Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa located on the Red Sea. Eritrea’s coastal location has long been important in its history and culture—a fact reflected in its name, which is an Italianized version of Mare Erythraeum, Latin for “Red Sea.” The Red Sea was the route by which Christianity and Islam reached the area, and it was an important trade route that such powers as Turkey, Egypt, and Italy hoped to dominate by seizing control of ports on the Eritrean coast. Those ports promised access to the gold, coffee, and slaves sold by traders in the Ethiopian highlands to the south, and, in the second half of the 20th century, Ethiopia became the power from which the Eritrean people had to free themselves in order to create their own state.
In 1993, after a war of independence that lasted nearly three decades, Eritrea became a sovereign country. During the long struggle, the people of Eritrea managed to forge a common national consciousness, but, with peace established, they faced the task of overcoming their ethnic and religious differences in order to raise the country from a poverty made worse by years of drought, neglect, and war. Eritrea’s capital and largest city is Asmara (Asmera).
Eritrea’s coastline, forming the northeastern edge of the country, extends for roughly 600 miles (1,000 km) from Cape Kasar, in the north, to the Strait of Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden in the south. The country is bounded to the southeast by Djibouti, to the south by Ethiopia, and to the west by Sudan.
Eritrea’s land is highly variegated. Running on a north-south axis through the middle of the country are the central highlands, a narrow strip of country some 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) above sea level that represents the northern reaches of the Ethiopian Plateau. The highest point is Mount Soira, at 9,885 feet (3,013 metres). Geologically, the plateau consists of a foundation of crystalline rock (e.g., granite, gneiss, and mica schist) that is overlain by sedimentary rock (limestone and sandstone) and capped by basalt (rock of volcanic origin). The upper layers have been highly dissected by deep gorges and river channels, forming small, steep-sided, flat-topped tablelands known as ambas. Encouraged by the steady expansion of cultivation, soil erosion on the plateau has left few wooded areas.
In the north of Eritrea the highlands narrow and then end in a system of hills, where erosion has cut down to the basement rock. To the east the plateau drops abruptly into a coastal plain. North of the Gulf of Zula, the plain is only 10 to 50 miles (15 to 80 km) wide, but to the south it widens to include the Danakil Plain. This barren region contains a depression known as the Kobar Sink (more than 300 feet [90 metres] below sea level), the northern end of which extends into Eritrea. The coastal plain and the Danakil Plain are part of the East African Rift System and are sharply delimited on the west by the eastern escarpment of the plateau, which, although deeply eroded, presents a formidable obstacle to travelers from the coast.
The western flank of the central highlands is a broken and undulating plain that slopes gradually toward the border with Sudan. It lies at an average elevation of 1,500 feet (460 metres). The vegetation is mostly savanna, consisting of scattered trees, shrubs, and seasonal grasses.
Off the coast in the Red Sea is the Dahlak Archipelago, a group of more than 100 small coral and reef-fringed islands. Only a few of these islands have a permanent population.
The Eritrean highlands are drained by four major rivers and numerous streams. Two of the rivers, the Gash and the Tekezē, flow westward into Sudan. The Tekezē River (also known as the Satit) is a major tributary of the Atbara River, which eventually joins the Nile. The Gash River reaches the Atbara only during flood season. As it crosses the western lowlands, the Tekezē forms part of Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia, while the upper course of the Gash, known as the Mereb River, forms the border on the plateau.
The other two major rivers that drain the highlands of Eritrea are the Baraka and the Anseba. Both of these rivers flow northward into a marshy area on the eastern coast of Sudan and do not reach the Red Sea. Several seasonal streams that flow eastward from the plateau reach the sea on the Eritrean coast.
The environment is a determining factor in the distribution of Eritrea’s population. Although the plateau represents only one-fourth of the total land area, it is home to approximately one-half of the population, most of them sedentary agriculturalists. The lowlands on the east and west support a population mainly of pastoralists, although most of them also cultivate crops when and where weather conditions permit. As a rule, pastoralists follow various patterns of movement set by the seasons. Only the Rashaida group in the northern hills is truly nomadic.
During the colonial period, Eritrea’s urban sector flourished with the establishment of Asmara as the capital city, Asseb (also spelled Assab or Aseb) as a new port on the Red Sea, and a host of smaller towns on the plateau. In addition, Massawa, an old and cosmopolitan port with strong links to Arabia, was expanded considerably. By the end of the colonial period, Eritrea had by far the largest proportion of urban residents in the Horn of Africa—approximately 15 percent of the population—although a large percentage of urban dwellers were Italian nationals who eventually left the country. Subsequently, a population drift from the countryside to the towns was largely offset by emigration of Eritreans abroad. By the early 21st century about two-fifths of the population was considered urban.
