views updated


LOCATION: Eritrea (Horn of Africa)
POPULATION: 4.9 million
LANGUAGE: Ethio-Semitic Tigrinya, Tigre, and Amharic (Amharinya); Eastern Cushitic Afar and Saho; Central Cushitic Bilin Agaw; Nilo-Saharan, Kunama, Nara; Beja (Bedawi); Indo-European English and Italian, spoken by some; Arabic, spoken in the coastal cities and by the Rashaida.
RELIGION: Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Tigray; Djiboutians


Modern Eritrea was born in the crucible of a large-scale, devastating, 30-year civil war during which more ammunition was exploded than in all of the North African campaigns of World War II. A number of separate Eritrean guerrilla movements, nearly destroyed from feuding with each other, gradually united. By 1991, they had won a war against combined Ethiopian, Cuban, and Soviet forces. These forces at times numbered 150,000–200,000 troops backed by at least $5 billion in direct Soviet and inadvertent U. S. military aid.

Eritrea's history intertwines with that of Ethiopia of which it had long been a northern frontier. Italians established a commercial foothold in Mitsiwa (Massawa) and Aseb in 1869, and took control of the ports from the Egyptians during the period 1882–85. Thus, Italy gained its first bases in the strategic Horn of Africa. In 1887 at Dogali, Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes, a Tigrayan, turned back Italian thrusts into the interior of Eritrea from Mitsiwa but the Italian army eventually took control of Eritrea. To facilitate Italy's expansion in the Horn, construction of the Eritrean Railway began at Mitsiwa in 1888 as a military line for the planned enlargement of what became the colony of Eritrea on 1 January 1890.

A little known continental catastrophe of the Italian invasion of Eritrea began in 1889 when the Italian army imported Indian cattle into the colony. The cattle carried the virus for rinderpest (from the German cattle-plague), then unknown in Africa. By 1897 the plague had spread to South Africa, killing about 90% of all African cattle, while decimating populations of buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest, and other wild herbivore game. Mass starvation began for humans across Africa. Without plow oxen, about a third of the Eritreans died.

In March 1896, the Ethiopian's decisively defeated at Adwa the Italian army, pushing it back into Eritrea and forcing Italy to turn its resources to developing this colony. From Eritrea, Italy successfully invaded Ethiopia in 1935–36. In 1941, British forces from Sudan quickly defeated the long-entrenched Italians in Eritrea. Through 1952, a British military administration controlled Eritrea, while the government in London considered whether to annex the western part of Eritrea to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In 1952 the United Nations voted to make Eritrea a semi-autonomous federated unit of Ethiopia. In 1953, a former Italian communications base just west of Asmara, Eritrea became one of the largest U.S.-intelligence-gathering facilities, monitoring communications from the Eastern Bloc and Middle East. During the 1950s, then strategic Ethiopia was the largest recipient in Africa of U.S. economic and military aid.

In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie I, an Amhara, forcibly annexed Eritrea as a province in his Ethiopian empire, thereby kindling rebellion. During this period, U.S.-supplied planes buzzed low over Asmara and the countryside to monitor the terrain and to stifle Eritrean insurgency. By the 1970s, U.S. intelligence turned to satellites to gather global electronic transmissions and no longer required land facilities. Ethiopia thus gradually became less strategic, and U.S. aid to the country declined. Suppression of the Eritrean insurgency became increasingly less acceptable to the Americans. The U.S. began to rebuff Haile Selassie's requests for more arms to counter Communist influences in the Horn and Red Sea regions.

