Crossing the Red Sea at Aqaba? No.

Red Sea basin and bathymetry

Figure 1 of Carl Drews (2015) Directional Storm Surge in Enclosed Seas: The Red Sea, the Adriatic, and Venice, Journal of Marine Science and Engineering. Click to display larger image.
Copyright 2015 by Carl Drews. The original article is open access distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

Navigation through the Suez Canal

My latest published paper examines wind setdown and storm surge in the northern reaches of the Red Sea, specifically the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. The full paper citation is:

Drews, Carl (2015) Directional Storm Surge in Enclosed Seas: The Red Sea, the Adriatic, and Venice. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering 3(2), 356-367. doi:10.3390/jmse3020356

This article belongs to the JMSE Special Issue Coastal Hazards Related to Storm Surge. Figure 1 shows the bathymetry of the Red Sea (see illustration at right). It's obvious from the color scale that the Gulf of Aqaba (right side, east) is much deeper than the Gulf of Suez (left side, west). This difference is important.

The COAWST/ROMS ocean model calculates that sea level at Suez can vary by ± 2.65 meters when storm surge coincides with high tide, or when wind setdown coincides with low tide. Who cares? Ship captains do. The Suezmax class of supertankers are designed to be as large as possible and still fit through the Suez Canal. I expect that there is some "room to spare" in the specification, but consider a supertanker becoming grounded when sea level is 2.65 meters above normal. The sea level then drops (as usual), and the ship is stuck fast on the sandbar. The crew would have to pump out the oil to re-float the ship. That's why ship captains care about the effects of tide and wind on sea level.

Wind and tides are important to ship navigation. But perhaps you located this article because you were interested in Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Read on . . .

No possible crossing anywhere in the Gulf of Aqaba

That difference in depth makes a huge difference in the magnitude of wind setdown and storm surge between the two gulfs. Shallow water surges more. The Gulf of Aqaba generates only ± 6 centimeters of surge and setdown (see JMSE Figure 8 and Table 2). The wind speed is 28 meters/second (62 miles/hour, or 100 km/hour). 6 centimeters is not enough to expose any underwater ridge crossing the Gulf of Aqaba, and it is certainly not enough water to drown an adult male when the sea returns! Thus we may conclusively state of Exodus 14: Moses and the Israelites did not cross anywhere along the Gulf of Aqaba.

An extensive table of proposed sites for Exodus 14 is provided in my book Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science in Chapter 7 Following the Trail. The JMSE paper eliminates the hypotheses of a number of biblical researchers. The following proposals for the Gulf of Aqaba will not work:

Nuweiba: Ron Wyatt, Lennart Moller

The underwater ridge at Nuweiba was never a realistic possibility, anyway. The sill depth at Nuweiba is 780 meters (2,560 feet). No wind that ever blew on this planet would blow that crossing dry. And even if such a wind came, Moses and the Israelites would be shredded into little bits of flesh and bone.

There is a second problem with the Nuweiba crossing that appears in conjunction with their proposed Mt. Sinai. Wyatt and Moller believe that the mountain Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia is the biblical Mt. Sinai. Jebel al-Lawz is about 55 kilometers in a straight line from the east end of the Nuweiba crossing (at 28.65440° North, 35.30457° East). But according to Numbers 33:10-11, there was a second camp by the yam suf after the sea crossing and before Mt. Sinai. The sensible route after crossing from Nuweiba is to head directly inland toward Jebel al-Lawz. There would be no need to camp a second time beside the yam suf.

Straits of Tiran: Bob Cornuke

The sill depth along the Enterprise Passage through the Straits of Tiran is 250 meters. Again, no conceivable wind could blow that depth of water out of the Straits of Tiran. The laws of physics do not permit such an event to happen.

But . . . perhaps the Strait was narrow and shallow 3,000 years ago? Could Moses have crossed at Tiran then? By my measurement using Google Earth, the Enterprise Passage is 1.25 kilometers wide, from Gordon Reef to the shallow shelf off the Sinai mainland. A complete proposal for the Straits of Tiran must include an explanation for how geological forces could have created an undersea canyon 250 meters deep in only 3,000 years. Bear in mind that tidal scouring is a shallow-water phenomenon. Go to it.

The Tiran crossing also has the same "second yam suf problem," but not as bad as Nuweiba. The sensible route from eastern Tiran to Jebel al-Lawz might possibly camp by the Red Sea again somewhere, but that detour would be off the most expedient path to the mountain.

Aqaba: Colin Humphreys

The Aqaba crossing was the only possibility that required an ocean model to refute. Nuweiba and Tiran were easily eliminated with back-of-the-envelope calculations. Colin Humphreys' proposal required some CPU cycles. But the answer is published in the JMSE paper, Figure 8: Wind setdown and storm surge at Aqaba are less than ± 6 centimeters. Here is an example of a great hypothesis coming up against cold, hard facts. The Aqaba crossing does not work for any reasonable wind speed ( <= 28 m/s).

Aqaba also has a second problem: There is no ridge at Aqaba across the Wadi Arabah, either below or above sea level. According to the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, the topography at the center of the Arabah Rift increases monotonically from south to north. Without that ridge, Moses and the Israelites would not see water on both sides of the crossing, and Pharaoh's army could simply bypass the temporarily receded seabed and attack them on the far side. Humphreys' Figure 16.3 on page 254 purports to show the ridge in question at Eilat, but that ridge does not extend all the way across the Wadi Arabah.

