The forgotten Greeks of Eritrea

Intrepid traveller NICK DALLAS travels to Eritrea in north Africa to see firsthand how this young nation was faring and to investigate what remained of a once-flourishing Greek community.

On May 24 1993 Eritrea was formally declared independent and welcomed as Africa’s 52nd nation. A national referendum where over 99 percent of the populace voted for separation from Ethiopia and the creation of a free state, marked an end to the country’s 30-year secessionist armed struggle to achieve independence and nullify its illegal annexation.

The majority of Greeks were employed in mercantile activities and resided in the major cities of Asmara, Keren and the port city of Massawa.

Eritrea’s Greek-derived name is associated with its extensive Red Sea coastline; the Red Sea is known as Erythra Thalassa in Greek.

Both the historian Herodotus and the playwright Aeschylus mention the calming waters of the Red Sea in their writings but there are competing theories on why it was named the Red Sea. Some may say that ‘red’ emanates from Eritrea’s blood-stained modern history as it emerged as Africa’s youngest nation.

There were several events that attracted me to this newborn state. I was a keen observer of its David versus Goliath battle in its conflict with Ethiopia during my university years.

Furthermore I had read Thomas Keneally’s Towards Asmara, where although its characters were fictional, many of the described events were authentic. The novel was situated in pre-independence Eritrea and Keneally makes no attempt to disguise where his sympathies lie in this epic struggle.

I was also familiar with the Fred Hollows Foundation and its long association with Eritrea. In 1994 it opened an intraocular lenses laboratory in the capital Asmara. Such low cost lenses are used in cataract surgery.

Recently I had embarked upon a trip to Yemen. It was just too tempting not to visit Eritrea, a short journey across the Red Sea. The purpose of the trip was to see firsthand how this young nation was faring and also to investigate what remained of a once-flourishing Greek community.

Before proceeding to describe my travels, a short historical detour is required to understand the emergence of modern-day Eritrea.

Eritrea was officially given its name by the Italians in 1890, Italy being one of the last European colonial powers to join The Scramble for Africa. Italy chose the classically inspired name of Eritrea as it was in alignment with its colonial ambitions and imperial aspirations. With the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, rivalry between colonial powers intensified in the regions bordering the Red Sea.

The British were established in the Yemeni port city of Aden, the French had a foothold in Djibouti, the Ottomans were in the region for several centuries and the Italians were on the prowl.

During the late 1900s and early twentieth century, through a series of military campaigns and land expropriations, Italy secured a territorial expanse that resembles the nowadays modern-day borders of Eritrea.

When the Italian Fascists came to power in 1922, a massive and highly ambitious development program was embarked upon in Eritrea. From an already sizeable Italian population of 300,000 in 1900, it had mushroomed to 760,000 at its peak in 1941.

The capital Asmara was transformed from a sleepy rural settlement to a bustling metropolis. Dubbed ‘Piccola Roma’ (Little Rome), it reflected Mussolini’s grand plan to recreate the Roman Empire.

The architecture was breathtaking. To quote a UNESCO report: “The rapid transformation of Asmara from a relatively minor town into Africa’s most modern and sophisticated city at that time overlapped with equally momentous events in the world of design and architecture, which involved the global proliferation of Modernism and its various forms, including Futurism, Rationalism, Novecento, and Art Deco. The spirit of this new age of travel and adventure was embodied in these new architectural forms. Asmara was an ideal blank canvas on which Italian architects could practice and realise these modern ideals.”

Asmara’s architecture may be an aberration but it is a unique cultural heritage and even today efforts are being made to preserve it. Italian colonialism also had a considerable dark side. Eritreans were often pushed off their land to make way for Italian arrivals and were by no means equal citizens.

Asmara’s urban planning incorporated racial segregation. Eritrea was used as a springboard to launch Italian expansionist attacks on Ethiopia, and many Eritreans were forcibly conscripted into the Italian colonial army to take part in military campaigns.

World War II brought an end to the Italian domination of Eritrea. Asmara capitulated to the British in April 1941 and remained under British military administration for the next decade. In 1950 the UN passed a resolution making Eritrea an autonomous unit federated to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia always desired Eritrea as it is otherwise landlocked without it. In 1962 Ethiopia unilaterally dissolved this federated arrangement and annexed Eritrea. Eritrean hopes for self-determination were derailed by a timid UN response to Ethiopia’s actions, in addition to political intrigues by other member-states that had geostrategic interests in the region.

This slap in the face by the international community laid the seeds for the birth of Eritrea’s resistance movement, with the first activities of armed struggle appearing in the early 1960s.

