"Eritrean/Ethiopian Observations (PUZZLES)" by Larry Bucher

Despite seven years of off-and-on residence and despite owning a couple of yards of books on Eritrea/Ethiopia and the area, there are several points of social, historical, and geographical trivia on which I’ve never been able to find definitive answers. They are presented below and I’d be happy to hear from anyone with more information or insights on them.

Why is it the “old” Massawa road?

About 20K out the Keren road a gravel road branches off to the right, goes down the escarpment to the flats, veers right and joins the Massawa road. The views are, if anything, even more spectacular than those on the Massawa road. It was well-maintained and in 1959-61 could be easily driven by non-4WD cars. It was called the “old” Massawa road, but why? From the name one would presume that it was an original road and preceded construction of the main Massawa road, but I have never encountered any historical confirmation of this.

I did not drive it in 1993-95 but, from one who did, I heard that it was still in good shape down the escarpment but had deteriorated in the flats, to the point that it was hard to tell where the road was and easy to get lost.

Whence the tunnel legends?

Our guide in Axum in 1994 spouted a number of tunnel claims: the door and passageway partially excavated here led to another door/passageway over there (a mile or more away); they knew this because the doors at each end were identical. His tallest whopper was that one tunnel led from Axum all the way to Coatit (a ruin in Eritrea near Senafe). Similar doors at each end of course.

This led me to recall what I’d heard from another American in 1959-61, a tale he’d picked up somewhere downtown: a tunnel beginning someplace near Asmara (the entrance presumably lost and/or covered up over the years) that ran under the Red Sea to Mecca!

What’s the background of such tunnel tales? One person has suggested that they might derive from irrigation tunnels in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, specifically Bahrain . . .

Who built the forts? And who destroyed them?

In 1959-61 I explored the fort south of Gura and the one at Saati (north of the Massawa road, on the flats near the beginning of the escarpment). They were almost identical — strong, well-built, but now just piles of shattered brick and masonry, not a single inscription nor any clue to their origin. There may be other forts which I’ve forgotten or of which I never knew. (I think there was also one in Keren, but memory fails.)

Who built them? The obvious first guess is the Italians. Saati was a base during the initial Italian penetration of the area. But then why no inscriptions, no clues? Possibly the Ethiopians eradicated anything visible after the war, in line with their policy of getting rid of all fascist symbols and monuments. Another possible guess is that the Egyptians built the forts when, under the Ottoman Empire, they controlled the coast before the Italians. There was an 1880s battle between Egyptians and Ethiopians at Gura, but was the fort already there or built later? And again, why no inscriptions? No answer.

Who wrecked them? Possibly they were bombed out by the British in 1941. Possibly the Ethiopians wrecked them as mentioned above — but if so, why did they go beyond removing inscriptions and reduce much of each fort to rubble? Or possibly . . . who knows?

A sidelight here, about the fort at Saati. It sits up on a medium-high crag, easily visible from the Massawa road. Below the crag is a sort of oasis: a pond and green vegetation. After exploring the fort we came down to the pond. I was climbing around on a barren slope beside the pond when I looked at the rocks around me. And looked. And looked again. I was standing in an amphitheater, reminiscent of what you might see in a Greek or Roman ruin, although far cruder. Rough slabs of rock had been dragged into place to create rows of seats and seat backs in the bowl-shaped hillside, hard to differentiate from the natural rocks, but definitely a man-made amphitheater when you looked long enough and hard enough. I never found any mention of it in books and for years I nurtured a belief that I had chanced upon an antiquity that had been overlooked by scholars. But finally in 1994 I was able get feedback from an Eritrean archaeologist; they knew about it and believed it to be Roman.

Haile Selassie’s mobilization order — bogus or grounded in fact?

“All men able to carry a spear go to Addis Ababa.“
“Every married man will bring his wife to cook and wash for him.“
“Every unmarried man will bring any unmarried woman he can find to cook and wash for him.“
“Women with babies, the blind, and those too aged to carry a spear are excused.“
“Anyone who is qualified for battle and is found at home after receiving this order will be hanged.”

The foregoing is purported to be Haile Selassie’s mobilization order of 1935. I first read it, or something quite similar to it, in the Reader’s Digest in the early 1940s. I’ve seen it two or three other times over the years, most recently in a 1991 wargaming magazine (from which the above is quoted). I’ve never seen it in anything that I’d consider a reliable source, never in any scholarly work. I believe it to be a fabrication.

But Ethiopia probably did issue some sort of “mobilization orders” when the Italians attacked. Perhaps there was some resemblance. Perhaps not. (And perhaps the order is perfectly valid and historical as printed, despite my strong skepticism.) The Digest printed it during the days of the U.S. World War II draft; the implication was “you think our draft is tough?”

What’s the explanation of flatulence reactions?

Virtually everyone who reads this will be familiar with the Eritrean reactions to such sounds and will know some stories . . . My favorite one (I was told of it, didn’t witness it) is of a gardener at Gura watering flowers by the driveway; noise was directed at him from a distance and, hose in hand, he turned, jerked, and through an open car window sprayed the inbound site OIC.

A connection with “evil spirits” was said to underlie this. I am doubtful. But if not that, what? The literature is silent, the subject being perhaps too scatological for scholars.

It seemed to me (although others may have had different experiences and opinions) that the phenomenon was much more prevalent in Asmara itself; nearly or completely absent out in the countryside. If so, this would tend to discredit the “evil spirits” explanation.

A possibly related custom was the clapping of two rocks together while squatting; this was said to be done in order to prevent the squatter from overhearing his own bodily noises, in line with the “evil spirits” theory. But I have read an alternative explanation: that the squatter is merely advertising his presence and preoccupation so that passersby will not encounter him to their mutual embarrassment.

What does myis contain?

Myis, or “mist” as most Americans called it, is a sort of wine made from honey, equivalent to the mead of the old Norsemen; that much is clear. But rumor had it that myis contained unspecified ingredients that would be of professional interest to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

My own experience would tend to support the rumor. I drank myis on numerous occasions, always moderately — with one exception: I overindulged at one wedding feast. I have never knowingly tried any illegal substances, so cannot make an informed comparison. But the word “high”, which was soon to become embedded in the drug culture, would have been an excellent description of that one myis-drunk. It simply felt different (and much more pleasant) in character from an ordinary alcohol experience.

So if it was so great, why did I not become a confirmed myis-drinker and repeat the pleasure time and again? Because (even though I did not become excessively drunk, no memory lapses, etc.) I paid for the pleasure with the mother of all hangovers, one that still stands out as the worst of a lifetime.

Myis is primarily a home brew and there are many brewers. It is very possible that myis sometimes contains narcotic ingredients, sometimes not, depending on the recipe.


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved