The Gulf of Zula is a deep cleft in Eritreaâ€™s coastline, plunging 50 kilometers southwards and flanked by the massive mount of Gheddem and its peninsula to the west, and by the Buri Peninsula and the peaked island of Dissei to the east.Â This is the birthplace of the Great Rift Valley on the African continent.
At the southern tip of the gulf, near Irafaile, is some hot springs â€“ small cracks in the rocks â€“ whose vapour, the local people believe, is medicinal; they crouch over the holes to inhale it.Â
On the hillsides above the springs might be found jet-black pieces of stone that resemble glass called obsidian, or volcanic glass, this material was used to make early tools. Pieces were carefully flaked from the original lumps, known as cores, to produce edges as sharp as razors for use in skinning animals, cutting up the flesh for meat and the sinews for rope, and scraping the hide to make water containers, clothing and other useful items. This glass was probably an important trade commodity for the local people, for the shaped and used flakes can be found on many of the offshore islands and along the coastline, where no such rocks exist naturally.Â
Above all this lies a massive volcanic crater, with two subsidiary cones to its south. These ash cones might have erupted violently at some time during the past 20 million years, a period during which explosive seismic activity split the block of continental Africa to form the Great Rift Valley.
Distant hills fringing the Gulf are of more ancient origin, probably formed as the massive uplifted area of volcanic rocks was established 40 million years ago. Over the millennia, tons of highland soil and rock have been washed down during each rainy season, gradually working their way to the sea.
Today, the foreshore and dry gully mouths abound not only in highland rocks and quartz crystal yellowed by iron salts but also in evidence of manâ€™s presence; a careful search might reveal a goat skull or a mineralized camel tooth, or even pottery shreds, smooth-edged from water wear. Deeper digging might even expose ancient stone hand-axes, backed flakes and worked implements from campsites where ancient peoples lived as they watched the sea and gathered its bounty, or hunted wild animals in the hinterland.
The Gulf continues further inland and the Rift Valley drops again, as deep as 120 meters below sea level in the Danakil Depression. Extreme heat and evaporation, together with bands of rock and low hills, prevent the sea from flooding the area, which is a fantastic inferno of sulphur springs, active volcanic vents that glow by night, salt lakes, and dry, searing heat â€“ truly the devilâ€™s kitchen!
In more recent times, the Gulf has undoubtedly played its part in history, through the influence of the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Turks, the Egyptians, the Italians and the British. Links with an increasingly civilized world were via the sea, the closest possible harbour being in the Gulf of Zula.
A few decades later, the first Italians appeared in the scramble for new lands and empires in Africa. In time, they began to pay attention even to the arid lands of Gulf, and the irrigation potential of the Zula area was explored. A large earth and stone dam was built across the Haddas River, upstream of the site of Adulis. Below, on the plain, massive earth bunds were raised and irrigation ditches installed. By the start of the First World War, a seaplane port and an airstrip had been developed at the site of the Napier jetties. It is said that vegetables and produce from Zula irrigation were flown out through here, and that mail and other communications passed through the site.
The dam soon silted up, and eventually flood waters found a way beneath the wall. Coupled with the defeat of the Italians by the British in 1941, the dam and irrigation works returned to the soil. The Italians departed and the British took over for a short period.
Zula today has a peaceful but hot and dusty environment. The areas around are thriving, irrigation works are producing experimental crops at Foro and new villages are springing forth between Massawa and the southern tip of the Gulf.