Urbanization in Eritrea

Dr. Kanchan Singh (University of Asmara)

Eritrea has a distinction of having traces of oldest human existence. The remains of early man, called BuyaMan ** were found in Buta and Bada area of Southern Red Sea Zone of Eritrea. It dates back to about 1.2 million years ago. Process of urban development, similar to that of human existence, started much earlier in Eritrea compared to many civilizations. Urbanization is the result of relatively complex social process and organized spatial economy. Urban centers grow as the focal points of interdependence and organic link in the process of development. Human activities and space relations are well expressed at places in ruins, relic and along routes in Eritrea. Social reforms and economic revolutions mark the progressive chain of human settlements along time and space. The modern urban development in Eritrea is a result of the cumulative processes that have operated since the beginning. A time sequence growth of urbanism in Eritrea is explained below.

  1. Ancient Urbanization: The earliest urbanization in Eritrea dates back to about 800 B.C. It was a rudimentary type of urbanization. An instance of these are the nearly 800 communities of varied sizes with dense, diveres and significant heritage recently excavated. These community settlements were located within a range of 10 Kilometers from Asmara. Archeological excavations at Sembel, Maichihot, Kahouta, Emba Derho, Sela’e Dero etc. suggest that the genesis of urbanism began in Eritrean highlands some 1000 years before Aksum. The Axumite period (1st to 9th centuries A.D.) is marked with more organized and compact growth of urban settlements along the major routes. Ancient ruins and excavations at Adulis, Qohaito, Halhal, Matera, Tokondoe and Keskese explain that during the Axumite period urban centers had a superior architectural, artworks, artifacts, drainage and facilities for trade and transport.

These observations reveal that ancient urbanization in Eritrea started in the highlands. It attained a higher order of sophistication in art, architecture and trade relations. Inter-regional contacts became more prominent in the later stages and were expressed in terms of highland-lowland and land sea contacts. As elsewhere in the world, most of the civilizations grew along river valleys or coastal plains but the ancient Eritrean urbanization presented a sharp contrast in that it grew and flourished in the highlands.

  1. Medieval Urbanization: The inter-regional trading contacts which had an initial beginning in ancient period gradually improved and led to the cross-cultural contacts during medieval period. Christian as well as Islamic movements grew in prominence and led to development of monasteries and mosques. Beside economic development, monasteries, thus, become the centers of social interaction and urban growth. Christian monasteries such as Dibre Libanos, Dibre Sina, Bizen were established in the Eritrean highlands during this period. Dibre Libanos monastery, located on the Hamm plateau in southeastern part of the country, is the oldest Eritrean shrine and dates back to 4th century A.D. It has an important library, rock paintings and number of mummified bodies. Dibre Bizen is the third important monastery and dates back to1316 A.D. It is located in the central highlands close to Nefasit. The Monastery has a large collection of ancient manuscripts in Ge’z language. While the first two monasteries present Syrian architecture, the third monastery presents Abyssinian architecture. Mosques also developed during this period. The Sehab mosque situated in Wushti Batsi (Risi Mdri) is reported to have been used by the first followers of prophet Mohammad some 1400 years ago. Safi mosque near Massawa was built more that 1000 years ago. Both these mosques are considered to be the oldest in Africa. Shieb is another important Islamic shrine of significance in Eritrea. These Islamic monasteries have good collection of ancient manuscripts, paintings and other items of cultural significance.

