Two Kingdoms, Both Alike in Dignity
We do not talk about the Red Sea much, except for news stories about the Saudi intervention in Yemen or conscripts in Eritrea forced to spend 20 years teaching school for a token wage. But every thousand years or so it becomes one of the key chokepoints for world trade. The sea is shallow, dotted with reefs and islands and prone to dangerous storms, but still a cheaper way to move goods from the Indian Ocean to the Nile than camel trains or railway cars. One of these periods of trade began at the end of the second century BCE when the secret of the monsoons escaped the Arabs and reached Egypt, where the Ptolemies were looking for new sources of revenue and exotic goods to balance the decline of their empire overseas and the wonderful things which were filtering into Syria over the Silk Road around the Tarim Basin. Rather than dredge out Darius’ old canal, they built harbours at Myos Hormos and Berenike and Arsinoe and set up guard posts along the sun-baked paths from the Nile to the Red Sea like Hatshepshut. But the straits at the mouth of the Red Sea are dangerous, and the best ship for following the monsoons back and forth across the Indian Ocean is not the best for navigating the narrows and small harbours from the Gulf of Suez to the Gulf of Aden. So two kingdoms emerged to control the havens at the narrows, Ḥimyar on the Arabian shore and Axum on the African.