19 January 2014

The US State Dept. strongly recommended deferring all travel to Eritrea (11/18/13). As usual, the Brits keep calm and carry on as long as you follow their advice and stay 25 km away from the borders (1/17/14). I'm glad I listened to the Brits not the Yanks or I'd have missed a fascinating country way off the beaten path.

Afternoon cappuccino and tea at a corner bistro in Keren.
Modern Eritrea is heavily influenced by its half-century of fondly remembered Italian rule (1890-1941) ― still evident in everything from cappuccinos to pasta to architecture to bad government.

But in WWII, the British kicked out the Italians and ruled for a decade.

Next Eritrea was pushed into becoming an unhappy province of Ethiopia in 1951 but later began a 30-year war for independence, ultimately defeating the much larger country in 1993.

Today Eritrea is one of world's least free countries and is still under the yoke of the dude who lead the "liberation" of the country in 1993.

The famed futurist Fiat Tagliero service station (1938)
UNESCO says Asmara, the capital, has "the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world."

Some blocks look more like Art Déco to me, and, with a paint job, would fit in Miami's South Beach Déco district, especially with all the palm trees. But other blocks have only the pure clean lines of the Modernist movement. Still other scattered buildings reflect varied Italianate architecture.
The Opera House (above) is quite a fusion of a Romanesque portico, classical columns, an Art Nouveau ceiling, a Renaissance scallop-shell fountain, and more.

After the Italians left, it became a theater (Cinema Asmara) for a while, but today it is a coffee house and place for the literati to gather and drink cappuccinos.

 Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, and Muslim towers.

Coptic priest departing the church.

Another nice aspect of Asmara was the wide, clean streets and boulevards, and the uncrowded, relaxed pace. At almost 8,000 feet (2400 m) above sea level, it has mild temperatures all year.

Turning to one of the most dramatic features, Eritrea is bisected by a high mountain range (reaching 10,000 feet) that falls sharply down to sea level. The result is breathtaking vistas.

The Semenawi Bahri green belt is an especially dazzling drive looking over clouds far below as they drift in from the Red Sea. None of my photos do the panoramas justice.

This third panorama is from the Asmara-Massawa highway and shows part of the famous old railroad that still operates between the two key cities.
Keren, a small city north of Asmara, has been a strategic point that produced pivotal battles between the Italians and the British and later between the Ethiopians and Eritreans.
Women waiting at a bus stop in Keren.

Keren cemetery for Italian soldiers who died in the battles nearby.
Another cemetery has the victorious, fallen British and Indian soldiers.

On the road from Asmara to Keren
Massawa, Eritrea's major port, was heavily damaged by the Ethiopians (and earlier during WWII), yet some of its faded glory and Italian-Arabian-Eritrean mélange remains.

Hanging out with slightly sober guys
(two Aussies and one Belgian)
who work periodically at the Massawa port.

South of Massawa was a series of five sites of ancient Adulis (a key port for the Axumite empire) being excavated by teams of Eritrean and Italian archeologists from the Catholic University in Naples.

Such dusty digs usually lack actual working archeologists and usually disappoint me. This may be my all time favorite because the Italians were working hard and were excited by their progress in uncovering these incredible early churches. The Axumites had embraced Christianity in the early 300s.

On my last afternoon back in Asmara, we happened to see on this devote procession of Coptic faithful on their way to church to commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.