ERITREA: Prehistory and history

Prehistory and history of Eritrea

Eritrea 1

It is evident that Eritrean prehistory is as old as humanity and superbly endowed with archeological and paleontological remain spanning all temporal segments in the human career, that are believed to be the cradle of early hominids and large-sized mammals.

The discovery of new hominid evidence in the Buya area (Northern-Danakil Depression), that is a one million year old hominid cranium. This paleontological area has global significance to the reconstruction paleo environmental and hominid behavior research.

Eritrea has been inhabited since antiquity; the first inhabitants were the Nilotic people from the Nile. The Cushitic arrived with successive waves of Hamitic stock and the south Arabian tribes introduced the Semitic culture.

The Semitic language evolved into Ge’ez from which Tigre and Tigrigna originated. In the 4th Century AD, Christianity was introduced. During the early Islamic period, the trail of Sahaba was established when a group of Mohammed’s companies (Sahaba) travelled from Mecca to Massawa and beyond the hinterland to escape persecution.

The 16th century was marked by continual attempts of the Turks to extend their influence on the Eritrean coast. The Italian colonizers landed in Massawa in 1885. The Italian colonial era lasted until 1941 when they were defeated by the British who, in turn, governed Eritrea until the United Nations decided Eritrea’s future, which was to make it an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia.

Due to this decision the first organized Eritrean resistance was established in 1958, followed by the start of an armed struggle in 1961 and the annexation by Ethiopia in 1962, which ended when Eritrea won its independence in 1991.

Eritrea’s free trade zone

Eritrea’s future growth and prosperity is based on a market economy, which gives the private sector a leading role. It encourages private investment from both domestic and foreign investors. In particular, the government in its newly established Free Zone in its ports and in tourism related projects.

It offers significant incentives for such investors. Favorable investment policy, in particular, relates to taxes, foreign exchange regulations, labor laws, business licensing and guarantees.

All are intended to encourage investments that help to develop and utilize the natural resources of the country, create and expand job opportunities, encourage the introduction of new technology, equitable regional growth and participation of small and medium scale enterprises.

Eritrea’s vast area of the Red Sea and its coastline holds great potential and opportunity for exploitation as a tourist industry, fisheries and shipping services.

The Red Sea is the main line of the international shipping lines to/from Europe which makes it one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Unlike other free zones of middle income countries, investors in Eritrea will enjoy selling their products in the world markets without any constraints because Eritrea is not subject to restrictions on market entry of its free zone products by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and all fees and charges are less expensive than any of the other free zone competitors in the region at all levels.

Eritrean sea ports

Eritrea has two main ports, Assab and Massawa. Both ports are located on the sea lane that connects Europe with the Persian Gulf and the countries bordering the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Massawa port has a quay length of 1007M with six berths where the largest is 208.6M long and 12M deep.

The port also has a 204,057M2 storage area with a holding capacity of 150,000 metric tons including 79,000M2 of heavy duty paved concrete blocks for container stacking with a computerized container terminal management system.

The Assab port has 7 deep sea berths with an overall length of 1025M. The deepest berth is 10.97M with a length of 210M. The port has above 275,320M2 of storage area with 385,930 metric tons of holding capacity.

The ports of Massawa and Assab are both well-structured and fully equipped with experienced personnel. Both ports offer radio communication from port to vessel and vice versa. International telephone communications, telex and fax facilities as well as maritime and clearing agencies which adequately meet the needs of importers and exporters are all available. The ports also provide essential pilotage, tugging, cargo handling and storage service including IMDG (dangerous goods).

Eritrea’s protected areas

The Gash and Setit Rivers

The zone is bounded by the Gash River in the north and the Setit (Tekeze) River in the south. The area is situated in Gash Barka region, south western Eritrea at some 300km west of Asmara along the road that links Asmara and Tesenei.

It falls within the semi-arid lowlands agro-ecological zone, characterized by a warm and semi-arid climate with temperatures ranging from 20 to 41 degree centigrade and an elevation of 1000-1500m. The mean annual rainfall is 200-400mm and very erratic.

The area harbors a good number of wild life species including African Elephant (Laxodonta Africana) Greater Kudu, Red Fronted Gazelle, Dorcas Gazelle, Warthog, Water Buck and others. Bird life in the area is particularly rich. The African Elephant in Eritrea is the most northern range on the continent; their population is steadily climbing up.

The Setit River flows throughout the year and it is crucial for the existence of elephants in this most northern limit.

