Arab Navigation in the Red Sea

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Arab Navigation in the Red Sea Author(s): G. R. Tibbetts Source: The Geographical Journal, Vol. 127, No. 3 (Sep., 1961), pp. 322-334 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Stable URL: Accessed: 09/01/2010 20:07Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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G. R. TIBBETTSHE ARABS have certainly sailed in the Red Sea for centuries, and we possess many scattered references to the navigation of this sea, going back to the time of the Egyptian expeditions to Punt and Solomon's expedition to Ophir. Of course, in Islamic times we have more numerous references, beginning with those about the early Muslim fugitives who took refuge in Abyssinia. The well known travellers, Ibn Jubair and Ibn Battuta both crossed the sea between Jidda and Aidhab. As soon as there were Muslims in Africa and Somaliland, the Red Sea became important as a pilgrim route. Even Indians and Far Eastern Muslims would prefer this route to the hazardous trek across the Arabian Peninsula. However, it is not until the end of the fifteenth century A.D. that we obtain a detailed view of the navigation of the Red Sea, and this appears in the manuscripts of the surviving works of the pilot Ibn Majid, the man who was reputed to have guided Vasco da Gama across the Indian Ocean. He, in mentioning the Red Sea as a route, specifically gives two reasons for its importance. The first as a pilgrim route and the second as a trade route bringing supplies to the HIijazfrom the Yemen and Abyssinia. At what stage Arab pilots began to write down directions for navigation we cannot tell. Detailed routes by sea to China given by Ibn Khurdadhbih, the Akhbdr al-Szn and Mas'fdi may have been taken from written pilot guides, although they may have been recorded from verbal accounts of sailors. Ibn Majid himself gives in his Fawd'id a brief literary history of Arab navigation, or rather a survey of sources known and probably used by him. This account mentions many early navigators, going back into the eleventh century A.D. and a few of them are stated as having written books. However, Ibn Majid and all these predecessors of his were mainly Indian Ocean sailors. They all seem to belong to one school of navigation connected with the southern end of the Persian Gulf and it is possible that there were many other schools whose works have been completely lost. This school, 'Umani or Zufari in origin, to which Ibn Majid belonged, was interested in all the seas navigated by the Arabs but not in the same detail. Surprisingly, there is practically nothing about the Persian Gulf and very little about the Red Sea. Ibn Majid does give a very detailed account of this sea in one of his texts (the Fawd'id) but few of the other texts deal with it and, even in the Fawd'id, Ibn Majid omits it until the end when he adds a special chapter on it, more or less as an appendix to his work. At the beginning of this chapter Ibn Majid gives a brief history of navigation in the Red Sea going back about a hundred years and he mentions several pilots by name and one or two works which have dealt with this subject before his time. Among the Red Sea pilots are 'Uthman al-Jazani from Jizan, the Captain (Rubbdn)Ka'in b. Hasan alMaha'imi (from a Yemeni tribe), Muh. b. Mari al-Iskandrani, and Mahmfud alTha'alibi, who was probably from al-Lith, for Tha'alib was a tribe on the sea coast between Jidda and al-Lith which owned, or had fishing rights in, the islands as far south as Zahrat al-Qasr. But these were contemporaries from whom Ibn Majid obtained information and there is no sign that they wrote anything. He also mentions obtaining information from the people of the island of Jebel Sabaya, who must have been a fishing community acquainted with the neighbouring coastal bank. Apart from these, Ibn Majid takes his information from works of his father and grandfather who sailed in the Red Sea before him. His grandfather (presumably Muhammad b. 'Amr al-Sa'di) "was experienced and well-versed in this sea", to quote Ibn Majid, "and had no equal". But that is all we hear of him; no works are actually named. His father, Majid b. Muh. al-Sa'di was even more experienced. His exploits are quoted in several places in Ibn Majid's section on the sea in the Fawd'id and several times the accuracy



of his information is stressed. The works of his which are particularly mentioned in connection with the Red Sea are al-Hijdzlya and an Alfiya. Of the works of Ibn Majid himself which mention the Red Sea, his one main prose work, the Fawd'id (Bibl. Nat., MS. Arabe 2292 f. i-88) contains the fullest account of navigation there. In addition sections occur in his poems al-.Haw7ya and al-Mekkiya and in a poem in Ta' recovered from Leningrad by T. A. Shumovsky. Also in the Fawd'id he quotes his poems al-Dhahabiya and al-Sab'iya in connection with the Red Sea. In the latter he gives the qiyds ' measurements of some of the important places in the sea according to several well known stars, but in the former poem Ibn Mlajid only uses several places in the Red Sea as isolated examples and they do not appear in any context. After Ibn Majid, Sulaiman al-Mahri, writing sixty or so years later, mentions the Red Sea in detail in his 'Umda and gives its latitudes .(qiyds) when generally dealing with latitudes in both the ' Unda and the Minhaj. Sulaiman does actually integrate the Red Sea with the rest of the Indian Ocean, but in the Minhaj only when dealing with latitudes; elsewhere he omits it. In the 'Umda, however, it seems to be mentioned as fully as most other areas. Latitudes and the main routes are given in their proper places and a rather full description is given of the islands off both coasts which are furthest out to sea, starting from the south and working towards the latitude of Jidda. Sidi Qelebi, a Turkish navigator, wrote a work which is mainly a translation of that of Sulaiman and as such contains practically no new material and so is of little interest to us here. The general conception of the Red Sea in the texts of Ibn Majid and Sulaiman is not so accurate as one might think compared with their accuracy on the other coasts of the Indian Ocean, although this is in accordance with the fact that they neglected the Red Sea and that their knowledge of it seems to have been rather less. The captain who sailed the deeps of the Indian Ocean would find it much easier to sail down the centre of the Red Sea, as far as possible from all the treacherous banks and reefs near the coasts. Thus coastal details are almost completely lacking in their works. Places on the coast are mentioned in their latitude tables, therefore at regular intervals up the coast, but they are very rarely connected by means of bearings, so it is impossible to plot them as one can the coastal features, for example, of the Malabar coast. Thus an attempt to plot a chart of the Red Sea using the two "coordinates" of these navigational texts, Pole Star altitudes (latitudes) and compass bearings, produces positions for the most important islands in the centre of the sea together with several different routes through the central part. Islands on the edge of the coastal shelf and nearest the deep sea are used as guides, and bearings are usually given to and from them, so that it is possible to plot them on the chart. Bearings to islands nearer the coast are rarely given. Directions such as "towards the north and the coast" or "towards the south and the west" are much more usual for these, distances being rarely given. Bearings are only extremely rarely given on coastal features so that on a map coastal features have to remain conjectural. Jidda, Bab al-Mandab and Kamaran are the only places that can be plotted without using guesswork and as these are all on the Arabian coast, the Sudanese coast is left completely conjectural. Even Suakin can only be placed by its latitude, for in entering or leaving its harbour the only bearing given is due east or west which is useless for plotting. Having plotted a map it is noticeable that all the bearings are given too much to the south and east (i.e. anti-clockwise from the true bearing) so that the axis of the sea lies at an angle of about 35? to the parallels of latitude, whereas in actual fact the angle should be about 25?. This tendency is found in all the measurements of bearings given by the navigators, although it is much more exaggerated in the Red Sea. The cause for it cannot be explained. In addition, the measurements of P