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Massawa Old City

Massawa Old City, Eritrea
Massawa Old City / Geri, / CC0 1.0

WorldBlue  In short

Sturdy and tenacious, like Eritreans themselves, Massawa City has survived throughout the centuries. This old port city preserves an ensemble of wonderful Ottoman architecture.

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GPS coordinates
15.6085 N 39.4748 E
Location, address
Africa, Eritrea, Northern Red Sea region, centre of Massawa, mainly Batse and Tualud islands
Name in Ge’ez
As a village – since the first centuries AD
Period of flourishing
The late 16th century, the late 19th century
Roughly 90 ha. Old City on Batse Island – 32 ha, Italian built city on Tualud island – 58 ha

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Urban fabric

Streets of Massawa Old City. City looks dilapidated after heavy bombardment and neglect - but many values are there and are waiting for better times
Streets of Massawa Old City. City looks dilapidated after heavy bombardment and neglect – but many values are there and are waiting for better times / David Stanley, / CC BY 2.0

Massawa has two historical districts – each on its own island.

The oldest and most valuable is the Old City on Batse (Massawa) Island: a coral island without fresh water sources, covered with valuable Arabic and Ottoman architecture.

440 m long causeway leads to the other part of historical city – Taulud Island. This island was uninhabited until the late 19th century, when Italians started construction here. This island is connected to the mainland with 1030 m long causeway.

The most valuable buildings in Massawa are:

  • Shrine of Sahaba – Old City. Small shrine in the site, where, according to legends, the followers of prophet landed in 615 AD. It is believed that this shrine was built back in those times – thus it could be the oldest constructed Islamic shrine in the world, but this is not proved.
  • Sheikh Hanafi Mosque – Old City. The oldest mosque in Eritrea, built in the 15th century AD.
  • Bazaar – Old City. Fine Ottoman building.
  • Imperial Palace – Taulud. Ornate building constructed for French consul Werner Munzinger in 1872 – 1874. Now in ruins.
  • Banco d’Italia – Taulud. Gorgeous building, constructed in the 1920s.

Those who live in Massawa, experience very hot, humid climate. Average mean temperature here is 29.7 °C, average temperature in July is 35 °C.


Streets of Massawa Old City, Eritrea
Streets of Massawa Old City / Reinhard Dietrich, / CC0 1.0

The beginnings of Massawa are shrouded in millenia long past. It is known that in the times of Axumite Empire (first centuries AD) here was small village, which was overshadowed by Adulis port which was located some 50 km to the south. Now Adulis is in ruins.

Since its establishment Massawa was developed as a trade city and it has served for multiple owners.

Before Ottomans

Umayyad Caliphate captured the settlement after the fall of Axum in 702 – 750 AD. In those times the city was named Bade (or Base) in Arabic writings.

Imperial Palace in Massawa, Eritrea
Imperial Palace / David Stanley, / CC BY 2.0

Local Beja people formed their kingdom in 740 AD and soon took over Massawa and ruled it until the 14th century, when another regional power – Medri Bahri Kingdom rised. This kingdom took control of Massawa and its area in several time periods between the 14th and 19th century. Once more local power – Balaw – also ruled the town for several periods in the 12th – 15th century AD. In their time here was built the oldest mosque in Eritrea – Sheikh Hanafi Mosque and several more Islamic buildings. In this time Venetian merchants frequented here too.

Ottoman times in Massawa

Ottoman general Özdemir Pasha captured Medri Bahri kingdom and Massawa city in 1557, outmaneuvering Portuguese. Initially, Massawa became the capital of Habesh Eyalet – a large territorial unit along both coasts of the Red Sea, but soon the capital was moved to Jeddah in present-day Saudi Arabia.

Main benefits from the newly acquired territory were slaves, food, iron, and also pearls, especially in the Dahlak Archipelago not far from Massawa. Ottomans never acquired much power on the mainland of present-day Eritrea but retained control over Massawa, thus controlling trade in this region. This area did not bring much profit and interest in it decreased. Gradually, at the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman influence in this part of the Red Sea decreased. Control over Massawa and its surroundings was handed over to Balaw who were made answerable to Ottomans.

This was the time when the old town of Massawa was built – here were constructed fine buildings in an Ottoman style. Dry coral was used for walls, roof, and foundation, there was imported wood for beams, window shutters, balconies. These old buildings persist up to this day, withstanding time, earthquakes, bombardment, and neglect.

Banco d'Italia, Massawa in Eritrea
Banco d’Italia / David Stanley, / CC BY 2.0

Modern times

Egypt took over Massawa with Ottoman consent in the 19th century.

At the end of the 19th century started the dominance of Europeans. British took over the control of this area and in 1885 handed over the city to Italians.

Italians had great plans for this city. They made it the capital of Eritrea and built a modern port. Massawa evolved into a multinational trade city. Main developments took place outside the Old City, on Taulud island and mainland.

In 1897 the capital was moved to Asmara and the development of Massawa slowed down. In 1921 the city was destroyed by Massawa earthquake and port recovered only in 1928, further slowing down the ambitious development of Italian colony.

Nevertheless Massawa evolved into the largest and safest port on the east coast of Africa. In 1938 there was started an ambitious plan for the development of a very modern port city.

City and port suffered heavily during the World War II, sunken Italian and German ships blocked the port.

After the war Eritrea entered into a federation with Ethiopia and landlocked Ethiopia gained access to the sea. Later Ethiopia forcibly annexed Eritrea, provoking long-lasting civil war. During this war, the port of Massawa did not operate. The city was bombed by Ethiopians in 1990, creating much damage which is not fully repaired up to this day. Further bombardment took place in 1998 – 2000.

Now Massawa is the main port city of the nation of Eritrea, the second-largest city in the country.

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