The later part of medieval period is marked with the tribal in-fights in Eritrea. Organized attacks over neighboring territories for the control of pastures, agricultural land, livestock and material wealth become common during this period. There were five small Beja chiefdoms namely Bakhla, Nakhis, Bazien, Quatta and Jeren. While Turks established at Massawa in 1557 controlled the coastal plains and plateaus, Egypt controlled the northern parts of Eritrea with its base at Keren. Consequently growth of urban centers took place as garrison centers or defense sites. Growing insecurity and instability led to the development of walled cities and fortified towns. Most of these sites were close to the natural barriers like riverbanks, seacoasts or hilltops. Such urban centers had a provision of separate blocks of defense personnels, artisans and markets. Places such as Kubkub, Tigu, Sa’ati, Segheneyti, Assab, Massawa, Mendefera, Keren, Akurdat developed like this. Massawa and Kubkub have Turkish, Tigu has Turko Egyptian and Keren has Egyptian architecture. There are two forts on either side of the river at Segheneyti. On the contrary at Se’ati, there is a large fort in the hills near Dongolo. Medieval towns grew along caravan routes. The system of arrangement followed the pattern of markets, defense sites and staging posts or resting grounds. Major routes, were 1) Massawa-Ghedghed Shieb-Keren-Agordat-Kassala 2) Massawa-Sa’ati- Debarwa-Mendefera 3) Segheneyti-Adikeih-Senafe 4) Kassala-Teseney-Barentu-Mendefera-Debarwa. Towns grew as local trading centers at an average distance of 100 kilometers. Local population needed these centers for the purchase of non-local products and sale of their surplus pastoral and agro pastoral products.

3. Modern Urbanization: - The process of urban growth during colonial and post independence periods relates to modern urbanization. The colonial period begins with Eritrea becoming the first colony of Italy in 1890. Ever since its colonization Eritrea has witnessed series of changes and events in succession.

The colonial period of Eritrea is phased out as Italian (1890-1941), British (1941-1952) and Ethiopian (1952-1990). Urban institutions in Eritrea, during colonial period, were conceived as a means of controlling, serving and developing urban concentrations (more than 10,000) of colonial masters. Major transport and communication networks were developed to facilitate movement of people and flow of raw materials and commodities.

A. Italian Colonial Period is marked with the planned growth of towns and cities. Asmara was planned as the capital and industrial town while Massawa and Assab were planned as port towns. Mendefera and Keren were planned as military garrison centers. Dekemhare was planned as industrial center and Gura was planned as an airport. With the interest of mineral exploitation mining towns were developed. Karora developed as a center of marble, Debarwa as center of copper mining while Zigib and Augaro developed as gold mining centers. Italian settlers have also initiated plantations. Centers such as Sabur, Elaberid, Halhale, Dekemhare and Ghinda developed as towns because of plantations. There were 2198 industrial and 2690 commercial firms in Eritrea. Process of urban growth was characterized with the construction of magnificent buildings like town halls, cinema halls, hotels, places theaters, factories, markets and commercial complexes. Street and building patterns were planned based on the order of functions and socio-economic interaction. For example multistory structures in down town area also had a provision of fairly wide roads and pedestrian. Similarly, inner city residential zones were characterized by places and other large building structures over raised platforms with fairly wide roads. Contrary to this, outer city zones were marked with small house mostly with tin shades separated by narrow streets and lanes. Provisions of urban amenities and services were meant for colonial masters and natives were secluded from inner cities, which were better planned. Cities were planned with adequate open spaces like parks and playgrounds. The concept and provision for a city park use to be the source of attraction. Asmara and Dekemhare were planned in the pattern of Roma and Milano. The miniature form of these towns clearly represent advanced level of urban planning during colonial period. The sites for garbage disposal, industrial establishments and brick kilns were planned in the out skirts of the towns, Such a planning was favorable to the colonial settlers who were far away from these establishments to avoid pollution and congestion of native population.

B. The British Colonial period (1941-52) was short and marked with no significant improvement in the development and functioning of the urban centers in Eritrea. Rather it continued functioning of Eritrean towns without any change to the Italian legislation. On the contrary, it dismantled and sold some of the infrastructures, introduced by Italians, to its colonies in Asia. At the beginning British administration introduced large scale industrial establishment in Eritrea. To begin with 11 big industries were established. Noteworthy among the industries were African Match Factory, Asmara Soap Factory and Asmara Milk Factory. Large scale industrial set up augmented the growth of Asmara, Massawa and Keren.

