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Adulis: the Silk Road

Photo: Two 4th Century church ruins in Adulis are the oldest in the Horn of Africa

By Billion Temesghen

Some 56 kilometers south of Massawa there is the beautiful bleached Aduli. Referring to the white color that dominates most of Adulis’ land the inhabitants of the surrounding call it Aduli which literally means ‘white’. The ancient port city of Adulis is located on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, on the crossroads for trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It is mentioned in a number of classical and Byzantine sources as an archeological site of a big piece history that extended from the 1st to the 7th century AD. Prof. Serena Massa of the Catholic University, Italy, is one of the many archeologists who took part in its excavation. She is our guest today. Prof. Massa is a member of a team engaged in an extended and ongoing project in the archeological site of Adulis. Serena calls Red Sea ‘The Silk Road’ and Adulis the trade hub linking several civilizations.

Prof. Serena Massa

-Welcome Prof. Please, introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Serena Massa, I am an archeologist and I teach at the Catholic University of Milano. I have known Eritrea since 2012 through a joint archeological project for research in the ancient site of Adulis. Every year we schedule a field work in Adulis, excavating on site, and we also schedule yearly training sessions and workshops for young Eritrean archeologists.

When I first arrived in Adulis the magnificent ancient port town with its beautiful ancient stone monuments, I felt sensational. As the work in the field progressed I asked for the help of architects for maintenance and restoration programs. Such things are rare in archeological filed work. Archeologists, restorers as well as maintenance and conservation professionals joining hands in any archeological site is not common. Therefore, Adulis for me was a chance to experience a rare joint work.

-Why is it rare? Why don’t people of different professions work on archeological sites?

Well, that’s because such an opportunity doesn’t present itself very often. There are of course, a lot of technical reasons, but mainly it is about logistics and budget. Having archeologists and restorers working together is extremely expensive. It would be nice to restore every excavated archeological site; however, to bring professionals of different vocations on an actual archeological site is a huge investment. Nevertheless, when archeologists and architects work together they can do wanders, bringing to light things of the past.

-How were you summoned to join the Eritro-Italian project of Adulis? And how did you feel coming to Eritrea for the first time ever?

I’ve been coming to Eritrea since six years ago. I felt delighted when I first set foot to Asmara. It is really a city that promises safety.

Speaking about Adulis, the initiative for the project was made on a local call. Concerned Eritrean authorities called the research center of Eastern Desert Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, two Italian archeologists who discovered Verenice Pancriza in Sudan near Egypt. These two brothers were the first to discover it so they are very renowned for it. As part of a previously envisioned plan to develop the archeological heritage of the country, the Eritrean government reached out to the Castiglioni brothers who came here and started working on Adulis as a primary project. So I was summoned by the Castiglioni brothers to join the project of ancient Adulis. For me, being able to work in Adulis is an ultimate honor. In addition to the Eritrean professionals involved in the site we have several universities involved as well; like, Universita` Orintale of Naples, Milan’s Politecnico and the Catholic University, which is where I am from.

I still remember vividly my first time in Adulis. I was totally impressed. Adulis is impressive not only for the archeological heritage but also for the beauty of the natural environment around it. Adulis is definitely a key ingredient for the global knowledge.

-That is a good point that you just raised prof. How and why is Adulis significant for the ‘global knowledge’ as you call it?

It is a key site for the ancient history because Adulis was the hub of the mercantile network of that time. It gives us hints of cultural and commercial links between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. The Red Sea in antiquity can be considered as the Silk Road. However, only few know about this part of history, which is why we feel the urgency to make Adulis a known piece for global gen.

-As a professional what is your opinion about Eritrean archeologists? How do you feel about working with them? Eritrea is mostly all about newly educated young professionals. What are some of your observations on the field?

I totally understand because I learned so much about Eritrea and I know that the country comes with a long history of struggle for independence and sovereignty. However, on the brighter side, the country is now putting out educated professionals which is step by step growing in a notable number. In my experience, working with Eritrean archeologists and professionals in general has been extremely rewarding and I am grateful for that. Yes, I can notice that there is some lack of didactic theories that you normally take in class of the big universities of the world. Nevertheless, what pleases me the most is that, the young archeologists I work with are of commitment I have never seen anywhere else in the world. I noticed how generally young Eritreans are eager for knowledge and if there is something I’d want to share they’d be very attentive and respectful towards me. This is a big supply for the country and something for which the youth should be applauded.

-How about the inhabitants nearby Adulis; do they know about Adulis and its importance?

More than anyone would expect! This is also something that I want to express my gratitude for. The inhabitants are very aware of it. Every year during our filed work in Adulis the tribes’ Heads come to greet us and guarantee us with their readiness and willingness to give a helping hand whenever we need it. Moreover, the manual work force in the site is done by men from villages around Adulis, they have ample knowledge of the site and its surrounding, and so we have dialogues with the inhabitants. Likewise, they understand the delicacy of the field and totally recognize the required working method that we implement in the field. We all work together in harmony. We eat together and spend days together in the field. We are a family. When it’s time for the workers to pray, because most of them are Muslims, we stop the work for some minutes, take a break and resume soon after. So, what I am trying to say is that Adulis is not only a vision of the Government of Eritrea, the universities involved and professionals, but also, of the people living in the Adulis area. They absolutely are eager to bring out to light this big part of history and make it known to the rest of the world. They feel hundred percent responsibility and ownership towards this task.

-What interested you the most in Adulis?

I can mention many things. But what is special about Adulis is the fact that it is an open air site. Meaning, Adulis has not been inhabited. Nothing has been constructed upon it. So it is extremely recoverable and maintainable. When the project is finally over it’ll be open and easy for anyone to see. At the same time it is also extremely fragile because normally archeological sites are vulnerable in terms of natural ruins and treasury hunts. Who do you think is currently the custodian of Adulis? None other than the people of the nearby villages. They are the owners, they know that well and take good care of Adulis even when the professional teams are away. And this is what captivated me the most.

-Is Adulis forgotten now that Asmara has taken the spotlight?

No, how could we? Yes, Asmara is a beautiful city. My visit to Eritrea this time is related with the Asmara Heritage Project. We are now involved in several activities aiming to maintain and restore Asmara. I have been here for slightly over a month. But that doesn’t mean my work in Adulis is over.

Whenever I am in Adulis with the team, we work hard starting from 6 in the morning up to dark. For the rest of the year we go back to Italy and continue the Adulis project in libraries and laboratories. Archeology is not simply about digging out remains. It is a much more complex procedure. We collect the remains, we wash them, catalogue them and very well and carefully pack them and then send them to the Museum of Massawa. Then comes the studying part which mostly is carried out in Italy. We also try to set conferences aiming to exchange ideas, still about Adulis, with other experts of the International scientific community.

Therefore, with the recognition of Asmara as a world heritage, we do feel extremely proud that now more than ever, the international community will finally enjoy the delight of Asmara. However, Adulis is also an equally important matter as it is a big link to ancient history.

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Adulis: the Silk Road Reviewed by Admin on 11:23 AM Rating: 5

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