Shipwrecks in the Sinai, a 1993 Red Sea Reconaissance Report
By Cheryl Haldane Ward, Ph.D.
Originally published in El Bahri 1.1, Spring 1994
Coral reefs ringing the Sinai Peninsula are world famous for the colorful and varied life they support, but they offer innumerable hazards to shipping and trade. At Ras Mohammed National Park, preservation of natural and cultural resources prompted Dr. Michael Pearson, park project director, to invite INA-Egypt and a representative of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to evaluate some of the park's submerged archaeological resources. With the approval of EAO Chairman Dr. M. Abdel Halim Nur el Din, we planned a brief excursion to Sharm el Sheikh.
Our most valuable resource on this reconnaissance was Mr. P.J. Probert of Sinai Divers at Sharm el Sheikh. P.J. has been diving in the Red Sea for more than seven years, and his awareness of the importance of archaeological remains had created a mental map spotted with the locations of amphoras and other indications of ships wrecked on Sinai's treacherous reefs.
P.J. agreed to show us some of these sites, and we loaded a park service boat with our dive gear and Bozo, the Park's remote operated vehicle (ROV). After two hours, the boat slowed as we approached our first site. As Park Ranger Hassan Abdel Bar dove into the water to tie the boat at a permanent mooring, P.J., Douglas Haldane, and I reviewed our plans to search the area.
Because the Park had provided underwater scooters for the reconnaissance, we were able to reach the reef's base quickly. There, P.J. pointed out broken amphoras and a stone object more than a meter long-it was a stone anchor of a type known from the Gulf of Siraf and Mogadishu. We recognized the site as one previously reported by Israeli archaeologist Avner Raban. As we prowled about the reef, it became clear that the ship had torn itself open and remained stranded atop the coral for some time before breaking up and scattering its contents.
We returned to the boat, keeping an eye on a small white-tipped reef shark nearby. On deck, EAO archaeologist Tarek el Nagger listened as we described the dive and showed him our sketches of thick-handled storage jars and the stone anchor. Tarek's years of experience in the Sinai made him familiar with the importance of Red Sea trade. The day before, he had shown us a photograph of a large jar taken from the sea by a diver near Ras Nasrani, further north, that seemed almost identical to jars we saw on the seabed at both sites we visited that day.
At the second site, we expected to dive on a better preserved wreck. P.J. had a videotape documenting the usual pottery fragments and, more importantly, wooden planks indicating preservation of a ship. In the tape, we saw that some planks had been recently exposed, but we were unprepared for the devastation we found on the seabed.
Curious divers unaware of the damage they were doing to an archaeological site had ripped frames from planks and spread the ship's bones over a 1,000-square-meter area. As I gathered the planks, I studied their condition and sought clues to the hull they had been. Much of the wood was hard, possibly filled with coral skeletons.
Irregular, square-shanked iron nails had fastened the vessel, but most holes showed only an orange stain where the nail had been. A few hand-sized concreted iron objects on the seabed may hold more keys to defining the construction techniques. All these ship's timbers will be recorded in the INA-Egypt Expedition to the Red Sea; one of the conditions of this reconnaissance was that we raise no archaeological material.
Our third stop that day was at Yolande Reef, named for the 1981 wreck of a ship carrying toilets and rolls of plastic among other cargoes. Yolande Reef plunges to more than 1,000 meters, and we decided to send Bozo, the ROV, in search of a large jar reported at only 60 m.
Hassan coordinated the release of Bozo and steered it past ceramic toilet bowls already sprouting colorful coral stems. Bozo sent back sharp, clear pictures of the reef, but we were unable to locate the jar before the fading light in the sky forced us to return.
We approached the park's dock beneath the star-carpeted skies, talking over plans for the next day's dives and reviewing our day's finds. Helping the Park and the EAO identify cultural resources that tell another part of Egypt's great history left us feeling proud, yet humbled by the immensity of the task we had so eagerly taken on.
Other dives within the Park's boundaries took us back to Yolande Reef for an unsuccessful visual search and to an area with broken pottery and lead ingots that could be traces of a shipwreck or simply jettison, objects thrown overboard to lighten the load during an emergency. Another dive was thwarted by strong seas, but as we packed our gear to head back to Cairo, we counted ourselves lucky to have seen three archaeologically significant sites in as many days.
We are deeply appreciative of the cooperation of Ras Mohammed National Park staff and the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Dr. Michael Pearson and Dr. Abdel Halim Nur el Din have been instrumental in laying a framework for the preservation of underwater antiquities in the area.
The reconnaissance was generously funded by the Amoco Foundation with additional equipment support from Ras Mohammed National Park and INA-Egypt. We also thank P.J. Probert, Hassan Abdel Bar and Tarek el Nagger for contributing their time and expertise. Dr. Adel Taher of the Sinai Hyperbaric Recompression Chamber provided lodging for INA-Egypt staff. Rolf Schmidt and Petra Roeglin of Sinai Divers made considerable efforts to talk with us about other sites and enabled P.J. to join us, for which we thank them.