Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea has an extremely rich history. It’s been part of some of the world´s most important kingdoms and empires like Kingdon of Aksum in the 8th century, the Ottoman Empire in 1557, Egypt in 1846. It was also the first capital of the Italy Eritrean colony before the capital was moved to Asmara in 1891, Britain after WW2, Ethiopia when they occupied it from 1950 to 1990 and finally returned to Eritrea when they finally got their independence back in 1991.
One of the biggest battles in the 30-year year long war between Eritrea and Ethiopia took place in Massawa. The evidence from the war is still extremely easy to see even today, 31 years after the war ended. More or less nothing has been rebuilt since the war.
While the capital of Eritrea, Asmara is located in the highlands at an altitude of 2,325 meters (7,628 ft), Massawa is located by the sea. Hence, you will have to do a long ascent. In the older days dating back to 1938, it was possible to do the 120 Km trip on a steam train, it was considered one of the most scenic train rides in the world.
No trains, no tourists
These days the train have stopped running and the tourist have stopped coming which is a shame because Massawa has one of the biggest tourism potentials I have ever seen from the 100 countries that I now have been to. There are paradise beaches just a short boat ride away, also their history, world class diving in the red sea, and of course, Italian food.
Most of the building were Italian and Ottoman style. Some buildings bear ancient Arabic and there´s even an old temple standing. Even the ruins of Haile Selassie the Rastafarian Messiah and former King of Ethiopia´s personal castle is still standing.
Even though the old city is more or less still in ruins, the locals are trying to have a functioning life. There are small shops, a few bars, a coffee house, and what seems like a newly built mosque.
If this part of Eritrea ever gets rebuilt, will the old bank building be a pearl in east Africa?
The only thing that seems to be fully working here these days and not in ruins is the harbor that serves as Eritrea’s main transport hub for goods into the country.
Massawa is also the starting point for trips out to the Dahlak Archipelago (special permit needed in addition to the permit to visit Massawa) which is a group of islands consists of two large and 124 small islands.
I was lucky to visit two of them – Madote and Dissie Islands.
Dissie Island is the closed island to Massawa, but it´s still one and a half hours away with a speedboat (the same type of boat as the pirates in Somalia uses according to the boatman). It´s one of the only 4 inhabited islands in the Archipelago but the people here live an extremely tough life. Even though there are a few newly built hotels with private bungalows, there are no tourists.
So fishing is more or less the only income for the locals here. Most of the houses here are built from driftwood that has been washed up on the beach. But despite their lack of “everything” here on the island, the locals invited us for a few cups of coffee.
Madote Island is no more than a big sandbank. The “island” is so small it´s not even visible on google maps. You could easily have passed Madote if it wasn´t for the old rusted up lighthouse that stands on the islands. Or rather what´s left of the lighthouse.
P.S – Sorry for the photo quality in this post, but my camera broke down so I only had my phone to use as a camera on this trip.
Additional Information about Massawa.
Like everywhere else in Eritrea, foreigners not allowed to use local transportation so the only way to reach Massawa is by hiring a car and driver.
Because of Massawa’s location on the banks of the Red Sea, scuba diving is an obvious activity here. Dhalak Grand Hotel offers Scuba diving with a licensed PADI divemaster, but unfortunately the divemaster not in town during my visit. A shore dive would set you back 850 Nafka.