ERITREA, Landscapes as Museums

by Abraham Zerai

Museums may be defined as exhibitions in an artificial setting. Yet, the interaction of nature and man has proved to be a snapshot to different dynamism over the past millennia. Cultural remains left by humans on the landscape attest to the way humans interacted with their environment. Understanding the ways in which natural and architectural features were experienced by humans in the past and how the ancient modification of the landscape can be interpreted as a reflection of ancient culture and thought processes are central to the services archaeologists could offer to the present society. Of the several questions raised about the use of studying the past, the most pressing one regards how the present society communicates with past landscapes. The work of the archaeologist thus should be to find patterns on the use of landscapes in the past and provide a coherent narrative about it to communicate the public.Eritrea´s diverse landscapes and the long human presence in its territory compels us to look into what the ancient landscape embraces in terms of patterns of resource utilization and exploitation by various communities who inhabited the land since the cradle of humanity. Furthermore, the opportunities and challenges the landscape posed to these communities to adapt to different phases of human settlements across the past millennia need to be understood. The past landscape is historic because it has been shaped by people responding to the surroundings they inherit. It contains a unique and dynamic record of past human activity, which reflects the aspirations, skills and investment of successive generations. People value this historic environment as part of their cultural and natural heritage. It reflects the knowledge, beliefs and traditions of diverse communities. It gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to the places in which we live, providing a sense of continuity and a source of identity. It is a social and economic asset and a resource for learning and enjoyment. This historic environment should therefore be sustained and shaped by our generation in ways that allow people to use, enjoy and benefit from it and enable the future generation to do the same. For this synergy to occur, it is paramount that the present generation draws lessons from the interaction of past societies with the landscape. In brief synthesis of the interactions of past communities with the diverse landscapes of Eritrea, the following sketch of instances will be useful for the present generation to communicate with its past.

Glancing at the events in human evolution over the past 6 million years, there is a considerable link between the world´s climatic patterns and some important milestones in human evolution. Scholars agree that the beginning of variable global climate throughout the last 6 million years and particularly the repeated cycles in the last 2.5 million years ago were instrumental in the evolution of the biological and behavioral characteristics that define humanity. The Eritrean Rift valley (Danakil Depression) matters in writing narratives of human antiquity. The rift valley, which includes the Eritrean Danakil Depression with its north-south orientation, is believed to be the dispersal corridor for humans and mammals from interior landscapes of eastern Africa northward up to the Red Sea basin and adjacent regions.As with our past, our fate will likely depend on future climatic conditions. Therefore, we should not only be concerned about where we stand now, but also where our species will stand in the distant future. Our place in nature and the patterns of interactions we forge as groups and individuals continue to be shaped by the environment. Patterns in food consumption, pollution, environmental stresses and infectious diseases will affect how we will appear or behave in the future. The growing concerns of global warming urge us to reflect on human antiquity, how past climatic changes have shaped the path to humanity, and how humans can secure their place in nature in the course of future environmental changes. The record contained in the geological formations of the Danakil Depression of Eritrea can thus be used to educate the present generation the impact of climate on the future of the society.
As far as environmental stresses are concerned, one of the hallmarks of antiquity has been the transformation from hunting-gathering to domestication of cereals over the last 5000 years ago in this part of the Horn. The western lowlands of Eritrea have been identified as one of centers for the origins of plant domestication in sub- Saharan Africa in antiquity. The trend which is substantiated by archaeological evidence culminated in the rise of settled communities before 4000 years ago and eventually stimulated the emergence of civilizations which flourished in this part of the Horn. This instance remains to be a pivotal point by which pastoral communities in our region before 4000 years ago found alternative solutions to resource exploitation amid growing drought of the Sahara.Another feature as concerns the interaction of past communities with their landscape has to do with resource over-utilization. The decline of major urban civilizations in highland Eritrea and the Gulf of Zula by the 7th century is mainly the result of environmental degradation from overexploitation of resources and changes in the international trading in the Red Sea region. This trend has been also attested from various civilizations and the depletion of resources through over-utilization entails with it lessons which can be learned by the present and future generations. On the other hand, management of scarce resources is demonstrated from the past cultural imprints left in the Dahlak archipelago. The ancient water cisterns built in the 7th-8th Century AD in the Dahlak islands are peculiar evidences for the ancient water conservation management strategy in the world. The ancient water management strategy as witnessed from the Dahlak Archipelago evokes the wise use of resources in an ecologically formidable landscape, which the present society can contemplate.While natural factors and environmental stresses in the landscape create challenges and opportunities for societies, the modifications that past societies made on the landscape in turn become sources of inspiration and learning for the present civilizations. In an era where technological advancements offer opportunities to find alternative solutions to harmonize old-age amenities with modern ones, inspiration from the evolving landscapes is significant.
One of the significant sources to such inspiration comes from urban settings of Asmara that evolved through centuries. Instead of imitating the nature, creativity reflected in urban planning process to realize ideals of modernity stimulate to understand a spirit of a city in its wider notions. The modernist city of Asmara stands to be an ideal instance of this phenomenon. Reflections on the heritage embraced in the urban setting of the city echoes inspirations drawn from styles and unique architectural forms celebrating technological innovations of the last century. These inspirations are sources to local urban planners, cultural heritage planners and the public to sustain the historic cityscape and the heritage values constituted in it.Similarly, where the creative processes matter to make modifications to the landscape for utility by humans, the record kept in the historic town of Nakfa becomes a prime example. The landscape becomes a reference to an effective warfare machinery of the Eritrean struggle forged over a formidable terrain. The remnants of the fortifications in the town reflect a pattern which strongly held safe the future of the nation. The interaction of various logistical and institutional facilities in the Nakfa landscape during the struggle for independence reflects tangible human agency of Eritrean freedom fighters which made the independence of the nation possible. This interaction with the landscape also helped mold the cherished national identity in the shape of the tenacity, heroic deeds and martyrdom of freedom fighters in the frontline and evoke pride and inspirations in the present generations.
In summary, all these instances have been drawn here to highlight the relationship of humans with the diverse landscapes of Eritrea across the segments of human history. Geography and history will continue to shape the country in the future. Communicating to the interaction of humans with the past landscapes and sustaining the historic landscape of the country therefore, becomes important to draw lessons, inspirations and enjoyment for the present and future generations.