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Massawa: An Island in Ruptures

Re-imagining the island as an activated archive of Eritrean history, through the aftermath of substantial and tangible traumata

by Lavenya Parthasarathy & Sophie Schrattenecker

All Images

This article is based on a study trip and design research project conducted by Lavenya Parthasarathy, Sophie Schrattenecker and Xin Zheng as part of the MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments course at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2018. Supervision: Prof. Edward Denison, Hannah Corlett.

Abstract: Massawa, the “Pearl of the Red Sea“, is a city of ruins. Over 500 years of capricious history have been absorbed by the island’s urban landscape: Turkish colonialism, Egyptian rule, Italian takeover, earthquakes and Eritrea’s war for independence have left lasting traces in Massawa’s built environment. What remains of the city today can be regarded as an archive of Eritrean history, the aftermath from the trauma is substantial and tangible. The island is sparsely populated by only a handful of people today, its empty houses and plazas narrate stories of great disruptions. This article is the result of a design exercise based on the island of Massawa, constrained by the urban fabric and its traumatic history. The design questions disruptive urban landscapes, evaluating new methods to face technical challenges, and re-learning traditional structures to reclaim the once thriving state of the island. [1]


[1] The Information about Massawa gathered in the course of this research and design project is largely based on a site visit and conversations with members of the Asmara Heritage Project in 2018.

Details of Massawa. Local contextual construction materials

[Image 1] - Details of Massawa. Local contextual construction materials (such as coral blocks from the Red Sea), many bearing bullet wounds. 
Image by Lavenya Parthasarathy (2018).

Panorama of Massawa market square

[Image 2] Panorama of Massawa market square. 
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

Transformation of the island
Interventions on architectural and urban scale
Current condition of Massawa Island

[Images 3-5] Development strategy map. 
Image by the authors (2018).

Sketch of the ruinous Bank of Italy, Massawa

[Image 6] Sketch of the ruinous Bank of Italy. 
Image by Lavenya Parthasarathy (2018).

Banca d’Italia (Bank of Italy) after destruction

[Image 7] Banca d’Italia (Bank of Italy) after destruction. 
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

Exploded axonometriy of the proposed interventions for the Bank of Italy

[Image 8] Exploded axonometriy of the proposed interventions for the Bank of Italy. 
Image by Lavenya Parthasarathy (2018).

Plan of the “Southern Plaza“ with houses built during Turkish, Egyptian and Italian occupation

[Image 9]: Plan of the “Southern Plaza“ with houses built during Turkish, Egyptian and Italian occupation.
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

Three building strategies for three different states of decay (top to bottom): framework, kiln and spolia

[Images 10-13]: Three building strategies for three different states of decay (top to bottom): framework, kiln and spolia.
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

This conceptual map of Massawa depicts a vision of the city’s future. It combines all proposed elements of the design on an urban level, thus turning the city’s plazas into a network of spatial possibilities and recreation

[Image 14]: This conceptual map of Massawa depicts a vision of the city’s future. It combines all proposed elements of the design on an urban level, thus turning the city’s plazas into a network of spatial possibilities and recreation.
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

Infrastructural module

[Image 15]: Infrastructural module.
Image Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).

Impression of an urban space located in the centre of Massawa (watercolour on paper). 

[Image 16]: Impression of an urban space located in the centre of Massawa (watercolour on paper). 
Image by Sophie Schrattenecker (2018).


The island of Massawa, known as the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’, is situated off the north-eastern coast of Eritrea, and has been an important port for the East African country over many centuries. Massawa is connected to mainland Eritrea by a bridge through the island of Taulud. Eritrea’s naval base and large dhow docks are situated on the island. 


Originally a small seaside village that was part of the Kingdom of Axum, Massawa has historically been colonised by a number of different empires. The first significant rule that the island was under was the Ottoman empire, from 1557 to 1865, lasting 300 years. This was followed by Egyptian rule (1865-1882, 17 years), Italian rule (1882-1941, 59 years), British rule (1941-1952, 11 years), and Ethiopian rule in 1952, until Eritrea won the war of Independence in 1993. [2]

The island has faced various traumatic events throughout its history. The 1921 earthquake destroyed most built up areas of the island. [3] The port was largely destroyed by the British during World War II. The long and gruelling war of independence left a lasting trauma on the island of Massawa as most of the fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea took place on the island. Massawa bears these visible scars through the bullet holes which can still be seen on a number of buildings on the island. [Image 1]



The crumbling architecture and empty streets on the island describe the hard time suffered by Massawa over the years. As a small island on the Red Sea, Massawa has witnessed the history of colonies by Turkey, Egypt and Italy, which are tangibly recorded in the old town’s built environment through construction techniques and materials. Today, only a small ageing population lives on the island, where both the silent ruins and historic relics are waiting with expectations for a renewed life.

