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A wide view of Keren

A wide view of Keren

Keren lies 91kms North West of Asmara in the Anseba region and is the capital of that region. Set on a small plateau at 1220m above sea level, and surrounded by mountains, Keren- meaning highland- is one of Eritrea’s most attractive towns. . Keren has always been attractive to foreigners, recently the Swiss adventurer Werner Munzinger who arrived in 1855, who then married one or more Bilen and learnt Tigre and Arabic. It was also once the favorite resort for European visitors and Italian colonialists because of the temperate climate and fertile soil. Many Italians had market gardens in the surrounding area, and there is still evidence of this cultivation when heading north on the road to Afabet. At Otala, 2km along this road, were the former Da Nadai estates. Agriculture is being regenerated here and Keren represents a vital agricultural district in Eritrea.

Keren`s residents comprise of about 55% Muslim and 40% Christian; the city has plenty of churches and mosques. It is also home to the Bilen ethnic group.

On the way, one passes the well-laid out farms of the Estate of Elabered, famous for its orchards of oranges, grapes, tomatoes and even milk. The estate is spread over an area of 1,200 hectares. It has seven lakes harnessed during the rainy season to serve as a perennial water resource for the farms.

As one enters Keren, one comes across “Gira Fiori” – a circle of flowers – where all the roads meet. On the roadside grows evergreen shrub known as adai and used as a natural toothbrush. Trade thrived once Keren was connected to Asmara by the Old Italian railway, and the little town grew. Today, it is the third largest town in the country and is still an important centre of commerce. Since the Italian colonial days, the town has been a popular weekend retreat for the inhabitants of Asmara.

Controlling the northern gateway to Asmara, and the western route to Agordat, Keren`s strategic position has always been very important. The gorge (known as The Keren Pass by the Allied forces in World War II) is a formidable natural defense and has proven impenetrable on many occasions by invading forces. It was here that one of the decisive battles of World War II took place when allied forces under General Platt, took months to defeat the 23,000 Italians defending this position in March 1941 and finally took the town on March 27. From 1970s to 1990s, it was fiercely contested during the Struggle for Independence.

Keren is home to a number of graveyards. The British War Cemetery lies off the Agordat road north-west of the town. In it, 440 Commonwealth troops lie buried, including the Hindi soldier Subadar RichpalRam of the Sixth Rajputana Rifles, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration for bravery. There is a visitor’s book here, which is an interesting read. Just past the cemetery, a small statue of the Madonna watches over the road from Agordat in the west. The well-tended Italian Cemetery lies close by.

The most prominent site is the shrine of St. Mary of Da’arit popularly known as Mariam Da’arit (Madonna of the Baobab), about 2.3km to the north. The shrine is inside a large Baobab grotto,

Shrine of Maria of Dear't inside Baobab grotto

The Shrine of Maria of Dear’t inside Baobab grotto

which was inaugurated by the fifth Vicar Apostolic Msgr. Touvier on July 18, 1881. Gradually “Mariam Da’arit” has become a popular open-air shrine, a sign of unity and religious devotion. Today the shrine encompasses an area of over 10 hectares where oranges, guavas are grown in orchards. On 29 May every year, there’s pilgrimage to the site, and hundreds of people congregate to dance and sing.

The old Italian railway station (now a bus station complete with cafe) and the old residential area testify to Keren`s Italian heritage. As in Asmara, some of the architecture is exceptional for the period. Several Italian Roman Catholic churches dot the town, including St Antonio – the oldest church in Eritrea, which was built in 1874 and St Michael, which was built in about 1925. Other church worthy visiting is St Mariam, the principal Coptic Church and the central mosque.

Just to the northeast of the town center is the Tigu, the Turkish-Egyptian fort at 1460m, dating from the 19th century. From here, the views of the surrounding country and mountain ranges are superb. At its southwestern foot lie the ruins of theold Imperial Palace, which were destroyed during the struggle in 1977, but the ruins are still visible.

One of the monasteries situated around Keren is the Debre Sina monastery, thought to date from the 6th Century AD. The older, inner part of the church (which unlike many monasteries in Eritrea is open to both men and women) is hewn from rock and, according to local tradition, is 2100 years old. The troglodyte dwellings of the 60 nuns and priests who live there can be visited. The monastery lies around 35km east of Keren on the Gheleb road.

On the way to Agordat lies a church to your left and a small village; this whole area is known as Bogu. As you drive towards Hagaz keep an eye on the impressive saddle-shaped Mount Jibher to the north of the road. Hagaz (16km from Keren) is the first town of any note with a bustling market and an attractive church and mosque.