previous next


ARA´BICUS SINUS or MARE RUBRUM (δ Ἀράβιος κόλπος, Herod., &c.; in some later writers Ἀραβικὸς κόλπος; Ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα, its usual name in LXX. and N. T.: Arab. Bahr-el-Kolsum: Red Sea), the long and narrow gulf which extends northwards from the Indian Ocean, between Arabia on the E. and Africa (Abyssinia, and Nubia, and Egypt) on the W., between 12° 40′ and 30° N. lat. and between 43° 30′ and 32° 30′ E. long. Its direction is NNW. and SSE.: its length 1400 miles; its greatest breadth nearly 200. miles.

It was first known to the ancients in its N. part, that is, in the western bay of the two into which its head is parted by the peninsula of Mt. Sinai (Gulf of Suez). The Israelites, whose miraculous passage of this gulf, near its head, is the first great event in their history as a nation, called it the sedgy sea. It seems to have been to this part also (as the earliest known) that the Greek geographers gave the name of Red Sea, which was afterwards extended to the whole Indian Ocean; while the Red Sea itself came to be less often called by that name, but received the distinctive appellation of Arabian Gulf. But it never entirely lost the former name, which it now bears exclusively. To find a reason for its being called Red has puzzled geographers, from Strabo (xvi. p.779) to the present day. The best explanation is probably that, from its washing the shores of Arabia Petraea, it was called the Sea of Edom, which the Greeks translated literally into ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα.

The views of the ancients respecting this gulf are various and interesting. Herodotus (2.11) calls it a gulf of Arabia, not far from Egypt (i. e. the Nile valley), flowing in from the sea called Ἐρυθρὴ, up to Syria, in length forty days' rowing from its head to the open sea, and half a day's voyage in its greatest breadth; with a flood and ebb tide every day. In 100.158, he speaks of Necho's canal as cut into the Red Sea, which he directly afterwards calls the Arabian Gulf and the Southern Sea; the mixture of the terms evidently arising from the fact that he is speaking of it simply as part of the great sea, which he calls Southern, to distinguish it from the Northern, i. e. the Mediterranean. So, in 4.37, he says that the Persians extend as far as the Southern or Red Sea, ἐπὶ τὴν νοτίην θάλασσαν τὴν Ἐρυθρὴν καλευμέην, i. e. the Persian Gulf, which he never distinguishes from the Erythraean Sea, in its wider sense; thus, he makes the Euphrates and Tigris fall into that sea (1.180, 6.20). Again, in 4.39, speaking of Arabia, as forming, with Persia and Assyria, a great peninsula, jutting out from Asia into the Red Sea, he distinguishes the Arabian Gulf as its W. boundary; and he extends the Erythraean sea all along the S. of Asia to India (100.40). Again, in 100.159, he speaks of Necho's fleet “on the Arabian Gulf, ad jacent to the Red Sea” (ἐπὶ τῇ Ἐρυθρῇ θαλάσσῃ); and, in relating the circumnavigation of Africa under that king, he says that Necho, having finished the canal from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, caused some Phoenicians to embark for the expedition; and that they, setting forth from the Red Sea, navigated the Southern Sea (ὁρμηθέντες ἐκ τῆς Ἐρυθρῆς θαλάσσης ἔπλωον τὴν νοτίην θάλασσαν), and so round Libya by the Pillars of Hercules to Egypt (4.42). These passages show that Herodotus knew the Red Sea as a narrow gulf of the great ocean, which he supposed to extend S. of Asia and Africa, but that his notion of the connection between the two was very vague; a view confirmed by the fact that he regards Arabia as the southernmost country of Asia (3.107). Respecting the gulf which forms the western head of the Red Sea, he had the opportunity of gaining accurate information in Lower Egypt, even if he did not see it himself; and, accordingly, he gives its width correctly as half a day's voyage in its widest part (the average width of the Gulf of Suez is thirty miles); but he fell into the error of supposing the whole sea to be the same average width. For its length he was dependent on the accounts of traders; and he makes it much too long, if we are to reckon the forty days by his estimate of 700 stadia, or even 500 stadia, a day, which would give 2,400 and 2,000 geog. miles respectively. But these are his estimates for sailing, and the former under the most favourable circumstances; whereas his forty days are expressly for rowing, keeping of course near the coast, and that in a narrow sea affected by strong tides, and full of impediments to navigation. Moreover, the Gulf of Bab-el-Mandeb should, perhaps, be included in his estimate. Herodotus regarded the Nile-valley and the Red Sea as originally two parallel and equal gulfs, the one of the Northern Ocean, and the other of the Southern; of which the former has been filled up by the deposit of the Nile in two myriads of years, a thing which might happen to the latter, if the Nile were by any chance to be turned into it (2.11). How little was generally known of the S. part of the Red Sea down to the time of Herodotus, is shown by the fact that Damastes, the logographer, a disciple of Hellanicus, believed it to be a lake. (Strab. i. p.47.)

