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Massawa: The Golden Port City of Memorable Sites

Last weekends, Daniel, a friend of mine from Germany, and I drove along the road east of the capital, following the zigzag route of Arberebue-Embatkala, finally arriving on Massawa, a seaside city just 115 km east of Asmara. It was a burning weather; the sun had not yet downed to the west. Up on arrival, the picturesque downtown the port city caught Daniel’s eyes, and stared towards the buildings. Surprised by the styles and fashions of the city relics, he froze for around a quarter of an hour. As a student of architecture he was lucky enough to come face-to-face with a city of antique and modern architectural designs. “I can sense some elements of uniqueness; unusual in many parts of Europe,” For me, Massawa looked as if a city with inextinguishable ancient building styles that witnessed peace, war, beauty and prosperity as early from the beginning of ancient sailing times. “It appears to be a mysterious city with edifices that date back many centuries,” Daniel suggested. Yet again he immediately went back to our truck, unpacked his bag, armed himself with a Canon digital camera, stripped of his shirt, and looked sideways as if he were a hunter looking for a kill. “Which building first?” he asked, ready to begin his work. “General shoot,” I suggested. He nodded his head, stepped some hundred meters back and snapped some couple of shots.
By then, the sun had gone far down the western skyline, while the port city changed its color into gold, which would ultimately add a flavor into his pictures. “Hey, look!” Daniel whispered. “This is the right time to take pictures of the city. Let’s go for the details.” Thinking of architecture, he was in a lookout for an in depth look of the whole city, but the time we had did not permit. As we walked over the soon-to-be busy streets, Daniel would stop for a photograph for some ten minutes in every ten meters walk. “There is nothing that I should leave out; every part of every building is worth photographing.” In some parts of the city, he was extremely seduced by the building fashions.

At times he labeled the structures “Egyptian” styles. At other times, he named others, “Turkish”, “Italian” and so on so forth. “According to him, Massawa possesses building structures that may be attributed to the various colonial past. Suddenly, as we reached the heart of the city, Daniel stopped while at the same time talking and smiling, with a sense of hypnosis. Pointing his finger, he said, “Look! That flowery building which appears to be dancing, is Egyptian.” He took a dozen of shots of it. Again, after some meters he would stop and take another photograph of a completely different-styled building. He would label it, “Turkish” if blocked, or “Italian” if open. Before the last photograph of our first day tour, however, we had spent most of our time taking the photograph of the Sahaba Mosque, which is believed to be the first mosque in the World; there we missed the last shooting light of the August sunset of the day.

Now that the sun is gone, the mood seemed relaxed. It seemed as if the night was the most preferable time for every creature to move for a purpose. By the time we arrived only a few people, probably they could also be guests just like us, and a crowd of black hawks moved around. I think the locals were afraid of the scorching sun of the summer days; hence they came into life only when the sun was gone; they had been snoozing in beds in the heat of the day. By around 6:00, p.m., however, businesses had begun to open up their things for display. In no time, life in the alleys became normal–cafes, restaurants, archaic shops and arcade turned busy, and an avalanche of voice from the music shops, and bars around reverberated. Many people dressed in light shirts, miniskirts, hanged around for relaxation, and that was the point when fun in the streets began. A little while, every bar and restaurant started to get packed by people.

We, on our part, reserved a table just a short driveway across the center of the port, and ordered a seaside dinner at Central Hotel, a large graceful hotel situated just on the side of the sea. It is the most popular hotel both by tourists and the locals. It provides both in and out door services. We preferred in the open air, just by the side of the sea while guests who wish may reserve some large leather chairs inside the main building. There was no hurry to resume the taste for extra relaxation. Just after a cup of mineral water with gas, one would feel tremendously fulfilled. One feels more stimulated only after he scanned the menu of the restaurant. It detailed a variety of foreign and local dishes, but for us we thought of something that seemed appropriate in the place. Thus, we ordered for a freshly fried fish. After dinner, just the fresh orange juice that we enjoyed was as much as necessary. Daniel was greatly pleased by the service of the hotel: “The quality of the food is extraordinarily good, and the price relatively fair.” reserving beds had no more importance; much of Massawa’s leisure time is in the night. If one has to visit the city at all, strolling downtown the city in the night is an important part of the trip. More interestingly, the test of true Massawa is around the dim and tranquil corners. We, thus, chose to pass the rest of our nighttime enjoying a coffee in front of a noisy bar in the main street so that we get pleasure from the gracious atmosphere. The appeal of Massawa struck Daniel when we ordered for a traditional coffee ceremony: “I will not forget this ceremony,” Daniel said. “The Memory of Massawa stays constantly with me.” If it happens to suit him, Daniel has the plan to arrange to come back to Massawa accompanied by his friends from Germany. “This is a memorable experience in my life,” he added.

The next morning, after the sun had broken the eastern horizon, we packed our things up, and headed our way towards Gurgusum, a silent and unpolluted beach along with white sands. Except a hawk, no one dears to stay out of the sea once the sun started haunting the summer days of Massawa, or else one has to hide oneself in an air-conditioned house. For that matter, except for brief moment for breakfast, and lunch in Gurgusum beach hotel, we chose to drift and dance along the currents of the sea all the daylong.

Daniel had a unique experience of sea swimming. Perhaps, he mastered the art of swimming early in his childhood. Once he happened to drawn in the sea, he is never tired, nor does he touch the seabed. And if he preferred to be flat on his back in the beach, he appears to be spiritually as well as physically connected with the sea. I, most of the time, left him alone; he never said a word, silent. But when finally I asked him if he had flagella or its kind, he erupted into laughter, swallowed some water, burst into a continuous sneeze, and stepped out of the sea once and for the rest of this year. By then, we were too late to cover the rest of our program—that of visiting some other important sites. We had to do it anyway. We left the last footprints of ours at the beach, 5 PM . On our way back downtown, the sites that reveal the damages of war came to my memory. Hence, the places that I thought Daniel should see first, was the three military tanks that are standing lofty in the city, just nearby Red Sea Hotel. Daniel snapped a dozen of shots from sideways until he finally approached me to know more about them. I told him that those tanks, belonged to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, made the liberation of Massawa in 1990, possible. Then I took my friend to the ruins of Gibi, Emperor Haileselasie of Ethiopia’s resting palace. It is said that the building has been left untouched to symbolize the sunset, the defeat, of the Ethiopian occupation of the country.

We had so many other sites to look at, but then darkness had already settled around us. So much remains to be told. The story of the undersea world, the marine life in the unexploited Eritrean Sea is yet undiscovered. The magic, however, begins just on the surface of the Islands.

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