LOCATION: Eritrea (Horn of Africa)

POPULATION: 3 million

LANGUAGE: Tigrinya; Tigre; Northern Cushitic Beja; Eastern Cushitic Afar and Saho; Central Cushitic Bilen Agew; Chari-Nile, Kunama; Nera; Ethio-Semitic Amharic (Amharic, Amharinya); Indo-European English; Italian; Arabic

RELIGION: Islam; Christianity


Members of nine different ethnic groups living along the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa fought for thirty years to gain independence from Ethiopia. On April 27, 1993, their large-scale, devastating civil war ended. Shortly afterward, a vote was held to decide the issue of independence. Nearly everyone in the region voted for independence from Ethiopia. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea became the fifty-second independent state in Africa. Eritrea was admitted to the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity within the same week.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the army that had fought so long for independence, reorganized into the People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Issaias Afwerki became Eritrea's president and head of state.


The official name of Eritrea is Ertra. It is about the size of Pennsylvania, with an area of 47,000 square miles (122,200 square kilometers). It has a population of more than three million people made up of about nine ethnic groups. Almost a million Eritreans fled the long and bloody civil war and now live around the world. The capital of Asmara, with a population of 400,000, has some broad, palm-lined boulevards and sunny, springlike weather year-round.

Eritrea's Red Sea coast stretches 630 miles (1,014 kilometers) from Ras Kasar to Ras Dumeira. Eritrea borders the sea, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. The country is made up of savanna (grassland), highlands, and plains. Scattered trees, mainly acacias and junipers, dot the savanna. Original forests that covered the land at one time were cleared long ago.


Eritrea contains at least nine indigenous language groups. Native Eritrean languages include Tigrinya, Tigre, Northern Cushitic Beja, Eastern Cushitic Afar and Saho, Central Cushitic Bilen Agew, Chari-Nile, Kunama, and Nera.

About 200,000 people in the lower plains and islands off the coast speak Tigre. English and Italian are also spoken by some Eritreans. Arabic is spoken in the coastal cities and along the Sudan border. English is the language used in high schools and colleges. Some people in Asmara and other cities speak Italian.


There is no folklore common to all nine ethnic groups of Eritrea. Some religious folk-lore—Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and that of various pagan faiths—is shared among the respective adherents of those faiths.


About half of all Eritreans are Christian. The other half are Muslim (followers of Islam). Most Christians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (known as the EOC). Enda Mariam is the principal EOC house of worship in Asmara. There are some Roman Catholics, mostly associated with Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in downtown Asmara. Many Muslims worship at the impressive Jamie el-Khulafa'e el-Rashidin Mosque near city hall in Asmara.

Followers of the EOC consider themselves to be the legitimate heirs of the Israelites of the Old Testament of the Bible. According to the traditional Kebra Nagast (Law of the Kings—a sacred text in the EOC), the God of Israel transferred his home on earth from Jerusalem to Aksum, Ethiopia. EOC priests both sing and dance in their ceremonies. Services are in Ge'ez, an ancient language.


The religious holidays of Eritrea are those of Islam and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). Both religions follow the lunar calendar, which means their dates vary from year to year. Major Ethiopian Orthodox holidays are Fasika and Timkat. Major Muslim holidays include Eid el-Fitr in the spring, Eid el-Fahta in the summer, and Eid el-Nabi (the Prophet Muhammad's birthday) in the summer.

Secular (non-religious) 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. The EOC Christmas is celebrated on January 7.


Eritreans mark major life events within the religious traditions of either Christianity or Islam. Major Christian rituals include baptism, weddings, and funerals.


Eritreans often hold hands while talking and kiss twice on each cheek when greeting.


Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. In the 1990s, per capita income (average amount of money earned per person, per year) was estimated at between $70 and $150. This is compared to $330 for most of Africa south of the Sahara desert. During the civil war about 200,000 Eritreans were killed. Places where people work—factories, mines, and plantations—were destroyed, and roads, railroads, and port structures (referred to as infrastructure) were torn apart. At the end of the war, 85 percent of Eritreans were dependent on foreign food aid. Another problems is a shortage of housing. When thousands of refugees returned to Eritrea after the war, they could not find places to live.

The average life expectancy of Eritreans is forty-six years. About 10 percent of all babies die shortly after birth. There are not enough doctors to take care of the people.


Parents arrange marriages for their children in Eritrea. Among one ethnic group, the Tigre, the contracts for arranged marriages include provisions for divorce; it is not unusual for both Tigre men and women to marry more than once (although the initial marriage is expected to last from seven to twelve years). 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 for men and women in both Eritrea and Ethiopia is the shämma. It is made of a large piece of cotton cloth wrapped around the body to form a dress-like garment. A smaller piece of the same fabric is used for headgear, either a scarf or hood.

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 Danakil region, women are nude from the waist up. A typical hairstyle 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 Eritreans have crosses tattooed on their foreheads. In rural areas, married women wear gold bands in their noses.

12 • FOOD

Among the main dietary staples in Eritrea is a flatbread eaten with a stew seasoned with pepper. Different ethnic groups grow different types of barley and wheat.

Sorghum and coffee are both common ancient crops. Safflower (its seeds are used to make oil) and an ancient form of flax are both cultivated for oil and food. Chick-peas are also an important food staple. Different ethnic groups enjoy eating goat, sheep, beef, and even camel meat.

