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Exploring Eritrea’s Enchanting Underwater Heritage Sites

By :- Mussie Efriem

Hidden beneath the seas is a massive underwater, embracing plenty of submerged archives of human history, but it is the least discovered part of the Earth. Underwater and maritime ar­chaeology involves discovering and analyzing submerged mate­rial culture from former societies. These underwater sites, which include shipwrecks laden with commerce and buried communi­ties engulfed by rising seas, pro­vide a unique view into human relationships with water bodies over time.

Revealing the secrets of the un­derwater sites is no simple task. Underwater excavation presents numerous difficulties, including severe conditions, big budget, restricted sight, and the need for specialist equipment. These dif­ficulties, along with the sheer size of bodies of water, make maritime archaeology one of the least studied frontiers in human history.

The Red Sea is a unique marine environment. Its fascinating story begins with its young age. Com­pared to other seas and oceans, it is a mere rift valley in its geologi­cal infancy. This ongoing trans­formation from land to seafloor enhances its vibrant ecosystems. Notably, the Red Sea boasts 3.8% of the world’s coral reefs, a testa­ment to the unique conditions that have fostered plenty of species of marine life. These reefs, fringing the coastline for thousands of ki­lometers, provide a vital habitat for the Red Sea’s diverse flora and fauna.

The Red Sea has over a thou­sand islands, with two particu­larly significant archipelagos gracing the southern region. The Farasan Islands stand in the east along the Saudi Arabian territory while the Dahlak Archipelago, with its impressive 350-plus is­lands, dominates the western waters of the Red Sea along the Eritrean territory. Eritrea borders over 1200 kilometers of this re­markable coastline.

The Eritrean maritime envi­ronment has exceptional ma­rine biodiversity and a rich un­derwater cultural heritage. Its strategic location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean propelled the Red Sea to prominence as a vital trade route throughout history. One such an­cient trade center that flourished on the Eritrean coast was the leg­endary port city of Adulis, which is significant evidence of the connection ancient Eritrean soci­eties had with the Red Sea.

With its long coastline on the Red Sea, Eritrea holds immense potential for unlocking past se­crets. Mr. Isaias Tesfazgi, an ar­cheologist at the Department of Culture in the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum, is leading the way in this intriguing field, and he and a handful of his colleagues are pioneers in the study of un­derwater archaeology in Eritrea. Mr. Isaias’s and his fellow col­leagues’ efforts mark the begin­ning of organized underwater and maritime archaeological discov­eries in Eritrea. Mr. Isaias studied underwater diving at Massawa’s internationally certified Eritre­an Diving and Training Center (EDTC). He has refined his ex­pertise by taking courses abroad and actively promoting Eritrea’s cultural heritage through collabo­rations with international part­ners.

Recently, Mr. Isaias spent a few weeks in Turkey upgrading his skills on the UPL ship (a globally known water vehicle specifically designed for underwater excava­tions). During his stay in Tur­key, Mr. Isaias took part in two underwater photography contests among dozens of participants that came from 13 countries, and he stood first in one contest and fourth in the second. His standing in the contests shows Isaias’ skill and brings much-needed interna­tional recognition to the burgeon­ing field of Eritrean underwater archaeology. His success inspires Eritrean researchers and paves the way for them to explore the hidden depths of their maritime heritage. Mr. Isaias’ and his col­leagues’ work will unveil the fresh and untold stories hidden beneath the waves of the Eritrean Red Sea, shedding light on the rich tapestry of preexisting civi­lizations.

In collaboration with relevant institutions, the Northern Red Sea Museum has embarked on a critical first step in an attempt to make the vision a reality: an un­derwater cultural heritage (UCH) inventory in selected areas of the Dahlak Islands and Massa­wa. This initiative is crucial for identifying and documenting po­tential archaeological sites, and laying the groundwork for future exploration and research. Mr. Isa­ias says the initial UCH inventory conducted in the Dahlak Islands and Massawa has yielded fasci­nating insights into the nature of Eritrea’s underwater cultural heritage. This rich tapestry en­compasses a remarkable range of submerged artifacts, offering a glimpse into various periods of Eritrean history and maritime ac­tivity. This includes the hulks of ancient shipwrecks, giving traces of past trade routes and explora­tion voyages. Modern cargo ships and warships lie alongside them, testaments to the ever-evolving nature of maritime commerce and conflicts along the Red Sea. Even the tools of daily life are present – fishing boats and rem­nants of a bygone era’s fishing practices. The inventory includes submerged airplanes, floating dry docks, and T-55 tanks. These findings hint at how humans have interacted with the Red Sea throughout history.

