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El-Geyf mosque
Suakin is located in Sudan
Location in Sudan
Coordinates: 19°06′N 37°20′E / 19.1°N 37.333°E / 19.1; 37.333
Country Flag of Sudan.svg Sudan
State Red Sea
District Port Sudan
Population (2009 (est.))
 - Total 43,337

Suakin or Sawakin (Arabic: سواكنSawákin) is a port in north-eastern Sudan, on the west coast of the Red Sea. In 1983 it had a population of 18,030 and the 2009 estimate is 43, 337.[1]It was formerly the region's chief port, but is now secondary to Port Sudan, about 30 miles north. The old city built of coral is in ruins. Ferries run daily from Suakin to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.



Sawakin (سواكن) is Arabic, meaning "dwellers" or "stillnesses." One legend connects it with the legends about King Solomon and the djinn, suggesting that when he banished them, Suakin was the place they were sent to (making the town's name a fanciful plural for sijn, prison.)

The Beja name for Suakin was U Suk, possibly from the Arabic word suq, meaning market. In Beja, the locative case for this is isukib, whence Suakin might have derived.[2]




Suakin was likely Ptolemy's Port of Good Hope, Limen Evangelis, which is similarly described as lying on a circular island at the end of a long inlet.[3] Under the Ptolemies and Romans, though, the Red Sea's major port was Berenice to the north. The growth of the Muslim caliphate then shifted trade first to the Hijaz and then the Persian Gulf.


The collapse of the Abbasids and growth of Fatimid Egypt changed this and al-Qusayr and Aydhab became important emporia, trading with India and ferrying African pilgrims to Mecca. Suakin was first mentioned by name in the 10th century by al-Hamdani, who says it was already an ancient town. At that time, Suakin was a small Beja settlement, but it began to expand after the abandonment of the port of Bari to its south. The Crusades and Mongol invasions drove more trade into the region: there are a number of references to Venetian merchants residing at Suakin and Massawa as early as the 14th century.[citation needed]

Suakin,national bank.jpg

One of Suakin's rulers, Ala al-Din al-Asba'ani, angered the Mamluk sultan Baybars by seizing the goods of merchants who died at sea nearby. In 1264, the governor of Qus and his general Ikhmin Ala al-Din attacked with the support of Aydhab. Al-Asba'ani was forced to flee the city. It was possibly in retaliation for this that King David of Nubia attacked Aydhab and Aswan a few years later. The continuing enmity between the two towns is testified to by reports that after the destruction of Aydhab by Sultan Barsbay in 1426, the refugees who fled to Suakin instead of Dongola were all slaughtered.[4]

Like the Nubians and Ethiopians, the Beja were originally Christian. Despite the town's formal submission to the Mamluks in 1317, O. G. S. Crawford believed that the city remained a center of Christianity into the 13th century. Muslim immigrants such as the Banu Kanz gradually transformed this: ibn Battuta records that in 1332 there was a Muslim "sultan" of Suakin, al-Sharif Zaid ibn-Abi Numayy ibn-'Ajlan, who was the son of a Meccan sharif. Following the region's inheritance laws, he had inherited the local leadership from his Bejan maternal uncles.[5]

Ottoman & Colonial Rule

Suakin in 1928

In 1517, the Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered the port, and after a brief occupation by the Funj, it was thereafter the residence of the pasha of the Ottoman province of Habeş, which included Arqiqo and Massawa in present-day Eritrea. Under the Turks, Suakin declined sharply, as the Portuguese explorers discovered and perfected the sea route around Africa: when the Ottomans were unable to stop this trade, the local merchants began to abandon the town.

Some trade was kept up with the Sultanate of Sennar, but by the 18th and 19th centuries, the Swiss traveler Jean Louis Burckhardt found two-thirds of the homes in ruin.[6] The Khedive Isma'il received Suakin from the Ottomans in 1865 and attempted to revitalize it: Egypt built new houses, mills, mosques, hospitals, even a church for immigrant Copts. But the failed Egyptian-Ethiopian War led to the Mahdi revolt against British colonial rule. Lord Kitchener used Suakin as his headquarters and survived a lengthy siege there, but after the Mahdi's defeat, the British preferred to develop the new Port Sudan rather than engage in the extensive rebuilding and expansion that would be necessary to make Suakin comparable. By 1922, the last of the companies had left.[7]

Buildings of Suakin

A detailed description of the buildings of Suakin including measured plans and detailed sketches can be found in "The Coral Buildings of Suakin" by Jeanne-Pierre Greenlaw, Kegan Paul international, 1995, ISBN 0-7103-0489-7.


