This distinctly blue body of water appears in its northeastern corner, the Gulf of Aqaba, as a narrow channel between stark mountain ranges on either side – a plunging chasm partly filled-in by sea. While this is true enough, it is only a branch of a much larger cleft in the earth, stretching all the way from Asia Minor to eastern Africa and spreading, very slowly, into its future as a new ocean. In the depths of the water, occasional seismic activity (none of it near the Gulf of Aqaba) indicates the upwelling of new rock matter from under the crust, and periodic earthquakes rattle the region as the African and Arabian plates slide unevenly along.
The two “rabbit ears” of the Red Sea’s north end, the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, are quite different. The western Gulf of Suez appears larger but is much shallower; the eastern Gulf of Aqaba is jagged and deep, with its underwater topography matching the steep mountains that line it. These mountains are made of rock recently thrown up from deep in the earth, ancient granite finally given its time in the sun. The chain of faults that extends northward from the Gulf of Aqaba is called the Dead Sea Transform and, besides causing earthquakes, is responsible for the existence of the lowest above-water point on Earth – the Dead Sea. Over coming epochs, the Rift Valley will spread to be flooded by more and more of the ever-widening gulf; and the ocean will spill into the Dead Sea, turning it from a lake into a deep, salty trench.
The Red Sea may be familiar from history books and Biblical legends; a significant geographic feature, it has also been a part of major trade routes since at least the early dynasties of Egypt, and ships have continued to carry in spices and goods from the East throughout the millennia. Fishermen have always made a living from the sea’s plethora of edible species, and diving among the world-class coral reefs has become a tourist draw in modern times. At the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, a natural crossroads between the continents, numerous ancient trade routes converge, some of which the Abraham Path parallels at times.
Though the Red Sea serves as an important thoroughfare, its dry shores do not lend themselves to high populations. Key port cities have appeared and survived throughout the ages, but only in modern times have great numbers of people come to live here. The effects of this population, along with those of climate change, on the sea’s unique ecosystems and endemic species are yet to be seen. As demand for water grows, desalination has become a tempting option for those living adjacent to the salt water, but the briny byproducts of the process are perhaps even more of a danger to the environment than are overfishing and global warming.