Clockwise from top:
Port of Massawa, Administration building, Shiekh Hamaal Mosque, St Mariam Orthodox Cathedral Church, Massawa Island causeway
Tigrinya: ሉል ቀይሕ ባሕሪ Pearl of the Red Sea
Massawa is located in Eritrea
Location within Eritrea
Massawa is located in Horn of Africa
Location within the Horn of Africa
Massawa is located in Africa
Location within Africa
Coordinates: 15°36′35″N 39°27′00″E / 15.60972°N 39.45000°E / 15.60972; 39.45000
RegionSemienawi Keyih Bahri Region
 • AdministratorKidane Weldesilase
 • Total477 km2 (184 sq mi)
6 m (20 ft)
 • Total53,090
 • Density110/km2 (290/sq mi)
Time zoneUTC+3 (EAT)
Area code+291 4

Massawa or Mitsiwa (/məsˈɑːwə/ muh-SAH-wuh; Tigrinya: ምጽዋዕ, romanized: məṣṣəwaʿ; Ge'ez: ምጽዋ; Arabic: مصوع; Italian: Massaua; Portuguese: Maçuá) is a port city in the Northern Red Sea region of Eritrea, located on the Red Sea at the northern end of the Gulf of Zula beside the Dahlak Archipelago.[2] It has been a historically important port for many centuries.

Massawa was the capital of the Italian Colony of Eritrea until the seat of the colonial government was moved to Asmara in 1897.[3]

Massawa has an average temperature of nearly 30 °C (86.0 °F), which is one of the highest experienced in the world, and is "one of the hottest marine coastal areas in the world."[4]


Historical map of Massawa

Massawa was originally a small seaside village, lying in lands coextensive with the Kingdom of Axum—also known as Kingdom of Zula in antiquity—and overshadowed by the nearby port of Adulis about 50 kilometres (31 mi) to the south.[5] Massawa has been ruled or occupied by a succession of polities during its history, including the Aksumite Empire, Abyssinia and Italian Eritrea. Following the fall of Axum in the 8th century, the area around Massawa and the town itself fell under the occupation of the Umayyad Caliphate from 702 to 750 AD. The Beja people would also come to rule within Massawa during the Beja Kingdoms of Eritrea from the year 740 to the 14th century. Massawa was situated between the sultanates of Qata, Baqulin, and Dahlak. Midri-Bahri, a Christian region from its creation by Zara Yaqob of Abyssinia in the 14th century to its fall in the 19th century, gained leverage at various times and ruled over Massawa. The port city would also come under control of the Balaw people during the Balaw Kingdom of Eritrea (12th–15th centuries). At this time, the Sheikh Hanafi Mosque, one of the country's oldest mosques, was built on Massawa Island. The city reputedly has the oldest mosque in Africa, that is the Mosque of the Companions. It was reportedly built by companions of Muhammad who escaped persecution by Meccans.[6]


In the struggle for domination of the Red Sea the Portuguese succeeded in conquering Massawa (Maçua) and Arkiko[7] in 1513 by Diogo Lopes de Albergaria, a port by which they entered the allied territory of Ethiopia in the fight against the Ottomans. King Manuel I first gave orders for the construction of a fortress that was never built. However, during Portuguese presence, it was lifted as well as the existing cisterns and wells for the Portuguese Navy watery.[8] It was drawn by D. João de Castro in 1541 in his "Roteiro do Mar Roxo"[9] in their route to attack El Tor and Suez. The captain of the Arkiko was the Portuguese Gonçalo Ferreira, second port on the coast that guaranteed the presence and maintenance of the Portuguese fleets, whenever the port of Massawa was threatened by the Turkish presence.[8] In 1541 the Adalites ambushed the Portuguese at the Battle of Massawa.[10]

Until the mid-17th century Massawa was the main port that the Portuguese used to maintain contact with their main Christian allies in the region.

Drawing by D. João Castro, Massawa port in 1541" Roteiro do Mar Roxo"[9]


Massawa rose to prominence when it almost was captured by the Ottoman Empire in 1557. The Ottomans tried to make it the capital of Habesh Eyalet. Under Özdemir Pasha, Ottoman troops then attempted to conquer the rest of Eritrea. Due to resistance as well as sudden and unexpected demands for more, the Ottomans did not conquer the rest of Eritrea. The Ottoman authorities then tried to place the city and its immediate hinterlands under the control of one of the aristocrats of the Bellou people, whom they wanted to appoint "Naib of Massawa" and almost made answerable to the Ottoman governor at Suakin.[11] The Ottomans nevertheless tried to build parts of the old town of Massawa on Massawa Island into a prominent port on the Red Sea. These unfinished buildings and the old town of Massawa remain to this day, having withstood both earthquakes and wars with aerial bombardment. The rules were almost intermittent for long periods and it became an Italian possession in 1885.[12]

The German naturalist and explorer Wilhelm Hemprich (1796–1825) died of fever in Massawa.