Buri Peninsula and Gelal-Tio-Bada Triangle

Buri Peninsula is located in the Northern Red Sea region, in the coastal area

approximately 140 kilometers southeast of the port city of Massawa. The area comprises a dramatic landscape of semi desert and fair cover of vegetation with basaltic lava flowing from recent volcanic activity and has a rugged and varied topography including scenic bays and the inlet of the sea.

The area used to accommodate a fair range of wildlife species including globally endangered species of African Wild Ass, and two different species of gazelles, ostriches, foxes, etc. In many areas close to the sea, halophytic shrubs such as Suaeda Monoica dominate the vegetation, and along watercourses, there may be small areas of Doum Palm (Hyphaene Thebaica).

In some areas Commiphora is the dominant woody species. Along the mainland, the islands and shorelines are numerous small pockets of mangrove forest dominated by Avicennia Marina.

African Wild Asses (Equus Africanus Somaliensis) live and breed far south of the Buri peninsula and extend its home range up to Southern Red Sea region

particularly Areta sub-zone (around Tio). This population of Wild Ass may be the only viable population of the highly endangered species in Africa.

Other species like Dorcas gazelle (Gazelle Dorcas) and Soemmerringi gazelle (Gazella Soemmerringi) also use this area on a seasonal basis congregating in significant numbers on the entire of the peninsula and Wengebo plains during the wet season.

Ostriches (Strthio Camelus) are still numerous in the Buri Peninsula, and are often found close to settlements since Afar pastoralists have cultural ethics of conservation. There are also a number of important seabirds.

Semienawi Bahri

The Green Belt (Semienawi Bahri) is located 24 Km to the northeast of Asmara and covers an extensive area of approximately 100,000 hectares from the top of the plateau, running down to the east through several ranges of hills to the beginning of the eastern lowlands.

The area is administered under Ginda subzone, Northern Red Sea region. The altitude varies from 500m to 2500m with a north south range of 20km.

The natural vegetation is dense and open forests dominated by Olea Africana, Juniperus Procera. The steeper hillsides are covered with woody vegetation. Canopy cover ranges from around 20 percent on some hillsides to 80 percent in gullies and valley bottoms.

At the highest point of the forested area (2300m) vegetation is dominated by shrubby Juniperus Procera, seldom exceeding 8 meters in height (despite its potential for reaching 40 meters).

The species are slowly regenerating and young trees are relatively plentiful. A large range of species are found at lower elevations. This narrow belt zone is evergreen almost all year round mainly due to its high and well distributed rain and the frequent occurrence of mist, gave chance for diversified wildlife species.

They include: Greater Kudu, Vervet Monkey, and the Leopard just to name a few are reported as coming back. Certainly, restoration of the forestry cover in a richer floristic composition contributed for a positive impact on the diversity of wildlife species.

Semienawi Bahri has various and highly valuable assets. The proximity of the forest areas to Asmara, their fascinating landscape and their potential of a large biological diversity are values that can be explored and used for eco-tourism, education and scientific researches.

Eritrea’s fauna and flora

Eritrea can be classified into three major climatic regions: the highlands, the coastal area of the Red Sea, and the western lowlands. All are cooler during the winter months and warmer during the summer. However, these seasons are tempered by the rains giving each zone its own climatic pattern.

Topography is the dominant factor that determines the climate in Eritrea. For this it is truly a land blessed with color and contrast. A land where within two hours you can experience the youthful joy of spring, the warmth of summer and the mellow of fall.

It is the slogan of the Ministry of Tourism-the land of “Three Seasons in Two Hours”. In that time you cans descend from the cool grandeur of our mountain ranges, through the flowering orchards of the central plateau down to the warm year-long summer breezes of our Red Sea coast.

Eritrea’s abundant fauna include ostriches, leopards, elephants, antelopes, gazelles, monkeys, hyenas, wild dogs, wild donkeys and more. The scattered but increasing presence of such species indicates the country’s steady return to normalcy and serenity, as forests and savannahs recover and flourish.

Eritrea’s rich flora is also flourishing again thanks to the well-designed conservation and environmental protection program. The country’s flora includes Acacias, Baobabs, Pine trees, Eucalyptus, Olive trees, Doum Palm trees and many types of shrubs and grasses. Some of them like the Doum Palm and Sisal for example, have significant economic value.

