Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 4 The Red Sea

  • DURING THE DAY of January 29, the island of Ceylon disappeared below th_orizon, and at a speed of twenty miles per hour, the Nautilus glided into th_abyrinthine channels that separate the Maldive and Laccadive Islands. I_ikewise hugged Kiltan Island, a shore of madreporic origin discovered b_asco da Gama in 1499 and one of nineteen chief islands in the island group o_he Laccadives, located between latitude 10° and 14° 30' north, and betwee_ongitude 50° 72' and 69° east.
  • By then we had fared 16,220 miles, or 7,500 leagues, from our starting poin_n the seas of Japan.
  • The next day, January 30, when the Nautilus rose to the surface of the ocean, there was no more land in sight. Setting its course to the north–northwest, the ship headed toward the Gulf of Oman, carved out between Arabia and th_ndian peninsula and providing access to the Persian Gulf.
  • This was obviously a blind alley with no possible outlet. So where was Captai_emo taking us? I was unable to say. Which didn't satisfy the Canadian, wh_hat day asked me where we were going.
  • "We're going, Mr. Ned, where the Captain's fancy takes us."
  • "His fancy," the Canadian replied, "won't take us very far. The Persian Gul_as no outlet, and if we enter those waters, it won't be long before we retur_n our tracks."
  • "All right, we'll return, Mr. Land, and after the Persian Gulf, if th_autilus wants to visit the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb is stil_here to let us in!"
  • "I don't have to tell you, sir," Ned Land replied, "that the Red Sea is jus_s landlocked as the gulf, since the Isthmus of Suez hasn't been cut all th_ay through yet; and even if it was, a boat as secretive as ours wouldn't ris_ canal intersected with locks. So the Red Sea won't be our way back to Europ_ither."
  • "But I didn't say we'd return to Europe."
  • "What do you figure, then?"
  • "I figure that after visiting these unusual waterways of Arabia and Egypt, th_autilus will go back down to the Indian Ocean, perhaps through Mozambiqu_hannel, perhaps off the Mascarene Islands, and then make for the Cape of Goo_ope."
  • "And once we're at the Cape of Good Hope?" the Canadian asked with typica_ersistence.
  • "Well then, we'll enter that Atlantic Ocean with which we aren't yet familiar.
  • What's wrong, Ned my friend? Are you tired of this voyage under the seas? Ar_ou bored with the constantly changing sight of these underwater wonders?
  • Speaking for myself, I'll be extremely distressed to see the end of a voyag_o few men will ever have a chance to make."
  • "But don't you realize, Professor Aronnax," the Canadian replied, "that soo_e'll have been imprisoned for three whole months aboard this Nautilus?"
  • "No, Ned, I didn't realize it, I don't want to realize it, and I don't kee_rack of every day and every hour."
  • "But when will it be over?"
  • "In its appointed time. Meanwhile there's nothing we can do about it, and ou_iscussions are futile. My gallant Ned, if you come and tell me, 'A chance t_scape is available to us,' then I'll discuss it with you. But that isn't th_ase, and in all honesty, I don't think Captain Nemo ever ventures int_uropean seas."
  • This short dialogue reveals that in my mania for the Nautilus, I was turnin_nto the spitting image of its commander.
  • As for Ned Land, he ended our talk in his best speechifying style: "That's al_ine and dandy. But in my humble opinion, a life in jail is a life withou_oy."
  • For four days until February 3, the Nautilus inspected the Gulf of Oman a_arious speeds and depths. It seemed to be traveling at random, as i_esitating over which course to follow, but it never crossed the Tropic o_ancer.
  • After leaving this gulf we raised Muscat for an instant, the most importan_own in the country of Oman. I marveled at its strange appearance in the mids_f the black rocks surrounding it, against which the white of its houses an_orts stood out sharply. I spotted the rounded domes of its mosques, th_legant tips of its minarets, and its fresh, leafy terraces. But it was only _leeting vision, and the Nautilus soon sank beneath the dark waves of thes_aterways.
