Suakin, starting point on the Sudan Hajj Route to Makkah

Guest post by Alberto Di Gennaro – SANDS

Suakin, also called Sawakin (Arabic, meaning population), is placed on the Red Sea coast of Sudan and lies in a stunning natural position; it is inscribed on the Sudan tentative list of Unesco as well as on the World Monument Watch list, as evidence to its historical and strategic importance as a trading port and as a crossing point towards Makkah.

Suakin is built on one of two small islands in a bay of the Red Sea. It is at one end of a desert route to the Nile Valley, ending at Berber just north of Atbara. Suakin was a main port of embarkation for the ‘Sudan Road’ that brought pilgrims from across Africa on the Hajj to Makkah.

The town originated in the 12th century, a rival port to Aydhab to the north, where dues were levied on trade. After the fall of Aydhab, about 1428/1429, Suakin became the most important harbor on the African side of the Red Sea. It grew in importance but began to decline when it was occupied by Turks in the 16th century.

Suakin was called for the first time by the geographer Ptolemy Evangelon Portus or “the port of good luck”; it was described as lying on a circular island at the end of a long inlet.

The growth of the Muslim Caliphate then shifted trade first to the Hijaz and then to the Persian Gulf. The port comprises the original island town of Suakin, its mainland extension, the Geyf, and nearby Condenser Island, or Quarantine Island, all within a lagoon at the western end of a long channel penetrating through a thick coral reef along the coastline of the Red Sea, constituting an ideal natural harbor well protected from the sea itself.

Nowadays the old coral-built city(see photo) stands in ruins; it has been abandoned in recent years, and several buildings are at risk of collapse. Nonetheless, the site is well-known worldwide and the Sudanese consider it to be very important.

Each of the conquerors of the city left a legible sign of his passage in architecture, where styles blend into a harmonious whole and each style draws on the previous one and adapts to tradition, climate and light, but above all to the coral is the only building material available.

The coral that grows along the coast is, in fact, an excellent calcareous material, porous by nature and therefore insulating, easily reducible into blocks like a compact sandstone.

The construction technique, unchanged over the centuries, is the most suitable for the atmospheric conditions of the place: the coral stone is insulating and the openings are wisely oriented in order to convey the sea breeze inside the houses, which are so extraordinarily cool despite the climate torrid.

The city develops concentrically around its mosques, the Hanafi Mosque, today restored beside the Shafi’i Mosque the second one to be renovated. Notable, at the entrance of the town, the main gate. the “Gordon’s Gate” built by the British in 1877.

SANDS is a weekly newsletter written and curated by Alberto Di Gennaro, hosted by SquareKufic. You can subscribe to the newsletter via LinkedIn, or read the articles here, at SquareKufic.

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