Eritrea’s 9 ethnic groups

Eritrea tribes

Afar: Primarily pastoralists who inhabit areas of southern Red Sea. They are Muslims and organized in strong clans.

Bilen: Traditionally farmers, populate Keren and its immediate surrounding. Their social structure is organized by kinship groups. There are equal numbers of Christians and Muslims.

Hidarb: Cushtic Beja (T’bdawie) semi nomadic pastoralists specializing in raising camels and cattle. They are found in the western lowlands.

Kunama: They are mainly found in villages between the Gash River and in Barentu. They are Nilotic and renowned dancers having developed more than 25 different dancing forms. They are mainly Christians and Muslims with some traditional believers.

Nara: Nilotic, they live in the area east of the Gash River. They have mixed culture similar to that of the Kunama’s. They are Muslim.

Rashaida: Most recent tribe to come to Eritrea from the Arabian Peninsula.

They are predominantly nomadic people who live along the Northern Red Sea coast. They are Muslim.

Saho: They occupy the territory on the south-eastern slopes of the highlands as far as the coastal plains south of Massawa. They are small scale farmers who emphasize in bee-keeping. They are Muslims and Christians.

Tigre: They cover a large area of the northern, north-eastern and western Eritrea. Their oral literature consists of folklores, legendary war cries, riddles, etc. They are Muslims and Christians.

Tigrina: Populate the highlands of Eritrea and are mostly farmers. They are mostly Coptic Christians, Catholics and Protestants. A small group of Muslims also form part of the ethnic group.

Major Eritreans cities Part I

Asmara, the Capital

Asmara with a population of about 400,000 is the capital of Eritrea. Sitting on a plateau 2,324m above sea level Asmara enjoys a pleasant climate all year round.

The city is an old Italian town with picturesque palm-lined boulevards and some of the world’s Art Deco architecture. It boasts neat and well-planned streets, side walk cafes and a wide range of excellent restaurants. Asmara is the safest city to explore at any time of the day or night.

“Asmarinos” are famous for their friendliness and take pleasure in welcoming visitors to share in the delights of their city.


Massawa capital of the Northern Red Sea region houses the port of Massawa. It has ancient coral buildings and arcades that reflect the Turkish influence, as well as even older mosques that represent Muslim influence and other homes built in the Ottoman style of the 18th century.

Here, too, is the old Moorish town, with its splendid shops, arcades, cafes and restaurants. Massawa us regarded by many as ‘the Pearl of the Red Sea’ and is one of Eritrea’s two ports. The ancient city is a center for the many activities available on the Red Sea coast and plays host to the many sun and fun seekers that visit the coast all year round.

With its exquisite Turkish-style architecture and shopping arcades, beautiful mosques, delicious seafood and famous nightclubs, Massawa is the perfect destination to cater for all tastes. In addition to the city’s attractions, pristine beaches and world class diving and snorkeling from the city center.


Keren capital city nestled amongst seven hills from which it derived its name. 91km north of Asmara and 1,377m above sea level, Keren enjoys a warm climate all year round and, having more leisurely pace of life, is considered to be a more relaxing alternative to the bustling Asmara.

However, on market days the city reaches its busiest, as traders come and sell a wide range of wares including straw products, clay pots and jars, silver jewelry and even camels. As well as providing many fascinating sight and experiences, the market is a must for gift-seekers.

Keren has long played a key role in Eritrea’s history and often attracted foreign explorers such as the Swiss soldier f fortune Werner Munzingter, who arrived in 1855 and married a Bilen girl, the dominant ethnic group in the region.

The city comprises of a majority Muslim which gives rise to a distinctly Middle Eastern feel in the city. There are many things to see and do in and around Keren. The famous Madona of the Baobab (Mariam De’arit), the

camel market, the British and Italian Cemeteries, and the Old Railway station are just some of the numerous attractions.

Major Eritreans cities Part II


Barentu, 237km west of Asmara (alt 1015m) is the capital of Gash Barka region. The trip to Barentu takes you through Keren and then Aqordet with its beautifully serene landscape. Barentu is in the fertile plains of the Gash Barka and is the heart of the Kunama ethnic group territory. For those interested in Kunama folklore Barentu is the perfect destination.

The Kunama are one of the most colorful people in Eritrea. For the sociologist or anthropologist the Kunama present an abundant array of cultural characteristics to be seen and studied.

The artifacts, traditional food and drinks and their celebrations are all to be richly enjoyed.


