Massawa , known as the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’, is 120 km from Asmara and consists of two islands and two causeways plus a strip of land on the mainland. It is Eritrea’s main port (it used to be the headquarters of the Ethiopian navy) but was heavily damaged during Eritrea’s struggle for independence. The dockyard is back in operation and handling an impressive tonnage of merchandise. Much of Massawa remains somewhat dilapidated, although most of the hotels have been repaired and it has managed to retain much of its atmosphere.
The old town and the port are on Massawa Island, which is joined to Taulud by a causeway. The surviving architecture of the old town has great charm, reflecting the impact of Turkish and Egyptian rule during the 16th to 19th centuries. Much of it is built out of coral blocks with carved stone lintels, with roshans (wooden windows) extending outwards over the streets. The narrow streets are laid out in a labyrinth pattern enclosing covered markets and mosques, including the 500-year-old Shiekh Hanafi Mosque with its elaborate stuccowork. Campo, a large square lined on all sides by houses decorated by Turkish and Egyptian woodcarvings, have finely sculptured balconies, window shutters and doors, a glorious reminder of previous residents. Most of the cafés, bars and restaurants are located on Massawa Island.