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A glimpse into historical Shipwrecks in the Eritrean Red Sea Coast

Shipwrecks refer to the remains of ships that have been wrecked either beached on land or sunk to the bottom of a body of water by deliberate or accidental events. According to UNESCO’s statistical data it is estimated that over 3 million shipwrecks have lain within the past thousand years on the Earth´s Seas and Oceans. Regarding Africa, even though the number is enormous there are only 108 internationally recognized and registered ship wrecks. The general consensus is that historical wrecks are often not more than 50 years of age.


There are some internationally well-known wrecks in the world such as the Titanic, Britannica, Lusitania, Estonia, the Empress of Ireland and Costa Concordia that are the result of catastrophic events. The main causes of shipwrecks include poor design, improperly stowed cargo, navigation and other human errors leading to collisions (with other ships, the shoreline, an iceberg, etc.), bad weather, fire, forming of artificial reefs, foundering, warfare, piracy, mutiny and/or sabotage.

According to UNESCO, 2001 definition, underwater archaeological sites have a broad meaning, often shifting and interlocking within a specific watery environment and include a range of sites from shipwrecks and harbors to submerged prehistoric landscapes. Thus, underwater archaeological sites may consist of the remains of ships, other watercrafts or vessels and artifacts accidentally or deliberately deposited in to the water body. It also includes the remains of structures that were originally built wholly or partly underwater (such as jetties, crannogs, bridges, fish traps, piers etc) as well as the remains of human activities that originally took place on dry or marshy land that has subsequently been swamped, either by rising water levels or by marine or fluvial erosion.

The most ancient evolution of sea craft took place in four geographical centers, which have a largely parallel history. These are the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Erythrean Sea (Red Sea) and Insulindia. The Erythrean or Red Sea with a ring of water around the Arabian Peninsula connected the great centers of eastern civilization between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Thus, the Red Sea, which includes the Eritrean coastal territory, was the origin of nearly all the sea borne commerce and is known for its greatest mass of wrecks in the world.

Based on historical accounts, during the ancient times the most known Eritrea’s gateways to the sea were Adulis, Beilul, Zula and other harbors. These sea gateways of antiquity and, particularly, the ancient port of Adulis played a major role as trade hubs and routes between the Arabian Peninsula, Mediterranean world and India. It is known that during the Greek and Roman times, ships from Egypt sailed to the Red Sea and beyond to India stopping at the port of Aduils to trade Mediterranean goods for African ivory and hides. Thus, due to its strategic position, Eritrea enjoyed intensive trade activities, and it is unquestionable to consider that scores of material culture remains are under its water and coastal areas. The Eritrean coastal territory, which is part of the southern Red Sea, served as the strategic potent market way for the ancient maritime traders of the world.

The ancient shipwreck of Assarca, which is the first partially excavated discovery along the Eritrean coast, presents a base for further ancient archaeological seafaring study in this yet unexplored region. The discovery of a shipwreck of some 15 centuries ago just below 4-6 meters is the first evidence for the Eritrean grand potential of underwater archaeology. With proper research, the discovery of a shipwreck at Assarca Island will provide tremendous evidence of the sea borne ancient civilized kingdom of the world in general as well as that of the Horn in particular. The survey and partial excavation of the ancient shipwreck of Assarca was conducted by the Nautical Archaeology of Texas A&M University in collaboration with the Eritrean Diving Center and the Ministry of Marine Resources in 1995 and 1997 under the supervision of Ralph K. Pedersen. According to the excavation report, the amphora excavated from the wreck has close parallels from at least two sites in Eritrea: Adulis and Matara, Aksum in Ethiopia, Elephntine Island in Egypt and the shipwreck at Iskandi Burnu in Turkey. Various examples have also been found around the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the wreck at Assarca Island is a unique find and from the evidence of the archaeological finds, the wreck appears to date from the 4th to the 7th century AD. The discovery of a shipwreck at Assarca island that dates back between the 4th and 7th century in only six meters, therefore holds a great potential for our understanding of the Red Sea maritime seafaring in the late antiquity.

Similarly, in the advent of the colonial period, the Eritrean coastal area was the main entrance seaway for the various colonial powers. Thus, it is undeniable to consider that traces of the commercial activities are preserved along the coastal and marine areas. The Ministry of Marine Resources in collaboration with the Eritrean Diving Center and foreign nationals has been exploring and surveying the coastal and marine areas around the port of Massawa since 1997. As shipwrecks quickly become artificial reefs, they are the best place to find aquatic life. Thus, shipwrecks were the special target of the survey not only for better understanding of the location and distribution of marine fish but also as elegant sites of research and recreational diving. Even though, the survey focused on the wrecks as a source of aquatic life rather than cultural remains, it provided a rough sketch for future marine archaeology research.