One of the essential sites lo­cated by the UCH is the legend­ary port city of Adulis, located just 56 kilometers southeast of Massawa. Historical accounts and potential underwater remains hint at its bustling trade connec­tions, which extend to the shores of the Mediterranean (Rome and Greece), the markets of the In­dian Ocean (India), and the Far East (China). However, Adulis’ influence waned around the 7th century AD. Then, the Dahlak Islands, an archipelago along the Eritrean coastline, emerged as a new center of commerce. Fol­lowing the introduction of Islam, a new civilization flourished in Dahlak, leaving behind a legacy waiting to be rediscovered. The graveyard on Dahlak Kebir, a vast cemetery, stands as a testa­ment to this past era. Similarly, the presence of 365 cisterns and wells on that island reflects the ingenuity and resourcefulness of this civilization. Traces of sub­merged and terrestrial structures hint at a civilized society with a deep connection to the sea. These discoveries underscore the im­mense potential of Eritrea’s un­derwater cultural heritage.

Venturing further south of the Dahlak Islands, there is the Black Assarca Island, a small but signif­icant player in Eritrea’s underwa­ter cultural heritage. This island holds the remains of a shipwreck that dates to the 5th-7th century AD. The discovery, which was made in 1995, unveiled an under­water cargo with a collection of various types of amphora. These giant, often ceramic, jugs were used in ancient times to trans­port goods such as oils, wine, and grain. The amphorae found at Black Assarca Island offer valu­able clues about the trade routes of this era. Additionally, the dis­covery of two small iron pieces, a glass shard, and a lead steel­yard counterweight paints a more complete picture of the ship’s cargo and potential function.

Mr. Isaias says that Eritrea’s un­derwater landscape is a window into ancient times and bears the scars of the 20th century. World War II left its mark in the form of numerous shipwrecks scattered throughout the Eritrean maritime environment. To avoid capture by the British, Italian forces made a desperate decision in April 1941. Many cargo and warships were deliberately sunk in the Massawa Channel and the Dahlak Islands. These scuttled vessels have be­come a unique component of Er­itrea’s underwater cultural heri­tage. Estimates suggest that over 36 Italian and German ships were either bombed or scuttled around Massawa, the Dahlak Islands, and Assab. After securing vic­tory, the British salvaged some of these vessels, repaired them, and even returned a few to service.

The presence of both detonat­ed and unexploded bombs and World War II wrecks serves as a poignant reminder of the region’s turbulent past. However, it also presents a valuable opportunity for archaeologists and historians to learn more about this pivotal period. Through careful research and exploration, these submerged vessels can offer insights into wartime strategies, naval tech­nology, and even the daily lives of the sailors who once crewed on them.

One particularly well-docu­mented shipwreck from this era is the Nazario Sauro. This im­pressive vessel, stretching 130 meters long, now rests in the wa­ter around Dahlak Islands. The Nazario Sauro offers a thrilling experience for divers due to its sheer size and the vibrant ma­rine life that has colonized its submerged form. The minimum depth to reach the wreck’s mast top is a mere five meters, while the deepest point lies 40 meters below the surface. This range in depth makes the Nazario Sauro accessible to divers of varying skill levels.

In 2019, a joint effort by the Northern Red Sea Museum, EDTC, and the Ministry of Ma­rine Resources conducted a sur­vey of the Dahlak Islands’ under­water cultural heritage. During this expedition, a shipwreck, the Prometio, was discovered. The well-preserved mast lies at 18 meters depth, while the bottom of the vessel rests at 37.1 meters. With a size of approximately 120 meters long and 12 meters wide, the Prometio is oriented east-west. The absence of bomb dam­age suggests it may have been deliberately sunk, possibly dur­ing wartime.

During Eritrea’s Derg regime, Nakura housed a naval base with communication and station facili­ties. In 1990, as the regime lost control of Massawa, the Dahlak Archipelago, and the northern Eritrean coast, they scuttled nu­merous vessels to prevent their capture by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). This included ships, T-55 tanks, a dry dock, BM-21 armored vehicles, and various armaments littering the Nakura channel. Today, the remnants of this mass scuttling are evident, with the former na­val ships Nebelbal and Ras Dejen still visible above water while others lie submerged in the chan­nel.

Additionally, unearthed along the Red Sea coast of Eritrea on the Buri Peninsula, the stone tools found on ancient reef ter­races provide some of the earli­est evidence of humans living near the coast. These tools, dat­ing back 125,000 years to the last warm period between ice ages, come from the Abdur Archaeo­logical Site and are located near the village of Abdur. This site, roughly 60 kilometers southeast of Massawa, reveals a fascinat­ing mix of hand axes, blades, and flakes likely made by early Middle Stone Age people. This discovery sheds new light on how early humans adapted to their environment and potentially migrated out of Africa.

A key objective of the Northern Red Sea Museum is to pinpoint cultural heritage sites through­out the region. To achieve this, the Museum collaborates with stakeholders to conduct surveys and document land-based and un­derwater cultural heritage sites. Researching and conserving this UCH is crucial for understanding our maritime history and the an­cient trade routes that shaped the region. Additionally, with their unique ecosystems teeming with marine life, shipwrecks are be­coming increasingly significant attractions for global tourism.

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