  • Then our ship went along at a distance of six miles from the Arabic coasts o_ahra and Hadhramaut, their undulating lines of mountains relieved by a fe_ncient ruins. On February 5 we finally put into the Gulf of Aden, a genuin_unnel stuck into the neck of Bab el Mandeb and bottling these Indian water_n the Red Sea.
  • On February 6 the Nautilus cruised in sight of the city of Aden, perched on _romontory connected to the continent by a narrow isthmus, a sort o_naccessible Gibraltar whose fortifications the English rebuilt afte_apturing it in 1839. I glimpsed the octagonal minarets of this town, whic_sed to be one of the wealthiest, busiest commercial centers along this coast, as the Arab historian Idrisi tells it.
  • I was convinced that when Captain Nemo reached this point, he would back ou_gain; but I was mistaken, and much to my surprise, he did nothing of th_ort.
  • The next day, February 7, we entered the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, whose nam_eans "Gate of Tears" in the Arabic language. Twenty miles wide, it's onl_ifty–two kilometers long, and with the Nautilus launched at full speed, clearing it was the work of barely an hour. But I didn't see a thing, not eve_erim Island where the British government built fortifications to strengthe_den's position. There were many English and French steamers plowing thi_arrow passageway, liners going from Suez to Bombay, Calcutta, Melbourne, Réunion Island, and Mauritius; far too much traffic for the Nautilus to mak_n appearance on the surface. So it wisely stayed in midwater.
  • Finally, at noon, we were plowing the waves of the Red Sea.
  • The Red Sea: that great lake so famous in biblical traditions, seldo_eplenished by rains, fed by no important rivers, continually drained by _igh rate of evaporation, its water level dropping a meter and a half ever_ear! If it were fully landlocked like a lake, this odd gulf might dry u_ompletely; on this score it's inferior to its neighbors, the Caspian Sea an_he Dead Sea, whose levels lower only to the point where their evaporatio_xactly equals the amounts of water they take to their hearts.
  • This Red Sea is 2,600 kilometers long with an average width of 240\. In th_ays of the Ptolemies and the Roman emperors, it was a great commercial arter_or the world, and when its isthmus has been cut through, it will completel_egain that bygone importance that the Suez railways have already brought bac_n part.
  • I would not even attempt to understand the whim that induced Captain Nemo t_ake us into this gulf. But I wholeheartedly approved of the Nautilus'_ntering it. It adopted a medium pace, sometimes staying on the surface, sometimes diving to avoid some ship, and so I could observe both the insid_nd topside of this highly unusual sea.
  • On February 8, as early as the first hours of daylight, Mocha appeared befor_s: a town now in ruins, whose walls would collapse at the mere sound of _annon, and which shelters a few leafy date trees here and there. Thi_nce–important city used to contain six public marketplaces plus twenty–si_osques, and its walls, protected by fourteen forts, fashioned _hree–kilometer girdle around it.
  • Then the Nautilus drew near the beaches of Africa, where the sea i_onsiderably deeper. There, through the open panels and in a midwater o_rystal clarity, our ship enabled us to study wonderful bushes of shinin_oral and huge chunks of rock wrapped in splendid green furs of algae an_ucus. What an indescribable sight, and what a variety of settings and scener_here these reefs and volcanic islands leveled off by the Libyan coast! Bu_oon the Nautilus hugged the eastern shore where these tree forms appeared i_ll their glory. This was off the coast of Tihama, and there such zoophyt_isplays not only flourished below sea level but they also fashione_icturesque networks that unreeled as high as ten fathoms above it; the latte_ere more whimsical but less colorful than the former, which kept their bloo_hanks to the moist vitality of the waters.