The “golden oldies” of Tigrinya pop, a style that was popularized throughout Africa in the late 1960s by such artists as Beyene Fre, Tewolde Redda, and Alamin, remain popular in Eritrea. Contemporary popular musicians in Eritrea include Sami Berhane, Wedi Tukul, and Faytinga. Reggae, which originated in Jamaica, also has a presence in Eritrea.
Eritrean cuisine has not yet gained the popularity that its Ethiopian counterpart has found in many countries around the world. The two cuisines share some ingredients, techniques, and staples, including injera, a chewy flatbread made of teff, wheat, or sorghum flour, and kitcha, an unleavened bread. Meals typically are served on a communal platter, and diners use bread, rather than utensils, to serve themselves portions of such dishes as zigni (a stew made of fish, vegetables, and meat), ful (baked beans), dorho (roasted chicken), ga’at (porridge), and shiro (lentils). These dishes are seldom eaten without a side dish of fiery berbere, a locally produced pepper that figures prominently in Eritrean cooking. Eritrean food also shows many influences from the country’s erstwhile Italian occupiers, with such dishes as capretto (goat), frittata (vegetable omelet), and pasta featured on many menus.
Coffee is an important ingredient of Eritrean social life. Making a good cup of coffee, Eritreans say, requires both patience and skill. The commonly accepted method of making coffee suggests the need for both: coffee beans are roasted in a skillet or oven, pounded and ground with a mortar and pestle, and then poured into a pot that is half full of cold water and, sometimes, ginger root. After the mix is boiled, it is poured through an oxtail filter and served in small porcelain cups with sugar cubes. Popcorn or other snacks may be eaten as accompaniments to the coffee.
Eritreans enjoy playing sports, especially football (soccer), which was introduced during the Italian occupation. Eritrea’s national football team is known as the Red Sea Boys. Eritreans also participate in basketball, cycling, and athletics (track and field). Outdoor activities include fishing and snorkeling, which is especially popular on the Dahlak islands.
Off the plateau, the pastoralist peoples in the west and north knew no foreign master until the early 19th century, when the Egyptians invaded Sudan and raided deep into the Eritrean lowlands. The Red Sea coast, having its strategic and commercial importance, was contested by many powers. In the 16th century the Ottoman Turks occupied the Dahlak Archipelago and then Massawa, where they maintained with occasional interruption a garrison for more than three centuries. Also in the 16th century, Eritrea as well as Ethiopia was affected by the invasions of Aḥmad GrāŃ, the Muslim leader of the sultanate of Adal. After the expulsion of Aḥmad’s forces, the Ottoman Turks temporarily occupied even more of Eritrea’s coastal area. In 1865 the Egyptians obtained Massawa from the Turks. From there they pushed inland to the plateau, until in 1875 an Egyptian force that reached the Mereb River was annihilated by Ethiopian forces.
Meanwhile, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had made the Red Sea a scene of rivalry among the world’s most powerful states. Between 1869 and 1880 the Italian Rubattino Navigation Company purchased from the local Afar sultan stretches of the Red Sea coast adjoining the village of Asseb. In 1882 these acquisitions were transferred to the Italian state, and in 1885 Italian troops landed at Massawa, Asseb, and other locations. There was no resistance by the Egyptians at Massawa, and protests made by the Turks and Ethiopians were ignored. Italian forces then systematically spread out from Massawa toward the highlands.
The Italians’ expansion onto the plateau was initially opposed by Emperor Yohannes IV, the only Tigray to wear the Ethiopian crown in modern times, but Yohannes’s successor, Menilek II, in return for weapons that he needed to fight possible rivals, acquiesced to Italian occupation of the region north of the Mereb. In the Treaty of Wichale, signed on May 2, 1889, Menilek recognized “Italian possessions in the Red Sea,” and on January 1, 1890, the Italian colony of Eritrea was officially proclaimed. From Eritrea the Italians launched several incursions into Ethiopia, only to be decisively defeated by Menilek’s army at the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. Menilek did not pursue the defeated enemy across the Mereb. Soon afterward he signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, obtaining Italian recognition of Ethiopia’s sovereignty in return for his recognition of Italian rule over Eritrea.