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Do historians marginalize the Red Sea?
A much-needed new book challenges European maritime history scholarship
A New Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1804, by John Cary - Courtesy: Wikimedia

Shocked by the absence of an extensive historical study of the Red Sea, Alexis Wick has devoted his PhD and first published book, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space (2016), to asking why it never became a proper subject of history.

More specifically: Why did the rise of thalassology, the study of oceans, not include the Red Sea, and why has Europe monopolized the historical narratives of seas?

“The Ottoman Red Sea does not exist because of a long-standing identification of maritimity with Europe and the collateral affirmation of the incompatibility of Islam and the sea,” writes Wick, an assistant professor of history at the American University of Beirut. The Red Sea’s inhospitable nature and strategic location led to Europeans seeing it as a passageway, “a hyphen between the world of the Mediterranean and that of the Indian Ocean.”

In responding to these misconceptions, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Spacedwells largely on the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn that the Red Sea’s name did not exist in official Ottoman accounts, but was named according to adjoining places: Suez Sea, Jeddah Sea, Akaba Sea, Mocha Sea, Yemen Sea and Habash (Abyssinia) Sea. We discover that Mecca and Medina got their sustenance all year round through ships from Suez, and that coffee sailed its way from Yemen to alter forever the nightlife of Cairo and Istanbul with the invention of the coffee shop. We find out that the rhythm of mobility and exchange in the Red Sea followed a triple cosmic metronome: the sun for harvest, the wind for sailing and the moon for pilgrimage. That the British Empire could only complete multiple grand expeditions to chart the Red Sea with the involvement of local skippers, and that with the advent of steamships time and space contracted, sweeping up the specificities of the basin and stamping a homogeneous name on it: the Red Sea.

Wick excavates all this and more intricate histories in an attempt to define the “lost space” of the Red Sea. The sea’s uniqueness starts with the mountain ranges that frame it on both sides, shaping the climate and the terrain’s isolation from agricultural plains. The land’s bareness along with the sea’s fierce currents, violent winds and high concentration of reefs has made the coasts difficult to inhabit and the sea challenging to navigate. Within this context, the 248-page book has three main focal points.

One is Hegel’s early-19th-century idea that the Mediterranean is Europe’s cradle of civilization and the sea a source of freedom, exploration and an outlet that “enables life to step beyond itself.” According to Hegel, this is true of Europeans more than “others”: Indians and Pharaohs more or less feared the sea, while Islam is a culture of desert. The sea is not static or fixable – it is dynamic, unstable and infinite: free, like European civilization. The Arabs, he wrote, “inhabit that most terrestrial and un-aquatic of landscapes, the desert” — they do not have Europe’s exceptional intimacy with the sea. The book shows how Hegel’s ideas have influenced modern European philosophers and colonial perceptions of the Orient, and continue to influence new thalassology scholarship. It dissects modern European historians’ appropriation of the sea for Europe.

The second is Fernand Braudel’s huge book, Mediterranean, written between the 1940s and 1970s, a milestone work in putting thalassology on the map again. It called for a new way to research seas that’s concerned with all human activities and draws concepts and methods from all the social sciences, from geography to psychology. Braudel applied this approach to the study of the Mediterranean. Influenced by Hegel, he called for seeing the whole Mediterranean as a unified unit (ensemble), and understanding it by thinking about long periods (longue durée) and varied time speeds (temporalities). Braudel’s work is heavily emphasized in The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space, although Wick assumes the reader’s knowledge of it and never introduces it as a whole. Admiring Braudel’s book, he sees no reason for not having a similar work done when “the Red Sea offered itself as the ideal unitary space, in terms of geographical, climatic, religious, linguistic, social, commercial, human, even political and juridical integration of a sort Mediterraneanists could only dream about.”

Third is the empirical side of the book, revealing the material that allows historians to re-imagine the Red Sea as a history subject – specifically a “Document 227” in the Prime Minister’s Ottoman Archives in Istanbul. This document, from 1777, lists the meticulous imperial logistics of securing connections with the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina over several decades. It reflects the constant efforts required to mediate “the immediate time of the command, the potential time of the purchase of the ship, the intermediate time of the construction of ships, the seasonal time of sailing, the cyclical time of pilgrimage, the eternal time of provisioning the Holy Cities, the catastrophic time of shipwrecks, the natural time of the dangers of navigation, the political time of provincial rebellion, the social time of bandits, the repetitive time of inscribing.”

The Ottomans did not exercise central authority, Wick shows, but perpetually facilitated the organization of their “ferry” services through diverse entities and temporalities while allowing for local dynamics to flourish organically. In contrast, Wick examines the first charting of the Red Sea in 1840 to show how the imperial British approach did not recognize its diversity or complexity. Through scientific methods, they homogenized the place and the people.

For me, this comparison — between the archaic Ottoman rule falling behind and the British Empire that was instrumental in creating the new world order — is unsound. This was a time when, according to Ben Wilson’s Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World (2016), “[t]he global economy expanded fivefold, millions of families emigrated to the ends of the earth to carve out new lives, technology revolutionised communications, while steamships and railways cut across vast continents and oceans, shrinking the world and creating the first global age.” Naturally, the scale of this global  transformation would alter perceptions of time and space, and the change to a homogeneous name, the Red Sea, was part of this. The shift meant European colonialists perceived and intervened differently, moulding our current world.

