Palaces – Past, Present and Future

By Jheri St. James

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country's heart
They rise to fail.
She is eternal
Long before nations' lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born.

Eritrea is a rather heart-shaped land in Eastern Africa, bordering the Red Sea between Djibouti and Sudan. The coast is a hot, dry desert, becoming cooler and wetter in the central highlands, and semiarid in western hills and lowlands. The coastline is directly across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Estimated population is 4,400,000. The capital is Asmara. The name Eritrea is a rendition of the ancient Greek name Erythraia, the “Red Land”. The oldest written reference to the territory is the expedition of the Ancient Egyptians in the 25th century B.C. under Pharaoh Sahure and later Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC, in search of frankincense. Ruled at various times by the Italians, the British and then fighting with Ethiopia for decades, Eritrea has always had a connection with the Nile Valley, Ancient Egypt and Nubia. No wonder: it is an important shipping port in the area. Following a UN supervised referendum in 1993, Eritrea’s people overwhelmingly voted for independence from Ethiopia and gained international recognition in that year.

(The Eritrean Railway was built during Italian colonialism.)

* * *

One of the oldest hominids, representing a possible link between Homo erectus and an archaic Homo sapiens was found in Buya (Eritrean Danakil) in 1995 by Italian scientists. The cranium was dated to over one million years old. In 1999 some of the earliest remains of humans using tools to harvest marine resources were found. The site contained obsidian tools dated to the paleolithic era, over 125,000 years ago. William Sanders of the University of Michigan also discovered a possible missing link between ancient and modern elephants in the fossilized remains of a pig-sized creature in Eritrea. The fossil, which is 27 million years old, pushes the origins of elephants and mastadons five million years further into the past and asserts that modern elephants originated in Africa. Recent genetic forensics studies seem to further indicate that not only elephants but all of mankind originated in Africa.

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death and despair.
She is the constant, we who don't care
And you wonder will I leave her -- but how?
I cross over borders but I'm still there now.

* * *

Margery Benson, of the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, was the soil collector for the Eritrean soil. Her sample came from the ruins of the winter Imperial Palace of Haile Selassie in Massawa, Eritrea, an ancient Red Sea port, which was part of the Axumite Kingdom. The governor’s palace was constructed in 1872. It suffered damage during the war and continues to do so now with the passage of time. Margery says, “The view of Haile Selassie is mixed, as would be the case of any leaders. The UN forced the notion of Eritrea & Ethiopia being confederated after WW2. The history of Ethiopia also includes the rule of the Soviet-supported Mengistu and his Derg regime. That presence in Eritrea and the more current dictates of the current president could leave some with a comparatively more favorable view of Haile Selassie . . . THERE IS SO MUCH HISTORY --- you may be opening a pandora's box here.”

Haile Selassie was born Lij Tafari Makonnen in July of 1892 and died in 1975, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, heir to a dynasty that traced its origins to the 13th century and from there back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. “Lij” translates to “child” and serves to indicate that a youth is of noble blood. He would later become Ras (“head—equivalent of duke or prince) Tafari Mekonnen. Upon his ascension to Emperor in 1930, he took the name Haile Selassie meaning “Power of the Trinity.” His full title in office was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.”

A defining figure in both Ethiopian and African history, Haile Selassie is revered as the religious symbol for God incarnate among the worldwide Rastafari movement, estimated adherents numbering between one and two million. Begun in Jamaica in the 1930’s the Rastafarian movement perceives Haile Selassie as a messianic figure who will lead the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora to a golden age of peace, righteousness and prosperity. The Rastafari refer to him as “HIM, Jah and Jah Rastafari.”

Throughout Ras Tafari’s travels in Europe, the Levant and Egypt, he and his entourage were greeted with enthusiasm and fascination. Accompanied by two other Rases, sons of a general who had contributed to the victorious war against Italy, the Ethiopians’ “Oriental Dignity” and rich, picturesque court dress were sensationalized in the media. Among his entourage, he even included a pride of lions, which he distributed as gifts to President Poincare of France, George V of the United Kingdom and the Zoological Garden of Paris. His list of honors received numbers approximately 100 from all over the world. Born in 1892, his prestige and respect continued well into the 1970’s. As the longest serving head of state in power, Haile Selassie was often given precedence over other leaders at state events, such as the state funerals of John F. Kennedy and Charles De Gaulle, the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the 1971 celebration of the 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. His high profile and frequent travels around the world raised Ethiopia’s international image.

A house built on granite and strong foundations, not even the onslaught of pouring rain, gushing torrents and strong winds will be able to pull down. Some people have written the story of my life representing as truth what in fact derives from ignorance, error or envy; but they cannot shake the truth from its place, even if they attempt to make others believe it. (Haile Selassie)

Eritrea was awarded to Ethiopia in 1952 as part of a federation. Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea as a province 10 years later sparked a 30-year struggle for independence that ended in 1991 with Eritrean rebels defeating governmental forces. A two-and-a-half year border war with Ethiopia that erupted in 1998 ended under UN auspices in December 2000. Since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has faced the economic problems of a small, desperately poor country, accentuated by the recent implementation of restrictive economic policies. Like the economies of many African nations, the economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture with 80 percent of the population involved in farming and herding. The May 2000 Ethiopian offensive into northern Eritrea caused some $600 million in property damage and loss, including losses of $225 million in livestock and 55,000 homes. Since the war ended, the government has maintained a firm grip on the economy, expanding the use of the military and party-owned businesses to complete Eritrea’s development agenda, developing its transportation infrastructure, asphalting new roads, improving its ports, and repairing war-damaged roads and bridges.

