomposing plankton floats near the surface, thus casting a red hue. Who first called it the "Red Sea" is long forgotten but the Persians, Greeks, and the Arabs, in their own language, gave it the same name.
The Red Sea is narrow, no wider than two hundred miles at its maximum. At the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb only fourteen and a half miles of water separate its shores. Both shores, east and west, are low mostly sandy tracts, though sometimes swampy, varying in width from ten to thirty miles and suddenly rising into lofty tableland. The sea itself is partially filled in by coral-workings, which, extending in parallel lines at a short distance from either coast, have subdivided the sea into three different channels. There are also rocky islets that with the coral reefs, make navigation tricky. Particularly when the water is discolored, navigation has to be managed now by the most modern steamship exactly as it was by the triremes of the ancient Romans—by eye.
Some sailors claim that the water itself lights their way. They are referring to the bio-luminescence seen at night—a glow from those tiny water creatures which gleam so that the bow of a ship four miles away can be made out.
The bustling Red Sea might yet wind up with traffic lights. With about 80 ships, on an average day, churning her waters through the 1,200 miles of her length, she keeps her position as a major waterway. The extensive pearl fisheries are still supplying treasures from her depths, not at all interfered with by the telegraph cable that runs along the sea floor from Suez down to the island of Perim. Jiddah, the chief trading port of the Red Sea, located sixty miles west of Mecca, is a thriving, active city. In the great days of Arab trading, when the hardy dhows brought the spices, silks and jewels of India up the Red Sea, Jiddah was a world trade center. Today, freighters from around the world still tie up at her docks.
For a body of water which began life as a rift in a continent, the Red Sea has made an almost inestimable contribution to the life of her surrounding shores and the world.