At an aerial glance, Massawa‘s urban fabric resembles an old carpet that moths have eaten their way through. The ‘moth’ can be understood as a synonym of time eating away this urban carpet - a composition of layers of history. On close observation it is quite clear how fragile the state of this ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’ is today. Thus, it is apparent that the first impression a visitor would have to this historically significant place would be that in front of you lies a city bearing the stamp of history, a city displaying layers of time - a city of ruins. 

The following design propositions approach the aim of highlighting Massawa’s architectural potential on an educational, domestic as well as urban level. After introducing the greater urban development strategy for Massawa as an island, focus will be kept on the vision of transforming one of the city’s most contested buildings into a School for Architecture. Subsequently, modular design interventions dealing with the decay of domestic architecture and urban spaces encountered in Massawa city will be presented. [4]

All interventions proposed in this essay are intended as starting points for a wider discussion about the future of the “Pearl of the Red Sea”. In doing so, Massawa is acknowledged as a valuable heritage despite - or because - of its precarious state of existence.


One main infrastructural route leads from the mainland over two bridges to Massawa Island, where the historic city is located. There, it connects to a circular road that surrounds the city, as well as one main route leading to the island‘s eastern edge, where the industrial port is situated. In order to sustainably and economically affect development on the island over the next decades, these infrastructural key routes will be kept.

The eastern half of Massawa Island is covered by a vast industrial port area. Historically, this land has been strategically used by colonial powers (Turkey, Egypt, and Italy) as a base of operations for further advance into the mainland. With its ideal location in the Red Sea, Massawa Island was then strategically used as a trading port - again a mediator between the mainland and the sea route. Nevertheless, considering the possibility of strong earthquakes occurring every half decade, it has to be questioned if such a logistic centre should be accessible via land through more routes than just a single bridge.

Thus, the initial stage of the proposed development strategy suggests moving the industrial port away from Massawa island, to the north, where another port already exists and is easily accessible through the mainland. A smaller port located opposite the square in front of the Banca d‘Italia will then be reinstalled for the purpose of transporting people. From here, local tourists will also be able to visit the famous Island Tahoud in the south of Massawa Bay. 

In the course of moving the industrial port away from the island, all existing port walls will be removed as well. The effect of this intervention will be an opening of different parts of the island towards each other. With this, the elimination of the port wall located between buildings at the island‘s Northern edge and the waterfront will create an open view towards the Red Sea.

After having moved the port out of the eastern part of Massawa Island, its area will gradually be transformed into a ‘Green Catalyst’, meaning a green area. This will be achieved by bringing local plants, also found in Massawa, such as Palm, Landifolius, Neem and Zadivachta Indica, to the wasteland. Additionally, the saltwater canals introduced [5] will act like veins crossing the dry land and producing an additional cooling effect on its climate. In co-operation with the project ‘Manzanar’, which grows Mangroves alongside Eritrea‘s coastline, trees routing in salt water will be planted in this area as well, thus adding to the positive effect of the ‘Green Catalyst’.


Lavenya Parthasarathy

The island of Massawa is an opportunity for the students in Eritrea, who have a growing interest in architecture, to make use of the rich history that Massawa as a ruinous island offers to Eritrea. Through providing a school of architecture that is surrounded by such an interesting source of inspiration, a dialogue is created between strong contemporary design in response to the rich histories of architecture in Massawa.This interaction and mutual relationship would also be beneficial to the growth of the old town and to bring life back into the island. Using the island itself as a test bed for new innovative ideas will be a catalyst of inspiration for the students by being surrounded by such a nurturing environment. Students travelling to Massawa to study will be motivated by the surroundings and the traces of history that are submerged in the fabric of the structures, with layers of history.

What happens if a new generation of architecture students moves into the island and utilises the space by restoring and breathing new life into the old town? What if the students occupy some of the destroyed structures as their accommodation? Being offered an entire island as a form of test bed will not only deepen their educational knowledge and give hands-on experience but will also introduce new design ideas that the island is in desperate need for.

The Banca d’Italia (Bank of Italy) building is situated on a square on the former port front. The square was originally designed as a formal space into which colonial visitors to Eritrea would arrive for the first time. To maintain the image of the colony and the character, the grandeur of the Bank of Italy building and the piazza was tailored to keep up with this image. The Bank of Italy building in complete contrast is now one of the worst devastated structures on the island, suffering from bullet wounds and bomb damage from the war of liberation. The piazza adjacent to the building is also uninhabited and has the most desolate impression in the old town.