Massawa in the 19th century

In 1846, Massawa, and later much of the Northeast African coast of the Red Sea, almost came under the rule of the Khedive of Egypt with Ottoman consent.

Following Egypt's defeat at the Battle of Gura, Egyptian interest of the port withered. With the help of the British, the city eventually came under Italian control and became part of Italy's colony of Eritrea in 1885.

Italian colonists started to settle in the port area in the early 1890s.

Italian rule

Train between Asmara and Massawa
Two Eritrean boys in front of the Italian ocean liner SS Conte Biancamano before 1941

At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Italy created a modern port in Massawa for its newly acquired colony of Eritrea. In 1885–1897, Massawa (in the Italian spelling: 'Massaua') served as the capital of the region, before Governor Ferdinando Martini moved his administration to Asmara. Ras Alula's attack on nearby Dogali helped precipitate the First Italo-Ethiopian War; the Italians' disastrous defeat at Adwa ended their hopes of expanding further into the Ethiopian highlands for a decade and brought Menelik II's newly formed Ethiopian Empire international recognition.

The Italian colony suffered repeated earthquakes. Most of the city was completely destroyed by the 1921 earthquake; it took until 1928 to fully restore the port,[13] hampering initially the Italian colonial ambitions.

A view of the port of Massawa on the Ethiopian dollar note, during the reign of Haile Selassie
The War Memory Square in Massawa

Massawa became the largest and safest port on the east coast of Africa, and the largest deep-water port on the Red Sea. Between 1887 and 1932, they expanded the Eritrean Railway, connecting Massawa with Asmara and then Bishia near the Sudan border, and completed the Asmara-Massawa Cableway. At 75 kilometres (47 mi) long, it was the longest ropeway conveyor in the world at the time.

In 1938, Massawa had 15,000 inhabitants, of which almost 2,000 were Italians: the city was improved with an architectural plan similar to the one in Asmara, with a commercial and industrial area.[14]

During World War II Massawa was the homeport for the Red Sea Flotilla of the Italian Royal Navy. When the city fell during the East African Campaign, a large number of Italian and German ships were sunk in an attempt to block use of Massawa's harbour.

From 15 April 1942, later master diver and salvage specialist RNR Lieutenant Peter Keeble (then a complete rookie in both disciplines) was assigned to the clearing of the harbour.[15] He succeeded only in the simple task of salvaging an ex-Italian tugboat. The same month, United States Navy Commander Edward Ellsberg and his handful of crew arrived to take over. The wrecks were salvaged in short order and the port was returned to service, as part of what had now become the British protectorate of Eritrea. The port's floating drydocks were of significant importance in maintaining and repairing Royal Navy ships and British civilian transports from the Mediterranean, which would otherwise have to travel to South Africa to reach suitable shipyards and docks.[16]

In 1945, following the end of World War II, the port of Massawa suffered damage as the occupying British either dismantled or destroyed much of the facilities. These actions were protested by Sylvia Pankhurst in her book Eritrea on the Eve.[17]

Ethiopian rule

From 1952 to 1990, when Eritrea had entered into a federation with Ethiopia, previously landlocked Ethiopia briefly enjoyed the use of Massawa as the headquarters of the Ethiopian Navy. Ultimately, Ethiopia terminated the federation and forcibly incorporated Eritrea. This led to the Eritrean War of Independence (1961–1991). In February 1990, units of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured Massawa in a surprise attack from both land and sea. Known as Operation Fenkil, the attack utilized both infiltrated commandos and speed boats. The success of this attack cut the major supply line to the Second Ethiopian Army in Asmara, which then had to be supplied by air. In response, the then leader of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam ordered Massawa bombed from the air, resulting in considerable damage.[18] As of 2005, the Eritrean government is rebuilding and repairing this damage.

Eritrean independence

With Eritrea's de facto independence (complete military liberation) in 1991, Ethiopia reverted to being landlocked and its Navy was dismantled (partially taken over by the nascent national navy of Eritrea).

During the Eritrean-Ethiopian War the port was inactive, primarily due to the closing of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border which cut off Massawa from its traditional hinterlands. A large grain vessel donated by the United States, containing 15,000 tonnes of relief food, which docked at the port late in 2001, was the first significant shipment handled by the port since the war began.[19]


Massawa is home to a naval base and large dhow docks. It also has a station on the railway line to Asmara. Ferries sail to the Dahlak Islands and the nearby Sheikh Saeed Island.

In addition, the city's air transportation needs are served by the Massawa International Airport.

Main sights

Notable buildings in the city include the shrine of Sahaba,[20] as well as the 15th century Sheikh Hanafi Mosque and various houses of coral. Many buildings, for example some unfinished Ottoman buildings, survive. The local bazaar as well. Later buildings include the Imperial Palace, built in 1872 to 1874 for Werner Munzinger; St. Mary's Cathedral; and the 1920s Banca d'Italia. The Eritrean War of Independence is commemorated in a memorial of three tanks in the middle of Massawa.


