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Volume 14, Number 9November/December 1963

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Arabian Sea

All the treasures of the ancient world were borne across the warm waters that stretch from the Arabian Peninsula to the shores of India.

". . . the narrow strip of rocky shore where we stood was strewn with the wreckage of a thousand gallant ships, while the hones of luckless mariners shone white in the sunshine, and we shuddered to think how soon our own would he added to the heap.

"All around, too, lay vast quantities of the costliest merchandise, and treasures were heaped in every cranny of the rocks . . ."

So Sindbad the Sailor described one of his many adventures on the Arabian Sea.

Modern navigation has made traveling on the monsoon-driven currents of the Arabian Sea less hazardous than in Sindbad's time, but the ancient trade routes along the coasts of Africa, Arabia, and India still hold the same promise of wealth and adventure which lured Sindbad to the sea.

The treasures today are oil, rubber, uranium—raw materials from two continents bordering the Arabian Sea. The ships may be 100,000-ton oil tankers or swift cargo vessels skimming between Mukalla and Bombay faster than Sindbad's wildest dreams. Yet these ships, supplying the industrial needs of a twentieth-century world, are merely continuing a tradition which goes back past Sindbad to the beginning of recorded history.

The Arabian Sea stretches away from the Indian Ocean north of an imaginary line drawn from Cape Comorin, at the southern tip of India, to Cape Guardafui, at the eastern end of the Horn of Africa. Africa, Arabia, Pakistan, and India enclose its warm salty waters in a sprawling shoreline formed like a great cup. The sea leaks over the cup through the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Arabian Sea with the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Oman, which links the sea with the Persian Gulf. At the broadest part of the sea, it is only about 1500 miles from the Arabian Peninsula shores to the Indian coast.

Since the beginning of civilization man has used the Arabian Sea as a trading route to the world's wealth. The first sea-trading route known to man passed through the sea. Shortly after 3000 B.C. ships raced along the coasts to southern Arabia and India, exchanging copper ore from Oman, teakwood from India, and incense from Arabia for wheat, cheese, and barley from northern kingdoms.

The earliest kingdoms of southwest Arabia probably traded by sea, perhaps as far back as the Minaean Kingdom, which dates from about 1200 B.C., and definitely in the Sabaean Kingdom, which existed from about 950 B.C.

As civilization pushed up toward Europe, trade routes linking Europe with the "fabled East" ran through the Persian Gulf and Arabia rather than the Red Sea. Ships landed at Arabian ports, and caravans, occasionally with thousands of camels, fanned out over Arabia heading north. The merchants of seacoast towns in Arabia grew so rich Greek and Roman historians observed that their doors, walls, and even the roofs of their houses were beautifully inlaid with "ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones."

While civilization spread around the world, the Arabian Sea remained a center of commerce. Chinese vessels plied the sea so regularly that in the tenth century Chinese coins were used as currency as far north as the Persian Gulf ports.

Empires reached its shores and crumbled through the centuries. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese took over the trade routes and built fortresses on the black onyx rocks overlooking the sea. But their empire also died, leaving their castles like medieval ghosts frozen on the shore.

Vessels using the sea usually sailed close to shore, tempting pirates of all eras. The pirates operated so successfully that early ships carried "cohorts of archers" for defense. The age of piracy ended in the nineteenth century on the Arabian Sea; their coral lairs and sunken ships were abandoned to the relentless sea.

After the Suez Canal opened in 1870, the Arabian Sea experienced another rush of commerce. Since then traffic on the sea has expanded so rapidly that some ports can no longer handle the deeply laden vessels. New shipping lines have been formed to meet the needs, and merchants predict new ports will open to them.

A steady stream of huge tank ships, designed for oil, now cuts past the desert shores of the Arabian Sea. Cargo vessels race at 18 knots on a tight schedule between Europe and the East. They carry rubber, jute, silk, wool, spices, sugar, grain, cotton, carpets, coffee, dates and dozens of other products. Air conditioned liners cruise past some of the warmest and driest seashores on earth (the temperature in some coastal areas hovers at 130° and rain falls only a few days a year).

