Having travelled far along the centuries-old routes across Sudan and through the Red Sea Hills, taking rest at Shennawi’s Palace was the part of the journey the camel always looked forward to.

Having travelled far along the centuries-old routes across Sudan and through the Red Sea Hills, taking rest at Shennawi’s Palace was the part of the journey the camel always looked forward to. It was here, while gazing into the star-filled night sky, the camel would recount the memories of his travels. What better place to do this than Shennawi’s Palace! The ‘Palace’ was actually a wakala, also known as carvanaserai (caravanserais were roadside inns along major trade routes, that doubled as hubs for the exchange of goods, ideas, and culture), in Suakin. The coral block building had been termed ‘Palace’ by local legend of the building’s 365 bedrooms and ornate construction. In reality, there were not altogether more than 150-200 rooms, yet the Palace was at the time the largest building in Suakin and all of Sudan, also the largest of its type in East Africa.

Shenawi’s Palace

The Palace was built in 1881 by Shennawi Bey, a trader from an ancient Suakin trading family, to accommodate Sudan’s thriving trade. Caravans of between five hundred and one thousand camels brought goods from the interior to Suakin and distributed those arriving by ship. To accommodate these caravans, the Palace provided independent quarters and houses for the merchants across three floors. The roof was used as a sleeping space, the ground level as stabling for the camels and storage space for the merchandise. The complex was formed around a large courtyard, within which up to one hundred camels could be loaded or unloaded at a time. The caravans, leaving from Suakin for the interior about every three months, departed through the wakala’s large ornate gateways while watched by a large crowd, one of the major sites of the town!


The camel reached his eventful arrival and departure from Shennawi’s via one of three major land routes that existed across Sudan: Suakin to Berber; Suakin south to Ethiopia; and a northern route to Egypt. Thus, Suakin was one of the primary ports of this region of the Red Sea since at least the 13th century. The camel would stop along the way at Sudan’s major trade hubs, such as the Funj capital Sennar, Berber and Kassala. Approaching Suakin, while the island town itself has no fresh water source, the caravans made their way to a number of wells close by on the mainland.  It was here that the caravans from the interior stopped before undertaking dealings with the town's merchants and administrative bodies. 

Upon reaching Suakin, hinterland commodities included a vast range of products from all directions, such as sesame seeds and oil, sorghum, honey, butter and animals from Kassala and Gadaref (in the Butana) and the Nile Valley.  The Beja tribes provided animal products, racing camels, cattle and sheep, the highest quality sheep being exported to Egypt... just for show’ (according to Al-Umari).  From Tokkar (Gash delta) came cotton, to be ginned and exported from Suakin.  From Sennar, Kordofan and Darfur came gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, slaves, horses, rhinoceros horn, gum arabic, ebony, musk, tobacco and rubber.  Ethiopia provided coffee. Local fishermen supplied fish, tortoise and seashells, pearls and mother-of-pearl. These products of the hinterland were then shipped by boat from Suakin to various regions around the world.

All manner of items from around the world were exchanged for these items at Suakin. Products arrived to and were distributed from Suakin from Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, neighbouring African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, India and East Asia. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 then opened Sudan’s trade to Europe, these new imports including goods such as sugar, candles, soap, rice, cloth from Manchester, and cutlery and metal goods from Birmingham.  With this increase of European goods, more and more goods passed through Suakin instead of going through Egypt. To deal with these goods, ships would come up close to the shore around Suakin’s island city. They were then laden by laying a plank from them to the merchant's warehouses, to the doors of which the Galleys are fastened with their beaks stretching over the streets that serve as bridges.

A complex management structure oversaw this extensive trade in Suakin. The Muhafez (Governor) was in charge of trade, marketing, export and tax collection.  He and the soldiers lived on Suakin’s Island Town. The Artiga Amir was responsible for the mainland town (Geyf) and the rest of the town. He supervised markets, taxes and customs, and helped mediate disputes between tribes.  The Funj ensured protection and security of trade camel caravan routes to and from the interior by establishing treaties and agreements with most tribal sheikhs to protect the caravans along the trade routes.


It is important to note that the camel not only transported these extensive trade goods across Sudan, but also was sometimes accompanied by and even carried travelers from around the world. These travelers were pilgrims, Muslims bound for Mecca and Medina and Christians bound for Jerusalem. These pilgrims travelled great distances before embarking on their sea voyage from Suakin, Suakin having long established itself as a significant pilgrimage port from at least the 12th century AD.

African pilgrims from West Africa, the Nile Valley and Ethiopia could meet fellow pilgrims in Suakin from as far away as China! These pilgrims travelled with caravans mostly for protection, with trade caravans or in dedicated pilgrimage caravans, along routes that effectively followed those of trade. Pilgrims also played a role in the goods trade. Goods would be exchanged or, at minimum, observed, discussed and carried with returning pilgrims, including even such mundane matters as food preparation techniques.  Pilgrims also were not immune to trading in raw and manufactured goods and even slaves, often due to financial necessity.  Traders themselves could combine business with pilgrimage, as could political and diplomatic envoys. 

Following an already arduous journey, upon reaching Suakin the pilgrims had to undergo a further period of quarantine, located opposite Suakin’s island town on ‘Quarantine Island’, before embarking on their ocean voyage. Travel across the Red Sea was risky, in small boats of various kinds, often filled or over-filled to capacity. Voyages across the Red Sea by boat were separately organised for dedicated pilgrim traffic at individual ports, such as Suakin, and trading vessels also accepted passengers to augment their income.  Consequently, inland hajj and Christian pilgrims passing through the African coast of the Red Sea travelled both by land and by sea, intersecting at specific ports primarily dedicated to trade. 

What an experience!

Indeed, the camel had truly experienced so much in his lifetime! However, this would sadly be one of his final memories of the Palace and the great journeys across Sudan to reach there. Shennawi Bey's enterprise was visionary, but it was hardly possible for him to foresee the revolutionary nature of industrial influence with its railways, steamships and modern dockyards. Shennawi’s Palace was thus put to its true purpose for only ten years, the arrival of the railway meaning the camel caravans no longer came this way and the building rarely used. However, rather than feel melancholy about the end of an era, the camel looked forward to enjoying a quieter life. Also, to the beginning of another chapter in Sudan’s history, that of the Sudan Railway!

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