Name — The sea known to us as the Red Sea was by the Israelites called “the sea” (Exodus 14:2, 9, 16, 21, 28; 15:1, 4, 8, 10, 19; Joshua 24:6, 7, and many other passages), and specially “the sea of Suph” (Exodus 10:19; 13:18; 15:4, 22; 23:31; Numbers 14:25, etc.). This word signifies a seaweed resembling wool, and such seaweed is thrown up abundantly on the shores of the Red Sea; hence Brugsch calls it the sea of reeds or weeds. The color of the water is not red. Ebers says that it is of a lovely blue-green color, and named Red either from its red banks or from the Erythraeans, who were called the red people.
Physical description — In extreme length the Red Sea stretches from the straits of Bab el-Mendeb (or rather Ras Bab el-Mendeb) 18 miles wide, in lat. 12 degrees 40′ N., to the modern head of the Gulf of Suez, lat. 30 degrees N., a distance of 1,450 miles. Its greatest width may be stated at about 210 miles. At Ras Mohammed, on the north, the Red Sea is split by the granitic peninsula of Sinai into two gulfs. The westernmost, or Gulf of Suez, is now about 150 miles in length, with an average width of about 20, though it contracts to less than 10 miles. The easternmost, or Gulf of el-‘Akabeh, is about 100 miles long, from the Straits of Tiran to the ‘Akabeh, and 15 miles wide. The average depth of the Red Sea is from 2,500 to 3,500 feet, though in places it is 6,000 feet deep. Journeying southward from Suez, on our left is the peninsula of Sinai, and on the right is the desert coast of Egypt, of limestone formation like the greater part of the Nile valley in Egypt, the cliffs on the sea margin stretching landward in a great, rocky plateau while more inland a chain of volcanic mountains, beginning about lat. 28 degrees 4’ and running south, rear their lofty peaks at intervals above the limestone, generally about 15 miles distant.
Ancient limits—The most important change in the Red Sea has been the drying up of its northern extremity, “the tongue of the Egyptian Sea,” about which the head of the gulf has risen and that near the Mediterranean become depressed. The head of the gulf has consequently retired gradually since the Christian era. Thus the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled (Isaiah 11:15-16), the tongue of the Red Sea has dried up for a distance of at least 50 miles from its ancient head. An ancient canal conveyed the waters of the Nile to the Red Sea, flowing through the Wadi-t Tumeylat and irrigating with its system of water-channels a large extent of country. It was 62 Roman miles long, 54 feet wide, and 7 feet deep. The drying up of the head of the gulf appears to have been one of the chief causes of the neglect and ruin of this canal. The country, for the distance above indicated, is now a desert of gravelly sand, with wide patches about the old sea-bottom of rank marsh land, now called the “Bitter Lakes.” At the northern extremity of this salt waste is a small lake, sometimes called the Lake of Heropolis; the lake is now Birket-et-Timsah “the lake of the crocodile,” and is supposed to mark the ancient head of the gulf. The canal that connected this with the Nile was of Pharaonic origin. It was anciently known as the “Fossa Regum” and the “canal of Hero.” The time at which the canal was extended, after the drying up of the head of the gulf, to the present head is uncertain, but it must have been late, and probably since the Mohammedan conquest. Traces of the ancient channel throughout its entire length to the vicinity of Bubastis exist at intervals in the present day. The land north of the ancient gulf is a plain of heavy sand, merging into marshland near the Mediterranean coast and extending to Palestine. This region, including Wadi-t-Tumeylat, was probably the frontierland occupied in pact by the Israelites, and open to the incursions of the wild tribes of the Arabian desert.
Navigation — The sea, from its dangers and sterile shores, is entirely destitute of boats. The coral of the Red Sea is remarkably abundant and beautifully colored and variegated, but it forms so many reefs and islands along the shores that navigation is very dangerous, and the shores are chiefly barren rock and sand, and therefore very sparsely inhabited so that there are but three cities along the whole 1,450 miles of its west coast: Suez, at the head, a city of 14,000 inhabitants; Sanakin, belonging to Soudan, of 10,000; and Massau, in Albyssinia, of 5,000. Only two ports, Elath and Ezion-geber, are mentioned in the Bible. The earliest navigation of the Red Sea (passing by the pre-historical Phoenicians) is mentioned by Herodotus: “Seostris (Rameses II) was the first, who, passing the Arabian Gulf in a fleet of long vessels, reduced under his authority the inhabitants of the coast bordering the Erythrean Sea.” Three centuries later Solomon’s navy was built “in Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea (Yam Suph), in the land of Edom” (1 Kings 9:20). The kingdom of Solomon extended as far as the Red Sea, upon which he possessed the harbors of Elath and Ezion-geber. It is possible that the sea has retired here as at Suez and that Ezion-geber is now dry land. Jehoshaphat also “made ships of Tharshish to go to Ophir for gold; but they went not; for the ships were broken at Ezion-geber” (1 Kings 22:48). The scene of this wreck has been supposed to be Edh-Dhahab. The fleets appear to have sailed about the autumnal equinox and returned in December or the middle of January. The Red Sea, as it possessed for many centuries the most important sea-trade of the East, contained ports of celebrity. The Heroopolite Gulf (Gulf of Suez) is of the chief interest; it was near to Goshen, it was the scene of the passage of the Red Sea, and it was the “tongue of the Egyptian Sea.” It was also the seat of the Egyptian trade in this sea and to the Indian Ocean.