In 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown by a faction known as the Derg (Amharic for committee). A provisional government was formed under Lt. General Aman Andom, an Eritrean who was later executed by the Derg. Next, Brigadier General Teferi Benti headed a new government, and the Derg proclaimed a socialist state of Ethiopia. In 1975, the rival Eritrean Liberation Front and Eritrean People's Liberation Front ended most of their differences and overran all of Eritrea, except for Asmara, Mitsiwa, and Berentu. In 1976, socialist Ethiopia broke ties with the U.S. and signed a military compact with the USSR. The next year, the Derg executed General Teferi and his colleagues and installed Lt. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam as head of state. With Soviet support, in 1977, Cuban and Ethiopian forces repelled a Somali invasion of the Ogaden in southeastern Ethiopia. During 1978–1981, the civil war against the Derg raged in Eritrea province and a parallel insurgency grew in Tegre province on the southern border of Eritrea. In both provinces, the insurgent fronts espoused Marxist ideas and were dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group. It is not often remembered that Marxist ideology fired the Eritrean rebel groups. In 1978, additional Ethiopian forces, now freed from combat in the Ogaden, entered Eritrea and retook most of the countryside.

To secure Eritrea politically and economically, the Communist government of Ethiopia in 1982 mounted large-scale military campaigns against both the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Trained by the Eritreans, the Tigrayans eventually formed the core of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which eventually defeated Ethiopia's Communist government.

From 1983–84, the all-important rains failed and a drought ensued. With climatic aridity across northeastern Africa, the military policies and Stalinist central planning of Ethiopia's Derg created catastrophic famine in 1984–85. Western nations sent massive food aid to the beleaguered Communist government in Ethiopia, thereby aiding some seven million under the threat of starvation. At the same time, with this food, the West helped the Derg implement its plan of forced resettlement of peasants out of the north and away from the influence of the liberation fronts.

During 1985, the Derg's offensives against the Eritreans and Tigrayans continued. Owing to poor economic planning, the famine persisted in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. The insurgent fronts gradually captured large amounts of Soviet tanks, artillery, other ordnance, and even Soviet advisors.

By 1989, the Ethiopian government's largely conscripted military forces lost battles across Eritrea and Tegre provinces, died by the thousands, and surrendered in droves. Ethiopia, accordingly, began peace negotiations with the Eritreans. During 1991, the peace talks continued in Washington, while the insurgents' hold on Eritrea broadened. With U.S. prodding, on 21 May 1991 President Mengistu Haile Mariam resigned and fled Ethiopia, while the victorious Tigrayans, under Meles Zenawi, encircled the country's capital, Addis Abeba. The Stalinist Marxist government of Ethiopia surrendered on 27 May 1991. The Eritreans now completely controlled Eritrea, under Issaias Afwerki, who received military training in China during 1966. Outside of Asmara, near Kagnew, a Soviet “elephants' graveyard” grew: many hundreds of T–54 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and army trucks. De facto independence now existed for Eritrea.

Sovereignty became a reality for Eritrea on 27 April 1993, when virtually everyone in this land voted in a UN-certified referendum calling for independence from Ethiopia. On 24 May 1993 the Tigrayans controlling Ethiopia granted independence to the Tigrayans controlling Eritrea. Eritrea became the 52nd independent state in Africa and joined the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) within the same week. Consequently landlocked Ethiopia, then a country of about 54 million, had its two seaports, Aseb and Mitsiwa, inside the sovereign country of Eritrea. At first, Eritrea was a friendly ally but then became a warring enemy and now is a hostile neighbor of Ethiopia. The same can be said of Ethiopia's relations with Eritrea.

