Once a thriving port filled with bustling commerce and stunning architecture, the abandoned town of Suakin, Sudan now sits as a crumbling remnant of its past. This town was once known as one of the largest hubs of the ivory trade and a popular destination for merchants, pilgrims, and international travelers alike.
Now, however, its streets lie abandoned, which begs the question – what happened to this once-thriving town? Below, we’ll unravel the truth about what really happened to the ghost town of Suakin.
Suakin at its Peak: A Glimpse at the Thriving Trade Hub
The earliest written records of Suakin date back to the 10th century, when it was still sometimes referred to as Sawakin or Sawwan. Some historians speculate that it was referred to before the 10th century by Ptolemy, who referred to it as the “Port of Good Hope.”
The area lay low until the 13th century, when Suakin’s ruler, Ala al-Din al-Asba’ani, stole the goods of local deceased merchants. Upon hearing this, the governor of Qus, along with the support of Aydhab, attacked Suakin and started a century-long battle between the two.
It was after this that the small settlement began to grow significantly around the 14th century, due to the Crusades and Mongol invasions . Venetian merchants that were driven out landed in Suakin and set up shop, turning the small settlement into a new trading center. In the coming centuries, Suakin was seized by various regions including the Adal Sultanate, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire , the latter of which helped repair some of Suakin’s architectural battle scars.
One of many shells of ruined buildings in Suakin ( Marc LOBJOY /Adobe Stock)
At its peak, Suakin was a bustling hub of commerce that attracted merchants, pilgrims, and travelers from across the world. The town was home to over 300 buildings including private homes, banks, mosques, trading offices, and other private and public buildings of varying luxury.
During the 19th century, it served as a major center for the ivory trade as well as a hub for Islamic pilgrimage traffic to Mecca. Many of Suakin’s other visitors were drawn in by its architecture, which included its unique coral stone buildings built by Turkish architects and engineers during the Ottoman period.
A time of economic boom in the seaport of Suakin. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez /Adobe Stock)
The ivory trade played a significant role in the growth and prosperity of Suakin as a port city. Suakin’s ivory was harvested from elephants in the nearby hinterlands and exported to markets around the world, making it a primary spot for this product. Trading ivory brought wealth to Suakin and supported the growth of a thriving commercial sector, including merchants, traders, and artisans who produced a wide range of goods for both local and international markets.
Though the brutal overhunting of elephants eventually led to Suakin’s downfall, the initial surplus of ivory attracted a large number of merchants and travelers to the city. This increased trade boosted its economy and supported the development of other industries, such as shipbuilding, agriculture, and fishing. Suakin’s popularity resulted in significant cultural diversity over time, as traders from different regions and ethnic groups settled in the city, bringing with them their customs, languages, and religions.
The Devastating Fall of Suakin’s Ivory Trade
Suakin’s grip on the ivory trade weakened over time. After a few decades, getting ivory from Suakin was no longer as easy or popular as it once was. The dark underbelly of Suakin’s thriving trade hub began to show through the cracks of its crumbling foundation.
One major factor in Suakin’s downfall was the decline in elephant populations, as the high demand for ivory put a serious strain on elephant herds. Many elephant species quickly became endangered, and some were unable to build their populations again. When the demand for ivory became overwhelming, the number of elephants slaughtered for ivory mounted exponentially. Overhunting for trade purposes quickly reduced the number of elephants living in the region. Fewer elephants meant less ivory, which made it more difficult for traders to obtain the quantities of ivory needed to sustain their businesses.
Another factor was the rise of alternative sources of ivory, such as from elephants in East Africa, which became more accessible with the expansion of European colonial empires in the region. This led to a shift in the center of the ivory trade from Suakin to other ports on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, such as Mombasa and Zanzibar, which had better access to East African ivory.
Additionally, the introduction of new materials, such as plastics and synthetic substitutes, reduced the demand for ivory. These materials at times were cheaper and more accessible than true ivory, which further shrunk the market for Suakin’s ivory traders.
The decline of the ivory trade had a ripple effect on the city’s economy. As the ivory trade struggled, so did Suakin’s other industries, such as shipbuilding and agriculture. Soon, many of Suakin’s people struggled to make ends meet.
Door of a ruined Ottoman building. Suakin is a town full of crumbling buildings and rubble. ( knovakov/Adobe Stock)
The Final Nail in Suakin’s Coffin: The Suez Canal
Declining elephant populations weren’t the only reason Suakin was eventually abandoned. The construction of the Suez Canal also had a profound impact on the town of Suakin.
While Suakin was once an essential trade center along the coast of the Red Sea, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly reduced the importance of Red Sea ports like Suakin. The canal provided a faster and more direct route between Europe and Asia, by passing the Red Sea and making it possible for ships to reach their destinations more quickly and efficiently.
As a result, trade shifted away from Suakin to other ports on the Suez Canal, such as Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez. The decline of trade through Suakin had a significant impact on the city’s economy, as the reduction in shipping traffic led to a decline in business and commerce. Many of the merchants, traders, and artisans who had made Suakin their home had to move to other cities in search of better economic opportunities.
Additionally, the construction of the Suez Canal brought new political and military concerns to the region, as the canal became a major strategic asset for the European powers and a source of tension between the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. This pushed more families to flee from Suakin in pursuit of a home less threatened by political and military powers.
The Legacy of Suakin Preserved Through Time
Once a bustling hub of commerce and culture, Suakin now stands as a forgotten relic of a bygone era. Suakin is a fascinating destination for those interested in history and architecture, as despite its decline, its impressive coral stone buildings and monuments remain.
Though Suakin’s streets today are silent and untrodden, its rich history and unique architecture offer travelers and historians alike a fascinating glimpse into Suakin’s former glory. Despite its decline, Suakin still holds historical and cultural significance for many.
In recent years, there have been efforts to preserve and restore some of the city’s historic buildings and monuments, but much of Suakin still remains in a state of disrepair. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting destination for visitors interested in the history and architecture of the Red Sea coast, as well as for those interested in exploring one of the world’s most fascinating ghost towns.
Top image: Old ruined Ottoman harbor of Suakin, Sudan. Source: robnaw/AdobeStock
By Lex Leigh