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The Italians of Eritrea


Following previous literary publications in form of photo books he recently put out the second edition of his biggest documentary trilogy about the ‘Italians of Eritrea’. Q&A seizes this opportunity to introduce you to Prof. Giampaolo Montesanto.


By Billion Temesghen

Prof. Giampaolo Montesanto

Italians disembarked to Eritrea in hundreds of thousands during the era of Fascism. They resided in Eritrea for many expanding to almost all parts of the nation. Locals called them ‘Ciciliani’ ultimetly standing for Siciliani, Sicilians. The nickname stands still common especially amongst the older generations. Prof. Giampaolo Montesanto is a ‘Ciciliano’.


…I am Italian and I am from Sicily. Maybe for the reason that many Sicilians lived in Eritrea in the early 1900, Eritreans tend to call all Italians ‘Ciciliani’. I am Ciciliano from Sicily. In those days 400000 Italians lived in Eritrea. My grandfather was one of them. Although he left soon after his arrival, I heard so much about Eritrea since I was very young. I remember one day I was sick and my parents left me under the watch of my grandfather and I had my eyes closed as I was extremely sick. He thought I was dozing of when he started reminiscing about his days in Eritrea. He talked alone remembering his train rides from the mountains of Asmara down to the beautiful plains of the breathtaking port city of Massawa. I was too sick to react but I envisaged Eritrea since then… all based on the murmured recollected words of my aging grandfather. So after graduating, very luckily, in 1994, I was appointed to teach in the Italian Schools of Asmara, Eritrea. And here I am.

With countless of researches that complemented his more than 20 years long residence in Eritrea, Prof. Montesanto’s knowledge of Eritrea, its history and people is immense; and his hobby is literally Eritrea.

I love Eritrea and my way of developing my love is by contributing. Eritrea’s beautiful landscape, also geographically very strategic, is a big interrelated aspect of the overall historic and geographic importance of Eritrea. So I do a lot of research and document as much as I can. Eventually I end up publishing my works.

ERITREA ON THE ROAD

It is my first photo book. It was published in the year 2000. With a goop of colleagues I traveled all over Eritrea. I toured the whole country from one border to the other. I then collected the photos and assembled them with a roadmap story belt and made a photo book. It is a collection of hundreds of pictures that together illustrate best what Eritrea looks like and what it is all about through the eyes of a voyager.

UN GIORNO A MASSAWA 

My favorite place in Eritrea is Massawa. In collaboration with teachers and colleagues from the Italian school who have the same interest and keenness as me, we went to Massawa and took photos from all angles possible in a bid to illustrate how Massawa looks throughout a day, in 24 hours. It is a splendid work of which I can’t even get enough. The second component of the book is the literal part exposing geographical and historic wanders of the city.

THE DAHLAK ISLANDS 

It is my third photo book. Here a great notice was invested in the fluvial inhabitants of the island and the various types of fish in the coastline of the islands. Once again, here too, I had the assistance of my colleagues and friends. We also focused on the sociological aspect. We dove in the study of an old prison situated in Dahlak. Centuries back the Dahlak islands were confinements for Egyptians. An Egyptian poet detained there wrote poems regarding the brutality of them. These poems date back to 1911. Over all, a remarkable spectrum regarding societal, historical and geological traits of the breathtaking islands.

THE DOCUMENTARIES

When growing up the meaning of roots and origins started to be a focus of my interest. “Where do we come from?” such a common question that sooner or later bothers human consciousness. So I took a focus on the so called Hanfets, the mixed races. The Italian and Eritreans… THE ITALIANS OF ERITREA. It is a trilogy as I am reconnoitering 3 points of views: that of the Italians, the Hanfets and the Eritreans. So the documentaries will, combined, display the societal link created in the course of time between the two people.

The response I got for the documentary of The Italians of Eritrea was great and so there will be a second screening on the 22nd. 