During 1998–2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought another war with each other having heavy casualties and great loss of treasure for the two impoverished countries. After a truce, the United Nations has peace-keeping forces along the border of the two hostile countries, in a seemingly permanent Temporary Security Zone. In December 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia as a U.S. surrogate to suppress the Islamic Courts Union then controlling and stabilizing Somalia and befriended by Eritrea. In 2007 Ethiopia accused Eritrea of aiding militarily the fundamentalist Somalis opposing Ethiopia and the U.S. The Bush administration contemplated labeling Eritrea a rogue state, along with North Korea and Iran. In September 2007 the Eritrean government denied accusations that it aids terrorists in the Horn of Africa. The Eritrean Mufti (Jurist of Islamic Law), Sheik Al Amin Osman, announced in March 2008 that the peaceful relations among Eritrean Christians and Muslims were commendable.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front reorganized into the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Habte Selassie Bereket headed a Constitutional Commission providing a constitution in 1997, in time for national elections for a permanent government, but it is a charter still not fully implemented. Eritrea thereby became a presidential republic with a unicameral parliament. Issaias Afwerki became Eritrea's president and head of state. Eritrea is a one-party state governed by the PFDJ. Nongovernmental publishing ceased in September 2001. The government controls TV and radio stations. A private press is forbidden for matters of national security. In 2007 the activist organization Reporters without Borders placed Eritrea last on their world list regarding freedom of the press. Eritrea's legal system is based on the imperial Ethiopian legal code of 1957, with amendments and additions.

Fundamentalist Islamic groups in Sudan, a former ally of the Eritreans, aiding the fundamentalist Eritrean Islamic Jihad, strove to overthrow the secular government of Eritrea, which guarantees the freedom of all religions. Consequently, in 1995, Eritrea announced that it would support opposition groups bent on overthrowing the government of President Omar Hassan al Bashir in Sudan. Eritrea's undemarcated border with Sudan has been a concern of tension between the two countries but the tension now subsides.


Eritrea (official name, Ertra) is named for the Red Sea (Latin, Mare Erythraeum). About the size of Pennsylvania, some 117,600 sq km (45,400 sq mi), Eritrea had a population, in 2007, of about 4.9 million people. Nine ethnic groups make up Eritrea. Almost a million Eritreans are scattered across the globe, because they fled the ravishes of civil war. The highland capital of Asmara (pop. about 400,000) is a pleasant, Italianate city, with broad, palm-lined boulevards as well as narrower, packed streets, and sunny, mild weather year-round. Using the Ethiopian calendar, the city boasts thirteen months of springtime.

Just north of the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, Eritrea's Red Sea coast stretches 1,014 km (630 mi), from Ras Kasar to Ras Dumeira. Besides the sea, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia bound Eritrea. The country comprises savanna, rugged highlands, and semidesert and desert plains. Scattered acacias and junipers dot the savanna, and almost all original forest cover long has been cleared, after some 3,000 years of plow agriculture. From east to west, topographically, Eritrea consists of a low coastal desert plain, some 16 to 89 km (10 to 55 mi) wide and including the Kobar Depression, descending to 116 m (380 ft) below sea level. A steep ascent of the northeastern escarpment of the Abyssinian Plateau reaches a level of almost 2,440 m (8,000 ft); descends gradually through Asmara, at 2,345 m (7,694 ft); slopes to Keren, at 1,390 m (4,560 ft); declines to Akordat, at 621 m (2,038 ft); and ends, as a steppe plain, on the Sudan border, at about 430 m (1,400 ft). Aridity increases the further west one travels from Asmara, which has 53 cm (21 in) of rain per year and an annual average temperature of 16.7°c (62°f).


Eritrea contains at least nine indigenous ethnic-linguistic groups. Native Eritrean languages include Ethio-Semitic—of the South Semitic branch of the Semitic family—Tigrinya and Tigre; Beja (Bedawi); Eastern Cushitic Afar and Saho; Central Cushitic Bilin Agaw; and Chari-Nile—of the Nilo-Saharan superfamily—Kunama and Nara. The related Eritrean languages, Tigrinya, and Tigre, the last of which is the language of no single ethnic group, are often confused. Perhaps 200,000 people largely in semi-pastoral groups, in the lower plains and on islands off the coast north of the Tigrayans, speak Tigre. Tigre-speakers include the eastern Beni Amirs; the western Beni Amirs speak Beja. Ethio-Semitic Amharic (Amharinya); Central Semitic modern Arabic; and Indo-European English and Italian are also spoken by some Eritreans. Arabic, a local language, is spoken in the coastal cities, along the Sudan border, and by the Rashaida pastoralists; English is the language of instruction in the secondary schools and higher education; and Italian is known by some in Asmara and other cities. The Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic language families found in the Horn of Africa all belong to the Afro-Asiatic superfamily, including also Chadic, Berber, and ancient Egyptian families.