  • How many delightful hours I spent in this way at the lounge window! How man_ew specimens of underwater flora and fauna I marveled at beneath the light o_ur electric beacon! Mushroom–shaped fungus coral, some slate–colored se_nemone including the species Thalassianthus aster among others, organ–pip_oral arranged like flutes and just begging for a puff from the god Pan, shells unique to this sea that dwell in madreporic cavities and whose base_re twisted into squat spirals, and finally a thousand samples of a polypary _adn't observed until then: the common sponge.
  • First division in the polyp group, the class Spongiaria has been created b_cientists precisely for this unusual exhibit whose usefulness is beyon_ispute. The sponge is definitely not a plant, as some naturalists stil_elieve, but an animal of the lowest order, a polypary inferior even to coral.
  • Its animal nature isn't in doubt, and we can't accept even the views of th_ncients, who regarded it as halfway between plant and animal. But I must sa_hat naturalists are not in agreement on the structural mode of sponges. Fo_ome it's a polypary, and for others, such as Professor Milne–Edwards, it's _ingle, solitary individual.
  • The class Spongiaria contains about 300 species that are encountered in _arge number of seas and even in certain streams, where they've been given th_ame freshwater sponges. But their waters of choice are the Red Sea and th_editerranean near the Greek Islands or the coast of Syria. These water_itness the reproduction and growth of soft, delicate bath sponges whos_rices run as high as ?150 apiece: the yellow sponge from Syria, the hor_ponge from Barbary, etc. But since I had no hope of studying these zoophyte_n the seaports of the Levant, from which we were separated by the insuperabl_sthmus of Suez, I had to be content with observing them in the waters of th_ed Sea.
  • So I called Conseil to my side, while at an average depth of eight to nin_eters, the Nautilus slowly skimmed every beautiful rock on the easterl_oast.
  • There sponges grew in every shape, globular, stalklike, leaflike, fingerlike.
  • With reasonable accuracy, they lived up to their nicknames of basket sponges, chalice sponges, distaff sponges, elkhorn sponges, lion's paws, peacock'_ails, and Neptune's gloves—designations bestowed on them by fishermen, mor_oetically inclined than scientists. A gelatinous, semifluid substance coate_he fibrous tissue of these sponges, and from this tissue there escaped _teady trickle of water that, after carrying sustenance to each cell, wa_eing expelled by a contracting movement. This jellylike substance disappear_hen the polyp dies, emitting ammonia as it rots. Finally nothing remains bu_he fibers, either gelatinous or made of horn, that constitute your househol_ponge, which takes on a russet hue and is used for various tasks depending o_ts degree of elasticity, permeability, or resistance to saturation.
  • These polyparies were sticking to rocks, shells of mollusks, and even th_talks of water plants. They adorned the smallest crevices, some sprawling, others standing or hanging like coral outgrowths. I told Conseil that sponge_re fished up in two ways, either by dragnet or by hand. The latter metho_alls for the services of a diver, but it's preferable because it spares th_olypary's tissue, leaving it with a much higher market value.
  • Other zoophytes swarming near the sponges consisted chiefly of a very elegan_pecies of jellyfish; mollusks were represented by varieties of squid that, according to Professor Orbigny, are unique to the Red Sea; and reptiles b_irgata turtles belonging to the genus Chelonia, which furnished our tabl_ith a dainty but wholesome dish.
  • As for fish, they were numerous and often remarkable. Here are the ones tha_he Nautilus's nets most frequently hauled on board: rays, including spotte_ays that were oval in shape and brick red in color, their bodies strewn wit_rratic blue speckles and identifiable by their jagged double stings, silver–backed skates, common stingrays with stippled tails, butterfly ray_hat looked like huge two–meter cloaks flapping at middepth, toothles_uitarfish that were a type of cartilaginous fish closer to the shark, trunkfish known as dromedaries that were one and a half feet long and ha_umps ending in backward–curving stings, serpentine moray eels with silve_ails and bluish backs plus brown pectorals trimmed in gray piping, a specie_f butterfish called the fiatola decked out in thin gold stripes and the thre_olors of the French flag, Montague blennies four decimeters long, super_acks handsomely embellished by seven black crosswise streaks with blue an_ellow fins plus gold and silver scales, snooks, standard mullet with yello_eads, parrotfish, wrasse, triggerfish, gobies, etc., plus a thousand othe_ish common to the oceans we had already crossed.
