Along with the other countries in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea (official name, Hagere Ertra) forms part of the mythical “Land of Punt” or the “Land of Gods,” of whose existence the Egyptian pharaohs spoke around 2900 B.C.E. Since ancient times, Eritrea has been known for trading in gold, frankincense, ivory, ebony, and slaves. The Pygmies of central Africa are the first known inhabitants, with a history in Eritrea dating back to around 8000 B.C.E. Eritrea got its present official name only after Italians arrived in the 19th century.
Eritrea had seen many wars since it came into existence, and had already changed hands several times when it became an Italian colony in 1885. As a colony Eritrea was the jewel of the Italian Empire, and Asmara, the capital, was thought to be among the finest cities of Africa, known for its art deco, modernist, and futurist architecture.
When the Italians left in 1945 the country came under British control. In 1952 following World War II the United Nations unadvisedly gave Eritrea to Ethiopia as part of a federation.
As a result of the UN decision the people of Eritrea began a long struggle for independence from this imposed government. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) triggered a 32-year-long armed conflict by openly initiating war against Eritrea in 1962.
The referendum of 1993 brought with it independence for Eritrea after an exhausting battle, by which much of its economic, social, and political life was adversely affected.
Even after the war, unequal trade terms, coupled with Ethiopian access to Eritrean ports, jeopardized their relations.
Hostility between these two countries has continued to simmer in the early years of the 21st century, and UN security forces, trying to maintain peace between them, patrol the border area.
President Isaias Afewerki (b. 1945) of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has ruled the country since 1993. His is the only party allowed to operate. The president has been criticized for not bringing about democratic reforms and an end to censorship in Eritrea. Eritrea currently ranks 163 out of the 167 countries in terms of freedom of the press.

Eritrea can essentially be divided into three geographical zones: the dry desertlike eastern strip (including Denakil Desert, the most inhospitable region on Earth), the fertile central highlands, which receive 24 inches of annual rainfall, and the semiarid western lowlands. The Anseba and the Barka Rivers run through the northern portion of Eritrea, and the Gash and Tekeze Rivers flow over the Ethiopian border into the Sudan. Amba Soira Mountain, rising to approximately 9,902 feet, is the highest point in Eritrea.
The upper portion of the Gash River is called the Mareb, and Eritrea was often referred to as Mareb Mellash, which means “this side of the Mareb River,” and Bahrmeder (“Sealand”). In fact Eritrea derives its name from Mare Erythrean, the ancient Greek cartographic designation for the Red Sea. The 19th-century Italian colonizers made this name official.
The central part of Eritrea has cool temperatures that average about 64°F; the western zone has moderate temperatures of about 86°F, while the temperatures on the eastern strip can reach a blistering 122°F.
Retaining the entire coastline alongside the Red Sea was a very important point in the 1993 referendum in which Eritrea gained its freedom from Ethiopia. There are more than 200 islands in the Red Sea comprising the Dahlak Archipelago, and these became part of Eritrea after its independence.
The lowest point of Eritrea (246 feet below sea level) is called Kobar Sink; it lies in the Denakil Depression. In the Kobar Sink temperatures can get as high as 122°F, and during most years there is little rainfall. Being close to the Great Rift Valley the land has been stretched at this place, and lava oozes from below to solidify it. Although some water does seep in from above, it evaporates as steam due to the high temperatures.

Historically agriculture has dominated the plateau regions of Eritrea, where rainfall is sufficient, whereas raising livestock has been the major activity on the drier eastern coastal strip. At the time of the 1952 federation, when Eritrea was entrusted to Ethiopia by the United Nations, Eritrea was more developed industrially than Ethiopia. In fact the Italians and the British colonizers had set up Eritrea to produce raw materials for export. But the nation’s annexation later caused the shutting down of most Eritrean industries, some of which were moved to Ethiopia.
After 1974 Ethiopia’s government placed Eritrea’s industries under state control. Private enterprise was discouraged, even though economic pressures mounted as the result of continuous conflicts, famine, and drought.
By the time Eritrea won independence in 1993 its economy had already been devastated, and its resources plundered, leaving 75 percent of the population dependent on external aid for food. Promoting selfsufficiency and economic reconstruction became the most important agenda for the post-independence government.
The 1998–2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea cost the latter’s economy dearly. Social problems such as unemployment, illiteracy, and low skills are widespread; private enterprise is being encouraged to promote economic growth. However, President Afewerki has received criticism for not implementing democratic reforms.