There is no folklore common to all nine ethnic groups of Eritrea. Religious folklore—Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and various pagan faiths—is shared among the respective adherents of each faith and is part of the cosmology of each of the nine cultures. (For cosmology, see sections 5 and 20 and section 20 of Djiboutians.)


Eritreans are, roughly, half Christians and half Sunni Muslims. Some Protestantism is found and Roman Catholicism exists, centering on Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in downtown Asmara. Enda Mariam is the principal Orthodox house of worship in Asmara, and the impressive Jamie el-Khulafa'e el-Rashidin Mosque is near the city hall. Roman Catholicism was introduced with Italian colonialism. Tigrayans who are Muslim have the designation Jebarti, thus setting them apart from Christians.

The native Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is often mistakenly labeled as Coptic; however, it has the Alexandrian rite under the aegis of the Patriarch of Alexandria. Adherents of this Ethiopian Christianity consider themselves the legitimate heirs of the Israelites of the Old Testament. According to the traditional Kebra Nagast, written in the ancient Ethio-Semitic liturgical language, Ge'ez, the God of Israel transferred His abode on earth from Jerusalem to Aksum, Ethiopia. Indeed, the religion of the Ethiopian Christianity is be-orit (by the Old Testament), and the central room of every church, the holy of holies, contains not an altar with the host, but a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (tabot). According to local beliefs, the original ark and the remnants of the true cross are hidden under separate mountains in Eritrea-Ethiopia, considered the holiest of lands. Another belief has the Ark secluded in a church of Aksum, Ethiopia.

Orthodox Christian priests both sing and dance in their ceremonies. Services are in Ge'ez, ancestral to Tigrinya, Tigre, and Amharic. The monarchs, of which Haile Selassie (whose name means “Power of the Holy Trinity” in Amharic) was the last, purportedly descend from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian Orthodox believers are monophy-site Christians, that is, they do not subscribe to the creed that Christ has two natures, human and divine. Rather, they believe that Christ has only a unified nature.

Religion is more than a body of rituals and creeds. For most of the world's peoples it is the core of their particular cosmology. Religious cosmology is a worldview providing the unifying, overarching ethos of a society and its culture, for example, of Tigrayans, Kunama, Afar, Beja, Bilin, etc. Such cosmology is grounded in supernaturalism and human social relations with a spirit realm. It has values and practices fostered by supernaturalistic interpretations of the world, as it is concomitantly conceived. The ever-changing religious cosmology of each Eritrean society is a body of socially learned belief collectively carried by the members of that people. It is handed down from generation to generation. The cosmology of a society provides satisfying answers to the underlying “how's,” “why's,” “where's” questions of life. It is a people's conceptualization about how their universe functions; why it functions in particular ways; and where their conceived universe is situated in space and time. A religious cosmology, then, answers humankind's age-old questions of existence. (See Gender Issues below and Djibouti Gender Issues for further discussion of cosmology in the Horn of Africa.)


The religious holidays of Eritrea are those of Islam and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian Orthodox holidays, Fasika and Timkat, and the Muslim holidays are geared to a lunar rather than solar calendar; thus, their dates vary. Major Muslim holidays include Eid el-Fitr in the spring, Eid el-Fahta in the summer, and Eid el-Nabi (the Prophet's birthday) in the summer.

Religious days of the Orthodox Church accord with the Ethiopian Calendar, which differs from the Gregorian one commonly used in Western countries (and now Eritrea's standard calendar as well). Thus, for example, Christmas falls on 7 January. Easter (Fasika), Epiphany (Timkat), and Meskel (Finding of the True Cross on 27 September), are the major Christian holidays. Christian congregations also have their own localized holidays, for a particular saint or angel.

