Keren: A City Bound by Mountains

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The gradual economic development and marketing is the main impulsion for the civilization of ancient scattered small villages in to cities.

That’s why many cities were established near large rivers and shores of seas and oceans. Almost all African cities were founded in the 19th century by European colonizing powers. Even though the establishment of Eritrean cities started with the arrival of Turks along the coast of the Red Sea, the main construction and development started in 1880 by Italian colonizers. Eritrean cities developed at the time of the Italian fascist system were Massawa, Keren and Asmara.

After discovering its natural beauty, comfortable climate and suitable land for agriculture, the Italians gave keren their full attention as a place for their citizens. Giuseppe Sapeto and Jovani Stalin, both Italian missionaries who came to visit keren in 1851, were pioneers who gave information to the world about keren. Giuseppe Sapeto not only discovered keren, but also went to Asseb and bought a piece of land, opening a door for the Italians to colonize Eritrea.

Following the evacuation of Turkish rulers, Egyptians came to Eritrea. In 1868, when keren was under the administration of the Egyptians, the natives in keren were pastoralists and numbered 1200 living in 300 huts. The information was documented in the diary of the Swiss, Berner Muzinger, representative of the Egyptian administration in 1861. Muzinger came to keren with German explorers and historians and settled there after marrying a native woman.

The Italians were led to keren in 1889 by Estifanos Dekin, a man from a nearby place called Sekoneyti, and this was the main cause for the founding of keren as a city. After displacing the natives and their livestock the Italian settlers first established a place called “Forovia”. This place had served as center of deployment for the Administration and railway transportation. Today it is serving as a bus terminal of Anseba Region.

The colonizer’s main aim was to rule the natives and exploit their natural resources, especially in agriculture, by using forced man power. To accomplish this, the Italians constructed a network of roads and railways in order to connect keren with highlands, the Red Sea and the Western low lands.

They set up an airport for small commercial airplanes to facilitate expeditions and business activities for their benefit. They were able to export their products to the world markets without any problem. In 1941, after the historical battle of Keren (Tenkuluhas), which marked the end of the Second World War, Italian colonization was defeated and replaced by the British rule.

In keren, starting from the beginning of the 20th century up to the mid-1970s, the small-scale industrial and agricultural activities by foreigners was substantial. Moreover, Italians had used keren as a place for agriculture and as a settlement for their citizens. In the history of expansion of colonialism in Africa, Italy used Eritrea, in general, and specifically keren as a land for agricultural crop production and as a settlement for thousands of Italian citizens. To this day, names of Italian citizens are found written on buildings.

The construction of buildings and modern agricultural infrastructure in keren and its surroundings had started in 1893 by one Italian investor in Elabered (near keren) on 11 hectares of land. And a modern milk production was started by a famous investor, Ernesto Ortela. The massive production of Ernesto was first sold to the thousands of Italians who were living in the cities. But through time, he also started exporting fruits and crops to other countries as well. Between 1896 and 1941, so many small-scale factories were founded and developed. Following are some of the investments and production activities.

Button factory: In 1940, bought up by a capitalist investor, Derosi, and built up by investor Btitoni, there was a button factory, which stood on a 30-thousand sq. m land, in the western part of keren. The buttons were made from kernel, which comes from the palm trees of the Barka region. As it was the best and suitable at the time, it was exported to the European markets. For instance, the buttons of the army clothes of the whole of Britain is said to have been made in this factory.

While kernel’s inner part is used for making buttons, the external part is used for making spice for alcohol. In 1940, the factory had 1000 permanent workers and was producing about 1 million and 700 thousand buttons, plus 4 thousand hectoliter spice monthly until the mid1950s when the factory was actively giving service.

Konel: located at the center of keren, the electric power station with huge generators was owned by Italian shareholders in 1947. Apart from providing electric services, the station used to provide ice cubes to hospitals, bars and other institutions using the generators. However, with the development of technology and as people began to own refrigerators, the station’s service was limited to providing electricity only.

Association of frankincense Keren: from the ancient times, Eritrean Frankincense was used for temples and other services by Egyptians and was famous at the Egyptian markets. Association of frankincense of keren was founded and owned by Italian shareholders aimed at collecting frankincense from west Eritrea, near keren, and preparing it for export by filtering it.

The factory was transferred from the Italian shareholders to Eritrean shareholders and it’s still functional today. From what’s been documented, the factory exported around 20 thousand kilos of frankincense in the years 1954 to 1974.

Slaughter house of cattle (Incode): this was set up at the beginning of the 1960s. It was located at the center of keren, to the west side, about 5 km on the keren-Sahel road. The owner of the facility was a Bulgarian investor, and the place was called “Bulgaria” by many.

The cattle were brought from Gash, Senhit and Sahel regions. After a few years of active work, the number of cattle began to decrease in number and quality. As a result, the facility began to be used to slaughter thousands of sheep and goats daily.

In the factory, there were 190 Eritrean and eight Bulgarian professional vets, and the meat was exported to the Middle East. However, in 1947, the factory was closed and began to serve as a military base of the Derg regime. At this time, after being repaired by the Administration of keren, it’s serving as a slaughter house of cattle.