  • On February 9 the Nautilus cruised in the widest part of the Red Sea, measuring 190 miles straight across from Suakin on the west coast to Qunfidh_n the east coast.
  • At noon that day after our position fix, Captain Nemo climbed onto th_latform, where I happened to be. I vowed not to let him go below agai_ithout at least sounding him out on his future plans. As soon as he saw me, he came over, graciously offered me a cigar, and said to me:
  • "Well, professor, are you pleased with this Red Sea? Have you seen enough o_ts hidden wonders, its fish and zoophytes, its gardens of sponges and forest_f coral? Have you glimpsed the towns built on its shores?"
  • "Yes, Captain Nemo," I replied, "and the Nautilus is wonderfully suited t_his whole survey. Ah, it's a clever boat!"
  • "Yes, sir, clever, daring, and invulnerable! It fears neither the Red Sea'_readful storms nor its currents and reefs."
  • "Indeed," I said, "this sea is mentioned as one of the worst, and in the day_f the ancients, if I'm not mistaken, it had an abominable reputation."
  • "Thoroughly abominable, Professor Aronnax. The Greek and Latin historians ca_ind nothing to say in its favor, and the Greek geographer Strabo adds tha_t's especially rough during the rainy season and the period of summe_revailing winds. The Arab Idrisi, referring to it by the name Gulf o_olzoum, relates that ships perished in large numbers on its sandbanks an_hat no one risked navigating it by night. This, he claims, is a sea subjec_o fearful hurricanes, strewn with inhospitable islands, and 'with nothin_ood to offer,' either on its surface or in its depths. As a matter of fact, the same views can also be found in Arrian, Agatharchides, and Artemidorus."
  • "One can easily see," I answered, "that those historians didn't navigat_board the Nautilus."
  • "Indeed," the captain replied with a smile, "and in this respect, the modern_ren't much farther along than the ancients. It took many centuries t_iscover the mechanical power of steam! Who knows whether we'll see a secon_autilus within the next 100 years! Progress is slow, Professor Aronnax."
  • "It's true," I replied. "Your ship is a century ahead of its time, perhap_everal centuries. It would be most unfortunate if such a secret were to di_ith its inventor!"
  • Captain Nemo did not reply. After some minutes of silence:
  • "We were discussing," he said, "the views of ancient historians on the danger_f navigating this Red Sea?"
  • "True," I replied. "But weren't their fears exaggerated?"
  • "Yes and no, Professor Aronnax," answered Captain Nemo, who seemed to know
  • "his Red Sea" by heart. "To a modern ship, well rigged, solidly constructed, and in control of its course thanks to obedient steam, some conditions are n_onger hazardous that offered all sorts of dangers to the vessels of th_ncients. Picture those early navigators venturing forth in sailboats buil_rom planks lashed together with palm–tree ropes, caulked with powdered resin, and coated with dogfish grease. They didn't even have instruments for takin_heir bearings, they went by guesswork in the midst of currents they barel_new. Under such conditions, shipwrecks had to be numerous. But nowaday_teamers providing service between Suez and the South Seas have nothing t_ear from the fury of this gulf, despite the contrary winds of its monsoons.
  • Their captains and passengers no longer prepare for departure with sacrifice_o placate the gods, and after returning, they don't traipse in wreaths an_old ribbons to say thanks at the local temple."
  • "Agreed," I said. "And steam seems to have killed off all gratitude i_eamen's hearts. But since you seem to have made a special study of this sea, Captain, can you tell me how it got its name?"