In spite of being an interesting mix of cultures, religions, and languages that can lead to some ethnic friction, the Eritreans have continued to stand by each other during their ongoing struggle against Ethiopia. About half the population is Christian and the other half Muslim, though most fall into distinct ethnic and linguistic categories.
There are nine major ethnic groups in Eritrea and three distinct linguistic families—the Cushitic (Hamitic), the Semitic, the Nilotic. The Cushitic-speaking groups are the Sahos (of the eastern part), Bejas (of the western part), and Afars (of the southern tip). A small group of Kunamas, of Nilotic origin, remain in the province of Gash-Setit, and they have held onto their traditional religious beliefs, which involve venerating their ancestors and worshipping their creator god, Anna.
The Semitic languages are the most widespread languages spoken, especially Tigre (25 percent of the population) and Tirigrigna (50 percent of the population). The two best-known Nilotic languages—Kunama and Baria— are spoken in the lowland areas between the Setit and the Gash rivers.
Afar, Tigre, Kunama, Tirigrigna, and Arabic are the most common languages spoken by the people.
English is used in schools, from high school on.
Ancient Geez is the basis of another language that is unique to Eritrea. The Eritrean Orthodox Church is its custodian and continues to use Geez in its services.
As a place of rich cultural diversity the capital of Asmara boasts three major landmarks: the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque, the Nda Mariam Orthodox Church, and St. Joseph’s Catholic cathedral.
The tall gothic bell of the cathedral tower in Asmara is used by people to find their way in case they get lost in the city.
The National Museum has exhibits of inscribed tombstones from the Dahlak Islands and artifacts (from excavations), in addition to other objects of local interest. There is also quite a lot of dance, music, and theater activity in the city.
The annual Festival Eritrea is celebrated on the Expo grounds of Asmara in late August. On this occasion the diverse ethnic groups converge in one place for concerts, trade fairs, and conferences.

Despite the varied species of fish found in the Red Sea and an abundance of lobster, shrimp, oysters, and crabs, Eritreans are traditionally meat-eaters.
Two popular meat dishes are tibsi, fried meat with garlic and onions, and kai wat, meat in a highly spiced sauce. The staple food items are kitcha and injera. Both are kinds of pancakes prepared differently and using different ingredients. Injera is usually eaten with a stew called zigni, prepared from anything easily available (meat, eggs, or vegetables) in a spicy tomato sauce, which has the required portions of berebere (a mix of various spices and seeds crushed for flavor and added to most dishes for taste). Eritreans who cannot afford meat often eat injera with shiro, chickpea porridge, instead.
Vegetables, fruit, cereals, and peanuts are abundant owing to the vast stretches of fertile land in parts of Eritrea. Desserts are not included in the traditional Eritrean cuisine.
Eritreans eat with their fingers. Food is placed on a large plate on a low table. Eating begins after the woman of the house brings a basin for hand washing.

For Eritrean women what is euphemistically called circumcision (now called Female Genital Mutilation [FGM]) takes place at one or two months of age.
FGM is carried out by almost all ethnic groups in Eritrea, and it is estimated that 90 percent of the women must live with its consequences. No law specifically prohibits FGM. Prior to winning independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) undertook abolition campaigns in areas under its control with the stated aim of discontinuing the practice.
Men are also circumcised in Eritrea at a young age but without the damaging consequences of what is inflicted on girls and women.
If you are a foreigner visiting Eritrea, and you happen to come across a wedding ceremony in progress, you’ll be welcomed to join in and made the guest of honor. Marriages are occasions when anyone who happens to pass by gets invited to the celebration.
Bands playing loudly add to the festivities. Everyone feasts on injera, “good food,” and suwa, “drink,” but the best part of the celebration is eating the sumptuous wedding cake.