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12.05.2019 Feature Article

Have Eritrea’s Afars Lost Their Sailing Heritage?

Have Eritrea’s Afars Lost Their Sailing Heritage?

It seems that Eritrea’s Afar people have lost their sailing heritage, falling victim to the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels. Living along the southern Red Sea coast of Africa, the Afars were made famous by the finding of the earliest human remains in the Afar Desert (once the Sea of Afar, and a Sea again one day due to rising sea levels).

For unknown millenia, the Afars sailed the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Spreading their lateen-rigged sails they carried out trade and social intercourse from Egypt in the north to Somalia and Kenya in the south to Oman in the east.

They may well have ridden the seasonal monsoon winds even further, for the winds that blew them to Oman continue uninterrupted to India and than reverse and blowback to Africa again.

They probably were regular visitors to the Persian Gulf for the ancient Persians wrote of visitors from Africa.

Their ancestors were at the center of a trade route between Egypt (Kmt), Greece and Rome and India and beyond to China from ancient

times from their Red Sea capital of Adulis/Punt, located near today's Port of Massawa in Eritrea.

The Great Red Sea Tsunami that completely obliterated Adulis between 600-700 AD must have almost completely wiped out the Afar towns and villages along the southern Red Sea coast, leaving for future generations little of what was once an advanced maritime based


Sailing the seas without a compass, successfully using the power of the wind to travel thousands of kilometers and back, the Afar could have

been the first to venture onto the seas and oceans. For if they were the first humans and lived next to and harvested food from the Red

Sea, wouldn't it make sense for them to be the worlds first sailors?

Today the Afars are addicted to the internal combustion engine and without diesel fuel and petrol/gasoline they are helpless to travel or

catch the fish that is their sustenance. The Afars no longer sail their samboks or small skiffs, it is far easier to fire up the engine

and head straight to where they want to go, no hassle, no work, just go there.

Lets face it, sailing a boat, especially a large sambok, is no easy matter. A great deal of hard work and practical scientific knowledge

is required, especially if you are traveling for weeks with a cloud covered sky. No compass, no moon or stars or even sun to guide you,

how do you know which direction to head? The Afars knew, but today's Afars no longer do. Thousands of years of accumulated wisdom lost in one or two generations?

I am not saying there are no Afars who can sail, Eritrean Admiral Karikari or some of the other gray-headed wise men may still be able

to. But they don't.

The younger generation of Afars can only gaze in envy when they cross paths with a sailboat, for engines can and do break down in the middle of the ocean, wouldn't it be best to have the alternative of sailing?

Can the Afar’s sailing heritage be saved? Maybe, though it may take a rebirth by future generations to see sailing become part of the Afar culture once again.

Thomas C. Mountain is a historian and educator living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. See thomascmountain on Facebook, thomascmountain on Twitter or best reach him at thomascmountain at gmail dot com

Thomas C. Mountain
Thomas C. Mountain, © 2019

This author has authored 137 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: ThomasCMountain

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