SUAKIN: THE PEARL OF THE RED SEA
At the height of its success, the Red Sea port city of Suakin was described as the jewel of the west coast of Africa. And because of its unique layout it is believed to be Ptolemy’s Port of Good Hope. In Greek documents it is described as lying partly on a circular island, roughly a kilometre and a half (one mile) in circumference, at the end of a long inlet. But the story of how Suakin came to be such a vital trading nerve on the west coast of the Red Sea, is the story of the numerous civilisations that docked its shores in search of wealth. To Muslims from North Africa it was an important pilgrimage departure point to Mecca on the other side. And to the Crusaders, European explorers and Venetian merchants, it was the place from which to follow the Silk Route along the Red Sea to India and China. However, the ancient commerce city hid a myth dating back to the wise King of Israel, Solomon. He is said to have imprisoned criminals and the supernatural spirits known as djinn on the isolated island. Suakin is first mentioned in the early 10th century by the south Arabian scholar Al Hamdani, who describes the port as an ancient location. Sawakin, the town's name in Arabic, literally means "dwellers" or "stillnesses," and suggests a haunted place. Whatever its origin, this mystic island has mesmerised travellers and explorers far back in time. From above, it is a radial sheltered harbour with a long, narrow inlet connecting it to the Red Sea. Ancient Egyptians undoubtedly knew this fine harbour and its lucrative trade in aromatics, ivory and gold. By the time Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty dispatched her famous sea trade ventures, commerce with the Land of Punt was well over a millennium old. Moving from the opposite direction, seafaring peoples of Yemen and Hadramawt reached across the Red Sea to the African shore from their kingdoms of Saba - better known as Sheba - and Himyar. Surrounded by shifting balances of power, hence, Suakin went through periodic cycles of unprecedented prosperity and great upheaval.
The Arab penetration of the Sudan followed two main routes: overland via the Sinai, and across the Red Sea to ports on the African shore. This influx led to the creation of the port of Badi and brought the ports of Aydhab and Suakin into roles of prominence. Together they were the major points of contact with Arabia over the next several centuries. But as with so many other situations throughout its history, Suakin's connections with the Hijaz proved a mixed blessing. While assured a prominent role as a departure point for North African pilgrims, as well as a stable trading relationship with the Hijaz, Suakin had to stand by quietly while Jiddah absorbed the lion's share of trade with the Orient. But in addition to the Muslim faith and the commercial exchange of goods between the two continents, Arab merchants from the Saudi coastal city of Jiddah, known as Jiddawis, imported new architectural techniques that would give Suakin a distinctive façade. Unlike the humble adobe architecture of the Sudan, designed to keep the desert heat at bay, the Jiddawis introduced elaborate coastal architecture that strove to catch the cooling breezes of the sea, while excluding hot desert winds from the west and the stark glare of direct sunlight. They introduced the concept of the three-storey high villa, adorned with mashrabiyyah windows. The basic building blocks in Suakin were local white coral, and exteriors were covered with white stucco. So, the addition of the geometric patterns made from interlocking wood pieces gave Suakin it’s predominantly Arabian feel. However, the early 16th century saw another major power shift in the Red Sea region. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks conquered Mamluk Egypt, and naturally Suakin fell under their grip when they rapidly extended their authority down the Red Sea coast. But increasingly harsh rule, and the discovery of the sea route around Africa to the Orient, soon led to a sharp decline in the town's fortunes. Rich merchants started to migrate away abandoning their lavish homes, and subsequently the port disintegrated into decline. Today, Suakin's piers are empty, and its buildings are in ruin.
[Image Above: The façade of the house of a wealthy Arab merchant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia]