A couple of years ago, when presenting the declaration at the International Archive congress organized by the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archive, I heard some of my foreign colleagues in the hall start to mutter - and realized something was not right. As the majority of the attendees were Turkish, I gave my speech in Turkish. But there was English and Arabic simultaneous interpretation as well. My foreign colleagues who expressed displeasure were listening to me through their headsets. I knew there was a problem with the interpretation and decided to continue my speech in Arabic. There was a great stir in the hall. After concluding my speech, while my foreign colleagues were objecting in their own language, those listening to the speech in Turkish were constantly changing channels, following the discussion with curiosity.
The Ottoman Abyssinian State
Do you know happened? There was a “astonishment” similar to the astonishment upon hearing the name Suakin in our country for the first time through President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Sudan, Chad and Tunisia visit. I will finish my story and get back to Suakin. In my declaration, the English interpreter had translated the Abyssinian State - which is one of the Ottoman states - as Ethiopia, while the Arabic interpreter had translated it as Abyssinia. Hence, my colleagues who know the region rightfully objected. Yet, I was speaking about the Abyssinian State that was founded with Jeddah as its center after the Ottoman Empire added Egypt and Yemen to its territories. What’s strange is, some of the Turkish academics never heard of this state, and I believe there are still those who are yet to hear about it. Whereas the late Cengiz Orhonlu had written a major book in 1975 titled, “Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nun Güney Siyaseti Habeş Eyaleti” (Ottoman Empire’s Southern Politics, the State of Abyssinia) and the Turkish Historical Society had printed it.
However, we were so introverted for many years that historians did not feel the need to even read and, of course, develop this valuable work. The book discusses the administrative structure in the present day East Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Harar and Somalia in East Africa, which joined Ottoman lands in the time of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Unfortunately, since we did no serious research on the region to date, like the book, these regions were also left in the pit of forgetfulness. Until President Erdoğan requested Suakin from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to rebuild and revive the island and restore Ottoman artefacts. Of course, our strange habit resurfaced. On one side we have the wretched lot, who raised objection saying, “What business do we have in Suakin?” that is an area of high strategic value in the Red Sea, which they never heard of before, presented to the Republic of Turkey almost on a silver platter. On the other hand, we have the lot that dogmatize with outdated encyclopedic information in their capacity as experts.
Suakin, Musavva and Zeyla are the three most important centers of the Ottoman State of Abyssinia, which I previously mentioned, and was a port with a closed sea where the Ottomans controlled Red Sea trade until the 18th century. This is the region where international conflicts took place when the Dutch, French and British similarly took an interest to the Red Sea and literally started to be cropped off from the Ottoman Empire from the south. In other words, Suakin, which we heard of again recently, is not only a port that awaits revival, it is also an area that had high geopolitical value in the past and represents Turkey’s historical depth.
Turkey has achieved many gains with the Africa initiation President Erdoğan launched in 2005 and through this, it has also proven that it is an international actor. However, just as the current project - if realized - will show that Turkey has sustainable power as an international actor, with all the new regulations to be made and privileges gained here, Turkey can achieve not only trade results but also political and military gains. Turkey is of course, first going to reveal, through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) the common historical estate in Suakin and revive trade and tourism in the region. However, Turkey can carry this to the point of taking measures in cooperation with Sudan to ensure the security of the Red Sea and its surroundings. As a result, in the near future, it will be able to contribute to peace in Somalia, in Yemen, and most importantly, cut off Israel in the Red Sea.
Being an international actor requires, before anything else, courage. Those who show courage will leave their mark on the 21st century. As a matter of fact, losing the Ottoman Suakin governorate, which led to long arguments between the British, the Ottoman government and the Egyptian Khedivate in the last quarter of the 19th century, was the result of a lack of strength in showing this courage back then as well. Let us conclude with a statement from Said Pasha, nine-time Ottoman grand vizier, on losing Suakin:
“Just as no troops were sent to Egypt, there was no desire to send troops to the Red Sea coast. It is all because we did not send troops that the Ottomans lost the fertile and vast lands of Musavva, Zeyla, Suakin, Tacura, Aseb, Berbera and Harrar and Somalia, in short, the west of the Red Sea coast and all the areas within it.”