What is The Gate of Tears?
The Gate of Tears is a Strait in
an international political hotspot. The Strait is a chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East, and
a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. A significant percentage of the world’s trade
passes through the Strait, which has Djibouti on one side and the Yemen on the other, with Sudan, Eritrea and Saudi
Arabia close by. About several million barrels of crude oil passes through the Strait each day on
The Gate of Tears, known in Arabic as Bab el Mandeb (there
are various spellings) has been a focus of trade for many centuries. The name is said to derive from the
navigational difficulties and the lives that have been lost there over the centuries; alternatively, legend has it
that it was named following the death of large numbers of people when the earthquake that split Africa from Asia
occurred. An alternative English name, The Gates of Grief, is also used.
The Strait is about 20 miles wide, and divided in two by
Perim Island (also known as Mayyun), a volcanic rock 65 m high which belongs now to Yemen. In the geological past,
eruptions from Perim are thought to have blocked the entrance to the Red Sea and led to it drying up several
Bab el Mandeb comprises two channels - the easternmost
channel, Alexander’s Channel (Bab Iskander), is about 2 miles wide and 30 m deep. The western channel, Dact el
Mayyun, is 16 miles wide and 310 m deep. However, the largest oil tankers are restricted to traffic lanes 2 miles
wide as part of the Traffic Separation Scheme in the Western Channel.
The importance of Bab el Mandeb has increased since Saudi
Arabia built an East-West oil pipeline. This was done so that Saudi oil could be exported through the Red Sea,
reducing the dependency on the Straits of Hormuz which are only 2 miles wide, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
Any blockage of the Gate of Tears would result in oil exports being only via smaller tankers which could pass
through the Suez canal; there is also an oil pipeline (“Sumed”), to the Mediterranean.
The Strait also has significance stretching back to the
origins of man himself. The so-called current Recent Single Origin Hypothesis postulates that earliest anatomically
modern man migrated across the Strait from their place of origin in the Great Rift Valley, some 60,000 years
The Strait also has a place in religion, with the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church holding that early semitic language migrated into Africa across the Strait.
Recently, a company owned by Tarek bin Laden has proposed a
plan to build a suspension bridge across the Strait, linking Yemen and Djibouti. It would be among the world’s
longest suspension bridges. The suggested name is ‘The Bridge of Horns’.
© 2010 James Marinero