Secular Eritrean holidays exist as well. These include New Year's Day on January 1, Women's Day on March 8, Labor Day on May 1, Independence Day on May 24, Martyrs' Day on June 20, Beginning of Armed Resistance Day on September 1, and (Western) Christmas on December 25.

Officially, nowadays, a 24-hour clock exists; Eritrean Time is GMT plus 3 hours. Traditional folk in the country and many townspersons, however, keep the ancient mode of time reckoning, with a cosmology reflecting nature. They determine approximate time from the position of the sun during daytime. Here the first hour of the day begins at dawn and the twelfth hour ends at dusk. A second 12-hour demi-cycle follows, until dawn.


Eritreans mark major life events within the religious traditions of either Christianity or Islam. Major Christian rituals include baptism, weddings, funerals, and second funerals forty days after death. As among most of the peoples of the Horn, adult status for the various Eritrean ethnic groups requires a genital operation, with or without ceremony, usually in childhood. Boys are circumcised and girls undergo clitoridectomy, a practice controlling their sexuality. The vast majority of women of Eritrea have undergone this ritual. (For more on clitoridectomy, see Djiboutians section 20.)


There are no common greetings shared by all nine Eritrean ethnic groups. However, it is not uncommon for people to hold hands while talking, and to kiss twice on each cheek when greeting. Respect for one's elders is paramount in all behavior.


Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. During 1993 per capita per year income was estimated at between $70 and $150, compared to $330 for most of sub-Saharan Africa. For 2007 this income was questionably estimated at about $1,000. During the devastating civil war perhaps 200,000 Eritreans were killed; facilities for wage employment—factories, mines, and plantations—were destroyed; and roads, railroads, and port structures were torn apart. At the end of the war, 80% of Eritreans were dependent on foreign food aid. Thus jobs for the multitudes of displaced persons are necessary, but the required development capital is almost nonexistent. Until 1995 the former guerrilla fighters working for the new government collected only a basic living allowance rather than a salary. Additionally, with tens of thousands of returning refugees and the war's desolation, an acute housing shortage exists.

The average life expectancy of Eritreans at birth is 60 years. In 2007 the infant mortality rate was estimated at 45 deaths for every 1,000 live births. In 2003, the incidence of adult HIV infection was an estimated 2.7%

A highway network connects all the cities of Eritrea with Ethiopia and Sudan. The 95-cm-gauge Eritrean Railway, destroyed during the civil war, is reconstructed from Mitsiwa (Massawa) to Asmara, but not yet from Asmara to Akordat. Asmara and Aseb provide air service to the outside world. Both Mitsiwa and Aseb have recently improved deep-water ports with cargo-hoisting capabilities and covered storage but which Ethiopia no longer uses. A rebuilt highway from Mitsiwa to Asmara and a new coastal one from Mitsiwa to Aseb enhance foreign trade.


Arranged marriages are the rule in Eritrea. Among the Tigray, the contracts governing arranged marriages included provisions for divorce, and it is not unusual for both men and women to marry more than once. Women in Eritrea have formed the National Union of Eritrean Women, which has some 200,000 members.


Eritreans in urban areas wear Western-style clothing. A common traditional costume of men and women in both Eritrea and Ethiopia is the shämma, which consists of a large piece of cotton cloth wrapped around the body to form a dress-like garment, with a smaller piece of the same fabric used for headgear, either a scarf or hood. The cloth has a brightly colored, decorated border, sometimes including silk in the weave, which is arranged at the hemline. Plastic sandals are the most common footwear among Eritreans. In some areas of Eritrea, men and women wrap a piece of cloth around their waists and knot it to form a skirt-like garment; this may be worn with or without a shirt or other top. In the torrid Danakil region of the Afar, women are nude from the waist up. A typical hair-style among Eritrean women is the shiurba, in which the hair is worn braided across the top and sides of the head and loose at the back. Many Christian Eritreans have crosses tattooed on their foreheads. In rural areas, some married women wear gold bands in their noses.


