Massawa – the faded ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

It was the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’ so a trip to the principal Eritrean port from Asmara, the capital, seemed like a good idea. I turned up at the bus station and waited – and waited some more. There was absolutely no indication when buses arrived or left and where to go for what bus, but by asking around I found the correct spot and joined the other Massawa travellers. Gradually the crowd got bigger and bigger and as every potential bus turned up (but failed to slot into our spot) I estimated what probability there was of getting us all aboard.

▲ On the bus to Massawa

After about an hour and a half another would be Massawa bus passenger pointed out to me that I hadn’t put anything in the line of bags which would reserve a space. The bags (lots of them) lined up, the people didn’t. ‘Not a problem,’ he continued, ‘just grab the bus driver as soon as the bus turns up, as a foreigner you’ll get to jump the queue.’

I was absolutely the only foreigner in the entire bus station so I wasn’t going to inconvenience too many Eritreans.

‘That bus is also going to Massawa,’ he continued, pointing out a half full bus in the next slot. ‘But it’s a private bus so it costs 70 nakfa (about US$4.50).’ It could have cost 170 nakfa or 1070 nakfa, I couldn’t have cared less. I was on the pricey private bus and waving my nakfas in second.

Coming back the public bus was only 31 nakfa, US$2. It was equally comfortable and equally fast. From Asmara it’s nearly 2500 metres downhill to the coast, two thirds winding road then the final third much more level. It gets steadily hotter as you descend. Asmara is surprisingly chilly, particularly at night. By the time you get to Massawa the temperature is much more like you’d expect for Africa.

◄ It’s about 100km from Asmara to the coast and the railway line runs close to the road pretty much the whole distance. Destroyed in the liberation war with Ethiopia the line – with its 39 tunnels and more than 65 bridges – has been restored, but although visiting railway enthusiasts seem to be able to persuade somebody to roll some old locomotive out there doesn’t appear to be any regular services.

▲ At the end of the bridge as you enter Taulud – one of the two islands of Massawa – there’s a three-tank war memorial. The Ethiopia-Eritrea fighting definitely got to Massawa, but Mengistu had been overthrown and hightailed it to Zimbabwe before the fighting reached Asmara, so the city was saved.

▲ A busy day in the old town of Massawa. At times I thought Massawa could be rather like Zanzibar, further south in Tanzania, sadly it isn’t. Zanzibar is busy and bustling, Massawa is deserted.

If I had been disappointed with Asmara my disillusion was ramped up to a higher level in Massawa. If the port is the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’ it’s a very faded and dowdy pearl today. The reason is simple, this was the port for Ethiopia (population 100 million). Today the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is firmly closed and Ethiopia uses Djibouti as its principal port. Eritrea (population 5 million) certainly doesn’t keep the port busy. There’s no sign that’s going to change, a recent article in The Conversation by Brendon J Cannon and Ash Rossiter of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, commented that Ethiopia’s regional policy had two aims: ‘The first is maintaining Eritrea’s isolation. The aim would be to weaken it to the point that it implodes and is formally reunited to Ethiopia. Or it becomes a pliant, client state.’ The other aim is to maintain ‘the status quo in post-civil war Somalia.’ A new project, financed by the UAE in the guise of Dubai port operator DP World, to dramatically increase the size of the Somaliland port of Berbera will certainly reinforce both aims. Somaliland, which is comparatively peaceful and well governed, in contrast to the rest of Somalia, constantly worries that it isn’t recognized by the outside world. Developing Berbera as a major port will certainly change that.

▲ Massawa’s two ‘attractions’ are both in ruins. This is the House of Mammub Mohammad Nahari. The Imperial Palace, built by the Swiss adventurer Werner Munzinger and used as a winter palace by Emperor Haile Selassie, is equally decrepit.

▲ The bar may have promised dancing, but there was certainly nothing happening. Nowhere in Massawa was there any sign of life and activity.

▲ So the next day I took an early bus back uphill to Asmara. We made a refreshment stop on the way up at Ghindar, a town noted for its Wednesday market. In either direction the trip took just under four hours.