The proposal aims to restore the Bank of Italy as Eritrea’s first School of Architecture by embracing the history of the building with all its wear and tear. The aim of the project is to create an opportunity for the students in Eritrea, with a growing interest in architecture, to make use of the rich history and valuables that Massawa as a ruinous island offers to Eritrea. The intervention will bring together all these components by binding the ruin and making it habitable but still leaving the structure vulnerable - bearing all its wounds in pride. Utilising the open space adjacent to the Bank of Italy as an opportunity for the students to test and experiment with creative ideas with learning and testing structures. These would be spaces for workshops, structures that can be used by the students. The Italian construction of the Bank of Italy utilises steel reinforced concrete and the corrosion of the reinforced steel from the salt in the atmosphere has led to an enhanced process of decay. This added with the damage from the war of liberation from bomb damage and bullet wounds, the building is on the verge of crumbling and collapsing.

From analysing the state of the ruin and decay of the building, the following forms of strategies that will be applied to different parts of the building depending on which is the most appropriate are derived:

  • Stabiliser: with the current structure of the Bank of Italy, not ready for habitation, this strategy will facilitate for the structure of the building to be sturdy enough.

  • Roof + Floor: in addition to the structure, the lack of roof and floor in the majority parts of the building. This strategy will implement the scheme of roof and flooring by making the inhabitable condition of the current building into one that is more suitable for occupancy.

  • Infills: this strategy will permeate the cavities on the exterior and interior walls, creating a balanced contrast between the old and new structures.

In addition, the sensitivity of working with a historic structure that is in a state of ruin requires close attention and delicate use of natural, locally sourced materials. In terms of suitable building materials for the school, the new layer of insertion will consist of earth walls, cooling ceramic tiles for the floor and polycarbonate sheet roofing. The juxtaposition between the polycarbonate and earth walls inaugurates a dialogue uniting the contrast that will be added as a new layer to the natural stratification that the structure has accumulated over time.

For the earth walls to have a longer span of life, erosion control - in the form of speed breakers - will ensure any water that falls on the surface will be slowed down. These speed breakers for the school will simply be straw mixed into the mud. Additionally, painting the earth wall with a simple layer of white paint will not only prevent further erosion but also help to create a visible balance and contrast between the new and old structures.

The wood framed polycarbonate roof will help to maximise the building‘s natural light without direct sunlight. The translucent aesthetic creates a visually lightweight addition to the roof with a delicate quality that matches the colours of the sky. Designed to reflect the antiquity of the structure, the polycarbonate remains visible from a distance which, when dark, will glow from inside-out when the lights are switched on at night.

The new layer of insertion will act as a binding formula that adds to the layers of history. The earth infill walls require very minimum skill for maintenance - in case there is a broken part, making it wet and placing it back on the wall will resolve the issue. Polycarbonate roofing will reflect solar heat and the feature of wind tunnels will catch prevailing winds. The ceramic tiles are a suitable match for a hot desert climate as they will help cool down the structure. Adding gaps for ventilation in the floor will further help the building stay cool. 

The area of Green Catalyst proposed within the development strategy will additionally serve as a testbed for architecture students. By using locally grown and renewable materials, such as wood, vegetal fibre and local earths, the University students will be provided with the Eastern part of the island as a ‘blank canvas’ for studies, as well as with the historic city fabric, the ‘already painted canvas’ in order to be trained as diversely as possible.

Over a period of time - possibly several decades - both testbeds will gradually transform. In this way, the east of Massawa island will turn into a refreshing park-area with inspirational structures in it that were constructed by the students.


Sophie Schrattenecker

Cultural differences in dealing with the decay of built heritage have shaped the development of cities worldwide from the beginning. In his essay about the ambiguity of ruins, Hannes Siefert notes: “Things that are not permanent have little value in the Eurocentric worldview. From this point of view a building is ideally constructed for eternity.“ [6] Massawa’s ruins are the opposite of permanent. They are not repaired or kept in a good condition. The city’s ruins are either adapted or left for decay, for reconversion into its source material. 

Building on these observations, the design positions at hand try to challenge the idea of a building being “ideally constructed for eternity“ by looking at the city of Massawa through the lens of different cultural approaches towards dealing with the decay of the built heritage. It is the aim of the proposed design interventions to offer ideas for a self-sustained revival of Massawa’s urban fabric not only through repair, but also through strategies of duplication, adaptation and reconversion. All of these four approaches carry potential for urban recuperation with them and are thus tested in the context of Massawa island. 

