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The Origin and Development of the Sudanese Ports (‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘, Sawâkin)in the early Islamic Period1

Origine et développement des ports soudanais (‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘, Sawâkin) aux premiers siècles de l’Islam
Tim Power
p. 92-110


Avant que la mobilité et les échanges liés au /hajj et au commerce avec l’Inde ne s’imposent de manière prédominante dans la mer Rouge médiévale à partir du xie siècle, les ports soudanais connurent une première phase d’activité (632-969), largement ignorée des historiens. Etablis dès les premiers temps de l’Islam, les ports de ‘Aydhâb et de Bâ/di‘ eurent pour première fonction d’appuyer la conquête islamique et de contenir la puissance d’Aksûm en Ethiopie. Les échanges marchands ne se développèrent que lentement. Dans la seconde moitié du viiie siècle se mit en place la traite des esclaves africains, avant que la « ruée vers l’or » du ixe siècle n’accélère la croissance des ports soudanais, entraînant notamment l’établissement du port de Sawâkin.

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 ‘India Trade’ & /hajj Traffic

  • 1 The author is a final-year D.Phil. student at the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material (...)
  • 2  Couyat, 1911; Murray, 1926a; Paul, 1955; Gibb, 1960.
  • 3  Bloss, 1936; Greenlaw, 1995.

1The medieval ports of ‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘ and Sawâkin are situated along the Red Sea coast of the modern state of Sudan (see Map 1), and traditionally said to have been established in the early Islamic period. This period has, however, largely been obscured by the later medieval fame which certain of these ports attained, leaving the origin and early development of the Sudanese ports little studied and much misunderstood. There has been a tendency in the secondary literature on particularly ‘Aydhâb2 and Sawâkin3 to unduly emphasise the importance of the ‘India trade’ and /hajj traffic to these ports.

  • 4  Facey, 2004, p. 7.
  • 5  e.g. Lewis, 1950; Horton, 1987; Bianquis, 1998.

2The origins and early development of the Sudanese ports are vaguely thought to lie – at least in part – in the ‘India trade’, so famously well attested by the later Cairo Geniza [fl. 1002-1266]. The Red Sea is accordingly reduced to a corridor of trade between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, “a sea on the way to somewhere else”, as Will Facey neatly puts it4. Maritime commerce has tended to be equated rather crudely with the transit trade in luxury commodities originating in India and China, and since this largely passed through the Persian Gulf in the early Islamic period, it is further assumed that there can have been no significant maritime trade in the Red Sea at that time. Almost every account instead takes as its starting point the rise of the Fâ/timids in the tenth century, with no detailed discussion of the first three centuries of Muslim hegemony in the Red Sea5. Yet Ibn Khurradâdhbih’s [wr. 846] famous account of the Râdhânite merchants makes it clear that the ‘India trade’ was active over a century before the Fâ/timid conquest:

  • 6  Ibn Khurradâdhbih, p. 153; trans. Silverstein, 2007, p. 96.

3“They sail from Firanja on the Western Sea, docking at al-Farâma. (From there) they carry their merchandise on their backs to al-Qulzum, between them it is twenty-five parasangs. Then they sail on the Eastern Sea from al-Qulzum to al-Jâr and Jedda, passing from there to al-Sind, al-Hind and al-Sîn. From al-Sîn, they bring back musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon, and other commodities that are brought back from those parts. They return to al-Qulzum, they carry (their goods) to al-Farâma whence they sail on the Western Sea”6.

4That the Sudanese ports are not at all mentioned by Ibn Khurradâdhbih most likely suggests that they were not in the ninth century renowned ports of the ‘India trade’, which in turn strongly implies that this trade can have played little or no part in the origin of ‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘ and Sawâkin.

  • 7  Horton, 1987, p. 350.
  • 8  e.g. Muir, 1924, p. 205.
  • 9 al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, p. 334; OS, p. 78. (A number of relevant Arabic sources may be found in English (...)
  • 10  al-Maqrîzî, Khitat, i, p. 299.

5The other commonly encountered assumption in the secondary literature is that the Sudanese ports were established to serve the /hajj traffic. For instance, Mark Horton writes that shortly following the birth of Islam, “ports sprang up to transport pilgrims from the newly converted countries. Places such as ‘Aydhâb and Sawâkin on the African side (of the Red Sea)... grew prosperous in this new trade in people”7. Much has been made of the location of ‘Aydhâb just across the water from Jedda, supposedly resulting from a spurious Arab fear of long sea voyages8. Sir Hamilton Gibb, meanwhile, found in al-Ya‘qûbî evidence for the ninth-century /hajj traffic of ‘Aydhâb, though in fact the passage reads: “From ‘Aydhâb people sail to Mecca, the /Hijâz and Yemen, and from there traders ship their gold dust, ivory and other goods”9. In other words, al-Ya‘qûbî says nothing explicit about the /hajj and the general context instead appears to concern mercantile voyages. Of course ‘Aydhâb would most likely have been used by pilgrims living in Assouan and the Upper Sa‘îd, but the /hajj certainly did not comprise economic mainstay of the port. Indeed, al-Maqrîzî [d. 1442] explicitly states that the Egyptian /hajj caravan only began to use the route through ‘Aydhâb in the year 105810 – fearing Seljûk reprisals following a failed Fâ/timid-backed coup in Baghdâd – which would rather tend to preclude maritime /hajj traffic on a commercial scale in the early Islamic period.

6Why, then, have the ‘India trade’ and /hajj traffic dominated discussion as to the origins of the Sudanese ports? Part of the blame must be attributed to the normative position which the Cairo Geniza has come to hold in studies of Red Sea commerce and communications. The wealth of detail supplied paints an especially vivid picture of the ‘India trade,’ as indeed it well might, given that the Fâ/timid period is generally agreed to represent a peak in pre-modern activity in the Red Sea. Similarly ample Maghribiî pilgrimage literature and the abundant writings of Mamlûk encyclopaedists coincided with the Seljûk and Crusader presence in Bilâd al-Shâm, which redirected /hajj traffic away from the Darb al-/hajj through ‘Aydhâb between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The main artery of North African pilgrimage therefore ran through the Red Sea. The ‘India trade’ and /hajj traffic, whilst certainly important in the high Middle Ages, have perhaps therefore tended to eclipse other economic activities through a combination of evidential bias and historical coincidence. The application of this normative paradigm to the early Islamic period can demonstrably be shown not to work, and therefore represents an inappropriate retrospective projection drawn from the world of the Cairo Geniza and Mamlûk encyclopaedists.

