One of the most known stories of Suakin's name relates to the name ‘Sawwa Ginn’ which translates to ‘together with the jinn’ or ‘the jinn did it.’ 

The origins of the name Suakin, Sudan’s historic port town, is traced back through several theories and stories. The town's name in Arabic means ‘dwellers’ or ‘stillness’ suggesting haunting by jinn (also referred to as spirits or demons). One theory is the town's name, therefore, derives from sawajin, a fanciful plural of the Arabic sijn or prison. According to legend, Suakin served as a prison to which the prophet Sulaymān ibn Dāwūd, known in the Old Testament as King Solomon, banished demons. Conversely, the Beja (a language spoken on the western coast of Sudan by the Beja people) name for Suakin was U Suk, possibly from the Arabic word suq, meaning market. In Beja, the locative case for this is isukib, from where ‘Suakin’ might have derived.

One of the most known stories of Suakin's name relates to the name ‘Sawwa Ginn’ which translates to ‘together with the jinn’ or ‘the jinn did it.’ According to the story, the King of Ethiopia sent seven virgins as a gift to the King of Egypt; the women were accompanied on their journey by a eunuch and guards. On their way to Egypt, they stopped at Suakin. The women spent the night on what appeared to be an empty island, while the eunuch and guards rested on the mainland. After arriving in Egypt, the King discovered that all the women, who had supposedly arrived as virgins, were pregnant. The women explained that human beings were not responsible for their pregnancies, but that during that night on Suakin island seven jinns had visited them. In order not to offend the King of Ethiopia, the King of Egypt sent the women back to Suakin with food and clothing. Later, the offspring of these women colonised Suakin’s island and mainland areas, the site of what was to be one of Sudan’s most significant and enthralling histories.

Further to the stories of Suakin’s beginnings, the city’s earliest history on the written record dates to the Christian kingdoms of Sudan, when in the 10th to 12th centuries Suakin was a trading port within the Red Sea. However, it is also possible that an even earlier Roman port called ‘Evangelon Portus’ by Ptolemy (AD 121-51) may have existed in the same location. Suakin went on to become Sudan’s major port and one of the largest ports on the Red Sea. Not only was it a major hub of trade but it also provided the gateway between Eastern Africa and Jeddah on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, the town facilitated a unique crossroads of Islamic, Sudanese, Ottoman, and other cultures. Records show that by the late 15th century trade was taking place with Indian and Venetian traders, and in the 16th century the port was reported as having well-built houses made of coral blocks.

At one time, Suakin’s island town accommodated up to 300 buildings. These structures included privately owned residences of prominent merchants, traders, the Governor, and other officials. There were also trading offices, stores, and public buildings such as mosques, banks, and shops. Suakin’s houses even included that of the Mahdist figure Osman Digna, living for a time on Suakin’s island, his tomb site now nearby in the Red Sea Hills town of Erkowit. The nearby mainland, later joined to the island by a manmade causeway, accommodated a mixture of residences and public buildings. The town was populated by merchants, traders, and the local nomadic tribe of the Hadendowah. Suakin’s beautiful 15th-20th century coral block buildings became famous around the world, often termed the ‘Venice of Africa’.

Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Suakin’s prosperity as a port was short-lived. The harbour entrance was considered too narrow and dangerous for large vessels, the water supply was inadequate. Thus, a new port 30 miles north, Port Sudan, opened in 1909. By 1922, Suakin was mostly abandoned. The beautiful coral buildings quickly deteriorated once no longer inhabited and maintained. However, a new Suakin port opened in the 1990s and a new town grew around the historic centre.

While Suakin’s old coral-built town is now mostly in ruins, it remains shrouded in legend and myth. It is said that the ruins are to this day still inhabited by descendants of the virgins, even the jinn! Significant religious, trade, and day-to-day activities of the historic town continue to the present. Populating the town as much as the people are the famous ‘demonic’ Suakin cats, believed to be possessed by spirits of the jinn who dwell within the waters of the Red Sea.

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