This year, the sea is sharing in an unparalleled ocean study organized by the International Council of Scientific Unions to determine how the world's weather pattern is affected by the monsoons and to learn new geological facts about the Indian Ocean. Ships of 21 nations, including the United States and Russia, are participating in the study, which began in 1962 and will end in 1964.

The study also is developing the sea's commercial fishing potential. With United Nations help, Karachi recently established a new fish harbor which has increased the value of the annual catch from the Arabian Sea in the West Pakistan port by over $8 million in four years and jumped the earnings of the fishermen up to 400%.

While much remains to be explored and developed in the Arabian Sea, vast knowledge has been uncovered. The greater part of the Arabian Sea is deep, with the deep water reaching close to the bordering lands except in the northeast from Karachi to Bombay.

No islands exist over the sea's center, but the Maldive ridge stretches to the southeast for over 100 miles from north to south, the highest parts forming the Maldive and Laccadive Islands—great coral atolls rising from the blue water. The long plateau island of Socotra points out to the sea 160 miles east of the Horn of Africa. Southeast of Socotra is the submarine Carlsberg ridge, with water less than 1500 fathoms (9000 feet) deep above it, but suddenly dropping to over 2100 fathoms on either side. Mariners often use this ridge to divide the Arabian Sea from the main body of the Indian Ocean.

The regular half-yearly alternation of weather conditions and winds plays a more important role on the Arabian Sea and other northern areas of the Indian Ocean than in any other seas on earth.

From October to May the favorable tradewind, or northeast monsoon, blows across the sea and brings a strong southwesterly current which sends many Arabian dhows south with traditional date harvests. When the strong southwest monsoon blows from June to September, they sail home again to Arabia on the northern current. The southwest monsoon brings rain to all of India and can be so violent that it is dangerous to modern steamship traffic at times. Hurricanes may tear across the sea when the monsoons change, but tidal waves and natural upheavals are rare in the Arabian Sea.

The Arabian Sea has the saltiest surface water in the Indian Ocean. High salinity water flows out from the Red Sea along the bottom of the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. It sinks, mixes with the surrounding water, and spreads at great depths as far as Ceylon and southern Africa. Little fresh water dilutes the salty currents since few large rivers empty into the Arabian Sea—only the Indus, Narbadi, and Tapti rivers, all from India.

Surface water temperature remains higher than 68°F at all times and goes up to 86°F in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Swimmers tempted by the warm water could meet some inhospitable aquatic life: stingrays and sharks haunt the shallows, and poisonous sea snakes and schools of finback whales have menaced divers in the sea.

Not all of the sea's aquatic life terrifies humans. Flying fish spin over the water, and thousands of porpoises leap together like frantic ballet corps. Some of the world's best spiny lobsters bask in pools on the Kuria Muria Islands. Far out on the sea, huge sea turtles sun bathe on the surface, oblivious to the curiosity of human seafarers.

Along much of the coast, dark volcanic knolls plunge into the sea before a shimmering line of dunes. Houses cluster on the slopes in seacoast towns, one home built on the edge of the other, each roof serving as a terrace for the house above. A mosque minaret or an abandoned fortress towers above the whitewashed buildings.

The larger seaports of the Arabian coast carry on vigorous trade with the world. Cosmopolitan populations have been drawn to ports like Masqat and Mukalla from many countries. Muslim pilgrims arrive from Singapore, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippine Islands on their way to Mecca by way of the Arabian Sea.

Daily activity on the docks reflects the evolving life on the Arabian Sea. The deep tankers and graceful dhows which sail into the harbors retain some of the flavor of old kingdoms on the Arabian Sea, of Sindbad the Sailor and merchants from antiquity sailing in search of wealth. But they are bringing twentieth-century prosperity to the people who carry on the traditions of an ancient sea.

This article appeared on pages 8-10 of the November/December 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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