  • 11  Nawata, 1997.

7Before proceeding, it should be mentioned that a couple of scholars have attempted to move beyond the ‘India trade’ and /hajj traffic in their discussion of the Sudanese ports. Hiroshi Nawata’s otherwise excellent paper – “An Exported Item from Bâ/di‘ on the Western Red Sea Coast in the Eighth Century: Historical and Ethnographic Studies on Operculum as Incense and Perfume”11 – unfortunately stumbles over the date. Nawata read Yâqût’s [d. 1229] entry for Bâ/di‘, wherein the flight of the Umayyad princes is first described followed then by an account of the port’s commerce, and seems to have assumed that the section on commerce reflects the mid eighth-century scene. However, Yâqût is notorious for drawing uncritically upon a wide chronological range of evidence with no regard for context; Ibn Qalâqis [d. 1170 in ‘Aydhâb] is quoted alongside the eighth century tradition, for instance. The information on commerce could, therefore, have originated in any particular period between the eighth and twelfth centuries, or even represent a mongrelised synthesis of a number of diverse traditions. The broader historical context would suggest that it pertains to the period of commercial efflorescence between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

  • 12 /Hasan, 1967, pp. 42-89.

8More particularly, Yûsuf /Hasan’s The Arabs and the Sudan from the Seventh to the Early Sixteenth Century devotes a substantial chapter to ‘Arab economic activities in the medieval Sudan, c. 854-1494’12. His account is the first to explore the economic significance of the slave trade and gold mining to the Sudanese ports, and though the focus is on the later Middle Ages, it makes an important contribution to the study of the early Islamic Sudan and wider Red Sea basin. For all that, his treatment of the subject matter comprises an overview and not in-depth analysis, and moreover the beginnings of the ports receive no more than a brief mention. The result is that the origin and early development of the Sudanese ports have remained but dimly perceived and unfairly neglected in the secondary literature.

Origins in the Muslim Conquests

  • 13 Bent, 1896; Murray, 1926; /Hakim et alii, 1981; Kawatoko, 1993a.
  • 14  Crowfoot, 1911; Hebbert, 1935; Kawatoko, 1993a; 1993b; Sidebothamet al, 2006.

9In 628 the Prophet finally occupied Mecca, and shortly thereafter first the Persian satrap of Sanaa and then, in 630, the bishop of Ayla accepted his suzerainty, with the effect that Muslim authority was established along the entire eastern littoral of the Red Sea. This opened the way for a flurry of Muslim activity in the Red Sea over the following two decades, including the establishment of ‘Aydhâb in the reign of Abû Bakr [632-34] and Bâ/di‘ in the year 637. That amongst the first Red Sea ports established by the emerging Muslim polity were along the coast of the modern state of Sudan does not, at first, appear to make much sense. The very early foundation dates and association with the Rashîdûn Caliphs, meanwhile, invites suspicion. Besides which, these ports are unlikely to have been associated with maritime commerce given that there can have been little demand for the traditional exports of the Sudan – slaves and gold – during the conquest period, and indeed there is virtually no evidence for trade in the Red Sea from the late sixth to mid eighth centuries. Archaeology cannot be of any assistance, given that the work on the Sudanese ports has been intermittent and imperfectly published, and that none of the various excavations at ‘Aydhâb13 and the site of al-Rîh commonly identified with Bâ/di‘14 reached the earliest levels. Any discussion of the early history of these sites must therefore deal squarely with the historiography.

  • 15  al-Bakrî, p. 167-68; OS, p. 244.

10Accordingly, al-Bakrî [d. 1094] writes of ‘Aydhâb that “it is inhabited by a tribe called Banû Bûlus: it is said that these belong to the Beja, but others claim that they are related to the Arabs and that they actually are the Marâziyya, a section of which was expelled by Abû Bakr al-Siddîq”15. Here the historiography turns about lineage, whereby a medieval Beja tribe attempted to lay claim to an Arab descent rooted in the golden age of the Rashîdûn, downplaying their African and pagan origins. And yet it seems strange that, if the Banû Bûlus were so concerned as to doctor their lineage, they should choose to claim descent from an Arab group so undesirable as to be deported, unless of course the expulsion of the Marâziyya was in some way common knowledge.

  • 16  al-Wâqidî, i, p. 2379-80; OS, p. 244.

11As for Bâ/di‘, al-/Tabarî [d. 923] records a cursory note on the authority of al-Wâqidî: “In this year (i.e. 637 AD) Abû Mihjân al-Thaqafî went to Bâ/di‘”16. Here the historiographic weight of al-Wâqidî [d. 823] needs to be taken into account. His reliability has been the subject of often vociferous debates, both amongst medieval Arab historians and modern academics, and he was repeatedly upbraided – apparently even in his lifetime – for his methodological ‘weakness’ (da‘f). On the other hand, al-Wâqidî is distinguished by being considerably closer to the events he purports to describe than the vast majority of writers in Arabic, whilst the Fihrist makes it abundantly clear that he wrote widely and had catholic interests, even writing a Futû/h al-Bahnasâ’ – on the conquest of the Egyptian provincial capital Oxyrhynchus. Just such an individual might be imagined to have picked up information on the origins of an obscure African port.

  • 17  16:14; cited by Crone, 2005.
  • 18  Murray, 1926b; Power, 2008.
  • 19 Ibn Is/hâq, pp. 146-50; al-/Tabarî, i, pp. 1181-2.
  • 20  al-Azraqî, i, pp.107-110; Cresswell & Allan, 1989, pp. 3-4.
  • 21  Pipes, 1980, p. 88.
  • 22  Cf.Trimingham, 1952; Ullendorf, 1960; Munro-Hay, 1989; Pankhurst, 2004.

12Historiography does not, therefore, help to settle the matter. Yet when the early foundation dates for the Sudanese ports are put into their historical context, some circumstantial support for the early foundation dates can be mustered. Even before the conquests, the Quranic pagans were familiar with the Red Sea, when God “made the sea subservient to you so that you may eat of it tender meat and so that you may extract from it ornaments that you wear”17. Indeed, a sixth-century sedentary Arab presence near the great Graeco-Roman emporium of Berenike has been identified at Shenshef, demonstrating that the pre-Islamic Arabs were no strangers to the African shore of the Red Sea18. Moreover a first – maritime – hijra to Ethiopia is said to have set sail from al-Shu‘ayba in 615, with most muhâjirûn returning in 622 and a second wave in 62819. Other early maritime contacts with Ethiopia are recorded in the Islamic historical tradition, most famously the Ethiopian ship wrecked at al-Shu‘ayba, the beams of which were used to re-build the Ka‘ba in 608 under the direction of an Ethiopian ‘architect’ named Bâqûm, which is to say Enbâqôm in Ge’ez20. As has been shown, Ethiopian slaves were well integrated into pre-Islamic /Hijâzî society – the mother of ‘Amr b. al-‘Âs was one such21 – and references to Ethiopia, Ethiopians and Ethiopian material culture repeatedly appear in Jâhiliyya poetry22. Clearly, the /Hijâz in general and al-Shu‘ayba in particular enjoyed close commercial contacts with Ethiopia, and the evidence indicates that the Arabs were not only familiar with the sea and sea-faring, but regular visitors to the African Red Sea littoral.

  • 23  al-Wâqidî, i, p. 983.
  • 24 al-/Tabarî, i, p. 2595.
  • 25 /Hasan, 1967, p. 30.
  • 26  Anfray, 1974, p. 753.

13A souring of this hitherto profitable interaction between the /Hijâz and Ethiopia may be detected from 630. Al-Wâqidî writes that in that year “news reached the Messenger of God that people from Ethiopia were seen by the people of al-Shu‘ayba – a port in the district of Mecca – in ships […] so he dispatched ‘Alqama b. Mujazziz al-Mudlijâ at the head of 300 men”23. That the heart of the nascent Muslim polity was effectively in striking distance of a yet powerful Ethiopia was clearly unacceptable. Though in the account of al-Wâqidî the expedition of Ibn Mujazziz appears to directly follow the encounter off al-Shu‘ayba, so that it is included amongst the campaigns of the Prophet, al-/Tabarî alternatively records for the year 641 AD: “ ‘Umar dispatched Ibn Mujazziz to Ethiopia by sea”24. Either a later expedition has been attributed to the initiative of the Prophet as an exercise in hagiography, or else al-/Tabarî has conflated two separate expeditions apparently under the same leadership. He further quotes another source mentioning a “raid of the blacks in the sea in the year 31 (i.e. 651)”, which together with the account of al-Wâqidî suggests a pattern of tit-for-tat maritime expeditions over twenty years. The issue has not been helped by the secondary literature and interpretation of archaeologists, with first Yûsuf /Hasan25 writing on an Ethiopian attack on Jedda answered by a Muslim sacking of Adulis, and then Anfray26 attributing the thick ash layer marking final occupation at the great Ethiopian entrepôt of Adulis to ‘Umar’s expedition. At any rate, it seems that maritime conflict broke out between the Muslims and Ethiopia in the decade 630-41, and that this provides the direct context for the establishment of Bâ/di‘.

  • 27  Mayerson, 1964, pp. 169-77.
  • 28  Hoyland, 1997, p. 574-90.

14Indeed, the foundation of ‘Aydhâb and Bâ/di‘ on the African littoral facing the /Hijâz appears to have had a strategic role in contesting Ethiopian hegemony in the southern Red Sea. It was customary in the Graeco-Roman period for north-south maritime traffic to follow the African coast, never more so than during the Aksumite hegemony, when direct communications between Egypt and Ethiopia were important to both countries. The position of the Sudanese ports would have severed communications between these two key allies, and prevented the kind of maritime Byzantine alliance which facilitated the Aksumite invasion of /Himyarite Yemen. Moreover, Bâ/di‘ is located at a medial position between Jedda and Adulis, and may even have been established in preparation for the 641 expedition against Ethiopia. This would be in keeping with the pattern of Muslim military strategy suggested by the conquests of Syria and Egypt, whereby a strong forward position was first established in the years preceding invasion – Ayla in the case of Syria27 and Gaza in that of Egypt28 – from where the Muslims might extort tribute and launch raids.

  • 29  Sidebotham et alii, 2006, p. 11-13.
  • 30  Crowfoot, 1911, pp. 534-37; plate reproduced as inset of the map.

15An alternative explanation for the situation of Bâ/di‘ is that an Aksumite port already existed in the vicinity. On the mainland opposite the island site of modern al-Rîh, commonly identified with Bâ/di‘, in situ multi-period remains have been found. Walls built of ashlars and scattered fluted column drums were recorded at the modern village of Adobana, supporting identification with the Graeco-Roman port of Ptolemais Theron29. Extensive cemeteries were further noted, including rectilinear tombs carefully constructed with ashlar blocks, one of which appears to have been associated with a free-standing monolithic orthostat, 2.20 m x 0.60 m x 0.25 m. This may or may not be the same standing stone described by Crowfoot30, almost a century earlier, at the ridge of ‘Isa Deraheib outside of the modern town of Aqiq. Crowfoot records three more stones fallen on their sides, and interprets them as Aksumite mortuary stelae. Certainly there is a superficial resemblance. However, Sidebotham’s brief survey noted only surface scatters of Islamic pottery (period?), so that until further work is done at the site Crowfoot’s claim for an Aksumite occupation at Aqiq cannot be verified. It is perfectly plausible, though, given the extent of Aksumite activity in the Late Antique Red Sea, and would neatly account for the apparent strategic imperative to establish on the island of al-Rîh a Muslim port, which could effectively blockade Aksumite Aqiq.

  • 31 al-/Tabarî, i, pp. 1569-71.
  • 32 ibid., i, p. 1570.
  • 33  ibid., i, p. 1720.
  • 34 Ibn Is/hâq, p. 155.
  • 35 ibid., p. 235.
  • 36  ii, p. 133.
  • 37  cited by Trimingham, 1952, p 46.

16The Islamic historical tradition does not deal with the conflict with Ethiopia in much detail, perhaps because the Arabs were at first unable to wrest hegemony of the southern Red Sea from the Ethiopians. Victories appear to have been rare. The putative capture of the Dahlak islands by the Muslims in 702 may be referred to in the frescoes of Qu/sayr  ‘Amra, where the Negus of Ethiopia is depicted as one of the world’s great kings. Much more attention is paid to Ethiopia in /hadîth literature. Ibn Is/hâq’s biography of the Prophet includes much on Ethiopia, notably his birth in the Ethiopian invasion during the ‘Year of the Elephant’ and the first hijra to Ethiopia. Indeed, the Islamic historical tradition records that the Prophet wrote to the Negus31, who is said to have converted to Islam and sent his son to live in Madina32, so that the Prophet was mourned his death33 and prayed for his soul34. He appointed the Ethiopian Bilâl b. Rabâ/h as mu’adhdhin, and his very an‘aza was a gift from the Negus of Ethiopia35. His affection was such that Abû Dâwûd36 records a ‘sound’ /hadîth: “Leave the Ethiopians in peace so long as they do not take the offensive”37. Such traditions are remarkable precisely because they effectively serve to release the Muslims from the obligation of jihâd against Ethiopia, which may be taken as an attempt to obscure the memory of a heavily invested defeat.

  • 38  ‘Athamina, 1998.

17By the late seventh century, notable Arabs in the /Hijâz were surrounding themselves with black militias, as explored by Khalil ‘Athamina in his paper on “Non-Arab Regiments and Private Militias during the Umayyâd Period”38. These were possibly black slaves captured in the course of raids to the coast of Ethiopia, or else Ethiopian mercenaries looking for an employer following the collapse of the Aksumite empire. Accordingly, an Ethiopian corps fought for Ibn al-Zubayr during the siege of Mecca, Mu‘âwiya’s governor of Medina owned a black (Sûdânî) private militia, and the army of Yazîd b. Mu‘âwiya dispatched to Medina in 682-3 included numerous black troops. Al-Jâ/hi/z relates that nine months after the campaign, 800 babies were born of Sûdânî fathers and dubbed the awlâd al-/harra. Of course ‘Sûdânî’ does not necessarily mean ‘Ethiopian,’ and indeed the Nubian Baq/t treaty makes mention of an annual tribute of slaves from 651. However, the Muslims were repeatedly defeated by the Nubian kingdom of al-Maqurrâ and the Nubian slave trade cannot be documented before the mid eighth century. It seems more likely, therefore, that the Sûdânî troops attested in the late seventh-century /Hijâz were a product of the conflict with Ethiopia, either as slaves taken in raids or through the recruitment of defectors.

  • 39 Ibn /Hawqal, p. 50; OS, p. 152.
  • 40  al-Kindî, p. 11.

18Just as Bâ/di‘ seems to have functioned as a forward base against Ethiopia, ‘Aydhâb may have been similarly conceived for Egypt. The peculiar geography of the Nile Valley and Delta prompted the most ancient Egyptians to refer to their Pharaoh as ‘Lord of the Two Lands’, a division more or less translated into the Diocletianic provinces of Aegyptus Jovia and Aegyptus Heraclia, and preserved in the Arabic /Hawf and Sa‘îd. However, the conquest of Egypt has generally been treated as a single linear march up the Nile, which it clearly was not: Ibn /Hawqal [wr. 977] states that “‘Abd Allâh b. Abî Sar/h, coming by seafrom the /Hijâz, conquered the town of Assouan”39. Presumably, he travelled via ‘Aydhâb along a sea-lane and caravan route well attested from the ninth century on. Indeed, from the very outset of the conquest of Egypt, Assouan and the Sa‘îd formed a governorate quite distinct from that of al-Fu/s/tâ/t and the /Hawf; al-Kindî clearly states that ‘Amr was appointed governor “over all of Egypt except the Sa‘îd, for ‘Umar appointed Ibn Abî Sar/h as governor of the Sa‘îd”40. This southern Egyptian province would have required its own maritime communication lines with Medina, so that seventh-century ‘Aydhâb was to Assouan what al-Qulzum was to al-Fu/s/tâ/t.

  • 41  Hoyland, 2006, p. 398.
  • 42  Jones, 1998.
  • 43  Sijpesteijn, 2007, p. 187.

19Non-Muslim sources contemporary with the conquest period record that letters were sent by the amîr of Egypt to ‘king’ ‘Umar41, perhaps of a type similar to the Arabic papyri from the 640s which utilise a standardised script and system of diacritical marks42, and maybe already conveyed along the chain of ‘postal stations’ (stablon) attested in the papyri from the late 660s43. This level of administrative organisation and bureaucratic sophistication therefore would seem to broadly bear out the testimony of the Islamic historical tradition for the early foundation dates of ‘Aydhâb, and invites speculation on the significance of this Red Sea port in the conquest and colonisation of Upper Egypt.

  • 44  e.g. Munro-Hay, 1991, pp. 94-103.
  • 45  Power, 2009.
  • 46  Gibbon, 1776-1787, iv, Chap. 47, Pt. 5.