Another curious conjecture was that of Strabo, the writer on physics, and Eratosthenes, who tried to account for the marine remains in the soil of the countries round the Mediterranean, by supposing that the sea had a much higher level, before the disruption of the Pillars of Hercules; and that, until a passage was thus made for it into the Atlantic, its exit was across the Isthmus of Suez into the Red Sea (Ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα). This theory, the latter part of which was used to explain Homer's account of the voyage of Menelaus to the Aethiopians, is mentioned and opposed by Strabo (i. pp. 38, 39, 57; Eratosth. Frag. p. 33, foll. ed. Seidel.)

The ancient geographers first became well acquainted with the Red Sea under the Ptolemies. About B.C. 100, Agatharchides wrote a full description of both coasts, under the title Περὶ τῆς ἐρυθρᾶς θάλασσης, of the 1st and 5th books of which we Have a full abstract by Photius (Phot. Bibl. 250, pp. 441--460, ed. Bekker; and in Hudson's Geographi Graeci Minores, vol. i.); and we have numerous notices of the gulf in Strabo, Mela, Pliny, Ptolemy, and Agathemerus. They describe it as one of the two great gulfs of the Southern Sea ( νοτία θάσασσα, Strab. p. 121), or Indian Ocean, to which the names of Ἐρυσρὰ θάλασσα and Mare Rubrum were now usually applied, the Red Sea itself being sometimes called by the same name and sometimes by the distinctive name of Arabian Gulf. Ptolemy carefully distinguishes the two (8.16.2); as also does Agathemerus, whose Red Sea (Ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα) is the Gulf of Bab-el-Mandeb. It extended from Arabia Petraea to the S. extremity of the coast of the Troglodytae in Aethiopia, being [p. 1.183]enclosed on the W. by Egypt and Aethiopia, on the E. by Arabia Felix. Strabo, who includes, under the name of Aethiopians, all the people of the extreme south, from the rising to the setting sun, says that the Aethiopians are divided by nature into two parts by the Arabian Gulf, ὡς ἂν μεσημβρίνου κύκλου τμήματι ἀξιολόγὡ (i. p. 35; see Groskurd and the commentators). He places the Arabian and Persian Gulf opposite the Euxine and the Caspian respectively, which is quite right (ii. p. 121). Its S. entrance was a narrow strait, Fauces Marts Rubri (τὰ στενὰ ἐν τῇ Ἐρυθρᾷ θαλάσσῃ, Ptol.; Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb), enclosed by the promontory of Deire or Dere (Ras Sejan) on the W., and that of Palindromos (C. Bab-el-Mandeb), on the E. (Ptol. 1.15.11, 4.7.9, 6.7.7, 8.16.12.) Its length was differently estimated; by Eratosthenes (ap. Plin.) at 13,000 stadia; by Strabo, at 15,000 (i. p. 35: in ii. p. 100, only 10,000, but the reading should probably be altered); by Agrippa, at 14,000 or 13,776 (1722 M.P. ap. Plin.), and by Agathemerus at 10,000 stadia, or 1,3338 M.P.; besides other calculations, following the line of either coast. Its breadth is still more variously stated, probably from its being taken at different parts; by Timosthenes (ap. Plin.) at 2 days' journey (about 1,200 stadia); by Strabo, at not much more than 1,000 stadia at its widest part; while the general estimate reached 3,800 stadia, or 475 M.P. The width of the strait is 60 stadia, according to Strabo and Agathemerus, or from 6 to 12 M.P. according to different accounts preserved by Pliny : it is really 20 miles. The dangers of this strait, which have given to it the name of Bab-el-Mandeb (i. e. Gate of Tears) are not made much of by the ancient writers. From the narrowness of the sea, Strabo often compares it to a river.