All building elements introduced in the following section are designed as an immanent part of Massawa. Like its ruins, these new parts are generated out of its place and will be transforming back into it over time. Therefore, the half-finished, half-eroded state of the city should not be regarded as an exceptional and undesirable condition, but much more as what Massawa‘s architecture historically expresses: gradual growth, decay and change.

Interventions on an architectural scale

Lack of shadow in Massawa’s open spaces in combination with extreme sun, dry hot winds, and air carrying salt from the Red Sea into the city account for memorable impressions gained during a walk through the city. As a result, issues arising from different states of erosion, a lack of shadow, air ventilation and water supply as well as earthquake risk constitute the urban fabric’s main challenges today. 

In order to gain a better understanding of Massawa’s building typologies as well as the dimensions and spatial singularities of the city’s open spaces, a plaza located South of the city centre served as a starting point for this design project.  [7] The Southern Plaza and its adjacent houses were analysed in the course of the site visit, through photographs and aerial images as well as on the basis of an analysis of the state of its adjacent buildings conducted from 2003 to 2004 by Guang Yu Ren and Edward Denison. [8] 

As can be seen in Image 9, research results display a historically diverse building stock, ranging from Turkish stone and wood houses, to Egyptian buildings (with characteristic ornaments in their façades, lintels and masonry) and modern ferroconcrete constructions from the Italian colonial period or later. Cracks and fissures, particularly visible in older exterior walls made from stone and mortar, bear witness of recurring earthquakes in the region. The following three suggestions for adaptation were developed in reference to buildings at the Southern Plaza. However, they could be applied to any decaying building within Massawa. 

The Framework: inserted into almost intact ruins
The first strategy proposed consists of an adaptive, vegetal framework inserted into ruins which so far have only decayed little. While the roofs of some of these buildings have collapsed, its two- to three- storeyed walls are still intact. The wooden framework built into this shell is a light and self-sustaining structure. Due to its joints and flexibility, it withstands seismic movements. Inspired by wooden building elements, such as the oriel and rooftop gazebo encountered in Massawa, the framework produces a shadowy, airy climate inside its rooms. Its structure is modular and applicable to ruins of different sizes. Window and door panels can be installed behind existing openings in the historic façades and will become visible after a further decay of the ruin. 

The Kiln: inserted into eroded walls
With their low barycentre, vaults are stable building typologies when it comes to earthquakes. In contrast to the Catalan vault, the Nubian Vault found in parts of Northern and Central Africa does not need a framework for its construction. Built with locally available materials, such as earth or brick, the Nubian vault depicts an efficient construction technique. This strategy is meant to complement buildings of advanced decay, where only single storeyed walls are still standing. By inserting Nubian vaults constructed out of earth bricks and then firing them from the inside, like a giant kiln, a solid structure is erected inside the ruinous shell. This method caters for additional insolation against heat by means of the thick brick walls. Furthermore, it can be duplicated and applied modularly to ruins of different dimensions.

The Spolia: re-built from rubble 
This third construction strategy deals with the multiple piles of rubble and materials eroded from Massawa‘s ruins. By reutilising the existing coral block rubble for the construction of new pavings, water pools and lower walls, the city will reinforce itself fundamentally step by step. This way, a circle of adaptation is enhanced, with the potential of a steady reincorporation of eroded material back into Massawa’s urban fabric.

Interventions on an urban scale 

To regenerate the functionality of public spaces within the city of Massawa, saltwater pools as well as infrastructural modules and pergolas are introduced to public spaces. These elements are adaptable in size and can be arranged modularly, depending on the individual needs of each neighbourhood. 

Saltwater pools

Supplied by saltwater from the Red Sea, the network of canals and waterpools proposed are meant to cool the inner city climate and to stir air circulation near the ground. [Image 14] Since water in the Red Sea carries an unusually high amount of salt (4.3%), it will only nourish salt-tolerant plants, such as mangrove trees, as outlined in the Urban Development Strategy. However, to serve as a source for drinking water for the city’s inhabitants, cone-shaped water desalinators made from plexiglass will be placed in the pools to generate freshwater through insolation. Thus, it will be possible to gain drinking water through the saltwater pools located in public squares throughout the island. [9]

Infrastructural modules and pergolas

These comparatively small, modular buildings serve as infrastructural units for shadow, as well as initial points for markets and other communal activities. [Image 15] Elevated wooden frames allow circulation of air around the building parts and inside the upper rooms of the infrastructural module. Massive walls constructed in (reused) stone, coral or brick, buffer energy on the ground level. A foundation plate floats underneath the building parts to absorb sideward movements caused by seismic forces. The module carries a wide roof structure and also statically supports extensive substructures for green pergolas, which stretch between the buildings in order to provide shadow in the open spaces throughout the city. 