20The developmental dynamic of the communications infrastructure in the seventh-century Red Sea was as such overwhelmingly informed by the Arab contestation of regional hegemony between 628-685. A fair case can be made for both ‘Aydhâb and Bâ/di‘ as strategically significant bridgeheads supporting naval expeditions to Egypt and Ethiopia. In particular, the establishment of the early Muslim ports of the Sudan goes some way to addressing the enigma of the disappearance of Aksum. Whilst traditional accounts44 certainly do speculate on the impact of the rise of Islam, they tend to focus on the effects of economic isolation caused by the conquest of Egypt, so that the establishment of Muslim ports along the Sudanese littoral has hitherto found no place in this literature. I have explored the expansion and retreat of Aksumite hegemony in the Red Sea basin at greater length in my forthcoming doctoral dissertation45, and though neither space nor context allows the inclusion of this material here, the Sudanese ports certainly seem to have played a part in the mysterious death of Aksumite Ethiopia. As Gibbon puts it with irresistible panache, “encompassed on all sides by enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten”46.

The Eighth-Century Slave Trade

21Evidence for a commercial function for the Sudanese ports only appears in the mid eighth century, when the defeated Marwânids fled to Medina via Bâ/di‘. Their route took them across the Eastern Desert of Sudan from Dongola, suggesting that there was already an established caravan route and sea-lane linking Nubia with the /Hijâz. Indeed, Ibn Sulaym al-Aswânî [fl. 975] – whose Kitâb Akhbâr al-Nûba provides the earliest ‘iyân available for this region – explicitly states of this route:

  • 47  al-Maqrîzî, Khi/ta/t, ii, p. 258; OS, p. 608.

22“From this place (i.e. Berber, near the junction of the Nile and Atbara) begins the road leading to Sawâkin, Bâ/di‘, Dahlak and the islands of the Red Sea. The Umayyads who escaped death by fleeing to Nubia passed along these roads.”47.

  • 48  Welsby, 2002, pp. 204-5.

23Clearly, however, the traffic of these roads must have consisted of something rather more substantial than fleeing Umayyad princelings, though the Arabic sources are silent as to exactly what this may have been in the eighth century. Derek Welsby, in his discussion of the economy and foreign contacts of The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia48, observes that the trade goods recorded in ninth- and tenth-century Arabic accounts are essentially unchanged from those listed in the Annals of Thutmose III [1479-1425 BC], namely cattle, gold, slaves, ivory, ebony and harvests. Unfortunately, the only evidence bearing on the commodities passing through the Eastern Desert of Sudan and its ports in the eighth century is rather oblique, with only the slave trade comparatively well evidenced for this period.

  • 49  Bell, 1913, no1435.
  • 50  al-Nuwayrî, fol. 113 r; OS, p. 476.
  • 51  Severus b. Al-Muqaffa‘, i, p. 185.
  • 52 Ibn ‘Abd al-/Hakâm, p. 188; OS, p. 57.

24The Nubian slave trade is as old as history and was perpetuated by the conquering Muslims in the Baq/t treaty, agreed by Ibn Abî Sar/h with the king of al-Maqurrâ after his retreat from Dongola in 652. Under the Baq/t agreement, the Nubians annually supplied the Muslims with 400 slaves, amongst other things (the Arab historians seem quite fascinated by giraffes). The Aphrodito papyri [fl. 709-15] also refer to slaves, requesting that the villagers pay 9 ¾ solidi “for the price of 18 yokes for the conveyance of government slaves”49, though these need not have been of Nubian extraction. Despite the Baq/t treaty, both the Muslim state in Egypt and local Arab freebooters undertook slave raids into al-Marîs or Lower Nubia, i.e. the territory south of Assouan, such as the ‘invasion’ led by the Caliph Hishâm’s powerful /sâ/hib al-kharâj, ‘Ubayd Allâh b. Ibn al-/Hab/hâb [r. 724-34]: “there was only one battle of pillage and the capture of prisoners”50. Somewhat later comes Severus’ reproduction of John the Deacon [d. 770] on events in the year AD 747, including an aside that “the Muslims were in the habit of kidnapping the Nubians and selling them as slaves in Egypt”51. Similarly, Ibn ‘Abd al-/Hakam [d. 871] quotes Ibn Lahî‘a [d. 790] to the effect that “(the Nubians) have no objection if slaves are bought from them”52. It might well be thought, therefore, that the caravan route and sea-lane connecting Bâ/di‘ with the Nubian kingdoms of the Middle Nile owed its existence primarily to the eighth-century trade in slaves.

  • 53 al-/Tabarî, iii, pp. 265-71.
  • 54 al-/Tabarî, iii, p. 992; cf.Pipes, 1980.

25The principal market for the slaves passing from Dongola and Soba through ‘Aydhâb and Bâ/di‘ can have only really been the /Hijâz. Marwânid and early ‘Abbâsid agricultural estates and mining projects, in particular along the Wâdî al-Qurâ and southern Darb Zubayda, created a demand for labour met with human exports from the Sudanese ports. However, the evidence is often inferred and rather oblique for the eighth century. Following the ‘Abbâsid occupation of Medina in 763, a result of an unsuccessful revolt by Mu/hammad b. ‘Abd Allâh, the local black slave population rose up to eject the ‘Abbâsid troops53. They first forced a retreat to nearby Nakhl then beat the ‘Abbâsid army of occupation a second time, freed an ‘Alid from jail to be their leader, and barricade themselves in the market place. They only backed down at the behest of the notables of Medina, having negotiated with them that the only leaders of the blacks were to be punished. Later, during the 816 rebellion of Abû al-Sarâyâ in the /Hijâz, a rebel governor was appointed to Mecca who ruled through the support of the local black slaves54. The military effectiveness and political significance of the black slave population of the /Hijâz – or at least the /Harâmayn – testifies that it was of some considerable size and was, moreover, fully integrated into the local society and culture. In turn, this suggests something of the scale and duration of the African slave trade.

  • 55 Nâ/sir-i Khusraw, p. 72; OS, p. 236.
  • 56 Al-I/s/takhrî, p.40; OS, p. 114.