Tesenei (alt 602m) 356km from Asmara has a real frontier feel to it, especially now that the border asphalt road with the Sudan is open. It is the last major town before you reach the border with the Sudan.

In the main square in front of the mosque, there is a real cultural melting pot. The town is abuzz with many kinds of different trade, including tailors, cafes, bars, and other shops.

A great variety of trade is carried on here and in the surrounding market place. The town and its surroundings are very beautiful, especially after the rain when everything is lush and green.


Mendefera, 54km south of Asmara (alt 1970m) is the capital of the Southern

region. The new regional offices have been built and dominate the town on the eastern side, giving a rather grand civic feel to the town.

The town itself is a pretty garden town with plenty of greenery and flowers giving the place a delightful air. The town is dominated by two hills on either side of the main road.

On the western hill site the old Catholic Church school, with its white bell tower, which looks a little like a miniature version of Asmara. Facing this, on the eastern hill is the more modern Orthodox St. Ghiorgis Church.

Eritrea’s unique natural features

Great Rift Valley 

One of world’s most prominent geographic features, the Great Rift Valley extends from the Middle East through the Horn of Africa and East Africa to South Africa, including Eritrea. The recent vulcanocity of the rift system has left many beautifully preserved and eye-catching volcanic structures including cones, calderas, flows and explosion craters.

Danakil Depression

Eritrea is a land of contrasts: with in a few hours, for example, you can travel from the cool air of the rugged mountains to the arid reaches of the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth (Kobar sink-100m bsl). Some Eritrean journeys are easy, some difficult, but all offer a taste of the unique experience that is Eritrea.

In the southern part of Eritrea lies the vast lowland area known as the Danakil Depression. Often likened to a lunar landscape, the Danakil region is a wondrous and vast-expanse of hot and dry desert skirted below sea level, the depression boats some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on earth.

Hot Springs

Hot springs that purportedly cure rheumatism and other ailments are to be found all along the Rift Valley, they are a constant reminder that somewhere down the earth is still active; hot magma (boiling hot rocks and minerals) “cooks” the surface, including water that flows and erupts as springs at weak spots on the surface.

Geoscientists have found out that the depth of magma below the Danakil Depression ad surrounding areas is about 5-10 kilometers below surface. As a result, many hot springs are located within the Dankalia and the adjourning escarpments. These hot springs are locally used as natural healing waters and thousands of people visit a half dozen springs every year.

The water temperature in these springs is inevitably high: frequent value being 49-60 degree centigrade. Chemically the water, whose medical value has been realized by the ancient people, is mostly sulfurous and in some less degree saline and ferruginous. The chemical composition indicates that the springs are closely associated with recent vulcanocity of the area.

Two major spa sites that Eritrea is fortunate enough to have is Akwaar and Mai-Wui. Both are located approximately 8-10km north of Gahtelai on the Asmara-Massawa road.

The Islands

Scattered like a string of pearls upon the azure, translucent waters of the Red Sea, more than 350 Eritrean islands remain one of the last great unspoiled destinations in the world. The crystal clear and unspoiled waters make the Dahlak Islands a “scuba-dives” paradise and an aquatic wonderland.

The Escarpments

Semienawi Bahri-“the Green Belt”-lies to the northeast of Asmara. Its scenery is stunningly beautiful-many reckon the most beautiful in Eritrea. Permanently green, Semienawi Bahri is covered with lush forests and plantations, and the steep road from Asmara winds its hairpin way past spectacular views over the mountains and valleys that reach out to the Red Sea plains.

On the slopes of the eastern escarpment, at altitudes from 2400 meters down to 900 meters, ever green abound. The region is an outstanding venue for bird-watching.

Baboons, Vervet Monkeys, and Bush Buck are also to be seen, and sometimes Leopard, Kudu, Duiker, Klipspringer and Warthog.

Semienawi Bahri has two rainy season-one in the highlands and one on the

coast-and the most luxuriant growing season lasts from October to March.


About nine percent of Eritrea’s landscape is mountainous. There are numerous mountain systems of small to medium elevation ranging from about 2400 to over 3000 meters above sea level (Mt. Soira-3018m). Most of these mountains run parallel to the middle zone of the country.

The altitude generally declines as we move from south to north and from east to west in the highlands. Mountain systems are found clumped together between coastal plains in the east and the Gash Barka plains in the west.

Eritrean mountains have a moderate elevation and as such they are most suited for mountaineering.

Embassy of Eritrea


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