Red Sea

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The Red Sea, which is actually blue, seen here surrounded by countries that are yellow.

The Red Sea is a seawater inlet of the Indian Ocean, lying between Africa and Asia. Contrary to popular belief, it is not actually red. Instead, it ranges from a light teal to a deep shade of blue most of the year, though in its shallowest parts it has been known to approach total transparency. According to various local legends, the water has also been said to turn a putrid sand-brown color when dirtied, though this has yet to be substantiated by science.


For those without comedic tastes, the self-proclaimed experts at Wikipedia think they have an article very remotely related to Red Sea.

The etymology of the place name “Red Sea” isn’t entirely clear, given that the sea itself isn’t actually red. Indeed, this term is made all the more confounding when one considers the fact that the sand surrounding the Red Sea is actually quite brown, as are the people that live on the shores of the body of water.

One prominent theory is that “red” actually means “south”—in many Asiatic languages, the four cardinal directions are given names based on simple colors. This theory is actually quite plausible when one considers the names of the northernly “Black” Sea and the westernly “Mediterranean” Sea, with “Mediterranean” being a shade of green somewhere between ‘grape leaf’ and ‘olive.’

Another theory postulates that the Red Sea might have been so named after something within or near it that was red in color. Just what that thing is or was, however, has continued to elude history.


Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, seen here wearing Tyrian purple. As one can plainly see, it looks sort of red.

The Biblical Book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of a body of water, which the Hebrew text calls “Yam Suph.” Traditionally, “Yam Suph” is rendered as “Red Sea,” though it can also be translated as “Sea of Reeds,” which draws doubts as to whether or not the crossing of the Red Sea actually occurred at the Red Sea due to the fact that the Red Sea is notoriously reedless most of the year. Furthermore, the fact that the crossing of the Red Sea is mentioned in the Bible draws doubts as to whether or not it actually happened at all.

From the 6th to 4th centuries BC, the Persians and Greeks explored and mapped the Red Sea. Though they were unable to locate the sea’s red namesake, they did succeed in founding many ports and establishing several extra-Aegean trade routes. These trade routes would later evolve to form the backbone of the Roman Empire’s trade with India, through which the Romans traded clothing that had been colored Tyrian purple[1] for pottery that was terracotta brown.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then just a general, invaded Egypt with the aim of wresting control of the Red Sea from the British. Though the invasion was ultimately unsuccessful, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt would eventually lead to the development of a pricey language tutoring software program.[2]

In 1869, the occupying British completed the Suez Canal, which linked the Red and Mediterranean seas. The Suez Canal would make Egypt and its neighboring mysteriously-named sea important strategic lynchpins for the British,[3] who would continue to occupy Egypt for almost a century afterward.

Today, the Red Sea handles large proportion of the world’s oil tanker traffic, with the bulk of that traffic transiting through the Suez Canal and eventually winding up in the United States. Every year, the United States spends billions of dollars—which are green[4]—to acquire oil—which is black—from the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf.

Climate, Geography, and Oceanography

As this photo illustrates, most of the area around the Red Sea is actually quite brown.

The Red Sea is surrounded by the arid deserts of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, most of which is a sort of brownish color, though it can appear almost yellow in the right sunlight. The Red Sea’s uniquely warm and arid climate has proven ideal reef condition, as the shallowest bits of the sea contain some of the world’s most diverse and non-Australian coral reefs.[5] Indeed, much of the Red Sea is relatively shallow. However, at its deepest point the Red Sea reaches a depth of over 7,000 feet, the result of a very steep meridian trench that runs through the very middle of body of water, the very bottom of which appears as a very decidedly pitch black color because no sunlight reaches it.[6]

The Red Sea is also one of the world’s most saline bodies of water, the result of the region’s high rate of evaporation and low amount of rainfall. As to be expected, salt from the Red Sea is not red.


  1. Tyrian purple was made from the shells of incredibly expensive sea snails; its price made it a favorite among Rome’s wealthy. It should be mentioned that Tyrian purple is actually more red than purple, and more Roman than Tyrian.
  2. This language tutoring software would later become instrumental in teaching undergraduates basic French—Napoleon would be proud.
  3. Who, it should be noted, wore red uniforms.
  4. A very dull, almost grey green, to be precise, unless it’s one of those God-awful new fives with the purple digit in the corner.
  5. I needn’t mention that coral reefs come in all sorts of colors.
  6. This meridian trench was formed millions of years ago as the result of the Arabian plate attempting to distance itself from the African plate, the latter of which contains most of the world’s black people.

See Also