Book Review: Red Sea Citizens by Dr. Jonathan Miran

BooK:                    Red Sea Citizens
Author:                 Jonathan Miran
Pages:                    401
Year:                       2009
Publisher:             Indiana University Press

Dr. Johnathan Miran is Assistant Professor of Islamic Civilization in the Department of Liberal Studies at Western Washington University. Dr. Miran has a keen interest in Eritrean history. He has produced multiple research papers on Eritrea, particularly the Red Sea region[i]. His book, Red Sea Citizens, is perhaps one of his most captivating and intriguing publications on Eritrea. In this book, he unravels the rich and profound history of Massawa and its environs. Dr. Miran’s research is admirably deep, intricate and multidimensional. His references are widespread across languages and entities. His references include the rarely explored centuries old Massawa Islamic Court documents written in Arabic, unpublished historical manuscripts of the late Mufti of Eritrea Ibrahim Al-Mukhtar, written in Arabic[ii] and extensive interviews with residents and representative of Massawa’s historical families. Dr. Miran spent some time in Massawa examining its landscape, architecture, historical sights and local customs. Dr. Miran’s book is indispensable for those who study the history of Eritrea in general and the Red Sea region in particular.

Relevance and urgency

Three factors, in particular, increase the relevance and urgency of Dr. Miran’s book on Massawa.

First, Massawa’s historical and civilizational significance. Undoubtedly, Massawa, by far, was the most important town in Eritrea. For centuries it served as a gateway to inland and as a global commercial center. Massawa’s strategic location in the Red Sea attracted the attention of the Umayyad, the Portuguese, the Othmans, the Egyptian Khedives and the Italians. Massawa fascinated entrepreneurs, intellectuals, seekers of opportunities from far places and regions. Massawa’s unique outlook and the sophisticated social setting was noted by European observers who described it as “Civilized” and “European like”. Following the formation of Eritrea as a colony in 1890, Massawa remained the capital of Eritrea until 1899. Massawa is rich in history and antiquity, any documentation of its history, such as the book of Dr. Miran, will be of great value and significance.

Second, Massawa’s tragic history and the losses it sustained over the years. Massawa was subjected to some of the worst devastations in its history. The 1920 powerful earth quack destroyed many of the city’s historical buildings and left a sad mark on the city. The city paid a heavy price in the war of Eritrean Liberation. In the 1977 failed attempt to liberate it and the 1990 (Fenkil successful liberation of the city, a huge damage was inflicted on the city by Mengistu’s regime. Unlike some of the other Eritrean towns, Mengistu’s regime fought vigorously to keep Massawa under his control, resulting in much damage and destruction. Saving whatever remains of Massawa’s architecture, historical manuscripts, oral history becomes a matter of great urgency before it is forgotten and lost. The book of Dr. Miran is important undertaking in that direction.

Third, Massawa’s major social and demographical change. Massawa and its environs has witnessed a major shift in its demographical outlook. The two wars of Eritrean liberation in Massawa, the brutal massacres of Hergigo in the mid-1970s forced its citizens to migrate in mass. Massawa and Hergigo were homes to centuries old, well established and influential families. Families such as: the Naib, the Shiniti, the Batuq, the Habuna, the Saeigh, the Shawish, the Adulay, the Kekiya, the Baduri, the Bajunaid, the Bushnaq, the Sirdar, the Mentay, the Hayuti, the Afandi, the Abu-Alama and many others who were the hallmark of the city and its environs for centuries. Extended families with deep roots in the region were uprooted during the conflicts, leaving behind a serious historical void. The families who were uprooted, took with them not only their physical presenc, but also oral history, customs, social norms and the distinctive “Massawan” outlook.

The book of Dr. Miran is a timely and much need contribution in preserving the history of Massawa. Hopefully, his book will be a catalyst for further studies and research on the history of this glorious city that has, sadly, turned today into a “ghost town”.

Dr. Miran’s book is made up of 380 pages; full of extensive notes, illustrations, historical pictures, broad introduction and insightful conclusion. It is made up of 5 chapters. The first chapter discusses the political life of the Red Sea region with greater emphasis on the “Naib”s, rulers of the region. The second chapter provides insights into the commercial life of the city, in particular, the economic relations with hinterland and outside world. The third chapter explores the “distinctive composition of Massawa’s communities” and how commercial growth shaped its “brokering and trading communities”. The fourth chapter, discuss the religious life of Massawa, particularly the influence of Islam on the city. The fifth chapter focuses on “what it means to be Massawan”, with discussions on the city’s social structure and outlook.

