Eritrean Mountains as Tourism Destinations

Mountains in Eritrea exhibit attractive landscapes, which make them focal for tourists’ attractions. Eritrea possesses many different range and height of mountains. Mountains mainly dominate the central part, which runs from north to south of the country. There are also plateaus. What is special about the mountains in Eritrea is that many of them and certain sites within them are regarded as sacred places. Still many others have historical significance. These give the mountains additional value as tourism destinations.

The landscape of a certain place is crucial for tourism development. Mountains, natural vegetation, wild life, fine sea beaches, attractive climate, and the like certainly make up the main adorable tourism landscapes. Many countries, which possess such landscapes, generate incomes calculated at millions of dollars yearly from tourists. For example, different sources show that Kenya earned tourism revenue of 42 billion shillings (more than USD 548 million) in 2004. In the first 11 months of the same year, some 8 million tourists visited Egypt. The Alps welcome more than 120 million visitors every year. And we can imagine the incomes they can generate.

Similarly, Eritrea can generate considerable incomes by properly utilizing its natural and artificial resources. Monasteries have deep spiritual, traditional, cultural, and historical values in Eritrea. Most of them are found on mountains. That is why they have the prefix Debre in their names. The word Debri literally means mountain. Debre-Sina, Debre-Bizen, and Debre-Libanos/Ham, are some prominent examples of the monasteries, which are found in Eritrea.

The Debre-Sina Mariam Monastery (carved into rock) is believed to be the oldest of all the monasteries in Eritrea.  Some sources acknowledge that it was founded in the 4th century and it has been an important shrine since the 5th century. It is situated at 2301 meters above sea level and is located 18 km east of the town of Elaberid. The monastery was originally built into a cave. Hence there is an original Cave Church. The caves and the mountains around it make eye-catching scenery. People use to pilgrimage to the monastery every year on June 21 in the Geez Calendar (28 June Gregorian Calendar) from different part of the country.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church in USA says by 333 C.E. (Common Era=A.D.) churches were built and the Gospel was heard in the highland Eritrea. The church age is estimated to be 1,700 years and there are 22 monasteries in the country. Eritrea’s links to Christianity are thought to stretch back to the arrival of shipwrecked Syrian traders in the beginning of the 4th century, according to the web site of the Embassy of the State of Eritrea in New Delhi, India.

The about 650 year- old monastery of Debre-Bizen is also one of the ancient monasteries (built some time before the 14th century) in Eritrea. It is situated on top of Mount Bizen some 2400 meters above sea level, in which Nefasit is found at its foot. The monastery was founded by Abune Filipos in 1361 A.D. It has remained prominent and important beacon and symbol of Christianity since then.  Debre Bizen is rich in artifacts and has a 500-year-old library with about 1000 medieval manuscripts. It offers many scenic panoramas. It has deep valleys and towering mountains on its sides. The monastery even gives visitors the opportunity to see the lights of the port of Massawa during the night. Louis Werner, a documentary film-maker who travels frequently to the Middle East, described the monastery as “sky top village” and as “conviviality in the sky” in his article Welcome to Heaven: A 650-Year-Old Eritrean Monastery in the Clouds. Its pilgrimage date is August 5 Geez Calendar (11th August Gregorian Calendar) every year.

In fact, the road from Asmara to Massawa, in which Debre Bizen is located along side, provides fascinating bird’s eye view. The road descends about 2438m to the sea level. It drops hundreds of meters automatically from Asmara to Nefasit in just 25km along the zigzag bends of Arberebue. It is also along this road that we observe the practicality of the slogan: “Three Seasons in Two Hours.”  The Escarpment also provides a spectacular view from the highland mainly to the coastal plains.

Another is Debre-Libanos Monastery in Ham near Senafe in the southern highlands of the country. Founded by Abune Libanos, it dates back to the 6th century. Abune Libanos was a great churchman who traveled from Lebanon. It still homes mummies, graves, and different artifacts dating back to the 4th century A.D.

The mountains and the surrounding areas of the monasteries are sacred. It is taboo to cut down trees even if it is a dry wood. It is also forbidden to hunt animals in those areas. In fact, trees are never cut down even in villages where there are churches. Hence, if someone sees several big trees grown around some place, it is most likely a sacred place. Such sacredness is inherent to the local community’s belief system and way of life.

As a result, the mountains are perhaps more comprehensive in terms of their ecology being protected by their sacredness. Therefore, they possess recreation resources. They harbor a variety of natural vegetation and wild life. For example, different trees, which are rare in Africa, grow on the mountains and in their vicinities. These include wild olive tree, juniper and cedar. The wild olive tree in Eritrea is different from that of Europe; it does not produce edible fruits. There are also many prickly pearls on most of the mountains. They have juicy and edible fruits that people can have during their stay in the mountains during summer while they enjoy the cold breeze of the season and the scenery of the open horizons in all directions of the compass.

In addition, there are evergreen forests of Semienawi Bahri that extend along a chain of mountains, which are Eritrea’s mountainous tourist attractions. The mountains are also convenient for bird-watching as there are different kinds of birds there. Some of the interesting birds as listed in the Eritrea: Horizons Vol.2  No.1 include: francolins, sunbird, the tropical boubou,  robin, canaries, seed eaters, pigeon, starling, oriole, cuckoo shrike, Baglafecht weaver, short-toed snake eagle, the Abyssinian catbird, wood dove, bee eater, woodpecker, beautiful sunbird, raven, wheat eaters, and dusky turtle doves. A modern road that leads to that area is under construction so that visitors can travel there with ease.

Many of the mai-chelot (holy water) sites are found around mountains. The waterways of these sites have their headwaters in the mountains. The mai-chelot has a spiritual value as healing water for a variety of people and hence the sites are sacred. People from different places visit these sites frequently to have a bath of the holy water for a week or two. And usually their natural resources are kept intact.

There are also hot springs in the Escarpment on the way from Asmara to Massawa. Many people, including from Europe, use to pilgrimage there every summer. The Mai Wui, which is found around Gahtelai, is the typical example of hot springs in Eritrea where many people visit in large numbers mainly in summer.

In all these places, we observe that there exists a link between the communities’ cultural identity and traditional pattern of nature conservation and use. However, tourists should be aware of sacred values and the allowable uses of sacred resources. For example, Debre-Bizen is allowed only for men. Any female of any species must not climb to the monastery. In addition, tourism should be developed in a way that respects the local communities’ spiritual and cultural traditions.

Several mountains are also historically very important. Kohaito (Coloe) perched on the edge of an escarpment, is one of the ancient civilization cities. It is one of the highest places in Eritrea next to Amba Soira and it is as high as 3,000m.  There are still several erected pillars (monolithic stele), magnificent stone dam estimated to be over two millennia years old, and rock paintings dating from about 4 -500 B.C.

Nakfa is another historical site. It has a profound history in the Eritrean armed-struggle. It had never been recaptured by the Derg forces once it was liberated in 1977. However, it was completely ruined by the ceaseless air raids and bombings except its single mosque, which was left deliberately to serve as the site of orientation for the pilots

Mountain tourism is growing worldwide. New demands are emerging as a result of it. In addition to the above particular points, Eritrean mountains can also have the capacity to entertain the new demands. Tourists can use the mountain for hill walking, mountaineering, mountain travel, hiking, and orienteering. The mountains can also be good for mule riding, picnics, camping, caravan (using camels), and certain sports like mountain biking on the plateaus (uplands).

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