* * *

This is a picture of plants called salicornia, a member of the halophyte family, foliage that grows in saline soil. Eritrea was the location of some work done by atmospheric physicist Carl Hodges, who founded the Seawater Foundation in 1977 in an attempt to alleviate some of the world’s most complex ecological problems. Hodges’ unique approach draws seawater inland, irrigating otherwise barren coastal desert regions, and turning them green. The results are spectacular, with seawater-tolerant plants—salicornia, for example—providing a new home for wildlife, as well as creating food, jobs and prosperity for previously poverty-stricken areas. In Eritrea, the Seawater Foundation created the world’s first integrated sea farm for shrimp, fish and halophytes, covering over 1000 hectares. Here is his description of the work:

“Well, you cut a channel, except you cut it as a river…because it doesn’t go on to a dead end. Instead, the water goes in, and it arrogates things. When you stand at the mouth of it, you feel exactly like you would at the mouth of a river. Except you look down and the water is going in and not coming back. It goes in to produce animals, shrimp and fish, and then with their excrement involved, it arrogates trees that turn into forests. The forests have meadows of crop that provide food and fuel. And beauty. I think that’s an important value.

“…the sea presents a problem because the sea levels are coming up. But it’s also an opportunity. By bringing that rising sea water onto the land we can arrogate agriculture. A new form of agriculture. Greenery will take carbon out of the air—we have to take some out—because we’re putting too much in. And it will produce a biofuel that doesn’t put any carbon in.

“The problem sort of pushes us to a solution. We’ve either got to build sea walls, or we’ve got to move tens of millions of people away from the edge of the sea. But instead of that—instead of cost—we invest money in these new production systems, creating jobs, creating wealth, and taking big steps in solving global warming.

“Salicornia is an amazing plant. When we first started looking for plants, we looked at over 700 in some detail, and we listed them. The only reason we had salicornia was that it was pretty. A young lady was counting the seed, and she wiped her fingernails on a paper towel and she noticed that the towel looked oily. And she was right. It has about 30-40% very high quality vegetable oil. Salicornia produces a high quality vegetable oil on sea water. On land it’s not competitive for food production. It produces at a rate that is probably one of the most economical biofuels on the planet . . . in 1993 we actually ran a vehicle on salicornia oil . . .

“The world would continue to build more of these [sea rivers] over the next 40, 50, 60 years. Not only would we catch up with stopping sea level rise, we would also be making a significant contribution to taking enough carbon out of the air. With efficient systems, transportation and power plants, we’d stop global warming.

“In my 50 years of science, my four and a half years in Eritrea were the most rewarding. I loved every minute of it. The thing I learned that was most strong was what people really need is purpose and hope . . . and the sea. People—I mean women and children—would come to work at night, singing, carrying rocks on their head—at their initiative—to finish a pond, so that they and I would be pleased that it was done. I used to go to work in the morning and just damn near cry. I loved the people. I loved the project, and world will look back upon that one day as one of the really significant projects.” (See for video; or Google Salicornia for other sources.)

Founder and chairman of The Seawater Foundation,
Carl Hodges at the Principal Voices Climate Change debate.

The sandals worn by the fighters of independence were once iconic.
This monument in Asmara was erected in memoriam, but has since been removed.

Hamid Idris Awate fired the first shot against Ethiopian government forces
in 1 September 1961 at Mount Adal. He went on to create the Eritrean Liberation Army
(the armed wing of the Eritrean Liberation Front).

Early morning in a Gash Barka village

A wedding in Eritrea

A traditional Nilotic Kunama herder posing for a picture near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka.

* * *

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart
My land's only borders lie around my heart.*

The Palace of Haile Selassie was built on granite. The “most famous man in human history” is buried under the ground with all the soldiers who died under his command and as a result of his offensives in Eritrea and elsewhere. His summer palace crumbles to dust with the help of the winds, the rains and the sun. The Earth claims its own and all are Her own; eventually all end up at ground zero. This is the past.

Thanks to Margery Benson for her efforts on behalf of our project. This is the present.

The work of Carl Hodges represents the future on the earth in Eritrea and elsewhere.

The word for peace in Eritrea is “Salem.” May this be inifinity.

A Latin motto from Seneca: O quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini! The mind ... looking down upon the earth from above ... says to itself: Is this that pinpoint which is divided by sword and fire among so many nations? How ridiculous are the boundaries of mortals!

(*Lyrics in red to “Anthem” are by Tim Rice, from the musical CHESS.)




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