Among the main dietary staples in Eritrea is a flatbread made from a native cereal grain (called teff in Amharic and Tigrinya) and eaten with a spicy pepper-laden stew. Other grain staples include barley and wheat. There are many varieties of barley and wheat cultivated, with different ethnic groups growing different types. Tigrayan varieties of wheat include desaleny and ayiquertem, and of barley, saida and saisa. Sorghum and coffee are both common ancient crops; safflower, a native oil seed, and an ancient form of flax are both cultivated for oil and food. Chick peas (known as shimbra to Tigrayans) are an important food staple. Goats, sheep, cattle, and even camel meats are relished, depending on the ethnic group. Coffee is drunk, with a pinch of salt, often in elaborate ceremonies of coffee preparation for honored guests. During the course of a fragrant half-hour, red coffee berries could be plucked from the tree and roasted on a griddle. The blackened beans are then ground in a mortar, and the grounds are boiled in a pot. Finally, the black liquid is poured into cups and enjoyed as a social occasion.


The estimated literacy rate in 2003 for Eritreans was about 59%. Islamic Koranic and church schools traditionally have instructed a few males in literacy. Those becoming Islamic or Christian clergymen received advanced education in religious schools. Some of the monastery sites of higher education date to the beginnings of Christianity. Since 1941, secular government schools were developed somewhat and then curtailed by the civil war. By 1964, as the civil war began its intensity, about 200 elementary and 9 secondary schools had some 44,000 pupils. In 1973 Eritrea possessed 17 secondary schools. As of 1994, about 42% of children were enrolled in elementary school. There were 37 pupils for every teacher and 68 for every textbook. In the early 21st century, over 800 schools provide instruction, with a university and a technical institute proving post-secondary education.


Tigrayans have a 3,000-year-old literary tradition, and have practiced iron metallurgy for over 2,500 years. Traditional musical instruments of the Eritreans include pipes, harmonicas, and the kirir, which resembles a guitar. The Tigre people have a sacred artistic tradition within Christianity that includes music (directed by monastically trained men) as well as Biblical illumination, scroll making, and icon painting.


About 85% of all work resides in the traditional agricultural sector, comprising cultivation of crops and husbandry of livestock. The average Eritrean remains a ruralist, unaccustomed to the demands of working in the modern cash economy. A few large-scale commercial farming enterprises exist, producing cattle, cotton, sisal, tomatoes for canning, and garden vegetables. Modern industries providing wage employment include textiles, tanning, leather and plastic shoes, fishing, and salt production. In addition, small enterprises abound, such as oil-seed pressing, flour milling, soap making, plastic container fabricating, and tire retreading. Eritrea smelts steel from the many Soviet military vehicles littering the countryside, thus beating swords into plowshares.

The rebuilding of the Eritrean Railway is developing groups of skilled craft speople—machinists, boilermakers, black-smiths, pipe fitters, sheet-metal workers, welders, electricians, timber sawyers, stone masons, and carpenters. These skilled workers comprise a body of instructors for training the unskilled, unemployed segment of the workforce. Additionally, the schedule and safety demands of railroading help workers develop discipline and work habits they need to be successful in industrial settings.


The majority of Eritreans are traditional rural cultivators and pastoralists with little opportunity for sports. Among those who enjoy sports, soccer is the most popular. During the war for independence, rebel fighters would gather to watch matches. A traditional game among the Afar is kwosso, in which the goal is to keep a ball made of rolled goatskins (resembling a soccer ball) away from the opposing team. Eritrean athletes compete in international track and field events and become national heroes. Bicycle racing is a popular spectator sport centering on the killing Tour of Eritrea, from the coastal desert up the steep escarpment almost 2,440 m (8,000 ft) to the summit and, then, downgrade to Asmara.


