Massawa - History

Massawa's early history is rather obscure. Mentioned by the Arab geographer Al Yaquabi in the 9th century it is thought that it first became a significant port in the 7th century after the decline of the ancient Axumite port of Adulis, assuming the latter's role as the major outlet for trade between Ethiopia and Yemen. In the same century, after the death of the Prophet in 632 A.D. the rise of Islam had a considerable impact on the African coast of the Red Sea and was to play an important part in the history and culture of Massawa.

As early as the 8th century the new religion was established in the coastal region and the Dahlak Islands and by the 10th century most of the population of the city were Muslims. Three of Africa's most ancient mosques in Massawa survive and are in daily use.

By the end of the 14th century, Massawa was part of the main gateways for African trade and a meeting place for people of many races. The Venetians, also great traders, knew of the city by the 14th century and the 16th century saw the arrival of Europeans in considerable numbers, notably the Portuguese who left a number of accounts of its beauty, vitality and wealth.

However, it was the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, who finally succeeded seizing the city in 1557, that was to have the greatest impact on both its culture and architecture still apparent today. They continued to hold the city for three centuries and established a successful relationship with the Ethiopian Emperors at Gondar who were prepared to pay them heavy taxes in order to have access to the coast and its trade. Ethiopian slaves were particularly prized and thousands were sent to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and even to China. Commodities of every kind; hides, butter, gum, gold, senna, musk, ivory, coffee, wax, mules, honey, pepper, pearls and salt all passed through the warehouses of Massawa.

Turkish domination only came to an end in the mid-19th century when they were forced to cede to the Egyptians who were involved in the struggle of the European nation for influence in Africa.

Although the Egyptian occupation of Massawa was relatively brief, from 1846 to 1885, (following the death of the Mahdi and General Gordon at Khartoum in 1884), it left a lasting legacy of buildings and public works. Of the various administrations the most remarkable was that of Munzinger Pasha who built the present Governor's palace, constructed the elevated causeways linking Massawa to Taulud Island and the latter to the mainland, and brought fresh water in to the old city by means of a aqueduct. This extraordinary man, a Swiss adventurer, had first arrived in Massawa in 1854 as the French consular agent, was back again in 1865 as a British agent and political advisor to Napier's expedition against the Emperor Theodore at Magdala and finally in 1872 working for the Egyptians he occupied the town and was appointed Governor.

After the expulsion of the Egyptian regime the complex international struggle for the control of the Port was resolved when the Italians, with the connivance of the British, occupied Massawa in 1885 and remained in control until ousted by the British in 1941.

Anxious to establish their new empire the Italians embarked on a massive building programme which continued even when they removed their government from Massawa and established Asmara as their new capital in 1897.

The city and its commerce flourished but two earthquakes, one in the 1890's and another in 1921, caused enormous damage to its infrastructure. Fortunately a plan for the demolition of the old town and its total reorganization on the basis of a regular grid was abandoned. The layout of the town remained much as it always had been following the old plot lines with blocks of houses and buildings separated by small clearings and narrow alley ways that radiate from the central square. The square was for many years known as the Piazza degli Incendi after the catastrophic fire of 1885. The reconstruction of the buildings was largely carried out using the coral stone, for centuries the prevailing material of the area. Many Turk/Egyptian features were retained; carved lintels and window frames, doorways with tri-lobate arches and the distinctive "masharabiyyas", the projecting trellised balconies designed to protect women from the gaze of passers by, continued the traditional appearance of the central area around the old covered market. At the same time the more recent buildings along the waterfront were rebuilt maintaining the original appearance but designed to withstand further seismic shocks. These great palaces now restored yet again after the recent conflict are reminiscent of Venice, especially the massive Hotel Savoia with its 100 feet long gallery overlooking the harbour like the Doge's Palace guarding the entrance to the Canale Grande.

In the 1930's building continued along the western shore of Massawa Island in the modern style, often incorporating traditional Turk/Egyptian features and techniques to combat the heat. A particularly interesting development surviving from this period is the lido, with its salt water bathing pools and open air cinema, now being revived as a lively modern club.

In the colonial period as now Taulud Island was the administrative centre. With its neat rows of one and two storey villas and wide straight streets it has a very different atmosphere from Massawa Island. Here again the area along the waterfront was badly damaged in the recent war but much of it has already been restored. At the end of the causeway from the mainland in front of the Orthodox Cathedral starts the memorial to the Eritrean Struggle, three burnt out tanks which led the final assault on Massawa in 1990, a symbol of defiance and freedom.

Now it is to be hoped that with the termination of the present conflict the mayor and municipality will be able to implement their visionary schemes for the regenerated Massawa.

On Massawa Island, due to its long and complex history and the various calamities that have occurred it is sometimes difficult to discern the age or origin of a particular building and cultural diversity make it an exciting place to visit and to explore. Plans to restrict the height of buildings to three storeys, close scrutiny and control of restoration techniques and further development and the proposal to pedestrianise the narrow streets promise to retain the street life and historic atmosphere of this very special section of the city.

On Taulud modern offices are already going up to accommodate the expanding business of the region and eventually the old railway station may come to life again when the rebuilding of the line from Massawa to Asmara is completed. The devastated Red Sea Hotel, scene of many glamorous occasions in 1960's and 1970's, is ready to reopen. The more modest Central Hotel has been modernised and reopened and the Dahlak Hotel opposite the Governor's Palace is also to be renovated, all providing first class accommodation for visitors. The Melotti Villa built on the promontory, now like a glamorous ghost of a 60's film set, will ultimately become the state guest house.

On the mainland an impressive housing programme is already underway with new villas and blocks of flats under construction. The planned new deepwater harbour will eventually provide much needed opportunities for employment and open up Eritrea's tourist trade.

For centuries foreigners have come to Massawa to exploit it. Now tourists come to experience its historic treasures and enjoy the beaches of Gurgusum or to explore the bird and marine life of the Dahlak Islands and the newly independent citizens can at last benefit from their own city.

The magical beauty of the old Massawa and the dynamic possibilities of the new make it a site of international cultural significance and concern deserving to be universally recognised as one of the great cities of the world.

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