This chapter evaluate the evidence, nature, and development of naval contacts in the Red Sea and also from the Red Sea into the west Indian ocean from the Neolithic till the begin of the Islamic period, c. 4000 BCE–700 CE. In addition to summarizing and highlighting recent archaeological research and ongoing scholarly debates, focus is placed on identifying and explaining durations of intensified and also reduced interaction, and on the relationship between internal Red Sea dynamics and also contacts through the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean civilizations in light of climate, organic environment, hinterland interest, and a changing geopolitical situation.

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Keywords: Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Islamic Period, climate, Myos Hormos, sea travel


Natural and Geopolitical Environment

The Red Sea (Arabic Bahr al Ahmar, Latin Mare Rubrum, Greek Erythra Thalassa) is the human body of water between the mouth the the Gulf the Suez, 27°43′–27°27′N and the straits that Bab al Mandab 12°40′N 43°30′E.1 Geologically, the sea constitutes the central part of the an excellent Rift Valley created by the slowly separating African and Arabian tectonic bowl (Figure 1).


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Figure 1 Sites stated in the text. Map through author.


Including its northern extensions, the Gulf of Suez and also the Gulf the Aqaba, the Red Sea is about 2,300 kilometers long and also varies in width from 30 kilometers in ~ the Bab al Mandab come 355 kilometers in between the shores of Eritrea and also Saudi Arabia.2 Holocene sea level changes have been relatively limited. Predictive modeling merged with data from published sites indicate a mid-Holocene high 6,000 years back with sea level in the northern and southern Red Sea 1–3 meters over current median sea level, when shorelines in between the mouth that the Gulf that Suez and also northern Eritrea were slightly below current level.3 The Red Sea has shallow shelves, typically less than 50 meters deep, along both coasts, and also deep shelves and a central axis ranging between 500 and approximately 2,900 meters listed below mean sea level.4 The coastal shelves are defined by coral reefs fringing the coast as well as forming obstacle reefs follow me the edge.5 For objectives of navigation, this has divided the Red Sea right into three channels: a narrow seaside corridor top top the african side, a passage of 3–5 kilometers width on the Arabian side, and a wide central channel.6 These have actually been utilized to different extent and by different groups transparent history. The ubiquity of coral reefs is just one of the factors that navigation in the Red Sea was thought about particularly complicated in the premodern period. The other reason is the wind regime. Phibìc of Jeddah (21°N), northerly winds conquer throughout the year. In the southerly Red Sea, approximately 17°N, which is more influenced by the monsoon system, southerly winds prevail during the period from November to April and also are additionally experienced in October and May. Between these latitudes, southerly winds take place in this duration but are less prevalent.7 for this reason, pearls heading north would always have come beat against the wind north of 21°N, and, for big parts the the year, this was likewise the instance farther south. If this has not hindered navigation altogether, the has applied a degree of seasonality, especially with for to trade heading right into or comes from the Arabian Sea due to the fact that this additionally relied ~ above the monsoon.8 throughout the complete strength the the summer (SW) monsoon the was not deemed feasible to beat against the wind, even with mid-nineteenth century sailing technology and navigational expertise.9 researches of Holocene monsoon variability suggest that both SW and winter (NE) monsoons were historically weak c. 4000 bp and also again c. 2000–1500 bp, with a gradual, back not constant strengthening as the basic trend after that.10 Interestingly, this intervals overlap with periods of intensified trans-oceanic contacts in the western Indian Ocean disputed later. The uninterrupted archaeological and also historical document of Red Sea and also Indian ocean seafaring since at least 2,500 years, in addition to the well-known fluctuation in maritime activities within the critical of the pointed out periods the weak monsoons, however, warns that no direct correlation deserve to be established in between monsoon variability and connectivity.

Climate readjust in the Red Sea is influenced by the Indian Ocean and also by Mediterranean systems. Palaeoclimatological studies suggest that the entire Red Sea to be touched by the early on Holocene humid interval, ending 6,000–4,000 year ago, whereas after ~ that problems have been arid.11 Today, precipitation in the Red Sea varies from nearly nothing to very little. The Egyptian Red Sea shore hardly obtain rain in ~ all; Aqiq in Sudan receives 129.1 millimeter in an average year; Jeddah, 53.5 millimeters; and Assab in Eritrea, 39.1 millimeters.12 In historic times, restricted agriculture, including date cultivation, has taken location in the estuaries that wadis (seasonal watercourses), wherein fresh water have the right to be found near the surface. Red Sea coasts and their desert hinterlands have been used broadly by groups engaging in pastoral activities and subsiding on marine resources because prehistory. The totality region, however, receives much less rain than the minimum requirements for cereal cultivation. For this reason, any kind of larger, permanent settlements on the Red Sea coastline have reflect hinterland interest in exploiting possibilities because that trade and the extraction of organic resources. This interest, transforming through background with political and commercial developments, can, in addition to the wind regime, define much that the advance of Red Sea business described herein.

Historically, the coastlines might be claimed to have been in ~ the politics and cultural gravity fields of transforming polities in both the upper and also lower Nile Valley, the southerly Levant, the Hejaz, southern Arabia, and also the Ethiopian-Eritrean highlands for most periods of their history. Coastal areas, however, additionally show distinct local material cultures. Eight modern-day countries border the Red Sea and its northern bifurcation: Djibouti, Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, and also Israel. This is appropriate not only because it has influence ~ above access, funding, and also permit areas, but likewise because archaeology is always in dialogue through the contemporary world. In some cases, facets of archaeology and heritage have actually been used to highlight a desired past, whether local or national. If this is totally legitimate, the is nevertheless useful to store in mind when approaching the historiography of a an ar with a comparably recent early american past. Arguments on the identity, extent, and also origin of what has traditionally been called the pre-Aksumite and Aksumite polities are hence arguably no unrelated come the struggle for an live independence Eritrea and also the later daunting relationship with Ethiopia. Researches of the regional identity the the eastern Desert of Egypt and Sudan have actually been crucial for offering a past for a “people there is no history,” to borrow Eric Wolfs famed term, who populate the region today. Discussions of ethnicity in ancient Red Sea profession have added toward “decolonizing” what was long taken into consideration a roman inn venture, and also the loved one paucity of evidence along some stretches of the Red Sea shore could reflect national historical services using their minimal resources elsewhere, as lot as it mirrors a lack of maritime tasks in the past.

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Although the archaeological record that Red Sea trade has increased vastly in current years, the ar is tho young and also most of the region remains underexplored. In the sense that us rely heavily on the historic narratives of the stated hinterland polities because that context, the remains an extremely much a ar of historical archaeology. These narratives, however, because that the most part treat the Red Sea as a periphery and also a zone of transit. Material evidence has the potential to situate the Red Sea in ~ the center and also thus challenge and shape historic narratives, together we shall watch from several examples given in this chapter.