Urban dwellers, especially teens, enjoy dancing at clubs. Today the main boulevard of the capital city, Asmara, is lined with open-air cafes, bars, and patisseries. Television is available in Eritrea, with broadcasting in Tigrinya and Arabic. There are also radio broadcasts, as well as government controlled newspapers. These print media are mainly enjoyed by the educated elite, however. The majority of Eritreans do not participate in recreational activities in the Western sense.


Among the typical Tigrayans, little exists in the way of arts and crafts, except for weaving coarse grass mats. Church art and written music among priests and monks are exceptions. The concept of a hobby is unknown and not applicable to these people.

The Tigrayans practice Qene, an intellectually challenging spoken duel using especially composed poetry verses. At wedding and other occasions, Tigrayan men perform a dance that includes jumping rhythmically up and down while singing. Songs may be traditional, or newer, such as “Addis Abeba” (“New Flower”), after the capital of Ethiopia founded in the 1880s.


To minimize ethnic divisiveness, the Organization of African Unity resisted all separatist movements on the continent until the 1990s. The separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia marks the first redrawing of borders in Africa, a continent with over 1,300 ethnic groups, some of which at times are fratricidal. The leadership of Eritrea faces the challenge of marshalling the country's diverse peoples to build an economically viable and politically secure state, with almost no financial and material resources.

In the wake of its devastating civil war and the war of 1998– 2000, Eritrea faces the challenges of continuing to repair its damaged infrastructure, finding employment for the former rebel fighters, and providing services for the many thousands of people disabled in the fighting. Other social problems include a low per capita income, lack of medical facilities, a housing shortage, and a large part of the population in the armed forces.


Cosmology is a view of the ordering of the world, a blueprint of the way things are. With their religious cosmologies, humans reduce the seeming chaos in the experiential world to a purported, often logically circular, meaningfulness. Cosmology allows an apparent certainty for action and thought and an apparent guide for rational behavior, including gender relations. Throughout the Horn of Africa, socialization into the male and female genders is reinforced in the core aspects of a cosmology such as its values, norms, statuses and roles, and etiquette. Gender is the socially learned cultural overlay a society places on biological sex, either of the two categories in which humans are divided regarding reproductive functions. In other words, gender means what it is to be male or female and just how “male” or “female” one should be.

For Eritreans of various ethnic groups, the creator god of each people is a male. For the Christian Tigrayans and Muslims, he is the God of Abraham (named, respectively, Egziabeher [Lord of the Sky] and Allah [the God]); for the Afar, he is Wak; and for the Kunama, he is Anna.) In each religious cosmology, he intends males to dominate women, deemed to be the lesser of the two sexes. Women were created by god for the purposes of obeying and serving their husbands, including by rendering domestic services and bearing and nurturing children for them. Males have a monopoly on controlling religious knowledge. Men alone become religious practitioners who interpret the cosmology providing the matrix of a culture.

In Islamic societies the low status of women stems largely from pre-Islamic patriarchal (control by males) traditions rather than directly from the more recent Quran. However, in Islam and Eritrea's pre-Islamic religions, blood from menses is believed ritually polluted. Whatever the root source, in Islam women's rights are constricted. Accordingly, in these cosmologies, women are viewed as potential ritual polluters of humans and nature. Such views help rationalize the holding of religious and political power exclusively by men.

Religious cosmology contains myth, or an explanatory “history” of supernatural and human beings who were or are important actors in a particular cosmic concept of the universe. Myths are sacred tales, passed from generation to generation, with dogmatic rather than verifiable content. Myth not only explains cosmological states and processes, it justifies the orders of things in the world. For example, Eve is the originator of sin; therefore, women are punished in childbirth by labor pains. In some accounts Eve (woman) is a mere derivative of Adam (man). Especially in its mythic aspect, cosmology supports and either realistically or symbolically exemplifies the core values and norms in a culture. In turn, cosmology and its related values are reflected in and reinforced by ritual, for example, a father giving a bride to the groom.

