The color of coral:The challenges of the Red Sea Region [Archives:2005/829/Culture]

March 31 2005

By Irena Knehtl
For The Yemen Times

It is a history full of adventure, excitement and discovery. Time is right for greater Red Sea regional economic cooperation and investment projects.

Like a bustling super highway, this Middle Eastern sea-road serves the world's traffic today just as it did in the days of the Phoenicians. For thousands of years, the Red Sea has seen history made on her waters and along her shores. For a body of water that began life as a rift in a continent, the Red Sea has made an inestimable contribution to the life of her surrounding shores and the world.

Today, far from being a relic, it is as vital as ever to world trade and transportation. Sailors claim that the water itself lights their way. They may be 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.

According to the legend, the Red Sea came into being when a king cut a channel through at Bab al-Mandab in order for the ocean to flow through and destroy his enemy's territory. Thus Arabia's break with Africa was a violent affair as the Arab Peninsula pivoted away to the east, creating a mountain wall the entire length of the Red Sea coast.

In between, the tectonic movement tore a huge rift in the earth's crust from Ethiopia to Jordan, more than 1600 kilometers long, into which poured the waters of the Indian Ocean, carrying marine life with them and creating what is known today the Red Sea. Like a finger pointing straight at the Mediterranean, it begins at the Strait of Babl al-Mandab, and ends 1,200 miles to the north-northeast at Suez.

Through the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, the Red Sea traffic reaches southward to all the ports of the Far East, though 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.

Long before the days of the fabled Queen of Sheba, the Red Sea was being traversed by traders, adventurers and conquerors. The access to the Red Sea has always been of paramount importance to those who lived near it. The Red Sea is narrow, no more than two hundred miles at its widest point. At the Strait of Bal al-Mandab, only fourteen and half miles of water separates 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 lift tableland. The sea itself is partially filled in by coral-workings, which, extended in parallel lines at a short distance from either coast and 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.

The history of the Red Sea is full of adventure, excitement and discovery. As one of the first large bodies of water mentioned in recorded history, it is a major or traffic route, serving as an outlet to the Oceans for its literal states, and on its other hand as a thoroughfare that links the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

The geopolitical position of the Red Sea is of special importance, bordering as it does the eastern coast of Africa and the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the vital route for the transportation of oil through Bab Al-Mandab in the south to the Suez Canal in the north. Thus this narrow band of water shared by a number of coastal states is an important shipping lane linking the world major oceans.

The red sea in history

International travel began early in the Red Sea. More than 5000 years ago, rafts, or simple boats dared its waters to bring obsidian – a black volcanic glass that yields sharp blades – from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt, where it has been found in pre-dynastic archeological sites.

More than 3500 years ago, Egyptians pharaohs sent fleets in the Red Sea to visit copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai and to sail much farther south, probably through the Bab al-Mandab and into the Gulf of Aden, to the fabled land of Punt, where “giraffe tails, huge gold rings and incense could be obtained for mere trinkets”

If Jazirat Faraun fits one typical pattern, jazirat Tiran fits yet another. Tiran is another island in the Gulf of Aqaba/Elath. Foods from the southern and central parts of the Red Sea and the Red Sea islands serving as offshore bases/distribution centers which provided security in times of troubles, a typically Phoenician pattern. It may have meant that the Red Sea commerce was for a while in Phenician hands. Phoenicia went to great lengths to obtain tin. As Phoenicians did not neglect commercial opportunities and while being commercial rivals, the Phoenicians were also trading partners or partners in trade with the Arabs on the Red and the Indian Ocean world.

Roman conquest of Egypt trade India and Arabia through the Red Sea reached new peaks. In 21 AD, for example, trade relations between the Roman Empire and India alone reached a volume of 120 sailings a year. By conquest, the Romans too acquired bases in the south of Arabia in order to secure the safety of navigation.