The survey done in 1997 resulted in the identification of about fifty shipwrecks. From the survey, we can understand that the majority of the wrecks are located around Massawa Port, Gubber Mus Meffit north of Dahlak Kebir, Nacura Channel, Hrigigo Bay and Marsa Gulbub. The name of eleven shipwrecks identified out of the fifty registered wrecks include Boleslaw, Krzywoutsy, Sambuk, Krefeld, Adua, Urania, Nazario, Prometeo, Guiseppe Mazzini, Capitano Bottengo, Panaria and Josephina. In addition, it was possible to identify twenty types of vessels, five cargoes, three landing crafts, one service, four passenger vessels, two tankers, one naval vessel and three ancient vessels including the excavated wreck found in Black Assarca island.

Eritrea has faced a number of successive colonizers since the 15th century. Although some of their cultural influence is still alive in the port of Massawa and Dahlak Islands, there is yet undiscovered colonial culture under the Eritrean Sea. Eritrea, which occupies significant part of the western shore of the Red Sea, is also recognized for its position amid the events that led to the sinking of colonial ships in World War II in the Red Sea. The Italians fled southwards to the highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1940 as the British advanced to invade Eritrea during World War II. The British swept forward into Asmara and looked down from its mountain plateau into the coastal areas of Massawa. In the three harbors of Massawa and in its off-lying islands lay a fleet of some forty vessels that included German and Italian passenger and warships. In addition, in the northern harbor there were two irreplaceable floating steel dry docks. A tornado of explosions swept their waterlines, blew out the sides and bottoms of the ships by dozens. The priceless floating dry docks received a special attention and fourteen heavy bombs planted in them to insure not only their sinking but also their total destruction. From the archaeological and historical perspective, such a mass of shipwrecks has an enormous impact in reconstructing the political and socio-economic aspects of the colonial period. These wrecks are of different category for various purposes and have unparalleled and significant cultural history. Thus, with accurate preservation and research methods, the wrecks will provide crucial evidence in the reconstruction of the colonial history. In this respect, the presence of a mass of colonial shipwrecks will play a major role in reconstructing the colonial cultural influences and trade relations with different parts of the world.

Furthermore, in the 1990-1991, there was a heavy battle between the Eritrean fighters and Ethiopian armed forces both on land and sea culminating in several wrecks. During this time the Nakura Island was the main military base for the Soviet Union and the Derge regime. Numerous jets, warships, dry docks, armaments, tanks, airplanes and different vehicles attest to this phenomenon. When the EPLF fighters attacked and fully controlled the islands along the Red Sea coast and the port of Massawa, they destroyed several military ships and some of the mass of ships and armaments were also intentionally wrecked by the Dergue regime in order for the vessels not to fall in the hands of EPLF fighters. These wrecks bear testimony to the major battlefields fought in the Sea on the eve of the independence of Eritrea early in 1990.

Historically, wrecks are attractive to maritime archaeologists because they preserve historic information focused on seafaring, warfare, historic events like battlefields, colonization, environmental change and inter-state trade connections and relations. From the archaeological point of view shipwrecks are essentially a snapshot of the past, capturing a moment in history without contamination from subsequent generations of inhabitants mingling with picture as in terrestrial sites. As a special kind of archaeological site that has compared to time capsules, a shipwreck is essentially an unread book.

Shipwrecks have been subjected to national and international laws for hundreds of years. In recent years, however, many countries have enacted cultural heritage legislation for the protection of shipwrecks and other cultural remains in their internal waters and territorial seas. Thus, at national and international level, the most effective mechanism in the protection of maritime archaeological sites is the legislation and proclamation of laws and regulations. It is important to protect underwater or maritime cultural heritage from pillaging and looting through national laws and regulations. Internationally, they may be protected by the state ratifying the UNESCO Convention of 2001 on protection of underwater cultural heritage. Moreover, it is advisable to find out protected areas, which are believed to be archaeologically significant. In Eritrea, the government has already enacted the protection of our heritage in the national charter of 1994, opened two museums after independence for the conservation of national heritage as a whole and officially proclaimed cultural and natural heritage laws in 2015.

Generally, shipwrecks have multiple values and uses that must be taken into consideration for management purposes. If a wreck appears to be historically significant, it possesses exceptional value commemorating the history of a nation. Shipwrecks are essentially a snapshot of the past, capturing a monument in history without contamination from subsequent generations. Therefore, they are the center for research and practical education platforms. They are principal profit making and enjoyment venues for diving, salvaging, fishing, production of movies and publishing of books. They are also associated with habitat areas and coralline formations developed in and around the shipwreck sites. Shipwrecks can help refine the chronology of the past and represent the actual materials and technology of one particular period in a more accurate manner when compared to evidence from terrestrial sites.

In conclusion, Eritrea is located in one of the main geographical areas of the world, where the most ancient evolution of sea craft took place. Due to its strategic position, it has a grand potential for exploring and studying underwater cultural heritage. The coastal heritage of Eritrea is believed to be among the world’s recognized regions owing to its natural and cultural resources. Thus, Eritrea faces the task of preserving and researching its multiple underwater cultural heritage. The preservation and study of underwater cultural heritage of Eritrea is, therefore, vital in the national development campaign.

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission

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