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Remembering the Eritrean Railway

The Eritrean Railway

A short note on Eritrean railway that I read today, reminds me the legendary Ferovia where I grew up during my teen years.

To begin with, the construction of the Eritrean railway during the first quarter of the last century was a major achievement of colonial Italy. The Italians planned it , but the workers were Eritreans who accustomed to back breaking work under scourging heat of the Red Sea sun. It took more than a decade to finalize the Asmara-Massawa railway due to rugged mountains with over forty short and long tunnels extending from Nefasit to Inda Qirqos, about a mile away from Betghiorgis Middle School.

Our forefathers as askari or native colonial soldiers were herded like cattle in ጸላም ባቡር (a smoky train) headed to Massawa where they were transported to Tripoli by sea. The desperate mothers and wives who came to the railway station to bid them good bye were singing as the following:-

ባቡር መጸት ትኪ ተኸዲና
ጓል እኖኻ ትበኪ ደኒና።

The smoky train is approaching
While your sister is weeping.

And those who were unwilling to go to Libya campaign....

ጸላኢና ትሩቡሊ ኺዶ
ኣብኡ ሰብ ኣለውን'ዶ
ብኻራ ገዲፎም ብጋየዶ።

How we wish
Our enemies

march to Tripoli

For there are people

Who live there

Willing to fight

With knife and spade.

However, these Alpanian people were not satisfied with slow railway line  winding  through a chain of mountains. In the thirties, the Italians built  the longest airal ropeway (telefe'rica) in the world which was dismantled following the British Military Administration in Eritrea. The spare parts were sold to South Africa by ruling Britons. In the early sixties, one could see some remaining parts down the horrific ditch of Shegrini about seven kilometers away from Asmara.

On the occasion of the annual pilgrimage to Debre Bizen, the trip by train was the cheapest, and for the most part enjoyable to see the Eritrean landscape with many scattered hamlets, wild animals and fruits such as beles including short trees with their refreshing scent. At night, one could see from the top of Debre Bizen overlooking the mountain scenery of Azienda with zigzag country roads and railways illuminating and flashing by approaching big trucks and trains. Early in the morning, it is possible to see Massawa with powerful binocular.

On the morrow, it was fearsome to go down the mountain hurriedly in order to catch the afternoon train from Massawa bound to Asmara. At times, it was hard to find unoccupied seat, and those who could not afford to pay for train ticket had to hid under the seat. As the train departing under cloudy afternoon, we were singing as the following which is still fresh in my memory:

መንበሩ'የ ወርቂ መንበሩ'የ

ፊሊጶሰይ ወርቂ መንበሩ።

Implying the golden chair of Abune or father Filipos who is believed to be a patron saint of the monastery of Debre Bizen.

And when we arrived in asamra railway station.....,

ዓመት ንዓመት'የ የድግመና።

ዓመት ንዓመት'የ የድግመና።

Which means next year in Debre Bizen.

I hope, as soon as the railway service in Eritrea is restored, the younger generation in the Diaspora will have enjoyable trip with exotic mountain scenery to see down, down the Asmara-Massawa road.

Arrivede'rci Eritrea.


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Remembering the Eritrean Railway Reviewed by Admin on 10:55 AM Rating: 5


  1. Eritrea - mit Mallets durchs Gebirge von Massawa nach Asmara

  2. Thanks for taking back in time, to my home and my to trip to Debre Bizien on foot also. This and much memories are one that keeps me connected to Eritrea. No matter what and no matter where, that is why the "Eritrean umbilical chord" is never severed.

    Thanks for taking back in time to Bet Ghiorghis, Shegirin, Durfo, Arbe Rebue, Seyidichi, to Nefasit and Bizien.

  3. Eritrea, la Ferrovia Italiana - Eritrea, the Italian Railway

  4. Naybahaki arrivederci Eritrea maàr

  5. Zura'mo hagerka Temt teAzeba habtam b'tefeTro Adi weHayz Aruba...etc etc........the greate martyr Okbagaber.
    We really miss out on a lot of things when we travel to Eritrea and spend too much time in Asmara or Massawa or Keren or other big town.

  6. The railway in #Eritrea is indeed a significant engineering achievement and an important part of the history of the country. The beauty of the country is so evident along the pathway of the railway from Asmara to Massawa.

  7. Indeed Dr.Samuel,Without a doubt..well said

  8. I am glad this historical facts is raised here for important reasons i.e on one hand I am from a village where train was the only transportaion means. School and clinic were available at that time. My grandfather sent my Dad because he understands the importance of education then. I have used the present train til Arebirebu where we came back with full of 'tiki'. On the other hand it reveals how Eritrea's civilization was dilapidated because of colonization.

  9. The saddest part is that remembering Eritrean railway, we think of the distant past. There is currently no significant railway infrastructure. No continuous passenger or cargo transport. Just the occasional tourist experience. Some countries in the region are building thousands of miles of rail since they understand the importance of this cheap mode of transport. Eritrea unfortunately has no serious plans to build new railway infrastructure.

  10. Yes the state of the Eritrean Railways is similar to that of Eritrean Airlines and many other projects/enterprises in Eritrea. It is dying a slow, but sure death. Seeing the steam locomotive pass from Ghindae to Asmara gives me joy and sadness at the same time. Joy because it looks beautiful, especially with the great mountainous landscape there. Sad because the technology of over a hundred years sums up the problem of infrastructure in Eritrea. No new investments, no new railways, no new rolling stock, no projects to connect with other countries. Ethiopia and Djibouti will probably finalize their railway network from Addis to Djibouti this year. South Sudan is in the process of building a railway line from Juba to Addis to Djibouti. These countries indeed know how important it is to have a railway network. Hopefully one day Eritrea will have a government that realizes that importance too.


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