Roman ships regularly left Egyptian Red Sea ports such as Berenike bound for Indian cities, sailing with cargoes of gold, and with the secret of monsoon winds closely held by their navigators. Those ships returned with heavy cargoes of aromatic resins and spices, elephant ivory and silks form the Far East. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, Mamluk merchants landed Chinese and Iranian ceramics in medieval Quseir on the Red Sea, which became virtually an Ottoman lake after the Turks took Cairo in 1517.

The Turks began sailing the Western Indian Ocean in the 16th century, and the Ottoman lands were the largest market for goods imported through the Red Sea. Pilgrims returning to their home countries took with them not only water from the Zamzam spring at Makkah Mukkarama – and burial shrouds that had been dipped in its blessed water – but also exotic products of the Red Sea trade – Chinese porcelain, metal wares, spices from India and the Moluccas, and scents from Taif and spread them throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

As the global economy strengthened, Yemeni merchants flouted Ottoman prohibitions on trade and exchanged precious Yemeni coffee for imported Chinese porcelain, fabrics and spices brought by Dutch, English and Indian ships to Mocha. A British sea captain, writing in 1723 gives a hint of the sights and smells of this busy harbor, “full of English free merchants, Portuguese, Banyans, and Moors, vessels from Bossorah, Persia and Muskat all trading in coffee and myrrh, frankincense and aloes Soccatrina from Socotra, white and yellow arsenick, some gum Arabicum some balm of bilead, that comes from the Red Sea”.

The coffee trade from Yemen up the Red Sea was so important that it made up two thirds of the value of Egypt's foreign imports in the second half of the 18th century. At Suez, the fastest camels awaited the news of the coffee fleets arrival in September or October, so as to race the 145 kilometers to Cairo with news that could make – or cost – fortunes on the coffee futures exchange.

Re-exported through Alexandria, half of Egypt's imported coffee eventually reached Ottoman and European markets. The Red Sea served as the gateway to Europe for many eastern products and trade on the Red Sea, despite the notorious risk of navigation in its reef- studded, coral – lined waters.

Although European ships had been sailing to Suez since the 16th century, the European ships brought Chinese export porcelain, designed for the Middle Eastern market featuring floral designs to Mocha and Jiddah to trade for coffee. Arab and Muslim ships took the goods along the next leg north in the Red Sea. Southbound, their cargoes included iron and Ottoman – subsidized supplies of wheat, oil, lentils and beans for Jiddah.

The sea link between Jiddah and Suez was considerably more important than historians had realized earlier. We know that Indian ships periodically carried goods north to Suez, for French and other merchants during the 17th and 18th centuries. Later in the 18th century, a French traveler commented that most Arab ships in the Red Sea had been built in India. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, strong commercial ties existed between Egypt and India, so it would not be surprising to find Indian shipbuilding techniques adopted by Egyptian builders.

Problems of water and coal supply were solved by establishing a fueling station at Port Said and on Perim island in the gate of Bab al-Mandab. Until World War One, the shores of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were under the domination of the Turkish Empire, the British Empire, France and Italy.

In the 20th century, the Red Sea reached the zenith of its importance as oil gradually replaced coal as fuel in industry – power generation and transportation in Europe and America. New supertankers, operating at relatively low costs were built and transported oil around the Cape of Good Hope to the Western industrialized world.

More recently, a stream of oil begun to flow through the Red Sea By 1990 the water of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden washed the coasts of ten independent states: Egypt, Sudan, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, (Ethiopia), Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen. The important fact, however is not the great number, but their diversity and heterogeneity in almost every respect, natural resources, wealth, social development, history, religion, ideological orientation, tradition, form of government and relations to the outside powers. The Red Sea nevertheless preserved its importance as an outlet to the Indian Ocean for the literal states. Egypt since has undertaken important works for deepening of the canal, which enable large ships to travel through it. The Red Sea served as bridge between richest areas in Europe and the Far East but never managed to attract to its shores any significant portion of the wealth that flowed through the waterway.

To be continued next issue