Seas and gulfs around the Arabian Peninsula have been relabeled and renamed since ancient times. In particular, the “Red Sea” has had a complicated history—in ancient times, the name referred to what is now called the Persian Gulf. Today’s Red Sea, in contrast, used to be called the Arabian Gulf. Regarding the legend featured here, the event was reportedly set in the Arabian Gulf (today’s Red Sea), but as the story was supposedly recorded by people generally referred to as the Ichthyophagi (“Fish-Eaters”)—who were present along both waterways—the legend could have technically been set in either sea or gulf.
As told by Greco-Roman scholars such as Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), Ichthyophagi storytellers preserved a legend about a time when “the gulf” (presumably the Arabian Gulf/Red Sea between the east coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula) receded to reveal large tracts of green land. How long this newly uncovered terrain remained accessible was not elaborated upon by the ancient storytellers, but the situation was definitely not permanent. Citing the Ichthyophagi legends, Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“Among the Ichthyophagi who dwell near by has been handed down a tale which has preserved the account received from their forefathers, that once, when there was a great receding of the sea, the entire area of the gulf which has what may be roughly described as the green appearance became land, and that, after the sea had receded to the opposite parts and the solid ground in the depths of it had emerged to view, a mighty flood came back upon it again and returned the body of water to its former place” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.40).
Naturally, many people are intrigued by this legend due to the religious tales and theories about sea-partings and floods that originated in the Middle East region. Any connections between the Ichthyophagi legend and other stories from the region, however, are dubious. In any case, many peoples and cultures from all over the world preserved similar legends and folkloric stories about floods and deluges.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Sea Cove, painted by Albert Bierstadt (c. 1830–1902), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).