Eritrea — History and Culture
The Eritrean culture is largely shaped by its location on the Red Sea and historic connections with neighboring countries like Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Italy, and the Near East. Local customs as well as music is influenced by the country’s ethnic background. Food is very similar to Ethiopian cuisine, mixed with other native culinary traditions.
Eritrea was historically an important port territory for the Aksumite Empire, which was the ruling entity in the region from the 4th to the 6th century AD. It became a part of the Ethiopian kingdom until the Ottomans invaded in the 16th century. The next three centuries saw much struggle and trife, with four entities fighting for power, namely, the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, and the Italians, which explains the mixture of architectural influences in many parts of the country, especially in the capital and historic towns such as Akordat, where remnants of the Egyptian and Turkish periods are abundant.
A treaty was signed between Ethiopia and Italy in 1889, recognizing Italian possessions on the coast of the Red Sea. Eritrea became part of Italian East Africa until 1941 when the British took over. British rule, however, didn’t last long, as the United Nations brokered the merge between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1952. A decade later, Eritrea was fully incorporated into neighboring Ethiopia. Eritreans strived to break free from communist rule and the Eritrean Liberation Front emerged, which was later renamed Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The EPLF piloted the fight that led to the expulsion of Ethiopian government forces from the country in 1991. The National Museum can give you more information about the country’s history of colonialism and resistance.
A four-year political transition period ensued, and the EPLF became the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Not long after, conflicts escalated into wars between Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen, but the most damage to the country’s stability was caused by land disputes with Ethiopia. The fighting led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, but a peace treaty eased the situation in 2000. Today, the "psychological war" between the two countries is still ongoing strong. Tensions are still high, which makes it difficult to explore the many wonders of Eritrea.
Historically a trade center, Eritrea developed a layered culture that borrows elements from different countries. There are many interesting traditions that can be observed throughout the country, many of which have religious origins. Art is expressed through both music and crafts.
The Eritrean cuisine is a fusion of traditional Ethiopian, Somalian and Eritrean cooking, with a hint of influences from neighboring countries as well as the countries from its colonial days. Tsebhi or stew served with injera (flat bread) and hilbet (tasty paste made from lentil and faba beans) is a specialty along with the staple kitcha fit-fit, which is basically spiced, shredded, and oiled bread served with fresh yogurt and bebere as dip. Italian food is also commonplace, owing to Italy’s 50-year rule.
Ethnic distinctions are evident in the dances and the kinds of music that each group produces. Drumming is common in many communities. The Tigray-Tigrinya group is known for its popular musical genre called guaila.
Religion is a mix of many beliefs, though a majority of the population practices either the Christian or the Muslim faith. The rest adhere to indigenous religions and other sects like Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Eritrean culture is the traditional coffee ceremony, which you might see during festivities or if you visit a local. Coffee is brewed by roasting the beans over hot coals in an instrument known as a brazier. The host gives each participant a chance to indulge in the aromatic smoke, after which, the beans are grinded in a traditional wooden mortar and pestle. The grounded coffee is then put into a special clay vessel known as the jebena where it is then boiled to complete the brew. Once cooled and filtered, it is served for each participant.