26As the slave trade continued to growth through the ninth and tenth centuries, the sources of slaves multiplied to keep pace with demand. The Beja, an indigenous nomadic people living between the Nile and Red Sea from Egypt to Eritrea, fell directly in the catchment areas of slavers acting out of the Sudanese ports. Nâ/sir-i Khusraw [fl. 1042-52] observed that “the Beja who live in the desert (regions west of ‘Aydhâb) are not bad people… it is the Muslims and others who kidnap their children and take them to the towns of Islam where they sell them”55. Slaves were also brought down to the coast from the African interior, either via the Nubian kingdom of ‘Alwâ or through Ethiopia. Al-I/s/takhrî notes that “the countries of the blacks are very extensive… The slaves (khadam) who are sold in the countries of Islam come from there: they are neither Nubians, nor Zanj, nor Ethiopians, nor Beja; they are from another race of blacks, whose complexion is darker than any other”56.

  • 57  al-Muqaddasî, p. 87.

27Again, Arabia seems to have constituted the primary market for slaves passing through the Sudanese ports. In the tenth century, al-Muqaddasî [wr. 985] observes that “among the Beja, the Abyssinians and the Nubians at Zabîd a strange state of affairs exists”57. Though he does not expand upon his curious observation, it might be taken as an oblique reference to the unusual social status and power the blacks enjoyed in Zabîd; within a generation of al-Muqaddasî, the black slave-soldiers of the Ziyâdids had deposed their erstwhile masters and seized power for themselves. Their leaders, the brothers Najâh and Nafîs, established the Najâ/hid dynasty [1021-1156] under which Zabîd reached the apogee of its power. Muqaddasî’s observation and the success of the Najâ/hid coup together represent, in some sense, the logical culmination of the African Red Sea slave trade, of which the Sudanese ports in the ninth and tenth centuries were an important part.

  • 58  al-/Tabarî, iii, pp. 359, 370.
  • 59  Michels, 1975; 1979; 1986; 1988.
  • 60  al-Mas‘ûdî, p. 31.

28Despite the beginnings of a commercial aspect to the Sudanese ports, the military rationale remained prominent well into the eighth century. The chronicles of al-/Tabarî [d. 923] record that the ‘Kurk,’ generally dismissed as Ethiopian pirates in the secondary literature, attacked Jedda in 768, prompting al-Man/sûr to dispatch a naval expedition against Ethiopia two years later58. It is difficult to know what to make of these events, seeing as they receive a frustratingly laconic treatment by al-/Tabarî, whilst virtually nothing is known of the situation in Ethiopia between the abandonment of Aksum in the late sixth/ early seventh centuries and the ninth and tenth century accounts of Arab travellers. Given that survey of the Aksum-Yeha plateau found evidence of extensive rural settlement into the eighth century59, it may be supposed that some local Aksumite successor state remained sufficiently powerful to construct and dispatch a raiding fleet, though such a supposition remains highly conjectural. Certainly, al-Mas‘ûdî [wr. 947] writes of diplomatic contacts between Ibrâhîm b. Mu/hammad b. Ziyâd [d. 896], the second Ziyâdid ruler of Zabîd in the Yemeni Tihâma, and an anonymous Ethiopian king, which may indicate that some form of organised political authority maintained in Ethiopia as late as the ninth century60.

  • 61  al-Balâdhurî, pp. 379-382.

29The foundation of the Yemeni Tihâma garrison of Zabîd in 820, however, followed by the Ziyâdid occupation of the Dahlak Islands off the coast of Adulis, effectively pushed the Ethiopian frontier away from the Sudanese ports and undermined their strategic and naval rationale. A final military use of the ports came during the 855 Beja campaign of al-Qummî, when an expeditionary force marching from Assouan into the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî was provisioned via ‘Aydhâb by seven ships dispatched from al-Qulzum61. By the end of the ninth century, contemporary sources make it clear that a commercial dynamic had overtaken the old strategic rationale, and a new phase in the life of the Sudanese ports had begun.

The Ninth-Century ‘Gold Rush’

  • 62  al-Kindî, pp. 193-4; cf.Kennedy, 1998, p. 84.
  • 63 Ibn /Hawqal, p. 52; OS, p. 156.
  • 64  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 50-63.

30The commodities and associated trades, which first become identifiable in the mid eighth century, were joined in the ninth century by the extraction and export of precious metals and semi-precious gems. The gold trade, especially, very quickly came to dominate Red Sea commerce. In 833, the re-imposition of ‘Abbâsid authority under al-Ma’mûn culminated with the demise of the jund of al-Fu/s/tâ/t following the cessation of the ‘atâ’62. At the same time, a military expedition against nomadic Beja marauders in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inadvertently led to the re-discovery of ancient gold mines. Ibn /Hawqal writes that the expedition “noticed that the peninsula was rich with gold, for they discovered traces of mining activity carried out by the Greeks”63. Thus the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors were in place to create what Yûsuf /Hasan64 describes as an Arab ‘gold rush’ into the Eastern Desert of Egypt and Sudan, in particular to the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî which broadly stretches between Assouan and ‘Aydhâb. This ninth-century ‘gold rush’ was to radically alter the function and nature of the Sudanese ports.

  • 65  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 66-82.
  • 66  Al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, pp. 331-34; OS, p. 77.
  • 67  ibid.
  • 68 al-I/s/takhrî, p. 40; OS, p. 113.
  • 69  Al-Maqrîzî, Ta’rîkh, f. 167A; OS, p. 719.

31Arab settlement in the Eastern Desert was particularly centred on the Wâdî al-‘Allaqî, which broadly stretches between Assouan and ‘Aydhâb65. Al-Ya‘qûbî [d. 897] describes the settlement there as being “like their great town, where Arabs and non-Arabs (‘ajam) live together; there are markets where business is transacted”66. From the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî, it was a four day journey to ‘Aydhâb, “situated on the coast of the Red Sea. From there people sail to Mecca, the /Hijâz and Yemen, and from there traders ship their gold dust (tibr), ivory and other goods”67. Somewhat later, al-I/s/takhrî states that the mine region “is near Assouan of Egypt, about ten days’ journey from a fortress (hisn) on the west called ‘Aydhâb. Al-‘Allâqî, a flat sandy plain, is the meeting place for all those who work in the mine. The products of this mine are shipped to Egypt”68. Conversely, al-Maqrîzî records that, in the second half of the ninth century, the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî had become “so thickly populated that 60,000 beasts of burden were employed to carry the provisions from the town of Assouan, without counting those which arrived by boat from al-Qulzum to the harbour of ‘Aydhâb”69. Clearly, the development of the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî mines lent a new economic rationale to ‘Aydhâb, which now exported gold dust throughout the Muslim Red Sea and received in return provisions, particularly from Egypt by way of al-Qulzum.