Passage of the Red Sea — The passage of the Red Sea was the crisis of the exodus. It is usual to suppose that the most northern place at which the Red Sea could have been crossed is the present head of the Gulf of Suez. This supposition depends upon the erroneous idea that in the time of Moses the gulf did not extend farther to the northward then at present. An examination of the country north of Suez has shown, however, that the sea has receded many miles. The old bed is indicated by the Birket-et Timsah, or “lake of the crocodile,” and the more southern Bitter Lakes, the northernmost part of the former probably corresponding to the head of it the at the time of the exodus. It is necessary to endeavor to ascertain the route of the Israelites before we can attempt to discover where they crossed the sea. The point from which they started was Rameses, a place certain in the land of Goshen, which we identified with the Wadi-t-Tumeylat . They encamped at Succoth. At the end of the second day’s journey the camping place was at Etham, “in the edge of the wilderness” (Exodus 13:20; Numbers 33:6). Here the Wadi-t-Tumeylat was probably left, as it is cultivable and terminates in the desert. At the end of the third day’s march, for each camping place seems to mark the close of a day’s journey, the Israelites encamped by the sea. The place of this last encampment and that of the passage would be not very far from the Persepolitan monument at Pi-hahiroth. It appears that Migdol was behind Pi-hahiroth and on the other hand Baal-zephon and the sea. From Pi-hahiroth the Israelites crossed the sea. This was not far from halfway between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf of Suez, where now it is dry land. The Muslims suppose Memphis to have been the city at which the Pharaoh of the exodus resided before that event occurred. From opposite Memphis a broad valley leads to the Red Sea. It is in part called the Wadi-t-Teeh, or “Valley of the Wandering.” From it the traveller reaches the sea beneath the lofty Gebel-et-Takah, which rises in the north and shuts off all escape in that direction excepting by a narrow way along the seashore, which Pharaoh might have occupied. The sea here is broad and deep, as the narrative is generally held to imply. All the local features seem suited for a great event. The only points bearing on geography in the account of this event are that the sea was divided by an east wind, whence we may reasonably infer that it was crossed from west to east, and that the whole Egyptian army perished, which shows that it must have been some miles broad. On the whole we may reasonably suppose about twelve miles as the smallest breadth of the sea. The narrative distinctly states that a path was made through the sea and that the waters were a wall on either hand. The term “wall” does not appear to oblige us to suppose, as many have done, that the sea stood up like a cliff on either side, but should rather be considered to mean a barrier, as the former idea implies a seemingly needless addition to the miracle, while the latter seems to be not discordant with the language of the narrative. It was during the night that the Israelites crossed, and the Egyptians followed. In the morning watch, the last third or fourth of the night, or the period before sunrise, Pharaoh’s army was in full pursuit in the divided sea, and was there miraculously troubled, so that the Egyptians sought to flee (Exodus 14:23-25). Then was Moses commanded again to stretch out his hand, and the sea returned to its strength and overwhelmed the Egyptians, of whom not one remained alive, (Exodus 14:26-28). (But on the whole it is becoming more probable that the place where the Israelites crossed “was near the town of Suez, on extensive shoals which run toward the southeast, in the direction of Ayim Musa (the Wells of Moses). The distance is about three miles at high tide. This is the most probable. Near here Napoleon, deceived by the tidal wave, attempted to cross in 1799, and nearly met the fate of Pharaoh. But an army of 600,000 could of course never have crossed it without a miracle.”–Schaff’s Through Bible Lands. Several routes and places of crossing advocated by learned Egyptologists can be clearly seen by the accompanying maps. The latest theory is that which Brugsch-bey has lately revived that the word translated “Red Sea” is “Sea of Reeds or Weeds,” and refers to the Serbonian bog in the northeastern part of Egypt, and that the Israelites crossed here instead of the Red Sea. “A gulf profound, as that Serbonian bog . . . where armies whole have sunk.”–Milton. And among these armies that of Artarerxes, king of Persia, B.C. 350. But it is very difficult to make this agree with the Bible narrative, and it is the least satisfactory of all the theories.–ED.)
Smith's Bible Names Dictionary (1866)