Future vision

Houses adapted through “frameworks“ or filled with “kilns“ next to plazas equipped with water pools carrying freshwater cones, where shadow is provided underneath pergolas stretching between infrastructural modules and historical façades constitute one of the visions for Massawa city. Due to these interventions respective neighbourhoods carry the potential to create protective hubs throughout the city. [Image 14] With the passing of time and a gradual advance of the scheme, these hubs will potentially grow, bit by bit mending, adapting, duplicating, reconversing and reviving Massawa’s disrupted urban carpet into a place worth living in again. 


All parts of the research-design project presented above are meant to develop their full potential over a considerable period of time. By generating building material out of the island, such as fibre and wood from the “Green Catalyst”, or stone from decaying buildings and by catering to the needs of different residential groups, they ensure a stronger resilience of the urban fabric to future disruptions. All proposed interventions were developed to revive not just the city of Massawa, but the island as a whole, thus encompassing its built-up as well as vacant areas. At this, both conditions, the ruinous as well as the deserted state, are considered valuable resources for this process of revitalisation. 

While “Massawa, School of Architecture” is located centrally near the old port, “Massawa, in Fragments” is tested prototypically in the context of the Southern Plaza. The new School of Architecture will form a strong symbiotic relationship with the “Green Catalyst” as a test bed for future building materials and thematise the island’s traumatic history through its location in the historically contested Bank of Italy. At the same time, interventions proposed by “Masswa, in Fragments” address issues of decay with a focus on domestic and residential public spaces throughout the built-up area of the city. In both cases, the introduction of shadow through either lightweight or thick-walled structures in combination with plants and water canals account for tangible approaches in dealing with the hot dry climate on the island. 

As outlined before, Massawa’s intangible heritage comprises many phases of disruption, such as colonialism, war and environmental disaster. It was one of the core objectives of this project to acknowledge and address these traumatic events through careful architectural interventions in order to develop visions for the island’s future. Finally, decay and revival are immanent parts not only of Massawa, but of all urban environments. Seldomly though are they presented as clearly as in the context of the Pearl of the Red Sea.

[2] UCL- ATLAS, Tigrinya Page (accessed 02 January 2024).

[3] Alliance Francaise in Asmara, Massawa and the Red Sea: History and Culture (2003) p.40.

[4] The original extent of this project includes designed prayer spaces for muslim tourists who regularly visit Massawa - particularly the “as-Sahaba Mosque“, which was built at the start of the 7th century and is also known as the oldest mosque built in Eritrea. [1] The enclosed shelter spaces designed by our colleague Xin Zheng constitute a sensitive revival of the southern waterside of Massawa island, thus complementing the other development strategies proposed in this essay.

[5] see chapter “Massawa, in Fragments - Interventions on an Urban Scale“ 

[6] Siefert (2017), translated from German by the author. 

[7] This plaza will henceforth be called the “Southern Plaza“.


[8] Denison and Ren (2003-2004).

[9] also see: Augustin (2024). 


Asmara Heritage Project, Department of Public Works Development Central Region Administration, Asmara Africa’s Modernist City: Nomination Dossier for UNESCO World Heritage Listing (2016).

Augustin, Stephan, Watercone,
(accessed 02 January 2024).

Denison, Edward and Ren Guang Yu, Massawa: Technical Report (Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project, 2003-2004).

Siefert, Hannes, ‘Mehrdeutigkeit - Die Ambiguität der Ruine’, archithese 4.2017 (2017).

UCL-ATLAS, Tigrinya Pages, ‘Key events in the history of modern Eritrea’, 
(accessed 01 January 2024).

Lavenya Parthasarathy is a practising urban designer working with AECOM, based in London. She has a background in architecture, urban environments and adaptive reuse, with interests in exploring the treatment and condition of historic contexts within the urban environments.

MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett, UCL, 2018
BA (HONS), IDEAs, Ravensbourne University London, 2017

Sophie Schrattenecker practises architecture in Austria where she is an active member of planning processes on site from start to finish. Research and travels continuously inspire her written work about contemporary informal architecture embedded in historical contexts.

Architectural licence and member of the Austrian Chamber of Architects, 2022
Lecturer in academic writing, University of Applied Arts, Linz, since 2021

MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, The Bartlett, UCL 2018
MArch, University of Applied Arts, Linz 2017
BArch, University of Applied Arts, Linz 2014


Published in Issue 2024

Dis-Ruptive Horizons


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