  • 70  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 64-66.
  • 71  al-Ya‘qûbî, Ta’rîkh, i, p. 192; OS, p.72.
  • 72  Al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, p. 333;OS, 78.
  • 73  al-Mas‘ûdî, Tanbîh, p. 330; OS, p. 140.

32Ninth- and tenth-century Bâ/di‘ was similarly noted for its gold exports70. Al-Ya‘qûbî writes of a Beja tribe called the Baqlîn, whose territory “extends from Bâ/di‘ on the Red Sea coast to the frontier of Barakât”71; this last is most likely to be equated with the modern Khawr Baraka running south inland towards the Ethiopian highlands. Elsewhere, he notes that “it is 30 days’ journey from al-‘Allâqî to Barakât, the remotest mine where the Muslims go to seek gold”72. Later, al-Mas‘ûdî describes Bâ/di‘ as situated “on the coast of the mine region and the Bejaland”73. In addition to the gold of Barakât, the port of Bâ/di‘ may well have exported gold dust from the Shunqayr – a section of the Nubian Desert east of the Berber-Abû Hamâd stretch of the Middle Nile – whose mines were first exploited by the Arab adventurer al-‘Umarî [fl. 855-70]. Certainly, the tenth-century Fâ/timid dâ‘î Abû Sulaym al-Aswânî explicitly states that a road led directly from Berber to Bâ/di‘ from at least the mid eighth century, and is highly plausible that some gold was passing along from at least the time of al-‘Umarî. For all that, neither the mine of Barakât nor those of al-Shunqayr seem to have been as well known as those of the Wâdî al-‘Allâqî, and consequently Bâ/di‘ attracts a good deal less attention in the narrative sources than ‘Aydhâb, suggesting a rather secondary role in the Nubian gold trade.

  • 74  al-Hamdânî, p.40.
  • 75  al-Maqrîzî, Khi/ta/t, ii, p. 258; OS, p. 608.
  • 76  Burckhardt, London, 1814.
  • 77 Ibn /Hawqal, pp. 57-8; OS, 164.

33The port of Sawâkin first makes its appearance in the Arabic sources in connection with the tenth-century Sudanese gold trade. The Yemeni geographer al-Hamdânî [d. 945] lists “the places where gold dust is thought to be: Dahlak, ‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘ and Sawâkin”74 and al-Aswânî similarly writes of “the road (from Berber and al-Shunqayr) leading to Sawâkin, Bâ/di‘, Dahlak and the islands of the Red Sea”75. This road was still used in the early nineteenth-century, described by John Lewis Burckhardt in Travels in Nubia76. Another source of gold for Sawâkin may have been the Khawr Baraka, for Ibn /Hawqal [wr. 977] states that “the Baraka river has its sources in Habasha… heads towards the land of the Beja and flows into the sea between Sawâkin and Bâ/di‘”77. At any rate, these two ports are often mentioned together, and it may be thought that they essentially supplied the same sort of goods from broadly similar sources.

  • 78 Sanders & Owen, 1951; Glidden, 1954.
  • 79  Monneret de Villard, 1938, p. 324.
  • 80  Wiet, 1952.

34Around 90 km east inland of Sawâkin, hard by the medieval road to Berber, the historically unattested site of Khawr Nubt provides graphic evidence for the extent of contact with the Shunqayr mining region in the Sudanese interior78. The site consists of a settlement and associated cemetery, including ninth- and tenth-century inscribed tombstones. Monneret de Villard79 read the earliest date as AH 147 / AD 764-65, making it by far the oldest Arabic inscription from the Sudan, and leading him towards an argument that Arab penetration of the African shores of the Red Sea had commenced as early as the seventh century. However, Gaston Wiet80 re-read the date as AH 247 / AD 861-62, the confusion laying in a provincial variant of the dual form of the word مِائَة, mi’a, ‘a hundred’. Wiet argues, upon the basis of firm parallels with contemporary epigraphic practice in Egypt, that the inscription should be readمِائَتَي , mi’atay, a mistake for مَائَتَيْن, mi’atayn, ‘two hundred.’ Such a date fits neatly with the opening of the Shunqayr mines by al-‘Umarî [fl. 855-70], whilst the site’s location in the road from the coast to the interior broadly bears out the provisional conclusion drawn from the narrative sources: that the origins of Sawâkin lay in the ninth-century ‘gold rush.’


35 Three main phases may therefore be identified in the origin and early development of the Sudanese ports. In the seventh century, ‘Aydhâb and Bâ/di‘ were established both to contest naval hegemony in the Red Sea with Aksumite Ethiopia and to secure a direct line of communication with Upper Egypt. From the mid eighth century, a commercial revival is discernable, associated with the slave trade most likely fed by demand for labour created by Marwânid agricultural and mining projects in the /Hijâz. Finally, from the mid ninth century, ‘Aydhâb and Bâ/di‘ were joined by Sawâkin as the commercial ports serving the Sudanese ‘gold rush.’

36These conclusions as to the origin and early development of the Sudanese ports are not to be found in the standard reference works, which place too much emphasis of the ‘India trade’ and /hajj traffic. This represents an inappropriate retrospective projection of the world of the Cairo Geniza and Mamlûk narrative histories onto the early Islamic scene. Moreover, by taking the undoubtedly significant Fâ/timid commercial expansion as the start of their discussion of commerce and communications in the Red Sea, some three centuries of profoundly significant social and economic history have been unduly ignored, an oversight this paper hopes to some extent to redress.

