Massawa: “ Pearl of the Red Sea’’

About Eritrea - History & Culture

This article presents the medieval heritage of the port city of Massawa and summarizes the history of the city subsequent to its foundation.

Eritrea is located at a very strategic place along the Red Sea coast. The port city of Massawa is located approximately midway along Eritrea’s 1000 km Red Sea coastline. The port city is one meter above sea level and is subjected to some of the harshest temperatures on earth, compounded by high humidity. The Red Sea has modern ports such as Suez, Jeddah, Port Sudan, Assab and etc. One of these and perhaps the most ancient is the port city of Massawa. The name Massawa is originally derived from Arabic word (Mussawwaë) and later adapted to the Tigrigna word `Metsiwa (????). From the 8th century onwards, the name Badiè appeared in several texts of Arab authors. The name Badié derives from the Tigre language referring to the ‘beauty and attractiveness of Massawa’’. Some elders also state that Badié also means in Tigre language bitter or salt water. Even today the local population still commonly calls the island Batsé (???).

The localities of Hergigo, Desie and Emkulu also have historical significance as far as the history of the Red Sea area of Eritrea and particularly that of Massawa are concerned. Herigigo was an important port in the past, particularly during the Turkish colonial period (1557-1865). In the recent history of Eritrea, Herigigo was one of the key ports to transport the armament of the Eritrean liberation fighters. because of thus, the Ethiopian regime burned the village in 1975 and in 1976 and massacred many civilian inhabitants. Desie, on the other hand, is located near the Massawa International Air port and is one of the historical sites of Massawa with extensive graves and mounds which, according to oral traditions, are reminiscent of a presumed battle between two clans in the past. Moreover, Emkulu was one of the entry points of the evangelical Christian religion to Eritrea in 1886 where one of the first printing presses in Africa was set up.

When the ancient port city of Adulis started to decline in the 7th century CE, the focus of trade networks of the region shifted to the Dahlak islands from 8th up to 15th century CE due to their proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, and Africa. The Arabs, therefore, had chosen Massawa and Hergigo, to be as their main ports to fulfill their need of territorial expansion. Massawa and Hergigo offered the advantage of naturally deep and calm water ports for anchorage. The port city of Massawa is formed by two islands, namely Re´esi -Midri and Tawalud (Tiwalet), and the mainland constituting Edaga, Grar, Amatere and Emkulu. Based on archeological and historical accounts, the Red Sea coast of Eritrea became the gate way for the introduction of both Christianity and Islam into our region. Owing to the legacy of medieval events, the port city of Massawa has maintained intimate links with the Islamic world and the holy centers of Islam in Arabia to embrace rich Islamic heritage in its public and private buildings. The Sahaba Mosque, as a matter of fact, is one of the intact buildings in Massawa which gives concrete evidence about the introduction and development of Islam in our region. When the early followers of Islam were persecuted in Mecca by the Quraish, Prophet Mohammed told his followers “to go to the land of the Habasha, across the Red Sea, where he informed them that they would find a king, under whom none are persecuted, and the land belongs to the righteousness where God will provide relief from what his followers were suffering” according to the Book Mukteser siret bin Hasham (sir nabawya).

As a result, a group of 18 individuals, named the Sahaba( followers of the Prophet) that included the Prophet´s daughter (Ruqeya) and her husband (Osman Bin Afan) with other cousins, came to the Red Sea coast of Eritrea through the eastern part of Massawa (the old town). The Sahaba mosque is, therefore, believed to be the first holy place where the religion of Islam entered and expanded to the Horn and the African continent. Since it is considered one of the most sacred places, pilgrims had been visiting the mosque every year from various countries like Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Turkey, India, Egypt, and Morocco. Later, other groups of the Sahaba were also believed to have migrated through Miedr and Saroita in the Southern Red Sea Region.

Moreover, many rare and precious old mosques that date back to 1100 – 500 years ago are found in the precinct of the port city of Massawa and depict the variety of Islamic architecture present in Eritrea. The Shafie mosque, built in the 12th century CE is one of Africa’s oldest mosques while the Sheik Hamal mosque was constructed during the 16th century (1580s). The mosque was dedicated to a laborer in Massawa port. The mosque was built after Sheik Hamal passed away by all his friends and advocates and is also a shrine to the bodies of Sheik Hamal and his wife. The Hanafi, Sheik Dirbush, Sheik Said (Green Island) and the Sheik Abdel Kader in Gerar are also notable ancient mosques in Massawa. Most of these historical buildings were damaged by earth quake that hit Massawa in July 14, 1921. The Italian colonizers and the inhabitants of Massawa then started renovating and repairing the buildings without changing the architectural designs.

The port city of Massawa is an old town owing its mixed architectural style to Turkish, Egyptian, and Italian colonizers apart from its medieval heritage. The buildings were built using coral stones extracted from its surroundings and mainly from the Dahlak archipelago.

