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Massawa – The Pearl Of The Red Sea

Port city of Massawa

The Port city of Massawa

The very name conjures up an air of mystique and hidden delights. Massawa! City of islands and the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’, a city which for centuries has been one of the region’s most important ports, and which once, more recently, was the Italian capital of Eritrea. a city whose charm has been influenced over the past centuries by the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Turks, the Egyptians, the British, the Italians and, most of all, the Eritreans themselves.

Massawa’s development was initially influenced by the Arabian Peninsula. Massawa was turned into a renowned center of intellectual and artistic skills, and this is reflected in the city’s architecture. New ideas implemented over the years by a host of different nationalities, until the British, determined to stamp out the growing French influence in the region “took” Eritrea from the Egyptians in 1882 and then “gave” the territory to the Italians in 1885. Massawa thus became the headquarters of the embryonic Italian colony, until the permanent capital was created at Asmara in 1887.

To supply their new capital from Massawa, the Italians initially used a cable car – the longest in the world – to winch up provisions from the port on the shore to 2500m below. As the new capitals population exploded, however, this became impractical, and they installed a railway line, whose construction was beset with engineering difficulty because of the escarpment between the port and the capital, and it finally reached Asmara in 1922. For almost half a century the railway moved goods and people across Eritrea. It took 6 hours from Massawa to Asmara at an average speed of 19km an hour up the escarpment. The line opened up new markets for farm produce, and towns such as Nefasit, Keren and Agordat prospered; as such Massawa prospered as never before. Up until the 1960s, Massawa was by far the largest, the safest and the most lucrative port on the East African littoral.

During the wars that have befallen Eritrea since, the railway was dismantled piecemeal by the British. Beginning from 1993, veteran railway workers were enlisted to repair the old locomotives and railway stock and began relaying the tracks, starting at Massawa. After years of back breaking work and true grit, the railway is now once more functional.



With its low, whitewashed buildings, porticoes and arcades, Massawa has an Arab feel to it, reflecting its century-old connection with Arabia across the other side of the Red Sea. Massawa`s natural deep harbour and its position close to the mouth of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean have long made it the target of foreign powers. It was occupied by the Portuguese, Arabs, Egyptians and Turks; they all but handed it over to the Italians in 1885. Trade in Massawa flourished throughout these occupations- everything from slaves, peals, giraffes and incense to Ostriches and myrrh passed through this port.

Its buildings reflect its history of occupation. The Ottoman Turks, who occupied the city for nearly 300 years, had the biggest influence on the architecture. Their successors, the Egyptians, also left a legacy of buildings and public works, including the elevated causeways, an aqueduct and the governor’s palace. In 1885 the Italians occupied Massawa and the town became their capital until it was superseded by Asmara in 1897. During this time, many of the fabulous villas were built.

Massawa consists of two islands, Tiwalet and Old Massawa(Wishti Batzie). The mainland area, called Old Massawa, is largely residential, and a long causeway connects it to Tiwalet Island, which is home to some old villas, the administrative buildings, and a few of the town’s smarter hotel. The cause way that connects the two islands was built by the Swiss adventurer Werner Munzinger in the 1870s.

The two islands – now linked to the mainland by the causeways – that form Massawa are intriguing and attractive. As you come over the cause way to the Taulud Island, a broad sweep of white, arcaded palazzi (palaces) stretches over before you. On the corner, opposite the transport office, the Hotel Savoiya, with its long gallery, has a great view over the harbour. Near the port entrance is a good example of 17-century coral-block house. For centuries coral was the local building stone. Heading back toward the causeways, you will pass the large Banco d’Italia, an exact copy of its 1920s original and a mishmash of architectural styles, including Gothic windows and towers. In a square beyond the Banka is a rare example of a Turkish house with a doomed roof, now impressively restored. Shaafi Mosque – one of the oldest mosques in Africa, by the port entrance, was founded in the 11th century but rebuilt several times since, is worth a quick look. An ancient house across of Mammud Mohammed Nahari is there with soaring Ottoman-style windows on every side. Opposite the house is the 16th- century tomb of Sheikh Durbuh enclosed in a small garden. Nothing is so far known about the Sheikh. Around this area are some large and ornate18th-century Armenian and Jewish merchants houses.

Tourist’s enjoying the pristine beach of the Massawa

Tourist’s enjoying the pristine beach of the Massawa

About 150m from the port entrance, is the house of Abu Hamdum, with its magnificent mashrabiyya (trellised) balcony, which allowed cool breezes to enter and the air inside to circulate. It is a great example of Turkish Ottoman architecture. Nearby is Piazza degli Incendi (meaning ‘Square of the Fire’, after it was the scene of a great fire in 1885), in the center of which is the Sheikh Hanafi Mosque. At over 500 years old, this mosque is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. Seikh Hanafi was a great teacher, who funded his students’ studies in Egypt. The walls of the courtyard are decorated with stuccowork and inside hangs a remarkable chandelier from the glassworks of Murano near Venice in Italy.

Just north of the gate of the Dahlak Hotel is the old Imperial Palace overlooking the harbour. The original palace was built by the Turkish Osdemir Pasha in the 16th century. The present building dates back from 1872, when it was built for the Swiss adventurer Werner Munzinger- then employed for the Khedive of Egypt. The palace also contains the first elevator in Eritrea. Look out for the beautifully carved wooden doors, said to come from India. Some of the villas near the shore are exceptionally beautiful, combining elements of Art Deco style with traditional Moorish arcades and huge mashrabiyya balconies. After about 500m is Orthodox St Mariam Cathedral, which sits at the end of the causeway from the mainland was built in 1953 by the Orthodox Church. Opposite to the cathedral is the massive tank monument to the Eritrean Struggle for Independence. Three huge tanks are preserved where they stopped in the final assault on the town in 1990, and now stood on a black marble base. South of the cathedral is the famous Red Sea Hotel, scene of many glamorous balls in 1960s and 1970s.

The coast of Massawa is also renowned for shipwrecks, some of them in very good condition. These include wrecks of World War II Italian warships, frigates and even tanks. Some of them lie only 3m below the surface while some are far deep as 4km. Life under the sea, off Massawa east coast opens up a veritable treasure chest of colorful fish and exotic corals. Some distinctive forms are “fan corals” or Gorgonacea, tree corals of Nepthiidea family, “fire corals” or Millepora et cetera.