The Governor’s Palace - the Building that Retells the Ozymandias Story

About Eritrea - History & Culture

If you visit the Governor’s Palace in Massawa, the broken statue at the entrance compels you to recall Shelly’s Ozymandias. You cannot fail to bring to mind the traveler, who recounts the story of the long dead monarch, who in his arrogance, boasts of his greatness. In his pride, the monarch brags: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” You must recall these words if you have read Shelly.

In the poem, the traveler describes the place, where we correctly conclude must have been the great monarch’s pride, and once exhibited his splendor and power. In a pointed comment, the traveler shows not even the great are spared from the ravages of time. “Nothing beside remains,” he adds. “round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

An internet based poetry-site explains that ‘Ozymandias’ was an ancient Greek name for Ramses II of Egypt. “It is actually a Greek version of the Egyptian phrase ‘User-maat-Re,’ one of Ramses’s Egyptian names.” Having studied ancient Greek, Shelly named his famous sonnet, Ozymandias.

Ramses II was one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, and many of the most famous tourist sites in Egypt, including the temple of Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum in Thebes, were built or planned during his incredibly long tenure (he lived until he was 90!), the site informs us. He is known not only for his building program, but also for several ambitious foreign military campaigns and for his diplomacy, especially with the Hittites, another important ancient Middle Eastern people.

On the meaning of the poem, one wrote: “Ozymandias’s works have crumbled and disappeared, his civilization is gone, and all has been turned to dust by the impersonal, indiscriminate, destructive power of history. The ruined statue is now merely a monument to one man’s hubris, and a powerful statement about the insignificance of human beings to the passage of time.”

According to a street sign in Massawa, in which visitors are encouraged to visit some historical places in the city, the Governor’s Palace was built between 1872 and 1875, when the Egyptians were masters of Massawa. The Palace was built of coral stones, like most of the buildings in the old town. A closer look shows the stone to be not so hard, certainly not as hard as black granite common in the highlands. One also notices the wall inlaid with blue-coloured, square shaped marbles. The ceiling was reinforced by strong wooden bars, closely placed to give it extra strength. One also notices that long, strong iron bars, the kind used for railways, were also used to buttress the ceiling.

But it is the strong and embroidered doors that give the place special beauty. The entrance is very similar to that of Sheik Derbush, with its semi-circular shape at the top, and wide rectangular shape at the bottom, which points to their common architectural influence. The doors, made of strong wood, have two parts, adorned by squares, with special patterns. The top squares, with their leaf like shapes at their four corners, give the impression of a bird on flight.

As my eyes fell on the broken statue, I could not help but recall Shelly’s wise words. It is a statue (now broken into two) carved with different lines and shapes. I could make no head or tail of the shapes or lines, carved out of the stone by the sculptor’s chisel. Probably someone more familiar with the history of the building and the people who inhabited it may understand the shapes better. May be it was put up there by Haileselassie who, I was told, made use of it when he visited Massawa.

To the left of the Governor’s Palace, one sees another building, outside of which stood the statue of two lions, the symbols of the late Ethiopian Emperor, sitting on their haunches. The late Ethiopian Emperor may also have ordered the erection of this statue.

In a new book Janhoy Ena Derg (The Emperor and the Dergue), a collection of true stories, Tesfaye Ghebreab, shows how the Emperor and his successor, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, committed atrocities against the Eritrean people in an attempt to intimidate the people into submission. He shows the length to which the Emperor and the dictator went to implement their policy: “To kill the fish, dry out the sea.”

Inside, the building is full of old furniture and household items, which I could not decide if they belonged to the Emperor or to someone else. In one instance, I remember up on seeing a small old freezer saying to myself: “This could not have been the emperor’s fridge.” After all, this was the man that condemned millions of Ethiopians to starvation but fed his pets with choice meat. It was the kind of freezer any Eritrean bachelor would own. It was not the kind of freezer fit for a king.

But the other items in the rooms give the impression that the last occupants had taste for beautiful things. One table, whose top is gone, testifies to the carpenter’s skills that made it. Four lions themselves sitting on their haunches on a carefully carved plank serve as the feet of another table. Perhaps it was the Emperor’s writing table. Its drawers are gone, and three rectangular holes gape at the visitor. Another rectangular hole winks at the visitor from one side of the table.

You find another table, this time a long one, which probably served as a dining table. Part of its top is missing; furniture lay on its top. Though old and crumbling, this too has the marks of beauty and elegance, which it possessed during its best days.

In another room, one sees a low-lying sofa, now in tatters. One can see that the room served as a kind of drawing-room. It is a bit secluded, away from the other rooms, and with the door shut, guests can be entertained and private matters discussed without intrusion. Now, the room is littered with dirt and pieces of materials.

Despite my wish, I was unable to go and see the rooms upstairs. The stairs that lead to the rooms have crumbled and, therefore, made the rooms upstairs inaccessible to visitors.

It was not time (or its ravage) that brought the Emperor, and his successor and the end of their rule in Eritrea. A few hundred metres from the Governor’s Palace is the salt-field, from which the Eritrean fighters tried to take the whole of Massawa in 1977. Many fighters paid with their lives to bring about the city’s liberation which, unfortunately, didn’t materialize due to the involvement of the Soviet Union.

“That night,” Ambassador Baduri writes in his Ertra - Guuzo ab Tezekrotatey, his new book, recalling the events of Christmas Eve of 1977, “by coincidence the BBC radio’s reporter, Simon Dering, who reported of the battle of Massawa, was there. He gave a description of the battle that he had recorded. As reported, the battle was really deadly and fierce. In the battle, the Ethiopians had tanks manned by the Yemenis, who fought from the Naval Base. The reason was because the Ethiopian Army could not themselves use the modern Soviet weapons. Similarly, the Cubans flew the Mig. 21 and Mig. 23 fighter planes, which bombed our fortifications. In addition, a Russian naval base in the sea, opposite the Port of Massawa, used cannon and rockets and continuously battered our fortifications that were found around Massawa. The heroic fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, swamped by salt water, and deep in the salt-field up to the waist, and under heavy enemy-fire marched forwarded to capture the Naval Base” (p. 423).

The attack failed and Massawa had to wait 13 years to see freedom.

Reading Janhoy Ena Derg, one sees the emperor in his nakedness, whose army commanders ordered the burning of towns and the murder of innocent civilians after almost every battle concluded in his army’s defeat. After each atrocity, the Eritreans who escaped the killings of the Emperor’s and the Colonel’s soldiers joined the liberation forces. It was the fighters, reinforced by innocent victims (that joined the liberation forces) that brought the end of the Ethiopian Ozymandias.