At the northern end, the sea was parted into two bays by the peninsula of Arabia Petraea, consisting of the Black Mountains of Ptolemy (τὰ μέλανα ὄρη, Ptol. 5.17.3, 6.7.12; the Sinaitic group), terminating on the S. in the promontory of Poseidonium (Ras Mohammed) in 28° N. lat. Of these bays, the western and longer, running NW. to 30° N. lat. was called the Sinus Heroöpolites, or Heroöpoliticus (Ἡρωοπολίτης κόλπος or μύχος, Ἥρωος κόλπος, Theophrast. H. Pl. 4.8, κόλπος Αἰγυθτιακός, J. AJ 8.2; Bahr Es-Suez, Gulf of Suez), from the city of HEROOPOLIS (Ἡρώων θόλις), near its head, on the canal which Necho made to connect it with the Nile. It divided Middle Egypt from Arabia Petraea, and is separated from the Mediterranean by the Isthmus of Suez. Its head seems to have retired in consequence of the sand washed up by the strong tides and prevailing S. winds. The tide in this narrow gulf is so strong as to raise its surface above that of the Mediterranean. The eastern bay was called Aelanites and Aelaniticus, or Elanites and Elaniticus Sinus (Αἰλανίτης, Ἐλανίτης, Ἐλανιτικὸς κόλπος or μύχος: Gulf of Akaba), from the city of AELANA It was regarded as the innermost recess of the Arabian Gulf (μύχος, Herod. Strab., &c.; Sinus intimus, Plin.). Pliny says that it took its name from the Laeanitae, who dwelt upon it, and whose capital was Laeana, or, according to others, Aelana; he then adds the various forms Aeliniticus, Aleniticus (from Artemidorus) and Laeniticum (from Juba). It extends NNE. to 29° 36′ N. lat., with an average breadth of 12 miles, between rocky and precipitous shores.

The character of the Red Sea, as given by the ancients, is stormy, rugged, deep, and abounding in marine animals. Its coral reefs and violent shifting winds have always made its navigation difficult: but from the earliest times of recorded history it was used by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Jews, and Arabs, as a great highway of commerce between India and the shores and islands of the Indian Ocean in general, and the countries round the Mediterranean. It had several important harbours on both coasts; the chief of which were MYOS HORMOS, BERENICE, PTOLEMAIS THERON, and ADULE on the W., and AELANA, LEUCE COME, MUZA, ACILA, and others on the east. Ptolemy gives the names of some of the numerous islands of the Red Sea; those of the Erythraean Sea mentioned by Herodotus as a place to which Persian exiles were sent, were in the Persian Gulf. (Herod. ll. cc.; Diod. 3.14, 15; Eratosth. ll. cc.; Strab. i. pp. 35, 38, 47, 57, ii. pp. 100, 121,132, xvi. p. 779; Mela, 3.8; Plin. Nat. 2.67, 68, 5.11, 12, 6.24,26,32,33; Ptol. 4.5.13, 7. § § 4, 27, 5.17. § § 1, 2, 6.7. § § 1, 36, 43, 7.5. § § 1, 2, 10, 8.16.2, 20.2,22.2; Agathem. 1.2, 2.2, 5, 11, 14; Rennel, Geog. to Hlerod. vol. i. p. 260, vol. ii. pp. 88--91; Gosselin, Ueber die Geogr. Kenntniss der Alten vom Arab. Meerbusen, in Bredow's Untersuchungen, vol. ii.; Reichard, Myos Hormos u. die ägyptischäthiopische Küste des class. Zeitalters, the Neu. Geogr. Ephem. vol. xxviii.; Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. ii. pp. 226, foll., 245, foill.)


hide References (12 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (12):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.11
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 8.2
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.12
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.24
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.67
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.68
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.11
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 3.14
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 3.15
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 1.15
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.5
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.7
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: