Last Saturday, 5 a.m., I embarked on a short trip with the famous journalist Zainab Bedawi and her crew working on a documentary. While driving down the mountainous roads of Eritrea’s highlands, I am looking at the window and witness the fog hitting the mountains that makes you feel like you are on top of the world, women covered with their netsela are walking down the road and rushing to catch up the mass at the church nearby, young sportsmen and women on their running routine while young cyclists are sharing the road with us. The houses at the border of the road amaze our guests, in different colors from white, green to yellow, are in harmonious shape with the mountains… constructed for the railway and road builders during the time of Italian colonization while you can see the initial villages down the hill, in the valleys surrounded by the mountains of Durfo. Durfo, the romantic place of young Asmarino couples in search of privacy while enjoying the view and seeping a tea together.
The zigzag continues for another hour, passing by the towns of Nefasit, Dongolo Lalai and Tahtai, baboons cheering up on the side of the road while beehives and honey producers are advertising their honey and tempting drivers to stop and buy some… One of the important towns; Gindae’, is a place where Italians developed agriculture and gardens while being a transit point for merchants from the coastline towards Asmara. I see dwellers starting their daily routine while others embarked on the road with their camel… farmers accompanying their cattle to fertile areas and the heat of the lowlands starts to be felt… Gindae’, during the armed struggle, was heavily bombarded especially between 1989 until independence, as Ginbar Gindae’ or Front Gindae’ was a key town for the liberation of Eritrea.
Almost done with the serpentine route when we reach Gahtelay, a small town right before Massawa port city where tourists and workers in transit take the time to sip a coffee and eat some fresh watermelon. We almost reach our first destination: Massawa. No time to rest, just the time to throw our bags in the hotel and the second after, we are on a boat to Dahlak Island. Dahlak Island, an important symbol of civilization and trade dating back to centuries. After more than an hour on a speed boat in which I feel we are going to fly, small islands and commercial boats along the way until the horizon opens up to a wonderful view between a light blue sea and white sand that makes one forget that it is more than 40 degrees C out there.
It is almost noon; the sun hits the ground of the island fearlessly. The Island of Dahlak Kebir, the biggest of its archipelago is home to more than 3000 inhabitants and can be compared to the Central Region in terms of surface. While driving on the island, one cannot see the ending point, small goats, donkeys and camels observed us while passing by.
We arrived in a small village, warm welcome by the elders rushing to bring us water and fresh fish from the Red Sea. Children, curious, are coming to greet us. We are welcomed by local dwellers, mostly Afar, young women in colorful clothing became shy because of our cameras while young and less young proudly welcome us and invite us to their houses.
The people of the island seem to live in harmony and far away from the stress of urban life. Zainab is in her element and talking in Arabic to the elders. Most inhabitants are fishermen and traders between the port city of Massawa and also Yemen. Mr. Abdu Ahmed, the administrator of the villages in the surrounding is from the village called Derbushet, a village home to 1200 inhabitants. Mr. Abdu, whose forefathers migrated from Yemen and settled in the Island is Dahlaki who speaks the local Dahlik language as well as Afar, Arabic and Tigrinya. As a former teacher, the inhabitants elected him as the administrator of the island for two years. He explained how the daily life on the Island is; children go to school until 8th grade and, then, continue their studies in Massawa. There are two health centers on the island giving basic health treatments but as he said the island is not prone to many diseases.
Young men are traders and fishermen and bring about 2-3 quintals a day of fishes which are then sold in majority to the Massawa fishing Corporation. As we go around the island, we notice a number of water points all in their traditional shape. Interestingly, with the first settlers who are believed to be Arab settlers built up 365 water points, which mean that one water point is used per day. I notice that right by the coast, the water is in light blue and warm. One of the elders of the community explains that the water in this specific area is known to be a remedy against joint and muscular pains.
While we continue visiting the island, we arrive to a historical site where tombstones as well as Arabic and Sabaeans scripts are written on stones. The immense site is a sign of the first inhabitants of the island and the first to embrace the religion of Islam. Awet, a young archeologist explains to me how the island is intertwined with the history of Adulis and Massawa. Indeed, soon after a short visit to the island and without noticing we are back to Massawa visiting the old part of the port city and the first ever mosque named the Sahaba Shrine founded in 615 AD. This small mosque in the middle of the free zone port is a symbol of the first Islamic holy place in the world and even prior the establishment of Mecca, which explains the reason why the shrine is not in the direction of Mecca.
12 hours later and I am in the car on the road from Massawa towards Adulis passing by Foro. Thanks to the newly built road, the trip is going smoothly that we arrive earlier than expected to Adulis. The archeologist site located in the Northern Red Sea region was a port city and a key trading area but also a wanted location to different kingdoms and settlers. The first inhabitants of Adulis dated back to the 2nd millennium B.C., which is before the Axumite civilization. While walking around, we finally see some excavation and a byzantine-type of church of 10 to 18 meter square and dates back to the 5-6 century AD. Built in volcanic rock and stones, the church was standing on six pillars. The excavation is still undergoing but already, we can notice the work and signs of civilization of Adulis. Adulis, which was under the Axum, was a key trading point linking the Dahlak islands with the kingdom.
Dwellers arriving through Dahlak and Adulis managed to slowly go towards the highlands and thus, the road trip continues direction Qohaito through Mai Habar and the city of Adi Keyih. While driving back through the serpentine road, passing by Dekemhare, we then pass by a green valley where baobab trees are standing as pillars along the way towards the town of Segeneiti. The journey continues, passing by the beautiful modern building of Adi Keyih College of Arts and Social Sciences, I see that the Coptic Church, which was destroyed after bombing by the Ethiopian regime during the border war, is now restored. Adi Keyih, people walking around on this Sunday afternoon. A population mixed between Saho and Tigrinya ethnic groups. We are now rushing to Qohaito before the sun goes down.
Suleiman, a local dweller of Qohaito is patiently waiting on us. The time is not in our favor, the driver is showing his amazing skills on this difficult road. We have about 30 minutes before the sun goes down. Finally, we stop holding our breath and I see standing the famous pillars that I kept seeing on pictures for far too long. The pillars, which are encrypted in Gee’z language situated in the Southern Region, are known to be a pre-Axumite settlement. These edifices are parts of the Temple of Mariam Wakino. While the town of Senafe or formerly known as Metera, 15km from Qohaito, was a point of passage in which it is said to have an underground passage linking the area to Axum.
The first inhabitants of Qohaito date back to the fifth millennium BC and are situated close to the Eritrea’s highest mountain Emba Soira. Adulis is located on the east side of Qohaito and it is claimed to be a trade route between Adulis and Axum. Suleiman shows us how there is more to be found under as the earth as it sort of ‘resonate’ when you throw a stone or jump on it. Qohaito as one of the historical attractions of Eritrea is also sign of the great history of our ancestors as many other sites in the country.
The sun is now going down and we can finally enjoy the sunset as the mission was accomplished for Zainab and the whole crew.
This short but dense road trip gave a glimpse to the rich historical attractions Eritrea owns. Clearly, the fabulous and various landscapes between the highlands and lowlands, the different livelihood and the still untapped resources will be the booster to the tourism sector of the country in the next 25 years.