Coffee with a pinch of salt is drunk, often in elaborate ceremonies of coffee preparation for honored guests. The ceremony takes about thirty minutes. Red coffee berries are plucked from the tree and roasted on a griddle. Then the blackened beans are ground in a mortar. Next the grounds are boiled in water. A rich aroma fills the air. Finally, the coffee is poured into cups and enjoyed.


About 20 percent of all Eritreans are literate (can read and write). Islamic Koranic and church schools instruct some males. Those becoming Islamic or Christian clergymen receive advanced education in religious schools. Some of the monastery sites of higher education in Eritrea have been around since the beginnings of Christianity.

Since 1941 secular government schools had begun to be developed but this activity was curtailed by the civil war. A little under half of all children were enrolled in elementary school. There were thirty-seven pupils for every teacher. There is only one book for more than sixty students to share.


Tigreans have a 3,000-year-old literary tradition, and have mined and shaped iron 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 percent of all work resides in the traditional agricultural sector, comprising cultivation of crops and rasing of livestock. The average Eritrean is still a farmer and is unaccustomed to the demands of working in a modern cash economy. A few large-scale commercial farming enterprises exist, producing cattle, cotton, sisal, tomatoes for canning, and garden vegetables. Modern industries providing cash employment include textiles, tanning, leather and plastic shoes, fishing, and salt production. In addition, there are many small enterprises, such as oil-seed presses, flour mills, soap makers, plastic container fabrication, and tire retreading.

The rebuilding of the Eritrean Railway is developing a groups of skilled craftspeople. These skilled workers make up 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 farmers and so have little spare time for luxuries such as sports. Among those who enjoy sports, however, soccer is the most popular. During the war for independence, rebel fighters would gather to watch matches. A traditional game among the Afar, an ethnic group, is kwosso , in which the goal is to keep a ball made of rolled goatskins (resembling a soccer ball) away from the opposing team.


Urban dwellers, especially teens, enjoy dancing at clubs. Today the main boulevard of the capital city, Asmara, is lined with open-air cafes and bars. Television is available, with broadcasts three evenings a week in both Tigrinya and Arabic. There are also radio broadcasts, as well as a biweekly newspaper and a weekly newspaper, Eritrea Profile, published on Saturdays. These entertainment 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 Tigreans, 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 to these people, who spend nearly all their time growing food to keep themselves alive.

The Tigreans have Qene, an intellectually challenging spoken duel using specially composed poetry verses. At weddings and other occasions, Tigrean men perform a dance that includes jumping rhythmically up and down while singing. Songs may be traditional, or newer, such as Addis Abeba ("The New Flower"), after the capital of Ethiopia.


Eritrea is a country with almost no material resources. The leadership of Eritrea faces many challenges. It must build cooperation among of the country's diverse peoples to build an economically viable and politically secure state.


Brooks, Miguel F., ed. The Glory of Kings. Translated by Kebra Nagast. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1995.

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

Gilkes, Patrick. Conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia. New York: New Discovery, 1994.

Henze, Paul B. The Horn of Africa: From War to Peace. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Papstein, R. Eritrea: Tourist Guide. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1995.

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

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

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.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.


World Travel Guide. Eritrea. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

david ochami
I have learnt alot about Eritrea, an interesting country in the Horn of Africa which i wish to visit and live in. I am a journalist based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital and I am glad to know that Arabic has some space in that country. I have done some elementary Arabic in Kenya.It is not easy to pursue it here for it is neither an official, national langauge, nor spoken by more than a few hundred people. Those who speak it know the qolloquail form.
please assist me.
david ochami
thank you for the invaluable information on Eritrea. God bless. Eritrea appears very remote from many people in Kenya, save for the occassional story in the newspaper, it is mostly the historically minded who get interest in this part. I studied history of the Horn of Africa but still find this information better than anything i ever knew.
shukran jazilaan
I love how acurate this page is i'm from eritrea and i'm proud to say that ertireans have come a long way!
needs population density but other wise it was very helpful and very well put together
Frank Musili
am a kenyan and happy to read more about literaly culture in eritrea.this is quite interesting seeing how eritrea is growing a day by day.keep it up the people of eritrea and may God bless as you continue building your Nation.
This is fantastic information. I really think its wonderful.
I have an apartment mate...a woman from Eritrea. I do not know what language she speaks but she goes to a Greek Orthodox Church. She cannot speak English but she cooks a lot of flatbread and stews and pancake /crepe like foods with wheat and barley. I would like to bond with her and learn her language so that she feels inclusive in our living environment. I would love to know and understand more about the culture, music, language, foods/recipes, and clothing/costumes. She often wears sari like white dresses and head covers. Her hair is braided at the front and left hanging on the back.

Apparently she comes from a wealthy family involved in the oil trade but was imprisoned and abused. Could you help me with some more specific information so that I can make her feel more at home. Where could I go to find a book that will teach me her language. We live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. What do you think would make her very happy and welcome based on where she comes from.

I would appreciate your input.

Warmest and kind regards,

Gabriele L. Grach
I know a gentleman from Eritrea but don't know whether he says his first name first or his last name first when he introduces himself. How do Eritreans give their names when introducing themselves, eg. Is it John Doe or Doe John

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