Saturday, March 17, 2012

From Red to Med

Saudi Aramco World  (John Cooper)

With map and photos.

It is the year 638 ce, the "Year of Ashes" on the Arabian Peninsula, which is beset by a terrible drought. Just six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah find themselves in dire peril, their citizens, and many refugees from the countryside, facing starvation. Casting around for assistance, Caliph 'Umar ibn al-Khattab writes from Madinah to 'Amr ibn al-'As, his general in Egypt, urging him to send food to feed th1e hungry in the Hijaz, the Islamic heartland.

'Amr had not yet completely subdued Egypt when he received the caliph's orders, but the historical record tells us that he did not stint, sending a huge camel caravan laden with food, most likely wheat and barley, to 'Umar. The caravan made its way from the Nile Valley across the Sinai Peninsula, then south through the Hijaz Mountains to Madinah, a journey of some 1300 kilometers (800 mi) that took a month to complete . . . .
The effort had stretched caravan transport to its limits, however, and the lesson of the vulnerability of the Holy Cities, as well as the importance of the bounty of Egypt, was not lost on the caliph. 'Umar wrote again to 'Amr with a plan. "I wish to excavate a canal from Egypt's Nile, so that its waters will flow to the sea," Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam quotes 'Umar as saying. "That way, it will be easier to transport food to Makkah and Madinah. Consult among yourselves to settle the matter." 

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