C. The period of Ethiopian Colonization (1952-1991) is marked with the exploitation of urban centers, dismantling of the industrial establishment and causing large scale destruction in Eritrea ***.

For the purpose of land rent and house tax, urban centers were grouped into four categories. Asmara was in category one while Massawa, Asseb, Keren, Akordat and Mendefera were grouped in category two. Towns of AdiKeih, Dekemhare, Tessenei, Adiquala, Ghinda and EmbaDerho were grouped in category three; while Dekishehay, Himbirti, Hirgigo, Quazen, Senafe, TsadaChristain and Tzazega were grouped in category four. The establishment of textile, tannery, paper and cement factories at Asmara, Massawa and Assab have improved the urban infrastructure and led to the growth of urban population in these urban centers. Nearly 46 percent of the existing urban structure belong to the period and was largely established during the first half of the Ethiopian colonial period.

D. Post Independence Period (1991 onwards). With dismantled urban structure, uprooted population profile and shattered economic base, Eritrea won freedom after a long struggle. The post independence wars of 1998 and 2000 further crippled the already shattered economic base. According to a report (November, 1995) of urban and council affairs division Ministry of Local Government, there were 118, 483 families or a total of about 596,537 people living in urban areas of Eritrea. This accounts for about 17 percent of the total population. There are 20 urban centers in Eritrea. These are Asmara, Massawa, Assab, Keren, Mendefera, AdiKeih, Akordat, Barentu, Nakfa, Tessenei, Ghindae, Dekemhare, Senafe, Segheneity, Adiquala, Afabet, Hagaz, Debarwa, Ghirmaika and Tsorena. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry 1999, there were 223 large scale industrial units in Eritrea. Most of the industrial units are located in the capital city of Asmara. Other urban industrial centers are Massawa (salt, cement and seafood), Assab (salt, seafood) Ghinda (tannery) Dekemhare (battery, biscuits, aluminum, marble, glue and woven bags) and Debarwa (pasta, biscuits, plastic, aluminum). Nearly 27 percent of the total industrial structure was promoted after independence, Most of the towns have pharmacy, bakery, metal and wood workshops, bars, restaurants, readymade and drapery shops, stationary and photo shops, grain vegetable and fruit markets, fuel stations and hotels. Factories producing pasta, biscuits, sponges leather bags etc are running well in most of the towns.

The foregoing discussion leads to conclude that with its roots of urbanism in the ancient past, Eritrea has passed through the profile of succession in its urban centers, production potentials and trade relations. Despite being a newly independent country, it is heading towards urban-industrial transformation. There are significant achievements in the fields of housing, health, transportation, communication and education. Investments in these sectors of economy are taking place mostly in urban areas as they are central to regional development. This is vital in the growth of a young nation. The country has predominantly highland urbanization with majority of its urban centers located in the height ranging between 1000-2500 meters above mean sea level. Linear urban growth is another characteristics as centers grow along major highways or along the seacoast in case of port towns. Both pressure of population as well as growth of urban centers is usually low along coastal or river valley plains, With increased urban industrial growth in Eritrea prospects for inter-regional as well as international trade will improve. The improved urban industrial economy will have a chain response down to the village level in income and job generation.

** See also A STEP TOWARDS HUMAN ORIGINS - The Buia Homo one-million years ago in the Eritrean Danakil Depression (East Africa)

*** This is not exact. Part of this period, 1952 to 1975 - was characterized by a large industrial expansion which was abruptely terminated by the overthrow of the Imperial Dynasty and the implementation of the Marxist regime of Mengistů Hailemariam. The budding flower, that was Eritrea at the time, was abruptely cut down and destroyed at 00 hours of 5 August 1975 when the Government of Mengistů Hailemariam announced the nationalization of the private property.

See the report on industrial Eritrea on this site: Italian Industrial Enterprises in Eritrea - Year 1959 .