Suakin, Sudan – Once the Height of Luxury, This Coral-Built Settlement Has Been Left in Ruin

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP / Getty Images

The port city of Suakin, also known as Sawakin, is located on the western coast of the Red Sea in the northeastern part of Sudan. Once a luxurious hub of the medieval period, the city has a colorful history of both prosperity and destitution. Ultimately, however, it fell into disrepair.

Built by Ramses III

A photograph of buildings in Suakin, people gathered in front of a small building.
The street of the Post Office in Suakin, Sudan, circa 1895. (Photo Credit: The Print Collector / Getty Images)

The port city of Suakin is believed to have first been developed by Ramses III, the second pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty in Ancient Egypt, in the 10th century BC. It began as a small Beja settlement, providing an outlet to the Red Sea that had the potential to let exploration and trade flourish throughout the region. During the medieval period, the area began to develop quickly, especially after the nearby port of Badi was abandoned.

Pilgrimages made it even more important

View from a boat looking at Suakin from the Red Sea.
A view of the port city on the island of Suakin from a boat on the Red Sea. (Photo Credit: NSAG / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Suakin’s gradual growth on an economic and explorative scale was bolstered by the increase in Islam in what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia during the medieval period. Its location was and continues to be pivotal, bridging the gap between continental Africa and the Middle East. As such, African followers of Islam were able to utilize the port during their pilgrimage to Mecca.

An increase in wealth

A mosque with green accents
A mosque in Suakin, Sudan. (Photo Credit: Bertramz / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Suakin was ramping up in popularity, and an increase in wealth would come as a byproduct of the Crusades and Mongol invasions. As people migrated away from the violence, large numbers found themselves pushed toward Suakin. This included merchants who set up in the surrounding area, driving trade and bringing wealth to the port city,

A legendary king lived there

An illustration of the city of Suakin, Sudan.
An illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXIX, no. 743, dated February 23, 1884, which showcases the landing-place at Suakin. (Photo Credit: DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty Images)

Legend says that the city became so prosperous that a king set up operations in Suakin. It is said that he established his extravagant living quarters there, where he and his 360 wives lived together. His vast wealth was likely a result of the flourishing trade economy that had been established there.

Buildings were made from a unique material

A decaying building with a domed roof.
A ruined building on the abandoned ancient island of Suakin in eastern Sudan. (Photo Credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP / Getty Images)

An increase in wealth meant an increase in infrastructure in Suakin. The settlement soon became a gated island city, and several of the buildings were constructed from a unique material. Builders sourced out a rock-coral called madrepore from the Red Sea’s sea bed and used it in the walls of many of their structures. A white plaster finish was smoothed over this, completing the look of the luxurious coastal port.

Suakin was the location of a spiteful attack

A decaying building on the coast of the Red Sea.
A building in Suakin, made of porous madrepore rock-coral quarried from coral reef. (Photo Credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP / Getty Images)

In 1264, Suakin became the target of a planned attack. The city’s prosperity had stirred up envy among its rivals, and the governor of Qus, a city situated on the Nile in Egypt, launched an assault. As-Asba’ani, the ruler of Suakin, was forced to flee. Suakin and Aydhab would remain rival port cities for centuries following this event.

Taken over by the Ottomans

The ruins of a building on the coast of the Red Sea, a crane in the background.
Ruined Ottoman coral buildings in the port island city of Suakin, Sudan. (Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Getty Images)

The Ottoman Empire had taken notice of Suakin’s wealth and set its sights to attain it. By 1517, the Ottomans had successfully added the city to the empire. However, their rule over it was fairly loose, as Suakin was essentially allowed to govern itself. The Ottomans did invest in restoring the city’s mosques and fortified walls, but this effort would soon prove to be pointless.

Merchants began to abandon Suakin

The inside of a decaying building, a window near the roof.
Stairs inside a building located in Suakin, Sudan. (Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Getty Images)

As the Portuguese continued to hone their seafaring around Africa, passage through the Red Sea was no longer necessary. Suakin as a port city began to diminish in traffic, and merchants began to feel the squeeze on their businesses. As such, many of them packed their bags and headed elsewhere, abandoning Suakin. This marked the beginning of the city’s decline.

A short-lived slave trade was one last breath for the city

The ruins of a building on a hill of rubble.
The remains of a building located in Suakin, Sudan. (Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Getty Images)

By the 18th and 19th centuries, most of Suakin’s old town had fallen into ruin. The city was struggling to survive, with only one last hope – the slave trade. During the 19th century, Suakin became a core port for the slave trade, with a lot of traffic coming from eastern Africa. This brought new life into the area, but it was ultimately short-lived. As the slave trade dwindled, so too did Suakin.

Britain chose to invest in its neighbor

Two men walking in the street, buildings looming over them.
A photo taken in 1928 of the city of Suakin, situated on the Red Sea Coast of Sudan. (Photo Credit: Bunks / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

During the late 19th and early 20th century, members of the British Army took up temporary residency in Suakin as they led a contingency of the Egyptian Army. Following the defeat of the Mahdist State, the British decided to invest in the development of the new neighboring Port Sudan rather than restore the crumbling buildings and expand the overall size of Suakin. By 1922, all British citizens had abandoned the city.

The coral city fell into disrepair

A run-down street with decaying buildings.
Old buildings in Suakin, Sudan on December 30, 2018. (Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis / Getty Images)

Suakin was left to fall into total disrepair. The white plaster finish that covered the coral walls was never coated in a covering, so they decayed fairly quickly. The brittle madrepore material that was used underneath also crumbled away. Maintaining the buildings in the city was too expensive and extensive. Ultimately, they were left to turn to dust.

It is protected for tourism

A wide white building in the background, a pile of rubble in the foreground.
An old Ottoman building renovated by the Turkish, Red Sea State, in Suakin, Sudan on December 30, 2018. (Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis / Getty Images)

Now, the ruins at Suakin are protected as part of the tourism industry in the area. Ferries between Suakin and the Saudi Arabian coast still operate daily, continuing to provide passage to those on pilgrimages, but the majority of the city remains abandoned.

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In 2018, Suakin was part of a deal that could see it returned to its former glory, as Turkey signed a 99-year lease on the city and intends to restore the ruined island port.