PREHISTORY

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Eritrea is inhabited by mosaic of diverse communities. They have various origins which all have links with other communities in the region. Some are Christians; others Moslems and few pagans. Some are settled agriculturalist while others live as pastoral nomads. Today Eritrea has nine ethnic groups, Afar, Saho, Tigrinyia, Tigre, Bilen, Rasahida, Kunama, Nara and Hidreab. Those Ethnic groups came to Eritrea from various parts of the world due to various reasons.

 

ERITREA, THE COUNTRY

Eritrea lies on the west coast of the Red Sea: and borders Sudan to the west, Djibouti and Red Sea to the east, and Ethiopia to the south. With the coming of the Italians to the region ‘Eritrea” got the name. Prior to the coming of the Italians the now called ‘Eritrea’ was called “ Mereb Melash” or “ Medri Bahri”. The whole region including the present day Sudan and Ethiopia was called “ The Land of Punt”.

The present day Eritrea’s landscape is composed of a plateau of thin-soiled moorland decorated with occasional eminences of bare rock intersected by shallow land and fertile valleys and few deep clefts. The country’s Plateau shares an agreeable climate, likened by an early English traveler and got the name “everlasting spring”. Vegetation, mostly in the form of Euphorbia candelabra, juniper, and wild olive, is spread, though the Bahri, as the eastern flanks of the plateau are called, are well wooded and a certain amount of scrub is found in the Hasamo plain, and a fertile depression lies on its southern border. The largest river courses are the Gash, the Barka, and the Anseba, which all flow into the Sudan and the Komaile, Haddas, and Aligede, watercourses that flow into the Red Sea.

 

Northern Highlands thrusts out northwards across the Sudan frontier from the country’s Plateau. The Northern Highlands form a watershed draining westwards into the Barka and eastwards into the coastal plain, mainly by the way of watercourse known as the Lebka, Leba and Felket.

 

Southeast to the Barka Lowlands of the countryside changes with surprising abruptness from desert like environment to forest. Between the rivers of Gash and Setit the soils are rich and black; vegetation is thick and, during the rains, the grass in lush and plentiful. On the east the Plateau and Northern Highlands descend sharply and spectacularly into a coastal plain which fringes the Red Sea; sandy and narrow in the north and increasingly extensive in the south where it expands into the volcanic Southeast.

 

In a territory of such physical variety it is not surprising that rainfall should vary both in degree and seasonal incidence as between the different regions. There are two well-defined seasons. From June to September the ‘summer rains’ fall in all parts of the territory other than the Coastal Plain; from November to January the ‘winter rains’ fall in the Coastal Plain, though rarely in its southern extremity. In addition to the regions covered by the ‘summer rain’ usually enjoy a few rains during the month of April. Rainfall is generally heavy in the south and is lesser in the north, while rainfall in the Northern Highlands and Barka Lowlands is average. The Bahri, because of its favorite position on the eastern flanks of the plateau, benefits both from summer and winter rains and have a whole year round rainfall.

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Eritrea got the name “Eritrea” by the Italians, who established their first colony towards the end of the nineteenth century in the western shores of the Red Sea or ‘Erythrean’ Sea.

 

‘Eritrea’s’ earliest inhabitants are believed to have been a Nilotic people, Negroid forest dwellers, which had moved from their homes in thick bush of the southeastern Sudan into the Gash-Setit Lowlands and to the Plateau. Those people are the ancestors of the now called Nara and Kunama Ethinic groups. Later Eritrea was invaded by pastoral Hamitic tribes, who occupied the Barka Lowland and Northern Highlands, subjugating or expelling their Nilotic inhabitants and spreading along the barren coastal desert into the lowlands of northeastern Ethiopia and Djibouti. The Hamitic groups intermarried with the Nilotic people and are ancestors of the now called Afar,Bilen, Saho and Hidareb ethnic groups. The Hamitic people are the direct ancestors of the Bejas’. The last comers to Eritrea were the ‘Sabaeans’, Semites who crossed the Red Sea to colonize the Plateau, where the climate and countryside closely resembled the South Arabian highlands from which they had come. The new comers brought with them some knowledge of political organization and agricultural techniques; also they had experience in commerce and boasted contacts with the civilized world which would enable them to turn it to account and able them to govern the earliest settlers of the region. Those Semites intermarried with the Hamites and Nilotics in the region to give the present Tigre and Tigrinyia ethnic groups.