  1. ^ World Gazeteer
  2. ^ Berg, Robert: Suakin: Time and Tide. Saudi Aramco World.
  3. ^ Berg, Robert: Suakin: Time and Tide. Saudi Aramco World.
  4. ^ Dahl, Gudrun & al: "Precolonial Beja: A Periphery at the Crossroads." Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(4): 473–498 (2006).
  5. ^ Dahl, Gudrun & al: "Precolonial Beja: A Periphery at the Crossroads." Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(4): 473–498 (2006).
  6. ^ Berg, Robert: Suakin: Time and Tide. Saudi Aramco World.
  7. ^ Berg, Robert: Suakin: Time and Tide. Saudi Aramco World.

Coordinates: 19°06′N 37°20′E / 19.1°N 37.333°E / 19.1; 37.333

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SUAKIN, or Sawakin, a seaport of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan on the west side of the Red Sea in r9° 7' N., 37° 20' E. Pop. (1905), 10,500. Suakin stands on a coralline islet connected with the suburb of El-Kef on the mainland by a causeway and a viaduct. Access is gained to the harbour through a winding and dangerous passage over 2 m. long, terminating in a deep ovalshaped basin several acres in extent, and completely sheltered from all winds. For centuries the chief port of the eastern Sudan, Suakin has been since 1906 to some extent superseded by Port Sudan, a harbour 36 m. to the north. The customhouse and government offices present an imposing frontage to the sea, and the principal houses are of white coral stone three storeys high. The mosques are not remarkable. The mainland part of the town is surrounded by a high coral wall, built in 1884 to resist dervish attacks. About a mile beyond is a line of outer forts. The climate is very hot, damp and unhealthy, and in the summer months the government headquarters are removed to Erkowit 35 m. west of Suakin, on a plateau 3000 ft. above the sea.

Suakin is less conveniently situated than some neighbouring points (e.g. Port Sudan) for the trade with the Nile Valley. The island is without water and the harbour indifferent; yet the settlement is ancient. Here, as at Massawa, traders were presumably attracted by the advantages of an island site which protected them from the raids of the nomad Arabs of the mainland. The country inland belonged in the middle ages to the Beja, but the trading places seem to have been always in the hands of foreigners since Ptolemais Theron was established by Ptolemy Philadelphus for intercourse with the elephant hunters. After the rise of Mahommedanism many Arabs settled on the coast and mixed with the heathen Beja, whose rule of kinship and succession in the female line helped to give the children of mixed marriages a leading position (Makrizi, Khitat, i. 194 seq., translated in Burckhardt's Travels in Nubia, app. iii.). Thus in 1330 Ibn Batuta found a son of the amir of Mecca reigning in Suakin over the Beja, who were his mother's kin. Makrizi says that the chief inhabitants were nominal Moslems and were called Hadarib. The amir of the Hadarib was still sovereign of the mainland at the time of J. L. Burckhardt's visit (1814), though the island had an aga appointed by the Turkish pasha of Jidda. The place was seized in 1517 by the Turks under Selim the Great, but Turkish control did not extend inland. Mehemet Ali after the conquest of the Sudan leased Suakin from Turkey. This lease lapsed with the pasha's death, but in 1865 Ismail Pasha reacquired the port for Egypt. Till the suppression of the slave trade Suakin was an important slave port and it has always been the place of embarcation for Sudan pilgrims to Mecca. Legitimate commerce, rapidly growing before the revolt of the mandi (r880,was greatly crippled during the continuance of the dervish power, though the town itself never fell into their hands. After the fall of the khalifa trade revived, the imports in 1899 being valued at L180,000, as against r70,000 in 1880. In 1906 the figures were: imports, X324,000; exports, X113,000. Pearl fishing is an important industry and cotton is cultivated in the neighbourhood.

Suakin was the headquarters of the Egyptian and British troops operating in the eastern Sudan against the dervishes under Osman Digna (see EGYPT, Military Operations, 1884, seq.). When these operations were begun a project for linking Suakin to Berber by railway, first proposed during Ismail's viceroyalty, was revived and a few miles of rails were laid in 1884. Then the Sudan was abandoned and the railway remained in abeyance until 1905-1906, when the line was at length built. The railway has a terminus at Suakin, but Port Sudan was chosen as the principal entrepot of the commerce carried by the railway. Notwithstanding the rivalry of its newly created neighbour, the trade of Suakin continued to develop. The port is connected by submarine cables with Suez and Aden and with Jidda, which lies 200 m. north-east on the opposite coast of the Red Sea (see SUDAN, § Anglo-Egyptian).

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