Winston Churchill, the great British leader, once said “history with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” History not only serves as a source of light, but also as a breath of life for a nation. Simply, understanding the past is very important for the survival and continuity of every nation. Eritrea, seemingly new and young, is actually an ancient entity which has contributed much to the world of civilization – much of which, both in terms of material and historical significance, was severely devastated and distorted by various colonial powers (especially the Ethiopians).
Religion is often associated with faith, while country is set alongside nationalism. Nationalism may be defined as a patriotic feeling and faith towards one’s nation. There are many conceptual connections between religion and nation. All major religions have a sacred place. Likewise all countries have historical sites. Historical sites are often highly sacred holy national places to which the faithful nationals “must” pay a visit at least once in their life. The historical sites of Eritrea are a type of Mecca or Jerusalem for Eritreans, representing locations to which all Eritreans should make a pilgrimage.
Recently, members of the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS, located in Adi Keih) made a three-day trip to Adulis and other historical sites found in the Northern Red Sea region. Students and instructors from the History Department, as well as a representative of the CASS PFDJ Office left the campus early on Friday the 23rd of December. The air was cool and crisp, and the bright rays of sunlight penetrated the morning fog which surrounded Mount Kohaito, the roof of Eritrea. The destination was Adulis, historically known as one of the metropolitan port cities of the Axumite civilization. Adulis is a rich historical archeological site, located about 40 kilometers south of Massawa. Thanks to the Harat transportation company, the journey was convenient and fast. Although a long trip (230 Km journey from Adi Keih to Massawa), the revolutionary songs played on the bus sound-system kept everyone energized and upbeat.
On the journey to Adulis, Mr. Yohannes from the museum of the Northern Red Sea region took the lead and gave a brief introduction about the site. In his briefing, he stated that “recent archaeological findings have come up with the power to alter the conventional history of the entire region.” Continuing his explanation, he reminded the visitors that the “time has come to fully appreciate, understand and own our past.”
Eritrea’s rich history has been hijacked by Ethiopia and Ethiopianist historians who have often dedicated their service to the construction and decoration of Ethiopian history by the very ink of prejudice and dominance. After receiving the illuminating lecture and personal observation of the site, the students (who will graduate with degrees in History) reflected a new emotion and were eager to play their part in the reconstruction of Eritrea’s past history. Mr. Ghirmawi Araya and Mr. Semere Habteslasie, young and energetic instructors in the department, gave important historical comments and insights, while also raising provocative questions for further study. Encouragingly, they also pledged to lead their students in the exploration and reconstruction of the ancient history of Eritrea. Today, the ancient metropolitan port city of Adulis is buried deep, waiting for archeologists and historians to excavate and reveal its rich history. Eritrea’s material and spiritual past is buried in the bosom of Adulis.
After Adulis, the next program was a visit to the Northern Red Sea museum located in the heart of Massawa – the pearl of the Red Sea. We were amused by the magnificent architecture, treatment and organization of the museum. Mr. Isaias, an archeologist working in the museum, explained everything displayed in the archeological, cultural and marine rooms. Pictorial documents and other materials found in the historical room of the museum were explained in soft, mellow manner by historian Mr. Tigsti. The armed struggle section, especially the portrayal of the tragic Sh’eb massacre left a deep imprint on everyone’s mind. After the Battle of Afabet in 1988, described by renowned historian Basil Davidson as “the biggest victory ever scored by a liberation movement anywhere since Dien Bien Fu,” the Ethiopian army turned its weapons on the defenseless civilian inhabitants of Sh’eb (on the 12 May 1988).
Afterwards, racing with the sunset, we travelled to the oldest Muslim shrine – the Sahaba mosque, built as early as 615 AD. History confirms that the first wave of peaceful Islamic expansion was experienced in Eritrea. The tour commentator, Mr. Tigsti, identified and explained that “the historical roots of the existing unity between Christians and Muslims date back to early years of Islam and its peaceful expansion.” Mutual respect, tolerance, unity and affection are old Eritrean values which were later enhanced during the armed struggle, and are the very qualities that Eritreans are known for. According to historical sources, Eritrea accepted Islam well before Saudi Arabia did; consider that the Sahaba mosque was built seven years before Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) himself escaped from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.
The days we spent in Massawa, Adulis and Foro were fascinating. Upon our return, we all went to Gorgusum beach to enjoy the Red Sea. We swam for nearly three hours, leaving with full satisfaction. There is nothing more charming than seeing young and old, men and women, Eritreans and foreigners harmoniously swim and play in the pure and peaceful Eritrean sea.
A fourth-year history student, Abeba Tesfay, after she tested the delicacy of the Red Sea, pointed out, “I understand the motive behind the Ethiopians’ readiness to fight for the Red Sea. The Red Sea is life.” Weldegebriel, a second-year student, expressed how the “Red Sea is the gladness, joy and honor of Eritrea.” Afterward, during a lighter moment, my invitation to help fourth-year student Ruth Ghebrezghi swim was rejected by the colorful statement, “No thanks! The Eritrean sea can’t submerge an Eritrean!” It was wonderful to see the light of happiness and joy sown in the heart of the young students.
Man, as explained by Geoffrey Barraclough, is a historical animal with a deep sense of his own past. If he cannot integrate the past by a history explicit and true, he will integrate it by a history implicit and false. Eritreans of all ages, especially students, have to visit our historical sites, so as to integrate with the past through a clear and factual history.
Institutions of higher education and other ministries must establish plans to introduce their members to the ancient and modern historical sites and development projects.
Our history waits for more evidence and research. History is an aggregation of truths, half-truths, myths, prejudices, personal narratives and official evasions. It is a canvas upon which many actors across ages have marked their ideas and versions. Therefore, we have the responsibility to process and filter the existing literature. Failure to reconstruct and integrate the past by history – realistic, scientific and accurate – is trying to breathe without lungs. Let’s recover our past together and introduce it to the present.
As a final note, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to College of Marine Technology, Massawa and the Northern Red Sea Museum for their tremendous hospitality and wonderful support.