History of Eritrea: Wikis


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Eritrea is an ancient name, associated in the past with its Greek form Erythraía (Greek alphabet Ερυθραία), and its derived Latin form Erythræa. In the past, Eritrea had given its name to the Red Sea, then called the Erythræan Sea. The Italians created the colony of Eritrea in the 19th century around Asmara, and named it with its current name. After World War II Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia. In 1991 the People's Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian government. Eritrea officially celebrated its independence on May 24, 1992.



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 found to be over 1 million years old. Furthermore, in 1999, the Eritrean Research Project Team discovered some of the earliest evidence of human tool-use in the harvesting of marine resources. The site contained obsidian tools dated to the paleolithic era, over 125,000 years old.

Epipaleolithic or mesolithic cave paintings in central and northern Eritrea attest to early hunter-gatherers in this region. An American paleontologist, William Sanders of the University of Michigan, also discovered a possible missing link between ancient and modern elephants in the form of the fossilized remains of a pig-sized creature in Eritrea. The fossil, which is 27 million years old, pushes the origins of elephants and mastodons five million years further into the past and indicates that modern elephants originated in Africa.


The oldest written reference to the territory now known as Eritrea is the chronicled expedition launched to the fabled Punt (or Ta Netjeru, meaning land of the Gods) by the Ancient Egyptians in the twenty-fifth century BC under Pharaoh Sahure. Later sources from the Pharaoh Hatshepsut in the fifteenth century BC present a more detailed portrayal of an expedition in search of frankincense. The geographical location of the missions to Punt is described as roughly corresponding to the southern west coast of the Red Sea. The name Eritrea is a rendition of the ancient Greek name Ἐρυθραία, Erythraía, meaning the "Red Land". The earliest evidence of agriculture, urban settlement and trade in Eritrea was found in the western region of the country consisting of archaeological remains dating back to 3500 BC in sites called the Gash group. Based on the archaeological evidence, there seems to have been a connection between the peoples of the Gash group and the civilizations of the Nile Valley namely Ancient Egypt and Nubia.

In the highlands, especially in Asmara's suburbs, scores of ancient sites have been documented, including Sembel, Mai Chiot, Ona Gudo, Mai Temenai, Weki Duba and Mai Hutsa. Mostly dating to the early and mid-1st millennium BCE (800 to 350 BCE), these communities consisted of small towns, villages, and hamlets built of stone. The proximity of these ancient communities to gold mines suggest that part of their prosperity was linked to the mining and processing of gold. Around the mid-1st millennium, several sites with Sabaean remains (inscriptions, artifacts, and monuments) seem to emerge in the central highlands, for example, at Keskese. Between the eighth and fifth century BCE, a kingdom known as D'mt was supposedly established in what is today Eritrea and the Tigray province of northern Ethiopia.

After D'mt's decline around the fifth century BC, the state of Aksum arose in much of Eritrea and the northern Ethiopian Highlands. It grew during the fourth century BC and came into prominence during the first century AD, minting its own coins by the third century, and converting in the fourth century to Christianity, thereby becoming the second official Christian state (after Armenia), and the first country to feature the cross on its coins. According to Mani, it grew to be one of the four greatest civilizations in the world, on a par with China, Persia, and Rome. In the seventh century, with the advent of Islam across the Red Sea in Arabia and the Arab invasion and subsequent destruction of Adulis, Aksum's main port city, Aksum's trade and power on the Red Sea began to decline and the empire gradually diminished and was overtaken by smaller rival kingdoms.

Medieval period

During the medieval period, contemporary with and following the gradual disintegration of the Aksumite state between the 9th and 10th centuries, several states as well as tribal and clan lands emerged in the area known today as Eritrea. Between the eighth and thirteenth century, northern and northwestern Eritrea had largely come under the domination of the Beja, a Cushitic people from northeastern Sudan. The Beja brought Islam to large parts of Eritrea and connected the region to the greater Islamic world. Nonetheless, Christians of the Axumite era continued to inhabit these areas and retain their religion.

In the main highland area and adjacent coastline of what were previously Muslim (Beja) ruled areas, a Christian Kingdom called Midir Bahr or Midri Bahri (Tigrinya for land of the sea) arose, ruled by the Bahr Negus or Bahr Negash, ("ruler of the sea") emerged in the 15th century. The southeastern parts of Eritrea, inhabited by the independent Afar since ancient times, came to form part of the Islamic Adal Sultanate. Parts of the southwestern lowlands of Eritrea were under the dominion of the then Christian/Animist Funj Sultanate of Sinnar.

An invading force of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, under Suleiman I, conquered Massawa in 1557 from the Christians, building what is now considered the "old town" of Massawa on Batsi island. They also conquered the towns of Hergigo and Debarwa, the capital city of Yeshaq, the contemporary Christian Bahr Negus, before being driven back to the coast by 1578. The Ottomans remained in control of the important ports of Massawa and Hergigo and their environs, and maintained their dominion over the coastal areas for nearly 300 years, absorbing the coastal areas of the disintegrated Adal Sultanate as vassals in the 16th century. The Funj Sultanate of Sinnar converted to Islam in the 16th century but maintained independent control of the southwestern areas of Eritrea until being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.

With the feudal rule of the Bahr Negus in the predominantly Christian highland interior severely weakened from the 17th century up until modern times, the area was dubbed Mereb Mellash by locals and neighboring Ethiopians alike, meaning "beyond the Mereb" (in Tigrinya). This name defined the territory as being north of the Mareb River which to this day is a natural boundary between the modern states of Eritrea and Ethiopia.[18] Roughly the same area also came to be referred to as Hamasien, a name that survived until modern times, designating a much smaller area (province) immediately surrounding the capital Asmara, until being absorbed into the new administrative divisions in 1994. In these areas, feudal authority was particularly weak or nonexistent, and the autonomy of the landowning peasantry was particularly strong; a kind of republican rule was prevalent, governed by local customary laws legislated by elected elder's councils (shimagile). In 1770, the Scottish researcher James Bruce describes Hamasien and Abyssinia as "different countries who are often fighting" (SUKE, p. 25).


The Fiat Tagliero Building in Asmara, example of 1930's futurist architecture.

Italian colonisation arguably began with the purchase of the locality of Assab by a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Giuseppe Sapeto acting on behalf of a Genovese shipping company called "Rubattino" who bought the land from the Afar Sultan of Obock (a vassal of the Ottomans) in 1869. This happened in the same year as the opening of the Suez Canal.

With the approval of the Italian parliament and King Umberto I of Italy (later succeeded by his son Victor Emmanuel III), the government of Italy in 1879 bought the Rubattino company's holdings and from 1882 expanded its possessions northward along the Red Sea coast toward and beyond Massawa, encroaching on and quickly expelling previous 'Egyptian' possessions but meeting stiffer resistance in the Eritrean highlands from the invading army of the Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia.

Italy declared Eritrea a territory of Italy as of New Years Day 1890. The Kingdom of Italy ruled Eritrea from 1890 to 1941. Approximately 100,000 Italian colonists settled during the 1930s in the Colonia Primigenia (as Eritrea was called by the Italians, meaning they considered Eritrea their first and most important colony). Some of the greatest feats accomplished by the Italian colonialists in Eritrea was the building of Eritrea's modern capital; Asmara, and the Eritrean railway.

Between 1936 and 1941, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini briefly created the Italian Empire, with the short-lived union of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. Eritrea enjoyed considerable industrialization and development of modern infrastructure during Italian rule (such as roads and the Eritrean Railway). The Italians remained the colonial power in Eritrea throughout the lifetime of Fascism and the beginnings of World War II, until they were defeated by Allied forces in 1941, and Eritrea came under British administration.

In the Peace Treaty of February 1947, Italy surrendered all her colonies, including Eritrea. While under British trusteeship, the United Nations decided to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia in 1950 after a lengthy inquiry regarding the status of Eritrea.

Struggle for independence

The sandals worn by the fighters of independence have become iconic. A monument in central Asmara of such sandals was erected in memoriam. Barely 10 years into the federation with Ethiopia, in 1961, the 30-year Eritrean Struggle for Independence began, following the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I's dissolution of the federation and shutting down of Eritrea's parliament.

The Emperor declared Eritrea the fourteenth province of Ethiopia in 1962.[22] Eritreans formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and rebelled.

The ELF was initially a conservative grass-roots movement dominated by Muslim lowlanders. The ELF received backing from Nasser's Egypt as part of a policy of expanding Arab Nationalist political influence in the region (some Eritreans were Arabic-speakers - one of the rather loose conditions for being part of the 'Arab Nation'). Ethiopia's imperial government received support from the United States which had established a radio listening base, called the Kagnew Station, in Eritrea's Ethiopian-occupied capital, Asmara. Internal divisions within the ELF based on religion, ideology, ethnicity, clan and, sometimes, personalities, led to the weakening and factioning of the ELF from which sprang the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

The EPLF professed Marxism and egalitarian values devoid of gender, religion, or ethnic bias. Its leadership was educated in China. It came to be supported by a growing Eritrean diaspora. Bitter fighting broke out between the ELF and EPLF during the late 1970s and 1980s for dominance over Eritrea. The ELF continued to dominate the Eritrean landscape well into the 1970s when the struggle for independence neared victory due to Ethiopia's internal turmoil caused by a socialist revolution against the monarchy there.

The ELF's gains suffered when Ethiopia's ailing US-backed Emperor was deposed and replaced by the Derg, a Marxist military junta with backing from the Soviet Union and other communist countries, who continued the Ethiopian policy of repressing Eritrean "separatists" with increased military assistance and fervor. Nevertheless, the Eritrean resistance, which saw itself forced to retreat from most of the Eritrean countryside it had previously occupied, became instead entrenched in the northern parts of the country around the Sudanese border from where the most important supply lines came. The heavily bombarded and embattled northern town of Nakfa came to symbolize the Eritrean struggle. (The Eritrean currency is named after it.)

