Karen Dabrowska

New African article

Originally published: April 2018

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A wooden door in the middle of a ruined Ottoman coral building.

A wooden door in the middle of a ruined Ottoman coral building.

In Ottoman times Suakin was Sudan’s main port. Today it is a crumbling ruin of once magnificent buildings constructed from coral that was dredged up and cut into blocks. For more than 100 years the Sudanese government left the port to decay. But it is being given a new lease of life through a Turkish-Sudanese deal. Karen Dabrowski reports.

Early this year, it was agreed that Turkey would lease Suakin Island from Sudan and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the restoration of Ottoman relics. One of the mosques and the old customs building have already been transformed and painted a dazzling white, in stark contrast to the dull bricks of old.

The work was carried out by TIKA (the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) which is building hospitals, and helping to find water wells. It is at the forefront of Turkey’s endeavours to win the hearts and minds of African people.

During the first visit by a Turkish president to Sudan, Erdoğan said: “We will restore the island completely and will make it worthy of historical honour again. Because we saw Suakin Island in this state it made us sad. It’s been demolished. God willing, even for Umrah (Hajj) trips, as it was in previous times, people went to Jeddah from here. The roads will be built again, we will restore it. The imperialists have ruined Africa and they have conducted one-sided economic policies, but Turkey is willing to pursue a win-win policy.”

The deal to rebuild the area, home to 8,000 people at the beginning of the 19th century, as a tourist site and a transit point for pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Mecca, was one of several, worth $650m in total, agreed with Sudan, which emerged from two decades of US sanctions in October and is seeking to attract international investment.

Sudan’s neighbours are not happy about Turkish involvement in the country. Egypt has reacted angrily to the transfer of Suakin to the Turks. Ankara and Cairo’s diplomatic relations are at the lowest level since 2013, after the coup by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi which toppled the first democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi.

The Egyptians are concerned about Sudan’s growing ties to Turkey and Qatar and believe the three countries are conspiring against them. Turkish soldiers are training the Somali army at a military camp they built in Mogadishu and speculation is rife that Suakin will also become a military base.

An aerial view of the island.

An aerial view of the island.

Legend has it that Suakin was once the home of magical spirits: King Solomon imprisoned a djinn (genie) on the island. A ship full of Ethiopian maidens was on its way to visit the Queen of Sheba when a storm blew it off course to Suakin. When it finally set sail again, the virginal girls were astonished to discover themselves pregnant, carrying the seed of the supernatural host.

Atlas Obscura (an online magazine focusing on obscure and unusual travel destinations) describes how Ramses III initially developed the port of Suakin during the 10th century BC. At the time it offered an outlet to the Red Sea for trade and exploration. A thousand years later, as Islam gained followers and spread from the Hijaz region of modern-day Saudi Arabia, the port took on new importance and became and outlet for Africans on pilgrimage to Mecca.

The island evolved constantly, bringing greater riches. Local legend tells of a king who operated out of the old city and had 360 wives and lavish quarters. With its wealth, Suakin developed into a rich, gated island port. Every building was made out of stunning coral and the walls were decorated in detailed wood and stone coverings.

Having the upper hand on the seas starting from the early 15th century, the Portuguese gained dominance in the region, attacking Muslim-controlled areas on the East and West coasts of Africa. In 1513, Suakin was captured by the Portuguese. The Ottoman Empire, which took over Syria and Egypt during the reign of Sultan Selim I, saved many regions in East Africa from Portuguese occupation, establishing dominance in the Red Sea and governing Suakin.

During the 19th century, the island became a hub for the slave trade from Eastern Africa. The first European to record his impressions of the island was the explorer John Lewis Burckhardt, who in 1814, in typical distainful fashion, found it a place of ‘ill-faith, avarice, drunkenness and debauchery’. Around 3,000 slaves passed through Suakin annually.

A renovated mosque among the ruins.

A renovated mosque among the ruins.

As the slave trade diminished, the port became increasingly unnecessary and by the 1920s, Suakin was falling into complete disrepair. Shallow waters and rough coral had pushed most trade north to Port Sudan 60km away and the coral buildings that were once the crown jewel of the port were not maintained and disintegrated.

The ruins of the once great coral city are carefully guarded as part of Sudan’s fledgling tourist industry. Turkey’s plans to restore the island to the height of medieval luxury on the Red Sea are ambitious. Time has stood still on Suakin for more than 100 years but a bright and more prosperous future is on the horizon.