Continuing on the theme of jinn, Suakin according to legend means 'inhabitants' which refers to its supposed haunting by jinn; King Solomon, who could control the jinn, is said to have imprisoned them all in Suakin when he died. It was once a Red Sea port of considerable importance and in antiquity gold, ivory, tortoise shell, peridots and chrysolite were shipped to Egypt. Its decline had already begun by about 1100BC although under the Fatimids in the 11th century it regained some importance as a pilgrim port.
By the time of the Mamluks in the 13th century trade had increased with the Hejaz on the eastern Red Sea coast. Under the Ottomans this trade continued and it is from this period that Suakin's unique architecture emerged. Incorporating traditional elements of Islamo-Turkish building styles, Suakin with its hot and humid climate interpreted some of these elements in new ways; to keep the sun out yet benefit from the sea breezes window shutters projected out and down, interior walls had decorative grilles which allowed air to circulate throughout the house, coral rag was used instead of adobe, and latticework wooden mashrabiyya 'balconies' were installed to enlarge the floor space and allow more air to penetrate the interior of the house.
By the end of the 17th century, Suakin's fortunes began to decline once more as the ocean-going trade shifted with new routes around southern Africa, although there was still a certain amount of trade between the African interior and Hejaz. The Swiss explorer J. L Burkhardt who visited Suakin in 1814 noted that it was 'in ruins'. In 1865 the Khedive of Egypt deeded the town by the Ottomans, tried to revive the port by building a hospital, school, mosque and wikala, or khan. In keeping with Britain's role in Egypt, Suakin became the port of entry for manufactured British goods while coffee from Ethiopia, gum arabic from Obeid in western Sudan, sesame oil and ostrich feathers were exported.
But with the Egyptian-Ethiopian war of 1876, not to mention Egypt's financial meltdown, Suakin diminished in importance until Kitchener set up the Anglo-Egyptian army HQ there in an effort to undermine the efforts of the Mahdi, whose forces were defeated in 1888 at Gemmeiza, just outside Suakin. But after the Mahdi's final defeat at Omdurman in 1898, the British decided they needed a larger port to handle their plans for the economic development of the country, and in 1904 they began construction at Port Sudan forty miles to the north. By 1922 Suakin was once again in decline and given the extent of its ruination, I imagine this time it is terminal.
Details of the local architecture; note the shutters, gabled hoods called 'raf raf' and mashrabiyya.*
We arrived in Suakin three hours later then the driver and guide had predicted – they suggested it was due to the sandstorm, but the road was in bad shape, and in one long desert stretch of wadis, culverts every several hundred yards which like 'sleeping policemen' had been left higher than the level of the road, meant slowing down to a virtual stop to drive over them. As the guide went off to get the paperwork stamped, I walked to the external wall of the site to take a picture of the ruins framed through a broken-down window. A man appeared from the side shouting “no photos”. I told him I had a camera permit and began again, but he was having none of it and came towards me waving his arms and shouting angrily. I told him to talk to the security guard who had my camera permit. The security guard told me I could only photograph inside the walls.
By now feeling more than a little belligerent myself, I asked where that was written? My vexation did not lessen when on entering the site the guide proceeded to lead me up a mountain of broken coral rag – when I asked where we were going he said, “to the site”. I stumbled and hit my camera on a rock just to look up and see him raise his camera. I told him menacingly that if he had led me up this perilous path only so that he could take a photograph I would do him grievous bodily harm. He was alarmed and immediately lowering his camera shouted that he had not. But it is exactly what he had done. The die had now been cast but I was beyond caring; as I had once felt in Iran with an equally incompetent though much more assiduous guide, I had again paid a great deal of money to be stuck with a nincompoop. I was weary of it.
Suakin has disintegrated so far it is difficult to see how it can be reversed or even stayed. Coral rag which has been plastered over is very strong, but un-plastered coral as it is here, crumbles as soon as the roof caves in and water enters the myriad cracks of the porous material.
The old entrance to Suakin from the sea.
We came across an old man in the ruins who aside from speaking of strange goings on that he attributed to jinn, said he used to pray at the Great Mosque twenty years ago. Now it was derelict and while planks of wood had been used to shore up some walls, clearly there was no ongoing rescue work.
Ibn Battuta's description of his arrival in Suakin in 1330 is a little different;
"After two days travelling we came to an encampment of Arabs known as the Bani Khalil, who are intermingled with the Bujah and know their speech. On the same day we reached the island of Suakin. It is about six miles off the coast and has neither water, nor cereal crops, nor trees. Water is brought to it in boats and on it there are cisterns in which rainwater is collected. It is a large island and in it is to be had the flesh of ostriches, gazelles and wild asses; its inhabitants have goats also in large numbers, together with milk products and ghee, which is exported from it to Mecca. Their cereal is jurjur, a kind of course grained millet, which is also exported to Mecca. "
When Ibn Battuta visited Suakin it was indeed an island although not six miles from shore. A causeway was built during Ottoman times and it is still part of the mainland now. Water was always a problem and another reason the British chose to build in Port Sudan was both the lack and the poor quality of the water. At the time of his visit the Beja (Bujah) were firmly installed and in addition to camels they did keep goats. As for the reference to jurjur as millet, a red sorghum grown locally is called jurkub - perhaps a manuscript error, or over time the word has changed.
Ibn Battuta does not record how long he stayed in Suakin, "The sultan of the island of Sawakin at the time of my coming was the Sharif Zaid ibn Abu Numayy. His father was the amir of Mecca.......it came into his possession though the Bujah, because they are his maternal relatives, and he has with him an armed force of the Buijah, the Awlad Khalil and the Juhaina Arabs. "
But he left for Yemen even although where he landed was in present day Saudi Arabia. We left Suakin to drive to Port Sudan. I was staying in yet another ghastly hotel despite the fact there were better ones, and during the night the caterwauling of the cats roaming the corridors was such that I came to believe they were possessed by jinn. It was another night spent fully-clothed on top of the bed especially as I discovered a cockroach under the pillow, albeit a small one. Despite this I quite liked Port Sudan, it has a certain flyblown, colonial backwater charm; along with its modern container port, is a recently-built corniche that is not unattractive though lacking in life, but not the night market in town which was in full swing when we set off for dinner. It was a kaleidoscope of vivid hues, the women seemingly in competition as to who could wear the brightest pinks, reds, lime greens, turquoise, lemon yellow and purple. The young girls, straight-backed and slim as reeds, moved like graceful fawns, their wrapped dresses lightly wind-whipped as were their veils, showing oiled and braided hair atop elongated necks. The older women were no less colorful, if heavier-set and less carefree.
* The old photographs of Suakin were taken from Sudan's National Museum (with permission.)