Normally I keep proposals in consideration if they have just one problem. But two strikes is too many. As a location for the event described in Exodus 14, the Gulf of Aqaba is out.

There is no shame in proposing a hypothesis that turns out to be incorrect. Ron Wyatt gets a lot of flak on the Internet for his less-than-scholarly methods. But I have sympathy for him. Ron Wyatt thought outside the box, did some nautical research to locate the undersea ridge at Nuweiba, and proposed a testable hypothesis. Easy problems don't go unsolved for 3,000 years. The problem of the Red Sea crossing will only be solved by thinking outside the boxes of tradition, cinematic images, and biblical literalism. Ron Wyatt made a positive contribution to the solution.

Miracles all the way down?

The crossings along the Gulf of Aqaba fail because the laws of physics do not permit any reasonable wind to blow dry the bottom of the sea at any of the proposed sites. But what if God suspended the laws of physics for this event? Is not God Almighty the Lord of Heaven and Earth? Hasn't this event always been viewed as a miracle? How about God suspending the laws of physics to: part the sea, get Moses and the Israelites across the passage, throw off the wheels of Pharaoh's chariots, and destroy the pursuing army when the walls of water collapse. How about miracles and more miracles to accomplish the narrative?

Since God is omnipotent (according to standard Judeo-Christian theology), He can do anything He pleases to do. The problem with "miracles all the way down" is not theological, but interpretive. The Bible makes the following statements:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Exodus 14:21 ESV)

God sent the east wind, and the east wind drove back the sea. God used the laws of physics to deliver the Israelites from destruction, and the east wind was His natural agent. That's what the Bible says. The same pattern extends throughout the Ten Plagues, with God using the Nile river, frogs, lice, flies, etc to pressure Pharaoh. God used an east wind to bring the locusts, and a west wind to drive them into the yam suf (Exodus 10:13,19). If the east wind played no key role in parting the Red Sea, then the Bible is wrong. I will let the Biblical inerrantists ponder that possibility. But from a purely practical standpoint, we want to locate the spot where Moses crossed the Red Sea. If we change the directions given in the biblical text, we are much less likely to find the correct site.

Sea level during the Exodus was about 8 inches lower than today

Recent publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that global sea levels were about 20 centimeters lower 6,000 years ago:

The reconstruction of 35,000 years of sea level fluctuations finds that there is no evidence that levels changed by more than 20cm in a relatively steady period that lasted between 6,000 years ago and about 150 years ago.
20 cm is about 8 inches (1 meter = 3.28 feet). RealClimate shows the last 2,000 years in greater detail. Sources are:

Thus the world's coastlines during the Late Bronze Age were on average about the same as they are today. The Nile delta is known to have progressed outward (north) in the last 3,000 years. Tectonic uplift and subsidence provide some additional variation by region. For example, sea level at the ancient Egyptian harbor of Mersa/Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea proper was about 1 meter higher in 1,500 BC.

What's left: Suez, North Ballah, or the Kedua Gap

Wikimedia Commons: Suez Bay, Egypt 1856.,_Egypt_%28Justus_Perthes%27_Geographische_Anstalt,_1856%29.jpg

Figure 2: Suez Bay, Egypt, in 1856. Note the lack of a deep-water channel to the port. The Suez Canal was constructed in 1859-1869. Click to display larger image.
Source: "Karte der Bai von Sues" - Aus den Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes' Geographischer Anstalt über Wichtige Neue Erforschungen auf dem Gesammtgebiete der Geographie von Dr. A. Petermann. Volume 7, 1861. Hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The proposed crossing site at Adabiya (29.8599° N, 32.5060° E) was recorded from Arab tradition by Samuel Bartlett in 1879. The jumping-off point is due east of Jebel Atakah. Voltzinger and Androsov modeled the reef there in 2003. This crossing also has three strikes against it:

  1. The underwater ridge at Adabiya is too deep to become exposed by winds that would allow walking. Before the Suez Canal was built, a German nautical chart from 1856 shows a sill depth of 45 feet, or 13.7 meters (see Figure 2 at right). The chart shows no deep-water channel leading into the port at Suez; it is unlikely that pre-Canal engineers would have dredged the reef but not the port. Therefore the 1856 reef is natural. Modern Suezmax tankers have a draft of 20.1 meters.
  2. In the first PLoS ONE paper we showed that a realistic reef is unlikely to become fully dry. Rivers of seawater will continue to block passage even after 12 hours of wind.
    Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta (2010).
  3. The 2015 paper in JMSE shows that wind has to blow from the northwest to lower the level of the Red Sea significantly at Adabiya. Exodus 14:21 specifies an east wind.
    Directional Storm Surge in Enclosed Seas: The Red Sea, the Adriatic, and Venice.


A dry crossing from Suez across the shallows toward the southeast remains a possibility, although a north wind would work better. Perhaps some small pond or marsh remained on the north side of the ford to block the chariot pursuit and provide water on both sides of the dry crossing.

North Ballah

As explained in my book Between Migdol and the Sea, a crossing from Tell Abu Sefeh is possible under a northeast wind. Again, small pockets of marshy ground might remain on the north side of a dry crossing there.

Kedua Gap

This location at Tell Kedua would provide a spectacular and dramatic crossing, as depicted in Chapters 1-2 of Between Migdol and the Sea. The science behind the biblical narrative is covered in Chapters 4 and 5.

Posted: July 11, 2015
Updated: August 14, 2015
Author: Copyright 2015 by Carl Drews.

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