Magazine article New African

Eritrea Ruins of History. (Feature)

Magazine article New African

Eritrea Ruins of History. (Feature)

Article excerpt

Dahlak Kebr, one of the 200 islands of Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea, has some famous ruins dating back to the 2nd century. But only a few local fishermen and historians have been there. Our correspondent, Richard Greenfield, was there recently and brings us this report.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, a unique and valuable navigation manual was published. Known as the Periplus, it described the coasts of northeastern Africa as the Erythraean [or Red] Sea and the earliest trade routes to India. Although the author wrote in Greek, he was in all probability an Egyptian sea captain.

He described many African products and cities, among them the Eritrean port of Adulis through which passed most of the maritime trade of the ancient cities on the mountainous inland plateau, including Kohaito, Metara, Yeha (see NA, Nov 2001), and by the time of his writing also Aksum in northern Ethiopia.

In the power politics of the first millennium of the Christian era, Adulis was later to be ransacked by an Arab fleet from Jeddah, but at the time of the Periplus the prosperous port and adjacent lands were ruled by one Zoscales, whom the author described as ...mean in his way of life and with an eye on the main chance but otherwise high-minded and skilled in Greek learning".

Although still awaiting serious excavation by modern professional archaeologists, modest exploratory observations such as in 1868 and 1901, revealed long columns. There are many overgrown mounds in the sandy earth there near the coast of the Gulf of Zula, to the east of Massawa--which has become the leading Eritrean port. To this day, the ruins are known to the local people as Aduli.

Less well known, except to a very few historians and the local fishermen, ate yet mote extensive but as yet unnamed ruins on the Dahlak Archipelago, way out to sea from Massawa, The Periplus also notes the Dahlak islands -- there are 200 in all -- as "...several small sandy islands called Alalaiou, where there is tortoise shell, which is sent to market by the fish-eaters".

Ibrahim Idris Totil, governor of Eritrea's North Red Sea Region, proved to be aware of some of New African's many articles in recent years promoting awareness of Africa's historical heritage. Indeed, teachers use them.

It was due solely to this courtesy that, in the company of two students from Asmara, our correspondent was able to borrow the government's small outboard-powered speedboat in the heat of July.

The pilot sailed from Massawa across some 30 miles of bumpy swell and thence skilfully over many submerged reefs and along the sandy Dahlak coasts to the largest island, Dahlak Kebr.

On reaching the bright blue calm of a beautiful bay, partially hidden islands, it was possible to wade ashore through very warm water and cross the white coral sand beaches to a tiny fishing settlement not much more than a mile from the main group of grey coral-stone ruins. In fact, they stretch inland for six more heavy going miles. It is now recognised that the remains of second or third century platforms and shapely but broken pillars in all probability suggest significant structures including at least one early Christian Church--4th century--and perhaps even the foundations of a pre-Christian temple.

But it was the very early introduction of Islam that apparently led to the largest settlements. …

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