  • "Many explanations exist on the subject, Professor Aronnax. Would you like t_ear the views of one chronicler in the 14th century?"
  • "Gladly."
  • "This fanciful fellow claims the sea was given its name after the crossing o_he Israelites, when the Pharaoh perished in those waves that came togethe_gain at Moses' command:
  • To mark that miraculous sequel, the sea turned a red without equal.
  • Thus no other course would do but to name it for its hue."
  • "An artistic explanation, Captain Nemo," I replied, "but I'm unable to res_ontent with it. So I'll ask you for your own personal views."
  • "Here they come. To my thinking, Professor Aronnax, this 'Red Sea' designatio_ust be regarded as a translation of the Hebrew word Edrom, and if th_ncients gave it that name, it was because of the unique color of its waters."
  • "Until now, however, I've seen only clear waves, without any unique hue."
  • "Surely, but as we move ahead to the far end of this gulf, you'll note its od_ppearance. I recall seeing the bay of El Tur completely red, like a lake o_lood."
  • "And you attribute this color to the presence of microscopic algae?"
  • "Yes. It's a purplish, mucilaginous substance produced by those tiny bud_nown by the name trichodesmia, 40,000 of which are needed to occupy the spac_f one square millimeter. Perhaps you'll encounter them when we reach El Tur."
  • "Hence, Captain Nemo, this isn't the first time you've gone through the Re_ea aboard the Nautilus?"
  • "No, sir."
  • "Then, since you've already mentioned the crossing of the Israelites and th_atastrophe that befell the Egyptians, I would ask if you've ever discovere_ny traces under the waters of that great historic event?"
  • "No, professor, and for an excellent reason."
  • "What's that?"
  • "It's because that same locality where Moses crossed with all his people i_ow so clogged with sand, camels can barely get their legs wet. You ca_nderstand that my Nautilus wouldn't have enough water for itself."
  • "And that locality is …  ?" I asked.
  • "That locality lies a little above Suez in a sound that used to form a dee_stuary when the Red Sea stretched as far as the Bitter Lakes. Now, whether o_ot their crossing was literally miraculous, the Israelites did cross there i_eturning to the Promised Land, and the Pharaoh's army did perish at precisel_hat locality. So I think that excavating those sands would bring to light _reat many weapons and tools of Egyptian origin."
  • "Obviously," I replied. "And for the sake of archaeology, let's hope tha_ooner or later such excavations do take place, once new towns are settled o_he isthmus after the Suez Canal has been cut through—a canal, by the way, o_ittle use to a ship such as the Nautilus!"
  • "Surely, but of great use to the world at large," Captain Nemo said. "Th_ncients well understood the usefulness to commerce of connecting the Red Se_ith the Mediterranean, but they never dreamed of cutting a canal between th_wo, and instead they picked the Nile as their link. If we can trus_radition, it was probably Egypt's King Sesostris who started digging th_anal needed to join the Nile with the Red Sea. What's certain is that in 61_.C. King Necho II was hard at work on a canal that was fed by Nile water an_an through the Egyptian plains opposite Arabia. This canal could be travele_n four days, and it was so wide, two triple–tiered galleys could pass throug_t abreast. Its construction was continued by Darius the Great, son o_ystaspes, and probably completed by King Ptolemy II. Strabo saw it used fo_hipping; but the weakness of its slope between its starting point, nea_ubastis, and the Red Sea left it navigable only a few months out of the year.
  • This canal served commerce until the century of Rome's Antonine emperors; i_as then abandoned and covered with sand, subsequently reinstated by Arabia'_aliph Omar I, and finally filled in for good in 761 or 762 A.D. by Calip_l–Mansur, in an effort to prevent supplies from reaching Mohammed ib_bdullah, who had rebelled against him. During his Egyptian campaign, you_eneral Napoleon Bonaparte discovered traces of this old canal in the Sue_esert, and when the tide caught him by surprise, he wellnigh perished just _ew hours before rejoining his regiment at Hadjaroth, the very place wher_oses had pitched camp 3,300 years before him."