The Turkish, who occupied Massawa from 1557-1865 up to have left notable constructions like the massive water reserve in Emkulu and forts in and around Massawa. The Turkish constructed the buildings using rough corals and today anyone familiar with the architectures can notice and identify the Turkish buildings at the eastern part of the port city. Most of the buildings in the old town, on the other hand, were built during the Egyptian colonial period (1865-1885). The buildings that were constructed during that period were made up of coral bricks cut into square bricks. The landmark building, the governor´s palace, was built in the northern east part of Tawalud (Tiwalet) from 1872 to 1875 and was successively occupied by Egyptian and Italian governors and later by Emperor Haile Selassie. Much of the building suffered air bombardments of the Derg regime in 1990 along with other residential apartments of the town. The remains of the building still stand today. The Egyptians also constructed aqueduct carrying fresh water from Emkulu to Massawa to solve the shortage of potable water supply, particularly in Tawalud(Tiwalet) and Re´esi Midri Islands. The pipeline was 13,000 meters long and required 17,132 section of pipe that had been imported from Egypt. The construction of the pipeline necessitated the construction of the two cause ways which were completed in 1873 to connect Tawalud(Tiwalet) with the main land and Re´esi-Midri with Tawalud(Tiwalet).

Massawa also served as the capital of colonial Eritrea from 1890 up to 1899 until the Italian administrator of colonial Eritrea, Martini, moved the capital to Asmara. The construction of buildings during the Italian administration in Massawa can be categorized into two main periods. The first period (1923-1930s) is a result of the destruction from major disasters of fire-burning and the two earth quakes, in 1884 and July14, 1921. Italian colonial architects and construction engineers repaired and rebuilt the damaged houses by maintaining and improving on features of the traditional Turkish and Egyptian styles.

In the second period (1930s- 1940s), the construction continued in a modern architectural style. Hotels, open-air cinemas, bathing pools, officers´ clubs, administrative buildings and villas were constructed. It was a period of considerable urban development and infrastructure. Most of the buildings were constructed in Tawalud, and some near the port area like Hotel Torino, Hotel Savoia, Banca d’Italia, etc.

Hotel Torino in Re´esi Midri (Wishti Batsie), which was built during the 1930s, was one of the fascinating buildings that were constructed following the modernist architectural style, popular during that time. Most of the Italian buildings were constructed on the island of Tawalud in response to the growing population density in the island. The Italians implemented the discrimination policy to divide the city racially and apparently had chosen Tawlud to be a district for the Italian citizens. During the Italian period, coral block was retained as a building material in most of these buildings, though other key additions have been made to include stone, brick and reinforced concrete.

The British colonial period (1941-1952) initially marked the end of the Second World War, and the victory of the Allied opened a period of crisis for Massawa. In fact, the town, like the rest of Eritrea, lost its strategic role in the war economy. High rates of unemployment and the related social unrest were the main consequences of this change. Parallel to this, the British Military Administration started a policy of systematic dismantlement of the main productive infrastructures of the town. The dismantlement of the cement factory in Abdel Qadir (sold and moved to Sudan), the dismantlement and sale as scrap of the rope-way connecting Massawa to Asmara, the demolition of the Aerodrome and of the machinery for oil reservoir in Otumlo and of the machinery for oil extraction in Nakura as well as the dismantlement and sale of the machinery of the potash-factory in Fatuma Dari can be stated as major examples of the British policy.

During the Federation and following Emperor Haileselassie’s annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia (1952-1974), major events took place in the history of Massawa. The port city had been the center of Emperor Haile Selassie’s attention since the end of Italian presence in Eritrea, by claiming the alleged right of Ethiopia to have an access to the sea. In the 1950s, to capture the benevolence of the population, the Emperor embarked on the building of churches and mosques. The outputs of this effort are the building of the Hanefi mosque in Re´esi- midri and the church of Enda Mariam (St.Merry) in Tawalud, both designed by the firm Fenano-Mezzedimi. The building of the CIAAO hotel (now Red Sea), and the opening of the Naval College also happened during the period.

During the Derg period (1975- 1991), Massawa and the Dahlak archipelago were expected to become key operation centers for the launching of military campaigns against Eritrean armed struggle. In 1977, the Soviet Union started to support the military regime of Addis Ababa and established military bases in the Dahlak islands and made the port of Massawa a key center for the shipment and storage of military supplies for the Derg régime. Thus, due to its strategic location Massawa became the theater of some of the most decisive episodes of the struggle for independence in 1977 and 1990.

To conclude, the port city of Massawa is rich in historical and archaeological sites, a series of historical events and a strategic location in the international trade route with unpolluted sea coast comfortable for swimming, snorkeling and diving and calm and deep sea with plentiful marine bio-diversity. Massawa will be a hub of trade and investment, source of powerful economy, base and harmony of socio-cultural values of the nation and a tourist destination area. Hence, Massawa “the pearl of the Red Sea”, needs proper conservation, protection, renovation, restoration, promotion and sustainable utilization of both its cultural and natural heritages.

Last Updated (Wednesday, 23 August 2017 09:41)