As they relate to values and norms, most cosmologies contain moralisms, or ideals of conformities with generally accepted standards of goodness in character and behavior. Myths often reinforce charters or explanatory rationales for the reason why things are the way they are. In this way the institutions and social order of a society are vindicated. Given the existence of a particular background cosmology for a society, a monocultural person rarely looks beyond the “proofs” engendered by the elements of this worldview, including for gender. Socialized to a particular cosmology, a person consciously and unconsciously selects, rejects, and fits information to fashion a satisfying consistency regarding his or her world vision. Accordingly, males and females in patriarchal and other societies, such as those in Eritrea, do not believe but, instead, know the social and ritual superiority of men over women. (For some thought-provoking gender issues, see Djibouti, section 20.)


Africa Watch. “Eritrea: Freedom of Expression and Ethnic Discrimination in the Educational System: Past and Future.” Human Rights Watch/Africa 5 no. 1 (January 12, 1993).

Bauer, Dan F. Household and Society in Ethiopia: An Economic and Social Analysis of Tigray Social Principles and Household Organization, 2nd ed. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1985.

Berg, Lois A. An Eritrean Family. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1997.

Brooks, Miguel F., ed. Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings). Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

Cliffe, Lionel, and Basil Davidson. The Long Struggle for Eritrea. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1988.

Connell, Dan. Getting Home Is Only Half the Challenge: Refugee Integration in War-Ravaged Eritrea. Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 2001.

Country Profile. Eritrea. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2004.

Davidson, Basil, et al., ed. Behind the War in Eritrea. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1980.

Duffield, Mark, and John Prendergast. Without Troops and Tanks: Humanitarian Intervention Ethiopia and Eritrea. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994.

Eritrea: A Country Handbook. Asmara: Ministry of Information, 2002.

Erlich, Haggai. The Struggle over Eritrea, 1962-1978: War and Revolution in the Horn of Africa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Gamst, Frederick C. “Beja.” In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, 2nd ed. edited by Richard V. Weeks, vol. 1, pp. 130–137. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

———. “Bilin.” In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, 2nd ed. edited by Richard V. Weeks, vol. 1, pp. 162–167. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

———. “Conflict in the Horn of Africa.” In Peace and War: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Mary L. Foster and Robert A. Rubenstein, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1986.

Gayim, Eyassu. The Eritrean Question: The Conflict between the Right of Self-Determination and the Interests of States. Uppsala: Lustus Forlag, 1993.

Gebre-Medhin, Jordan. Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1989.

Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Keneally, Th omas. To Asmara: A Novel of Africa. New York: Warner Books, 1989.

Machida, Robert. Eritrea: The Struggle for Independence. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1987.

Mesghenna, Yemane. Italian Colonialism: A Case of Study of Eritrea 1869-1934. Lund: Lund University. 1988.

Normile, Dennis. “Driven to Extinction. Rinderpest.” Science, vol. 319 (2008):1606–1609.

Papstein, Robert. Eritrea: Tourist Guide. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

Pateman, Roy. Eritrea: Even the Stones Are Burning. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1997.

Research and Information Center on Eritrea. Bibliography on Eritrea. New York, 1982.

Sherman, Richard. Eritrea: The Unfinished Revolution. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Tekle, Amare. Eritrea and Ethiopia; From Conflict to Cooperation. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994.

Tesfagiorgis, Gebre Hiwet. Emergent Eritrea: Challenges of Economic Development. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1993.

Uhlig, Siegbert. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, 4 vols. Wiesbaden: Harrssowitz Verlag, 2003–2008.

U.S. Department of the Army. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Ethiopia: A Country Study. 4th ed. Edited by Harold D. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry. Area Handbook Series. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993.

Yohannes, Okbazghi. Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1991.

—by F. C. Gamst