The Pleasures of the Old Town

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Outside the Ministry of Education, in Asmara, a man and a woman stood, the former training his camera on the street opposite.The woman, probably his wife or his assistant, stood by a still camera in her left hand.

“What is so interesting that they bother to take pictures of?” I could see nothing out of the ordinary.

I just went away, but came back again for I could not ignore my unanswered question. My recent visit to Massawa had taught me an important lesson: if we observe our surroundings, they offer us so much joy, and could teach us about ourselves, and about our past.

I came back to the spot to see what the man found interesting. But, I saw nothing uncommon. The buildings were common, or so I thought. The afternoon was like any other afternoon and there was nothing special about it. I went back to my office.

But that is what happens to locals. They become so blind to the beauty in their lives that they do not see its spellbinding glory.

It was a cool January afternoon in Massawa, and I arrived at the area that I had planned to visit at about 4. I was a few meters from a fork, just about two to three hundred meters from the Port of Massawa.

My friend (who accompanied me during this tour) and I took a left turn, but suddenly I had to stop, and found myself gazing at a building. I could see that the architect dream of the building both as a residence and as a work of art. From the way he arranged the columns, it was easy to see art played a major part in the construction of the building. Placed two by two, and side by side, the columns gave the building such a striking beauty. I don’t know if my friend (who stood by me) saw the wonder. On my part, I could see nothing but the building.

There were four long columns, rising from the ground and linked the first to the second floor. It was there to see that the architect wanted the columns to give an added glory to the building. On the second floor, the building with its corridor, a shaded space opened to the sea, purposely placed on the part of the building facing the waters. Obviously, the architect had the inhabitants’ leisure time in mind, their enjoying the evening breeze at dusk.

Erected less than 100 metres from the shore, one can see it was built there to offer its occupants the joy of watching the afternoon sea. One can imagine the occupants pulling their chairs to the window and watching the boats and fishermen, busy in the sea, and incoming ships. Or the busy street outside. It was obvious the architect has successfully brought the perfect marriage of beauty and utility.

Observed in calm and leisurely mood, with the intention of enjoying its beauty, the building has a similar effect on viewers as a beautiful poem has on a reader, or a piece of beautiful music on a music-fan. Viewing it, one has the impression that it was designed with the pleasure of observers in mind. In short, it was a piece of work of art.

Just a few paces from the bridge to the former Naval Base, a building sits for the pleasure of viewers. One has the impression that it has been plucked out of The Arabian Nights by the same magic that transforms the lives of the characters in the stories. The trees outside the building give it an air of peace and safety, in contrast to the intense heat and harsh weather. To the left of the building is a natural beauty, the blue sea flowing, which the occupants could enjoy just by ascending the staircase to the top.

A street sign just at the head of Bab-Ashera, the causeway that connects the Dahlak Hotel area to the Massawa Port area advertises seven historical places in Massawa: two old mosques, the 11th century AD Shafie Mosque and a 16th century mosque, the Sheik Hamal Alansari Mosque, the Sahaba Shrine, the first Islamic Shrine in the world, according to the sign. Four other places (a 19th century built former bank, the Banco di Roma, and the former palace, the Gbi, Sheik Derbush, and the coral-made Massawa buildings, which is a big neighborhood by itself, are the other places.

I came across the Old Town Sheik Derbush, commonly known as Shayk Darwish (or Shayk Darbush). Jonathan Miran in Red Sea Citizens (p. 322) refers to the place as a tomb. Quoting an Italian writer Professor Miran states that Shayk Darwish was originally from Mecca, and notes that another shrine by the same name exists in Nakura.

A few paces away from the shrine, a woman emerged out of one of the buildings. She was about 70 years old.

She knew I was from another part of the country and that I was not familiar with her neighborhood. As I talked to her about the neighborhood, an enclosure attracted my attention, and I got closer to inspect it. Built of bricks, and plastered with cement, the building with a dome and a lightening-rod like metal at its top, looks like a mosque.

From outside, I could see nothing but clothes hanging from a line. The entrance, which looks like a club with a ball-like shape at its top end, looks like an embroidered cloth. Other shapes that rim the building’s top give it additional beauty.

It was an old building, probably 500 hundred or 600 years old.
“What is the name of this place?” I asked the woman in Tigrigna, pointing to the enclosure.
“Sheik Derbush,” she answered. “Semae Eyu. He answers people’s prayers.” Probably the woman thought I was there to offer my prayers for help.
“Sheik Derbush?”

The woman spoke of Sheik Derbush as if it were a human being or an angel or a saint. From her words, I could see she spoke of him not as someone that passed away hundreds of years ago, but as someone alive. She also spoke of him as someone that answers people’s prayers, one reason why it is described as a shrine. Probably it was a burial place of some holy From outside, I could see nothing man, in whom people have great faith. I was not far from the truth.

Professor Miran (p. 189) notes the following about holy-men’s shrines in Massawa and how people perceive these places: “Holy men’s tombs appealed to people since it was common belief that the soul of a saint lingered around the tomb and that the saint’s baraka - even after death - had the power to aid people seeking saintly intervention through prayers, the performing of rituals, and offerings.”

On my way, I had to stop at many other places, enjoying the beauty of the buildings. At one place, I stood glued to the spot, drinking its beauty. There was no information whatsoever, and I could not decide whether it was a government office, which the two flag posts at the top of the edifice seem to suggest, or a business building.

“Probably, this is the Banco di Roma, the street sign advertises.” I could not get inside for a wire fence made sure that no access was possible. The wire fence was probably thought of as an effective measure to protect the building from preventable destruction.

I have visited Massawa several times, but never enjoyed the beauty of the Old Town as I did during this visit. On previous visits, I ate, drank, and had fun, unaware of the beauty waiting to be discovered.