The numbers of the EPLF swelled in the 1980s. The EPLF relied largely on armaments captured from the Ethiopian army itself as well as financial and political support from the Eritrean diaspora and the cooperation of neighboring states hostile to Ethiopia's government Somalia and Sudan (although the support of the latter turned into hostility in agreement with Ethiopia during the Gaafar Nimeiry administration between 1971 and 1985) as well as Ethiopian resistance and separatist movements. Drought, famine, and intensive offensives launched by the Ethiopian army on Eritrea took a heavy toll on the population — more than half a million fled to Sudan as refugees. In 1985, Eritrean elite commandos infiltrated the Ethiopian- and Soviet-held air force base in Asmara and destroyed all 30 fighter jets there, suffering only one casualty. In 1988, a massive Ethiopian military offensive against Eritrean rebels backfired with a third of the Ethiopian army annihilated in the northern Eritrean town of Afabet.

Following the decline of the Soviet Union in 1989 and diminishing support for the Ethiopian war, Eritrean rebels advanced further, capturing the port of Massawa and putting the Ethiopian and Soviet naval capabilities there out of action. By 1990 and early 1991 virtually all Eritrean territory had been liberated by the EPLF except for the capital, whose only connection with the rest of government-held Ethiopia during the last year of the war was by an air-bridge. In 1991, the Ethiopian army finally capitulated and its leader Mengistu Hailemariam fled to Zimbabwe where he resides to this day. Eritrean rebels entered the capital Asmara and began to govern Eritrea on May 24, 1991. The new Ethiopian government, consisting of a coalition of Ethiopian resistance and separatist movements allied with Eritrea's rebels, conceded Eritrea's demand to have an internationally (UN) supervised referendum dubbed UNOVER to be held in Eritrea. This took place in April 1993 with an overwhelming vote by Eritreans for independence. Independence was declared on May 24, 1993.


Upon Eritrea's declaration of independence, the leader of the EPLF, Isaias Afewerki, became Eritrea's first Provisional President, and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (later renamed the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ) created a government.

Faced with limited economic resources and a country shattered by decades of war, the government embarked on a reconstruction and defense effort, later called the Warsai Yikalo Program, based on the labour of national servicemen and women. It is still continuing and deploys the conscripted, which is drawn from anyone male or female who has graduated high school, into a combination of duties ranging from military service to construction projects, health care, teaching and training/education as well as agricultural work to improve the country's food security.

The government also attempts to tap into the resources of the Eritreans living abroad by levying a 2% tax on the gross income of those who wish to gain full economic rights and access as citizens in Eritrea (land ownership, business licenses and other privileges for nationals etc), while at the same time encouraging tourism and investment both from Eritreans living abroad and other foreign investors. This has been complicated by Eritrea's tumultuous relations with its neighbours, lack of stability and subsequent political problems.

Eritrea severed diplomatic relations with Sudan in 1994, citing that the latter was hosting Islamic terrorist groups to destabilize Eritrea, and both countries entered into an acrimonious relationship, each accusing the other of hosting various opposition rebel groups or "terrorists" and soliciting outside support to destabilize the other. Diplomatic relations were resumed in 2005 following a reconciliation agreement reached with the help of Qatar's negotiation in 1999.[29][30] Eritrea now plays a prominent role in the internal Sudanese peace and reconciliation effort.

Perhaps the conflict with the deepest impact on independent Eritrea has been the renewed hostility with Ethiopia. In 1998, a border war with Ethiopia over the town of Badme occurred. The Eritrean-Ethiopian War ended in 2000 with a negotiated agreement known as the Algiers Agreement, which assigned an independent, UN-associated boundary commission known as the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), whose task was to clearly identify the border between the two countries and issue a final and binding ruling. Along with the agreement the UN established a temporary security zone consisting of a 25-kilometre demilitarized buffer zone within Eritrea, running along the length of the disputed border between the two states and patrolled by UN troops in the mission named UNMEE. Ethiopia was to withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of hostilities in May 1998. The peace agreement would be completed with the implementation of the Border Commission's ruling, also ending the task of the peacekeeping mission of UNMEE. The EEBC's verdict came in April 2002, which awarded Badme to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia refused to withdraw its military from positions in the disputed areas, including Badme, and also refused to implement the EEBC's ruling, and the dispute is ongoing.

Eritrea's diplomatic relations with Djibouti were briefly severed during the border war with Ethiopia in 1998 due to a dispute over Djibouti's intimate relation with Ethiopia during the war but were restored and normalized in 2000. Relations are again tense due to a renewed border dispute. Similarly, Eritrea and Yemen had a border conflict between 1996 to 1998 over the Hanish Islands and the maritime border, which was resolved in 2000 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.


External links

Further reading

  • Peter R. Schmidt, Matthew C. Curtis and Zelalem Teka, The Archaeology of Ancient Eritrea. Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2008. 469 pp. ISBN 1569022844


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