During the period of the crusades, the Red Sea was a major artery for commerce and pilgrimage in the Islamic world, linking Egypt and North Africa with Arabia, East Africa, India, and the East Indies.
The Red Sea was a difficult route for navigation: classical geographers and travelers mention its erratic winds, currents, and hazards, while Muslim sources comment on the difficulties encountered in negotiating shallow waters, as well as the numerous rocks, coral reefs, and islands. Navigation from north to south was safest, and pilots would usually sail close to the shore and anchor at night. Sailing up the Red Sea against the prevailing wind was difficult, and because of this and irregular currents, ships from India and Africa rarely sailed to the northern end of the sea, but generally stopped at Jeddah in the Hijaz (western Arabia) and transshipped their goods on smaller local vessels for transport to the smaller ports on the Egyptian and Arabian coasts. As the port for Mecca, Jeddah also received considerable pilgrim traffic. The main Arab port town in the medieval period was ‘Aydhâb on the western shore, which had an ideal position as a trade and pilgrimage center as it was located opposite Jeddah. ‘Aydhāb was around 400 kilometers (250 mi.) (roughly 17-20 days’ journey) from Qûs on the Nile, from where merchandise was transported by boat or pack animals to Lower Egypt. The port of Alexandria was the main point of contact with European Christian (mostly Italian) merchants, although much merchandise from the East (which included spices, textiles, and ceramics) also came by land to ports in the Levant such as Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), and later, Ayas (mod. Yumur- talik, Turkey).
Map of the Red Sea, by Jacopo Russo, fifteenth century. (Alinari/Art Resource)
The first encounter of the Franks of Outremer with the Red Sea occurred in 1116 when King Baldwin I of Jerusalem led an expedition south as far as the head of the Gulf of ‘Aqaba. The Franks established full control of this area by the second half of the twelfth century, fortifying the town of Aila and the nearby Ile de Graye (Pharaoh’s Island). In 1161 it became part of the Frankish lordship of Transjordan, but was retaken by Saladin in 1170. The Gulf of ‘Aqaba may have been used by some coastal shipping and fishing vessels, but it had no large-scale trade; the purpose of the Frankish occupation was to control the road, used by traders and pilrgrims, that went from Egypt through Sinai to the Hijaz. However, in late 1182 the lord of Transjordan, Reynald of Châtillon, had 5 prefabricated ships carried overland by camel from Kerak (mod. Karak, Jordan) and assembled and launched in the gulf. In December 1182, 2 ships blockaded the Ile de Graye, while the others sailed south as far as ‘Aydhâb, which they sacked, after having captured or destroyed 16 Muslim merchant ships, before crossing to the eastern shore.
This disruption to trade and pilgrimage unleashed panic in the Muslim world, which feared attacks on the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. As no naval forces were maintained by the Muslims in the Red Sea at that time, Saladin’s brother al-‘Ādil had a fleet of warships transported overland from Egypt, which broke the blockade of the Ile de Graye and hunted down the southern flotilla. The Franks, abandoning their ships and retreating inland, were defeated after a pursuit of five days (February 1183); Saladin had all prisoners executed in order to obliterate the Franks’ knowledge of the sea’s routes and navigation. Thereafter the Red Sea remained closed to Christian shipping until the appearance in the early sixteenth century of the Portuguese, who had reached the area via the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.