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1 The author is a final-year D.Phil. student at the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East, at the University of Oxford – He is further a member of the Oxford Centre for Late Antique Studies – and has participated in excavations at Graeco-Roman mining & port sites in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, and as part of the Royal Ontario Museum’s excavations at the UNESCO world-heritage site of Zabîd, Yemen, directed by Dr. Edward Keall. This paper is a pared-down version of work included in his doctoral dissertation entitled The Red Sea Economy during the ‘long’ Late Antiquity, AD 500 – 1000, which he hopes to publish in the course of 2009.

2  Couyat, 1911; Murray, 1926a; Paul, 1955; Gibb, 1960.

3  Bloss, 1936; Greenlaw, 1995.

4  Facey, 2004, p. 7.

5  e.g. Lewis, 1950; Horton, 1987; Bianquis, 1998.

6  Ibn Khurradâdhbih, p. 153; trans. Silverstein, 2007, p. 96.

7  Horton, 1987, p. 350.

8  e.g. Muir, 1924, p. 205.

9 al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, p. 334; OS, p. 78. (A number of relevant Arabic sources may be found in English translation in G. Vantini’s Oriental Sources Concerning Nubia (Heidelberg & Warsaw, 1975), here abbreviated to OS for convenience).

10  al-Maqrîzî, Khitat, i, p. 299.

11  Nawata, 1997.

12 /Hasan, 1967, pp. 42-89.

13 Bent, 1896; Murray, 1926; /Hakim et alii, 1981; Kawatoko, 1993a.

14  Crowfoot, 1911; Hebbert, 1935; Kawatoko, 1993a; 1993b; Sidebothamet al, 2006.

15  al-Bakrî, p. 167-68; OS, p. 244.

16  al-Wâqidî, i, p. 2379-80; OS, p. 244.

17  16:14; cited by Crone, 2005.

18  Murray, 1926b; Power, 2008.

19 Ibn Is/hâq, pp. 146-50; al-/Tabarî, i, pp. 1181-2.

20  al-Azraqî, i, pp.107-110; Cresswell & Allan, 1989, pp. 3-4.

21  Pipes, 1980, p. 88.

22  Cf.Trimingham, 1952; Ullendorf, 1960; Munro-Hay, 1989; Pankhurst, 2004.

23  al-Wâqidî, i, p. 983.

24 al-/Tabarî, i, p. 2595.

25 /Hasan, 1967, p. 30.

26  Anfray, 1974, p. 753.

27  Mayerson, 1964, pp. 169-77.

28  Hoyland, 1997, p. 574-90.

29  Sidebotham et alii, 2006, p. 11-13.

30  Crowfoot, 1911, pp. 534-37; plate reproduced as inset of the map.

31 al-/Tabarî, i, pp. 1569-71.

32 ibid., i, p. 1570.

33  ibid., i, p. 1720.

34 Ibn Is/hâq, p. 155.

35 ibid., p. 235.

36  ii, p. 133.

37  cited by Trimingham, 1952, p 46.

38  ‘Athamina, 1998.

39 Ibn /Hawqal, p. 50; OS, p. 152.

40  al-Kindî, p. 11.

41  Hoyland, 2006, p. 398.

42  Jones, 1998.

43  Sijpesteijn, 2007, p. 187.

44  e.g. Munro-Hay, 1991, pp. 94-103.

45  Power, 2009.

46  Gibbon, 1776-1787, iv, Chap. 47, Pt. 5.

47  al-Maqrîzî, Khi/ta/t, ii, p. 258; OS, p. 608.

48  Welsby, 2002, pp. 204-5.

49  Bell, 1913, no1435.

50  al-Nuwayrî, fol. 113 r; OS, p. 476.

51  Severus b. Al-Muqaffa‘, i, p. 185.

52 Ibn ‘Abd al-/Hakâm, p. 188; OS, p. 57.

53 al-/Tabarî, iii, pp. 265-71.

54 al-/Tabarî, iii, p. 992; cf.Pipes, 1980.

55 Nâ/sir-i Khusraw, p. 72; OS, p. 236.

56 Al-I/s/takhrî, p.40; OS, p. 114.

57  al-Muqaddasî, p. 87.

58  al-/Tabarî, iii, pp. 359, 370.

59  Michels, 1975; 1979; 1986; 1988.

60  al-Mas‘ûdî, p. 31.

61  al-Balâdhurî, pp. 379-382.

62  al-Kindî, pp. 193-4; cf.Kennedy, 1998, p. 84.

63 Ibn /Hawqal, p. 52; OS, p. 156.

64  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 50-63.

65  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 66-82.

66  Al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, pp. 331-34; OS, p. 77.

67  ibid.

68 al-I/s/takhrî, p. 40; OS, p. 113.

69  Al-Maqrîzî, Ta’rîkh, f. 167A; OS, p. 719.

70  /Hasan, 1967, pp. 64-66.

71  al-Ya‘qûbî, Ta’rîkh, i, p. 192; OS, p.72.

72  Al-Ya‘qûbî, Buldân, p. 333;OS, 78.

73  al-Mas‘ûdî, Tanbîh, p. 330; OS, p. 140.

74  al-Hamdânî, p.40.

75  al-Maqrîzî, Khi/ta/t, ii, p. 258; OS, p. 608.

76  Burckhardt, London, 1814.

77 Ibn /Hawqal, pp. 57-8; OS, 164.

78 Sanders & Owen, 1951; Glidden, 1954.

79  Monneret de Villard, 1938, p. 324.

80  Wiet, 1952.

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Tim Power, « The Origin and Development of the Sudanese Ports (‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘, Sawâkin)in the early Islamic Period », Chroniques yéménites, 15 | 2008, 92-110.

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Tim Power, « The Origin and Development of the Sudanese Ports (‘Aydhâb, Bâ/di‘, Sawâkin)in the early Islamic Period », Chroniques yéménites [En ligne], 15 | 2008, mis en ligne le 26 avril 2010, consulté le 07 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Tim Power

University of Oxford

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