Prof. Montesanto is also keen on the ancient history of Eritrea. “So much has happened in this land”…

I am keen on Eritrea’s history; it plainly goes back not only 26 years, but 26 centuries. You have a rich history. So much has happened in this land… so many events that date centuries back. I like collecting books and documents about Eritrea. Your history goes back many, many years. Did you know there is actually a map of Massawa dating back 14th Century? It is in Portugal.

An ordinary class of a Spanish literature when I was a student, if the class works hard and merits it, it would normally consist of many ancient beautiful stories of Eritrea. My class mates and I were completely oblivious of. And so our professor is the ‘favorite’ of sundry of us.

I like to tirelessly mention the importance of the Eritrean history to my students. It is important for them to apprehend. So I normally dedicate some minutes of my class to share the stories I know.

…ONCE UPON A TIME 

And no I was not exaggerating of our professor’s telling talent 

Back in 1518 - 1519 the Portuguese were in Eritrea. Christopher De Gama son of Vasco De Gama was sailing through the seafaring route to the Indias found by his father when Christians of Massawa stopped the caravan after noticing the Cross on the flags waving from the boats. Back then the Portuguese flag had a Cross sign on it. The Christians of Massawa asked the Portuguese help as a Muslim General had invaded their highland. His name was Mohammed Ghiray: The Left Handed. He was known as the king of Zila, part Somalia.

Mohammed Ghiray story is remarkable because he was the first lowlander to actually make it to the highlands of Eritrea. The highlands were back then feared. Picture this, wake up in the morning and travel towards Asmara. If you tilt your head up and notice Asmara is barely noticeable because the clouds cover the mountain tips. It just gives that sense of altitude and otherworldly distantness. But The Left Handed made it. His strategy was to just burn down everything standing in front of him. Scholars documented that back then there were a couple of thousand monasteries, similar to that of Bizen, and Mohammed Ghiray The Left Handed burned down 75% of them. How many manuscripts do you think were destroyed? … Anyways, Christopher De Gama assisted the lowland Christians to climb up the mountains yearning to finish The Left Handed once and for all.

With guns and canons on their shoulders, the Portuguese and Massawinos began their climb towards the place above the clouds. Days of trudging and finally came in front of The Left Handed’s troop of 400000 soldiers. The Christians were only 15000. Ghiray laughed at the minuteness, sent an ambassador and told them to leave in peace and in return he’ll grant them safety until they reach offshore. He also sent them a gift; a Metemtemia, the bonnet of the Orthodox priests. Implying they were not good enough for war and so they shall refrain, just pray. In response De Gama, sent a mirror and tweezers, suggesting that the Ghiray army is nothing but a bunch of ladies anisti.

The war broke, and the Massawinos and the Portuguese won because they had modern artillery. The King of Zela was shot in the heart.

Prof. How do you know all of this?

How do I know? … I have Christopher’s diary. In Portuguese.

The professor strikes a chord to his students every chance he gets. He is keen to introduce Eritrean story and literature in the classes of the Italian high school. The school is now observing collaborations with Alemseghed Tesfai and Rahel Asghedom. At least for now… It is about time.

Most of the documents stored in RDC (Research and Documentation Center) are in Italian because during the Italian colony countless researches were done and they are all in Italian. I wish for Eritrean youngsters to somehow be handy of the language. So that we can make good and ample use of all the documents. And one more thing, I wish for Eritrean youngsters to search and research tirelessly because Eritrean history is simply beautiful.

 Several preparations are underway by Eritreans at home and abroad, relevant government institutions, Eritrean Embassies, and friends of Eritrea. These include: (i) preparing exhibitions (ii) organizing seminars (iii) giving awareness for state members and stakeholders…etc. The people and government of Eritrea are working hand in hand to inscribe Asmara at the place it deserves. At this time Eritreans all over the world are eagerly awaiting an affirmative decision by the World Heritage Committee. They have travelled long to get to this day. For many there is no doubt; Asmara will achieve a historic success.


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