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What Should I Know About Eritrea?

Eritrea is a small country in East Africa, and its coastline travels along the Red Sea.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 August 2014
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Eritrea is a small country in East Africa. It covers 45,400 square miles, making it a bit larger than the state of Ohio. It shares borders with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sudan, and has coastline along the Red Sea.

The ancestors of modern humans have been in this region for millions of years. People had settled along the Red Sea, the Mare Erythreum, or Sea of Eritrea, as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. In the 8th century BCE the Kingdom of D’mt arose in the region, and eventually came under the control of the Kingdom of Aksum, along with much of modern Ethiopia.

The Kingdom of Aksum waned in the 7th century, in the face of growing Islamic power. By the 9th century it had weakened to the point where it was conquered by the Jewish queen Gudit. The northern parts of Eritrea fell to Yemen and other Islamic rulers.

In the mid-16th century the Ottomans conquered much of the country, ruling the north and west until they passed them on to Egypt in the mid-19th century. The Italians gained control of these holdings in the late-19th century from the Egyptians. In the following years, after the death of the Emperor of Ethiopia, the Italians spread further south, recapturing the southern part of the country and forming a cohesive colony.

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For the first few decades the Italians were relatively benevolent rulers, building up infrastructure and allowing Eritreans to take a part in the public sector. When the fascists took power in Italy, however, the attitude towards the country changed drastically, with racist agendas taking the fore, and brutality becoming the norm.

The British took over administration of Eritrea following the Italian defeat in World War II. Following the war, the United States and Britain both advocated ceding the country to Ethiopia, in return for the support Ethiopia had given during the war. In 1952 a constitution for the country was ratified, and it and Ethiopia were joined as a federation.

Over the next decade Ethiopia removed many of the rights Eritrea had been granted, undermining autonomy and democracy, replacing Eritrean cultural symbols with those of Ethiopia, banning the use of the flag, and replacing the national language with Amharic. Beginning in the 1960s, Eritrea began to fight for its independence, with the aid of weapons and money from Syria and Iraq. This civil war continued after the Emperor was deposed and replaced with the Marxist Derg government.

By the late 1970s the Eritreans seemed poised on the edge of winning the war and driving Ethiopia from their lands. Soviet assistance to Ethiopia helped them recover, however, and the war continued to drag on for the next decade. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union, faced with internal problems of its own, ceased giving aid to Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian position crumbled.

In 1993, more than forty years after the country was first given to Ethiopia in spite of a desire for sovereignty, the country became independent. Since independence the country has suffered from a number of internal problems, including closed elections that appear to be unfair, media censorship, severe religious persecution, and the imprisonment of political opponents.

The situation in Eritrea is not ideal for tourists, but it is manageable for those who take precautions. Avoid the border with Ethiopia completely, and pay close attention to posted signs, as areas with heavy land mines are marked. Staying to the major cities and towns is probably a good idea, and so both Keren and Asmara make prime destinations, with their casual atmosphere and beautiful architecture. The ruins of Qohaito, which date back to the Kingdom of Aksum, are well worth seeing, as well, offering some stunning architecture that spans centuries.

Flights arrive in Eritrea weekly from a number of European hubs, as well as a handful of airports in Africa and the Middle East. The borders between both Sudan and Ethiopia are not recommended for overland travel, but the Djibouti border is now open.

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