  • "Well, Captain, what the ancients hesitated to undertake, Mr. de Lesseps i_ow finishing up; his joining of these two seas will shorten the route fro_adiz to the East Indies by 9,000 kilometers, and he'll soon change Afric_nto an immense island."
  • "Yes, Professor Aronnax, and you have every right to be proud of your fello_ountryman. Such a man brings a nation more honor than the greates_ommanders! Like so many others, he began with difficulties and setbacks, bu_e triumphed because he has the volunteer spirit. And it's sad to think tha_his deed, which should have been an international deed, which would hav_nsured that any administration went down in history, will succeed onl_hrough the efforts of one man. So all hail to Mr. de Lesseps!"
  • "Yes, all hail to that great French citizen," I replied, quite startled by ho_mphatically Captain Nemo had just spoken.
  • "Unfortunately," he went on, "I can't take you through that Suez Canal, bu_he day after tomorrow, you'll be able to see the long jetties of Port Sai_hen we're in the Mediterranean."
  • "In the Mediterranean!" I exclaimed.
  • "Yes, professor. Does that amaze you?"
  • "What amazes me is thinking we'll be there the day after tomorrow."
  • "Oh really?"
  • "Yes, captain, although since I've been aboard your vessel, I should hav_ormed the habit of not being amazed by anything!"
  • "But what is it that startles you?"
  • "The thought of how hideously fast the Nautilus will need to go, if it's t_ouble the Cape of Good Hope, circle around Africa, and lie in the ope_editerranean by the day after tomorrow."
  • "And who says it will circle Africa, professor? What's this talk abou_oubling the Cape of Good Hope?"
  • "But unless the Nautilus navigates on dry land and crosses over the isthmus—"
  • "Or under it, Professor Aronnax."
  • "Under it?"
  • "Surely," Captain Nemo replied serenely. "Under that tongue of land, natur_ong ago made what man today is making on its surface."
  • "What! There's a passageway?"
  • "Yes, an underground passageway that I've named the Arabian Tunnel. It start_elow Suez and leads to the Bay of Pelusium."
  • "But isn't that isthmus only composed of quicksand?"
  • "To a certain depth. But at merely fifty meters, one encounters a fir_oundation of rock."
  • "And it's by luck that you discovered this passageway?" I asked, more and mor_tartled.
  • "Luck plus logic, professor, and logic even more than luck."
  • "Captain, I hear you, but I can't believe my ears."
  • "Oh, sir! The old saying still holds good: Aures habent et no_udient![[12]](footnotes.xml#footnote_12) Not only does this passageway exist, but I've taken advantage of it on several occasions. Without it, I wouldn'_ave ventured today into such a blind alley as the Red Sea." "Is it indiscree_o ask how you discovered this tunnel?" "Sir," the captain answered me, "ther_an be no secrets between men who will never leave each other." I ignored thi_nnuendo and waited for Captain Nemo's explanation. "Professor," he told me,
  • "the simple logic of the naturalist led me to discover this passageway, and _lone am familiar with it. I'd noted that in the Red Sea and the Mediterranea_here exist a number of absolutely identical species of fish: eels, butterfish, greenfish, bass, jewelfish, flying fish. Certain of this fact, _ondered if there weren't a connection between the two seas. If there were, its underground current had to go from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean simpl_ecause of their difference in level. So I caught a large number of fish i_he vicinity of Suez. I slipped copper rings around their tails and tosse_hem back into the sea. A few months later off the coast of Syria, _ecaptured a few specimens of my fish, adorned with their telltale rings. S_his proved to me that some connection existed between the two seas. _earched for it with my Nautilus, I discovered it, I ventured into it; an_oon, professor, you also will have cleared my Arabic tunnel!"