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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

Brief Archeological Updates from Eritrea

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The Ancient Port-City of Adulis (Eritrea)

Ruins of Adulis excavated between1961-1962.

The ancient port city of Adulis is located on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, on the crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The site is found 56 kms south of Eritrea`s main port city of Massawa. Adulis was well known in the past as one of the most important ports along the Red Sea coast, as documented by classical sources: Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (1st c. A.D.) and the Christian Topography (6th c. A.D.). The ancient port-city has been served as the main link of culture, trade and politics in the region for over seven centuries. Adulis was flourished between the 2nd millennium BC to the 7th century AD. According to the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea Adulis was located only 3km far from the Sea coast. In which, at present the port city is 7km far from the Sea coast. In 6th century AD, the Cosmas Indicopleustes in the book Christian Topography stated that Adulis was a fair-sized village that transshipped goods from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, Arab lands, Middle and Far East, Asia as well as the hinter land of Africa. The main goods for trade through the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean include rhinoceros horn, ivory, turtles` backbone, obsidian, slaves and incense. The ancient port city of Adulis has been known by scholars since the end of the 19th century, such as, Henry Salt (1814), Vignaud and Petit (1840), Theophile Lefebvre (1845), Napier expedition (1867), Sundström (1907), Paribeni (1907), Francois Anfray (1960s), and lately by experts from South Hampton University (2003-2004). Putting aside the details of the above expeditions, except the late survey works by the British scholars, almost all other expeditions were exercising amateur diggings. In 2011 a new research project in collaboration with Italian counterparts initiated. Following the late British expedition, this was by far the first scientific project ever organized in Adulis. Excavation conducted on five different areas within the 4 hectare ruins of Adulis. The main aim was to re-excavate the churches once documented by Italian archaeologist Paribeni in 1907 and also to understand the date and demise of the site. The Adulis collaborative research project is still continuing. To date, few of the most important discoveries include: a human figurine; gold and bronze coins and chain fragments; mortars; stamp -dating the 2nd century AD; a lamp from North Africa and Roman Empire, dated to the 2nd century AD; human burial remain (dated to mid- of the 4th c AD) and more others. So far more than 50 different local and 7 types of imported potteries have been identified within the last six excavation missions. Adulis site first dating results show a range from the 1st to the early 7th C. AD. These dating overlap with the important trade occurrences in the region with the Mediterranean basin, Far East, and the African hinterland. Archaeological materials recovered from the excavation shows, Adulis had strong trade connections with Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula as well as with the central and the eastern Mediterranean, Iran and South Asia. The Paleochristian churches from Adulis are the founding religious discoveries known in the site. The research confirmed these kinds of churches were common from the 5th to 15th century AD. According to them, similar evidences were reported from Greek, Egypt and Syria. The Eritrea-Italian researchers believe these churches could be the first discovery of its kind in the Horn of Africa. They further reported that,” in the Horn of Africa Christianity would have been widespread decades after the decree of Costantino that, in 313 AD and made the practice of faith free”. The last six years studies shows, the early Paleochristian churches from Adulis are dated from the 5th-6th century AD, that is right after Christianity entered the region (4th C AD). This result confirms an early evidence of Christianity in the Horn Africa. Later on, that is, nearly 300 years this same area was also known for the introduction of Islamic faith (615 AD), through the Red Sea to Massawa and Adulis via the Sahaba by the followers of Prophet Mohammad.

The newly re-excavated church from Adulis Finally, I would like to conclude by the following brief and new research perspectives from the well known Italian Archaeologist and member of the present Adulis project, Andrea Manzo. Based on extensive ceramic studies in the Horn Africa, he suggest … “although Adulis was since the very beginning involved in a broad network extending up to the northern Red Sea, Arabia and the Gulf and inland to other regions of Africa, it is also evident that foreign objects and traits were adopted and used in a very distinctive, locally rooted cultural context. All this is clearly reflected in the material culture. This is for example shown by the pottery, whose typically local features recently led to the identification of an Adulitan Ceramic Tradition, a relevant achievement of the ongoing Italian-Eritrean joint research project. Indeed, this is very intriguing, as the pottery is used mainly in the process of food preparation and consumption and for this reason several of its specific traits could be easily related to local alimentary habits, whose reconstruction is presently in progress, and ultimately to the local identity”.

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