 

Little is known of these early ‘Eritreans’ until the emergence of kingdom centered on Axum, which lies within Ethiopia close to the Eritrean Plateau, during the first century of the Christian era. With in it the half-caste communities of Sabaeans and Hamatic who had developed on the plateau, and who, because of their hybrid ancestry, later acquired the name of ‘Habesha’ or ‘mixed’, were dominant. Their power stemmed from the Sabaeans’ comparative political maturity and the wealth they were able to generate from the trade flowing through the port of Adulis from and to Egypt and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf.

 

Though the first Axumite Kings affected a Greek culture, derived from Graeco-Roman Egypt, and employed Greek as their official language, the Axumite or early Abyssinians remained for the most part wedded to the Semetic culture of their Sabaean ancestors. In the event, the subsequent arrival of the fresh wave of the South Arabian immigrants, the Himites, firmly established a Semetic culture amongst the Plateau communities and, with it, the classic language of Ge’ez developed.

 

Axum attained its greatest power from the fourth to the sixth centuries. There are still remains of some temples and towns, which may still be seen dispersed along the route between Axum and Zula, bear witness to the presence of the kingdom in those places. The Axumite kingdom extended their power westward into Nubia and crossed Red Sea to subjugate the whole Arabia Felix on the pretext of preserving the Christians of South Arabia from the Jewish persecution. After the sixth century their power declined as a direct consequence of the Persian invasion of South Arab.

 

‘Eritrea’ was abandoned to anarchy after the fall of the Axumite Kingdom. The Plateau, Northern Highlands, and Barka Lowlands were given over to Beja; the Dankil, another Hamatic people, occupied Eritrea’s southern part and the small groups of Nilotic continued to occupy the Gash-Setit Lowlands.There was little change in the combination of Eritrean society until the Plateau was invaded by immigration from the Ethiopian interior during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first wave was composed of Agau from Lasta, a people of Hamitic origin who had however, set up the Zagwe dyanty, which had ruled Ethiopia from the fall Axum until the restoration of the Solomonian dynasty in 1270. They were followed by groups of Abyssinians form Dambeya and the Tigrai who, with the Agau, conquer the Plateau from the Beja; expelling them into the Northern Highlands and the Baraka Lowlands. The Plateau had once more become an outpost of Abyssinian culture and Ethiopian political power. The Abyssinians raided into the lowlands but never remained to garrison there; they plundered but never governed.

 

THE PEOPLE

The capricious manner of Eritrea’s creation, the long histories of immigration, invasions, and partition between foreign rulers, and the physical diversity of its landscape have left their mark on the inhabitants of the country.

 

The largest of these communities, which inhabits the Plateau, is the Tigriniya population. The Tigrinyia society in Eritrea used to be broadly sub divided into one group of families which are descendants of the mythical common ancestor named Meroni through the three sons, Chaluk, Faluk ad Maluk, and another which derives from early ‘Agau clans collectively named the Adkemeh Melga. The former live with the families associated with them in the former Hamasain and Akelli Guzai districts while the latter inhabits the former Serai district.

 

The Tigrinyia society is settled agriculturalists and are organized in village communities, which are each, composed of extended families. Most of these families are the original occupants and owners of the land and they are known as restenya while the families, which emigrated from different areas and are the tenants are known as the makalai ailet. Both classes of families enjoy the same rights of using the land but only the restenya had the right to voice in the management of the village. Domestically committees of elders representing the restenya families administrate while governmentally it was the headman or Chiqa adi that administrates the village. Chiqa adi is appointed from a particular family of restenya.

For administrative purposes the Plateau districts subdivide into a large number of sub-districts which in the past were variously administrated on behalf of the Ethiopian Emperors by officers known as faresainya and hereditary chiefs or left to fend for themselves. The Italians introduced uniformity by putting chiefs in charge of all districts and appointing their own nominees, who are not always chosen from the traditional chiefs families. Similarly they appointed their own nominees to village headmanships, often ignoring the rights of the families from which the appointments were traditionally made.

 

Within the tribal organization, which emerged as a consequence, the dominant families became as aristocratic caste to which the other families were obligated to tender a number of exacting dues and services. At the same time the heads of the aristocratic families developed as powerful tribal chiefs. With the advent of the Italians it was natural that the non-aristocratic caste, who had become no more than serfs, should seek to be freed from their disagreeable obligation. In the event the Italians, while abolishing the more intolerable dues and services owed by the aristocratic caste, found the traditional political and social structure of the tribes too convenient for their purposes to be unduly weakened by reform. And so they were careful to support the authorities of the traditional chiefs and, thereby, preserved the social system over which they presided.

 

The Afar people who speak a Hamitic dialect called Afar inhabit the southern stretch of the Coastal Plain. The Afar were organized as small clans or families, traditionally they owe a loose allegiance to the Sultan, which the Italian colonizers did nothing to weaken it.

 

The Saho society in Eritrea spoke a Hamitic dialect closely related with the Afar. The Saho are organized as clans, which have become federated into five tribes, Assorta, Hazu, Minaferi, Debremaila and Sana’fay. Before the Italiians’ they had chiefs, their affairs being managed by councils of elders. This did not suit the Italians’ need for close control and accordingly they appointed chiefs in charge of each tribe: a measure, which made for administrative efficiency if not for popularity.

 

The southern end of the Northern Highlands inhabited by the Bilien. The Bilien society is composed of a number of small families, which came under the control of two powerful clans, the Bait Tarqay and Bait Tauqay, during the sixteenth century. The Bait Tarquay was Hamites and immigrants from Agau in Ethiopia; the Bait Taugay was from the Tigrinyia society that inhabits the Plateau.

The Bait Tarquay brought with them the Hamitic dialect used in Agau, which they subsequently passed on to Bait Taugay and which has since developed as a distinctive dialect.

 

Within the two tribal organizations the members of the of the dominant class are known as simage and the other families are mikrirur. The relationship between them resembles that of restenya and makalai ailet in the Tigrinyia society. Before the arrival of the Italians the simage or heads of the families into which the Bait Tarqay and Bait Tauqay subdivided exercised a chiefly authority over their own chiefs and over the whole of either of the tribes and their affairs were managed by councils of elders until the Italians appointed paramount chiefs over each of the two tribes in 1932.Though the two tribes of the Bilien society share a common language and many common customs, the two tribes have tended to grow culturally apart. The Bait Tarqay, who are the immediate neighbors of the Tigrinyia society, are mostly Christians and are semi-nomadic, and many did become agriculturalists while the Bait Tauqay is all Moslems and nomads.

 

The remote lowlands of the Gash-Setit inhabited by the Kunama and Nara people. They speak dialects related to Nilotic dialects, are settled agriculturalists.

 

Traditionally occasional meetings of elders managed the affairs of the Nara and Kunama and though leaders sometimes emerged, nothing about chieftainship was known until the Egyptians appointed a prominent Nara named Totil to collect taxes and execute their orders. The Italians improved on Egyptian practices by converting the position held by Totil into hereditary chieftainship extending to the Kunama as well as to the Nara. This measure was deeply resented by the Kunama. The Kunama remains predominantly Nilotic and, though some follow Christianity and Moslem religious while most of them were wedded to their pagan traditions. The Nara is all Moslems and have largely become assimilated to their Tigriniyia neighbors, whose customs they have in many respects adopted.

 

At present Eritrea has a population of 3.52 million people composed of nine Ethnic groups. 60% of the population lives in rural areas while 40% of the population lives in urban areas. 20% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product is from agriculture. The working languages in the country are Tigrinyia, Arabic and English. The present day Eritrea and the population of the country get its current form after a long course of history. There were a lot of immigration, invasion and interaction among the society. Few and the major highlights in the history of the country and the people are mentioned in this context.