The conflict then lasted three gruelling decades where the Eritreans, against formidable odds, eventually triumphed and finally achieved independence. I was able to make my way to Eritrea following a quick one-hour flight from Sana’a, the Yemeni capital.

My first day in Eritrea involved taking a stroll down palm tree-lined Harnet Avenue, Asmara’s principle boulevard. I was startled by the Italian influence despite having read about it. Although I was physically on Eritrean soil, I didn’t feel totally certain I was really in Africa. Harnet Avenue abounds with beautifully designed buildings, bustling pastry shops and cafes serving real coffee; decaffeinated and soy milk options aren’t on the menu.

Italian could still be heard on the streets, especially by older folk, and in the evening Eritreans wore their best and took part in the passeggiata ritual.

The people I met were welcoming, good humoured and friendly but there was a sense of tiredness and weariness in their faces. Self-reliance and resourcefulness are two traits that have become engrained in the Eritrean character but even battle-hardened people need some respite. Independence optimism prevailed and Eritrea enjoyed a decade of prosperity. It was one of Africa’s success stories.

Things started to unravel after a 1998 border skirmish with Ethiopia that escalated into an all-out war. Although a peace agreement to end hostilities was signed in 2000, the repercussions in Eritrea are still being felt as the country remains on a war footing.

The economy has nose-dived, the government has become insular, stressing the need for self-reliance, and a policy of prolonged military conscription has been introduced.
Meanwhile resources are diverted to maintaining the war readiness of the 400,000-strong armed forces. One can only imagine the economic and social distortions and dislocations inflicted upon Eritrea’s small population of a mere four million inhabitants. In this climate of insecurity, uncertainty and hardship, a small Greek community continues to reside in Eritrea. The consulate in Asmara flies the Greek flag but the consul has been absent for several months due to health problems.

I was fortunate to come across Evangelos Politaridis, a locally born businessman who kindly provided me with an overview of community affairs. His parents were from the Aegean island of Lemnos. When I visited the Greek section of Asmara’s cemetery, I would say that at least a quarter to one third of all the tombstones showed Lemnos as the place of origin of the deceased. -Other common places were the Peloponessian cities of Tripoli and Sparta, and numerous other Aegean islands.

Watching Evangelos run his hardware store, ‘buono sera’ was the most common greeting he received from locals. Not only does he alternate effortlessly between the local language Tigrinya and Italian, but occasionally uses Greek with some fellow Greeks and also Greek-speaking Eritreans who studied in Greece under scholarship programs.
These Eritreans were often amused when Athenians became confused with their place of origin. Many were not aware of Eritrea as a country but were well aware of ‘Nea Erythraia’, a well-to-do suburb of Athens.

Evangelos attended Greek primary school in Asmara. It was housed in the present-day consulate building. He then had the option of attending Italian or English high school. He attended the former but the option of attending Greek high school was also available to those who were prepared to travel to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where a larger Greek community resided.

Evangelos’s parents have passed away and his fellow siblings decided to return to Greece a long time ago. He feels a close attachment with both homelands but has decided to remain in Eritrea.

Around the mid nineteenth century, the first Greeks arrived in Eritrea via Egypt and Sudan. One of the first communities to be established was in Keren by Vlassis Frangoulis. Keren is Eritrea’s second largest city and is situated around 90 kilometres northwest of Asmara. An Italian census in 1894 indicated that there were already 178 Greeks living in Eritrea. The Greek community was numerically at its peak of 400-500 people in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The majority of Greeks were employed in mercantile activities and resided in the major cities of Asmara, Keren and the port city of Massawa. Evangelos said that his grandfather, a merchant in Massawa, took seven days on horseback to reach Asmara. The Greek community and many other foreign communities declined significantly in Eritrea after 1974 when Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by a military council known as the Derg. Profound social, economic and political changes were introduced that many found unsettling.

Today around 30 Greeks live in the country. What does the future hold for this community? I fear it will inevitably vanish, as it is highly unlikely that its ranks will be refreshed considering the difficulties Eritrea is facing.

Some community members have not given up hope and believe that the key is to have the community’s substantial property assets reinstated. Most of the community’s property portfolio was semi-irreversibly nationalised by the Eritrean government. Only the church, Evangelismos, has been returned. The potential cash flow emanating from reinstated assets will allow the community to carry out cultural initiatives.

Eritrea has had a turbulent history. It has weathered many tumultuous changes, from a colonial past, to a protracted liberation struggle to enduring the growing pains of a young nation. There has also been a Hellenic thread in this journey as Greek Diaspora have global reach. Developments in the Eritrea’s near future will determine whether this thread has run its course or has yet a long way to go.