The Naibs

The “Naib” family, stationed in the town of Hergigo, was a key player in the political history of the region. The Naibs come from the Balaw clan, descendants of the powerful Beja tribe. They settled in the town of Hergigo centuries ago. In 1557 the Othmans, who were in control of the Red Sea region, devolved power to the chief of the Balaw, who came to be known as the “Naib”, deputy. The Naibs practically became the defacto rulers of the region, eventually becoming the “most powerful rulers in a vast area extending between the Red Sea coast and the highland plateau”. The Naibs were mostly autonomous in their governance, with little interference from the Othmans. Naib Hasan (1840) once said: “Sultan rules in Istanbul, the Pasha in Egypt, and Naib Hassan in Massawa!

The Naibs acted as the power broker in the region with the relationship going deep into the inland to Bahr Negash in Debarwa, kings of Abyssinia in the plateau and other regional powers. The Naibs had a military made up of a mixed militia headed by commanders associated with the Naib family. These commanding military positions eventually became hereditary within families who came to be known with military tiles, such as bayt Askar, bayt Shawish, bayt Kekiya, bayt Sirdar, bayt Agha and others.

The Naibs solidified their position through intermarriage with other important tribes and chiefs in the region. They also collaborated with powerful religious families in the region, such as Ad Shaikh, Ad Darqi, bayt Muallim, bayt Shaikh Mahmoud and others. They financed their operations through the taxes they levied on the Caravans crossing through their region.

The Naibs took Hergigo as their capital. The author notes that Hergigo predates the Naibs and according to oral traditions it was founded by the Saho speaking “Idda” tribe in conjunction with bayt Shaikh Mahmud from Zula. Hergigo was also known as “Dakhano” (meaning elephant in Saho language).

The Naib family maintained its influence beyond the Othman era, but their influence diminished when the Egyptians took dominance of the region in 1813. Even after Italian occupation, the family maintained some symbolic influence in the region.

Dr. Miran provides an objective assessment of the Naibs and rejects some of the negative notions expressed by some early European travelers. Dr. Miran’s insights into the history of the Naibs, their influences, their political maneuvers, their internal power struggles and their shifting alliances is intriguing and eye-opening.

Commercial life

Trade and commercial brokerage, as noted by the author, was the “raison d’être” of Massawa and the foundation of its existence and prominence. In its boom days in 1870s and 1880s, Massawa was described as the “Zanzibar of the Red Sea”. Its strategic location made it a hub of trade exchange between the inland and outside world. Massawa’s trade network went deep into the land of Oromia in the South, the Abyssinian plateau and as far Kassala in Sudan. Globally its trade links reached as far as Bombay, Gujarat in India, as well as, Indonesia and vast regions in the Middle East.

Massawa became a magnet for brokers, merchants, traders and labourers from across regions in the interior and worldwide. Massawa brought people from different regions extending as far as Tunisia, Albania, Turkey, Egypt, Kurdistan, Bukhara, Gujarat, Bombay, Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan. These people spoke different languages, had different cultures and religions, but Massawa provided them an avenue where they can openly transact and make business deals. Some of those who came to Massawa ended up settling in Massawa and becoming part of its multiethnic and multicultural mosaic.  With a mix of inland African and external blood, Massawa developed a distinct and cohesive social identity.

Many Massawans made fortunes by acting as brokers facilitating commercial transactions between these merchants who came from various regions. Massawa provided opportunities for great prosperity and higher social mobility. Massawan families such as the Al-Ghul, Batuq, Bazaham, and Al-Nahari amassed a huge fortune from Massawa’s commercial prominence and became among the wealthiest in the region. Massawa continued to provide opportunities even to those who relatively came late. The “Bahubaishi” who came to Massawa in 1871, is a case in point. He settled in Massawa, he had simple beginnings, but eventually became phenomenally successful in his business. He was married to a woman from the inland, over time his business expanded deep into the highlands and his family’s name became a household name in Eritrea, with vast business ventures and many charitable projects.