Massawa has a hot desert climate (Köppen climate classification BWh). The city receives a very low average annual rainfall amount totalling around 185 millimetres (7.28 in) and consistently experiences soaringly high temperatures during both day and night. The annual mean average temperature approaches 30 °C (86 °F), which is one of the highest found in the world. Massawa is noted for its very high summer humidity despite being a desert city. This combination of the desert heat and high humidity makes the apparent temperatures seem even more extreme. The sky is usually clear and bright throughout the year.

Climate data for Massawa (1961 to 1990)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 29.1
Daily mean °C (°F) 24.3
Average low °C (°F) 19.1
Average rainfall mm (inches) 34.7
Average rainy days (≥ 1.0 mm) 3.1 2.0 1.6 0.9 0.6 0.1 0.5 0.5 0.1 1.6 1.4 2.7 15.1
Average relative humidity (%) 76.3 75.3 73.3 70.5 65.0 53.8 53.0 55.6 60.8 66.6 69.1 74.5 66.1
Source: NOAA[21]

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ "World Gazetteer – Eritrea". Archived from the original on 12 April 2013. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
  2. ^ Phillips, Matt; Carillet, Jean-Bernard (2006). Lonely Planet Ethiopia and Eritrea. Lonely Planet. p. 340. ISBN 1-74104-436-7.
  3. ^ Bjunior (8 July 2018). "Dadfeatured: ITALIAN MASSAUA" (blog).
  4. ^ Melake, Kiflemariam (1 May 1993). "Ecology of macrobenthos in the shallow coastal areas of Tewalit (Massawa), Ethiopia". Journal of Marine Systems. 4 (1): 31–44. Bibcode:1993JMS.....4...31M. doi:10.1016/0924-7963(93)90018-H. ISSN 0924-7963.
  5. ^ "". Archived from the original on 13 June 2018. Retrieved 27 November 2018.
  6. ^ Reid, Richard J. (12 January 2012). "The Islamic Frontier in Eastern Africa". A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present. John Wiley and Sons. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-470-65898-7. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  7. ^ Carvalho, Maria João Loução de (2009). Gaspar Correia e dois perfis de Governador: Lopo Soares de Albergaria e Diogo Lopes de Sequeira - Em busca de uma causalidade (Mestrado em Estudos Portugueses Interdisciplinares thesis) (in Portuguese). Universidade Aberta. hdl:10400.2/1484.
  8. ^ a b Barros, João; de Couto, Diogo (1782). Da Asia (in Portuguese). Vol. 16. Lisbon: Regia Officina Typografica. OCLC 835029242.
  9. ^ a b "D. João de Castro (1500-1548)". Ciência em Portugal - Personagens (in Portuguese). Instituto Camões. 2003. Archived from the original on 6 March 2011. Estes roteiros, tal como toda a obra náutica e oceanográfica de D. João de Castro ficaram inéditos em Portugal até aos séculos XIX e XX, com a excepção do Roteiro do Mar Roxo [1541] que foi divulgado nos séculos XVII e XVIII através de diversas traduções, como acima foi descrito.
  10. ^ Hespeler-Boultbee, John. A Story in Stones: Portugal's Influence on Culture and Architecture in the Highlands of Ethiopia 1493-1634. CCB Publishing. p. 188.
  11. ^ Pankhurst, Richard (1997). The Ethiopian borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century. Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press. p. 270. ISBN 0-932415-19-9.
  12. ^ Massawa at the Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 12 August 2023.
  13. ^ Killion, Tom (1998). Historical Dictionary of Eritrea. Lanham, MD/London: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-3437-5.
  14. ^ Santoianni, Vittorio. Il Razionalismo nelle colonie italiane 1928-1943: la «nuova architettura» delle Terre d’Oltremare (PDF) (PhD thesis) (in Italian). Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II”. p. 65.
  15. ^ Keeble, Peter (1957). Ordeal by water. London: Longmans, Green & co. OCLC 930491224.
  16. ^ Ellsberg, Edward (1946). Under the Red Sea Sun. New York: Dodd Mead & Company. OCLC 869413049.
  17. ^ Wrong, Michela (2005). "The Feminist Fuzzy-Wuzzy". I Didn't Do it for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. New York: Harper-Perennial. pp. 116–150. ISBN 0-00-715096-2.
  18. ^ Ethiopia: "Mengistu has Decided to Burn Us like Wood": Bombing of Civilians and Civilian Targets by the Air Force (PDF). News from Africa Watch (Report). Human Rights Watch. 24 July 1990.
  19. ^ "Horn of Africa, Monthly Review, covering the months between November and December, 2001" (PDF). UN-OCHA. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  20. ^ Gebremedhin, Naigzy; Denison, Edward; Mebrahtu, Abraham; Ren, Guang Yu (2005). Massawa: A Guide to the Built Environment. Asmara: Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project. OCLC 1045996820.
  21. ^ "Massawa Climate Normals 1961–1990". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 24 June 2015.