In some ways, The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space is a repetitive mesh of its three main themes that proves its point in a long-winded, convoluted style.

First, Wick goes after Hegel and those who adopted views that created a conceptual rift between free aquatic Europe and the confined desert Orient as the roots of the Red Sea’s marginalization. He shows how this rift passed on not only to academic scholarship but also to colonialists who stepped all over the intricate specificities of the place. Wick applies this concept without a context — he does not take into account that the transformation happened everywhere as new technologies and science altered how the world and its people were perceived, paving the way for a new world, the rules of which we continue to abide by.

Then Wick wishes that a book like Braudel’s would be written about the Red Sea, even though — as he acknowledges at certain points — Braudel cemented the glorification of the Mediterranean and echoed Hegelian ideas in calling Islam a “child of the desert”.

Wick brings out the Ottoman Document 227 to show that the ingredients to write such a book are available. But he admits “that the evidence itself of the maritime activities over the Red Sea is not indigenous but rather derives from regions further afield, notably the Nile Valley. The region’s difficult natural conditions have made the actual shores of the Red Sea inhospitable to permanent settlement, needed for the development of a centralized authority likely to foster autonomous and enduring material and documentary productions.”

Clearly, then, putting together a narrative of the Red Sea’s geographic history will require unconventional approach to history making. Yet, very early in the book, Wick states that he does not “seek to reveal an authentic experience of the sea by the people, locals and others, who encountered it.” Later, he concludes that “[t]he Red Sea obviously existed before its scientific charting, but it was real in a different sense — and what needs to be explored is precisely the ways in which it was real, according to what criteria and to what effect.”

Contrary to how Wick wants the Red Sea to be viewed through its intricate history narrative of places, people and trade exchange and mobility, for the most part he seems to maintain an imperial overview on the subject. He argues that the Ottoman rule was a more “real” interaction with the place, while the British practiced a more absolute authoritarian colonialism. But both were colonialists, regardless of their different conceptions of space and time, and the fact that the Ottomans serviced mostly the north part, which concerned them (very little mention is recorded of the south part of Yemen and Abyssinia), while European powers turned the whole sea into a passageway. Either way, the book does not address how the Red Sea’s diminishment has manifested itself in its culture. Its main point is how European historians, philosophers and colonialists miniaturized the Red Sea, but Wick never elaborates on how this has concretely affected the place and its people.

Part of the book’s weakness lies in its continual comparison of the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The Red Sea could never flourish a “civilization” despite its vital geostrategic location — settlements could survive independently, but not urban agglomerations. It’s a treacherous sea riddled with wrecks and its arid coast is filled with ghost cities, like Aydhab, Berenice, Myos Hormos and Ocelis, whose existence depended on provisions from outside (once their roles expired, the provisions stopped and port cities vanished). The Red Sea is a desert sea, and like the desert it is without an obvious memory: Its lifespan is not articulated enough through architectural ruins or cultural heritage to warrant comparison to the Mediterranean. Natural harshness has not allowed time to accumulate. Perhaps, rather than intentional neglect or marginalization of the Red Sea by historians, it’s just that the difficulty and originality of the task is yet to be tackled.

Wick states that in order for the Red Sea to become a subject of history it must first be imagined, but the other frustrating drawback is the lack of visuals. Reading a book about a location connected to other locations, one often needs to resort to maps, but there are few cartographic tools provided. With the exception of an Ottoman Empire map and a Red Sea topography map, no visuals aid us in traveling through the multiple networks of exchange and mobility. A map covering the frequently mentioned wind, current, tide and seabed variations between the Red Sea’s north and south, caused by global connections, would have helped, as would a map of the port cities that appeared and vanished through time, and a map showing the central nodes and regional and global trade routes in Ottoman times.

Yet despite these flaws, the scarcity of history books on the Red Sea makes Wick’s book valuable as a beginning for historians to imagine the Red Sea as an entity in itself and not just a strip or hyphen. The book’s rich bibliography and endnotes will allow historians to reassess the sea and stitch together a mosaic narration of its complex interconnectivity. It will be an enlightening read not just for academics but also for history and Red Sea enthusiasts. Despite its convoluted style, it offers many leads in the for producing a geographic history of the Red Sea, explains why the Red Sea story has not been told, and convincingly argues that now is the time to tell it.

A New Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1804, by John Cary

A New Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1804, by John Cary - Courtesy: Wikimedia

John Cary was a leading London engraver, map, chart and print seller, and globe maker active between 1787 and 1834. This 1811 map shows the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring parts of Africa and the Middle East. Interestingly enough, it covers multiple caravan routes that show the Red Sea in a wider perspective, including the “route of the grand caravan of Sudan from the Niger to Cairo,” the “route of the caravan from Batsora [Basra] to Aleppo,” the “caravan of Darfowar [Darfur] to Mecca by Dongola,” the “caravan of Sudan directly to Mecca by Suakem,” and several other caravan routes to Mecca. Many African kingdoms are shown, their borders marked with colored lines, as is a speculative source of the Nile. The northern coast of Somalia is called “Myrrh and Incense Country.” The zigzag line in the Red Sea indicates the course of La Venus, a French frigate that sailed on a voyage of discovery in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean in 1785−88. The map includes many other notes that reflect the state of European geographic understanding of this region at the beginning of the 19th century.

Reem Askalan