Selam! This week, we’re taking you back to the Red Sea, but this time, to the African shores of Eritrea.
Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa where it is bordered by Sudan to the northeast, Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Red Sea along its eastern border. Eritrea’s capital and largest city is Asmara, which still features remnants of Italian colonial rule, such as grand Catholic Cathedrals. The nine major ethnic groups of Eritrea are Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre and Tigrinya. Given its ethnic diversity, Eritrea is a multilingual state of which Tigrinya is the de facto language with over 2.5 million speakers across the central and southern parts of the nation as of 2006. Tigray, Kunama, and Afar are also prominent languages, although Arabic and English are widely understood. Italian, Eritrea’s previous colonial language, is also spoken but is not formally recognized by the government.
The nation looks forward to celebrating 30 years of independence in May 2021, but Eritrea’s history stretches back much further than that. Eritrea was once part of the ancient kingdom of Axum, which also included present-day Tigray Region and Ethiopia. The Axumite kingdom existed between 100AD and 940AD and was a prominent trading hub that had connections with Ancient India and the Roman Empire. Later, Eritrea’s ports beckoned imperial powers like Turkey, Egypt, and Italy with promises of access to the gold, coffee, and slaves sold by traders in the Ethiopian highlands to the south. The very name of this country is a testament to its inextricable link with Red Sea trading routes, as “Eritrea” is derived from the Red Sea’s ancient Greek name: the Erythraean Sea.
The Red Sea was also the route by which Christianity and Islam reached the region. Christianity entered the Horn of Africa in the 4th century where it was accepted by Ethiopian highlanders. Since then, about one half of Eritrea has remained Christian with about two-fifths belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church up until its secession from Ethiopia in 1993. Upon winning their independence, Eritrea successfully petitioned the Coptic church for autocephaly and joined the ranks of the 5 other Orthodox Churches based in Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and India. Eritrea’s Christian population also includes Roman Catholics, as well as a smaller population of Protestants, stemming from the time of Italian colonial rule (1889–1941).
The period of Italian colonial rule commenced on January 1, 1890 after King Menelik signed the Treaty of Wichale in which he recognized “Italian possession in the Red Sea” in exchange for weapons to fight potential rivals. Italy itself became one of those rivals when they made several attempts to invade Ethiopia from their Eritrean stronghold. The climactic Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896 ended in Italian defeat. Although Ethiopia was victorious, Menilik conceded to Italian rule over Eritrea once more with the signing of the Treaty of Addis Ababa that ended the first Italo-Ethiopian war. Italian rule continued until World War II. In 1950, the United Nations facilitated Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia, but the union of the two nations lasted less than
fifty years later when Eritrea’s wishes for independence erupted into a civil war that lasted thirty years. Women were active members in Eritrea’s war for independence, making up over 30% of Eritrea’s freedom fighters and the highest percentage of women participating in a liberation movement in human history. Eritrea officially declared independence on May 24, 1993. President Isais Afwerki has led the country ever since. Diplomatic and trade relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed in 2018 when President Aferweki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a historic declaration that the state of war between the two countries was officially over.
Given Eritrea and Ethiopia’s intertwined history, they share many cultural ties in terms of food, clothing, language, and religious holidays. Eritrean cuisine consists of spicy stews, vegetables and meat that is eaten with injera, a spongy flatbread. Food is shared on a communal plate and traditionally eaten by hand using morsels of injera to scoop up the stews. Eritrea’s food scene also bears Italian influence with dishes such as capretto (goat), frittata (vegetable omelet), and pasta.
The traditional coffee ceremony is another marker of Eritrean culture. The preparation of this traditional coffee requires both patience and skill, from roasting the fresh coffee beans, grinding them with mortar and pestle, and then brewing the coffee grounds in a clay coffee pot called a jebena. Coffee is served in small porcelain cups along with popcorn, kitcha, and other snacks. The coffee aroma is accompanied by the burning of etan, a type of incense. Coffee ceremonies are a time for family and friends to gather in good spirit over a deliciously brewed cup of coffee.
Music is one of the most vibrant manifestations of Eritrean culture. Tigryinya pop music gained popularity across the African continent beginning in the late 1960s with the debut of artists such as Osman Abderrehim, Alamin Abdeletif, and Yemane Ghebremichael. Eritrea’s contemporary music scene includes artists such as Sami Berhane, Wedi Tukul, and Faytinga. Reggae is also popular in Eritrea. The traditional Tigrigna style of dance is called “quda.” In this style of dance, the group of dancers form a circle and bob their shoulders and heads to the beat of the music, which includes stringed instruments, hand drums, and jubilant clapping. To experience a taste of Eritrea’s music, fashion, and food, check out this music video by Eritrean artist Hani Mihreateab. As you can see in the video, the women are wearing zuria, a traditional dress made of white cotton decorated with colorfully embroidered fringes. The women adorn their hair with gold and wear it partially braided so that the rest of their hair is free to move as they bob their heads to the beat of the music. American-Eritrean actress Tiffany Haddish debuted these stunning cultural garments at the Oscars in 2018 in honor of her father’s Eritrean roots.
Soccer and long-distance running are popular sports in Eritrea. Olympic runner Ghirmay Ghebreslassie became the youngest winner in IAAF World Championships Marathon history when he won the 2015 World Championships in Athletics marathon in Beijing, China. He was 19 years old at the time!