Religious life

Massawa’s identification with Islam begun early in history. Dr. Miran quotes a Massawan he interviewed, who said: “We Massawans have accepted Islam before Meccans!” Highlighting the central role Islam played in shaping the city, Dr. Miran notes that Islam became a “foundational pillar characterizing the community”. Massawans believe that the early migrant companions of prophet Mohamed landed first in Massawa before heading inland to the capital of the Negashi (Negus). Dr. Miran believes that this migration was of “symbolic significance” and might not have had a much tangible impact. He believes the real Islamic influence in Massawa and its surrounding begun with the arrival of the Umayyad in Dahlak in the 8th century. Later, further expansion of Islam occurred under the influence of certain charismatic religious figures and their well-established families. Prominent among these families are the bayt Shaikh Mahmud, Ad Darqi, Ad Muallim, Ad Zubayr, Ad Kebire. The two most influential families, however, were the Ad Shaikh and Al-Mirghani families, both proponents of the Qadriya and Khatmiya Sufi orders respectively. The Ad Shaikh family’s influence was far reaching and long lasting. However, their influence has begun to wane with the arrival of Italians who were more favourable of the Al-Mirghans and suspicious of Ad Shaikh due to their relationship with their rivals, the Mahdis in Sudan.

Massawa and its environs was full of religious shrines and mosques. The two most prominent shrines were the tomb of Shaikh Hamid Nafutay in Emberemi, from Ad Shaikh and Hashim Al-Mirghani in Hetumlo, from the Al-Mirghani family. The two most historical mosques of Massawa, dating back to more than 800 years, are the Hanafi mosque and Shafi mosques.

Massawa had a relatively well established Islamic court system with extensive judicial powers. The remaining documents of the Islamic court of Massawa is an important historical resource, which Dr. Miran has referenced extensively in his book.

Massawan distinctiveness:

Massawa developed a unique architectural outlook, resembling other Red Sea cities such as Jeddah and Sawakin. Dr. Miran notes that even today, despite all the destructions, beautiful Arabic inscriptions can be easily observed on the houses and streets of the city. Massawa witnessed significant changes in its architectural outlook during the Egyptian Khedives. The Khedives undertook significant construction projects, most importantly, the building of bridges linking Massawa Island to Tewalot and Tewalot to the mainland in 1870.

Discussing what it means to be “Massawan”, Dr. Miran, highlights the important roles of extended families in Massawa, the generational intermarriages among these families and the basis for higher social status in Massawa. Over the centuries, Massawa has curved for itself a socio-economic outlook that is distinctive, integrated and cohesive.  Ilario Capomazza, a well-informed Italian colonial officer, gives an interesting description of Massawa when he notes:  “thanks to its peaceful habits, its commercial relations with Arabia, India, and Egypt, as well as its frequent and continuous contact with Europeans, the population of Massawa and its environs is undoubtedly the most civilized and one which has assimilated most to Western civilization among all the colony’s peoples”.


Massawa’s history is fascinating, intriguing, inspiring but at the same time saddening. Dr. Miran did a marvelous job of unraveling some of Massawa’s history and heritage. The city he describes in his book in its peak days is far from what remains of Massawa today. His note from his last visit of Massawa, years after publishing his book, is gloomy. It reflects the sad state of affairs of the city today. Dr. Miran notes:      ”a recent trip to Massawa –eight years after I visited the town for the first time- left the impression of a ghost town, deserted and lifeless, at least in comparison with what I have previously experienced

I personally, had the opportunity of visiting Massawa in the early 1970s before much of the destruction that happened later. I am certain, the Massawa that Dr. Miran saw in his first and last visit is a far cry from the Massawa I saw in the 1970s. With its unique architecture, distinct customs, vibrant “suqs” and historical families in place, Massawa of those days, despite many challenges, was much more lively and more genuine. Its neighbouring town, Hergigo, the powerhouse of the region, is sadly another abandoned and motionless town today.

Massawa is a resilient city. It has seen many ups and downs in its history but never crumbled, it stood again after every tragedy. I hope and pray, that Massawa, will again shake off the legacy of war and neglect and rise again to take its rightful place; a city of free exchange, opportunity, prosperity and adventure!

[i] See list of his publication on this link:

[ii] One of these manuscripts is: The comprehensive history of the Island of Badie (Massawa) titled in Arabic:

Al-Jami Li-Ahbar Jazeerat Badie”, الجامع لأخبار جزيرة باضع 


Related Posts