Cultural Heritage Assets

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Cultural heritage is the creative expression and collective experience of humankind inherited from past generations. It links the past with the present societies by revealing what was in the past and how it had happened.

The heritage occurs in complex layers of human history reflecting the entire corpus of material remains either in the form of tools, monumental structures or artistic works and symbolic representations that hold human experience, knowledge and inspiration which are regarded as common and shared legacy of all humankind. The hunter gatherers, agro-pastoralists, agriculturalists and present-day communities all make and develop tools and technologies which were inherited as collective experiences and knowledge from past generations of humankind who had left behind material remains or possessions buried on the ground. They include ruins, structures and symbolic (social and political) representations. These material remains do not exist as independent entities by themselves. They are an integral part of the environment lived in the course of time and space. The interaction of human beings and nature reflects all the human behavior and the achievements and civilizations as components of adaptation to the environment.

Cultural heritage consists of tangible and intangible assets. The tangible assets are immovable and movable resources such as monuments, archaeological sites, cultural landscape, collections in a museum and archives. The intangible assets include social values and traditions, customs and practices, spiritual beliefs, artistic expressions, languages and other aspects of human activities. Heritage can also include natural assets such as the fauna, the flora and geology.

Eritrea’s diverse natural and cultural heritage assets attract scientific interest. These assets which belong to various ages constitute geology, prehistory, history and medieval and contemporary history. These may be defined as the entire evidence of geological events, material remains, traces, records or signs either in the form of sequences or events, structures, artistic or symbolic representations which have paleontological, archaeological and ethnological importance.

Paleontology is the study of ancient animals and plants through the analysis of fossil remains. Fossils are remains of animals or traces of plants including human bones that were buried and preserved in sedimentary rock or trapped in organic matter. In Eritrea, animal fossils are widely found in the southern plateau as well as in the eastern lowlands. In 2006 fragments of fossil bones that belong to an elephant species (Proboscidea) was discovered in Doghali along the road to Massawa, and according to Dr. Jeheskel Shoshani, the age of this animal was dated back to around 26 million years. Again, in 2010, other fossil bone fragments of the same elephant species of the same age was discovered in the vicinity of Kudofelasi, near the town of Mendefera. The fossil was found in a talus between two sequences of basalt rock erupted at different periods. Many fragments of bones such as part of a jaw, femur and ankle bone, all cemented in a basalt rock, have been discovered. These are associated with the lignite (soft coal) deposition along Adi Zarna Tahtay. In 1966, two molars of the same species dated to 22 million years, had also been discovered in Adi Weghri within the town of Mendefera. This species is believed to have existed before the breakup of the Arabian Peninsula from Africa and the formation of the Red Sea and its coastal basin.

The Red Sea formed when the Arabian Peninsula landmass rifted or pulled apart from Africa beginning about 30 million years ago. Steep fault rising about 3000 m above sea level flank the margins of this oceanic body. Thus the escarpments surrounding the Red Sea are similar to the cliffs that border the East African Rift. The East African Rift consists of several interconnected rifts valleys that split into an eastern and western landmass. The most recent period of rifting began about 20 million years ago. As a consequence, the upper crust was broken along steep angle faults, producing down faulted blocks or grabens. In the down-faulted valleys a number of lakes bordered by steep cliffs were formed. Ecologically this rift valley was rich and favorable for fauna and flora including human beings. The Danakil basin was part of this rift valley; however, due to climate variations or fluctuations with sometimes intensive rainfall and turbulent flooding, material eroded from the escarpments created thick sedimentary successions and these events continued for thousands of years. Lakes with potential habitat bone remains were buried. Later, about 30 thousand years ago, other volcanic activities successively erupted causing the catastrophic result of the landmass such as uplifting, sinking, faulting, folding and erosions. Today, this phenomenon is vividly and widely seen in the sedimentary succession of Buya and Enghel Ela regions. Since 1995 this area has been researched and abundant animal and human fossils including diverse archaeological remains like stone tools that date back to about 1 million years have been identified and recorded.

Prehistoric resources in Eritrea occur in a vast array of technologies recorded as culture of the human past. The origins of human behaviour (human culture) is linked to the Early, Middle and Late Stone Ages which are commonly associated with prehistoric archaeology. Archaeology is the study of past human societies through their material remains and artefactual assemblages. It comprises all vestiges of human existence and consists of places relating to all manifestations of human activity such as objects, ruins, structures including subterranean and underwater remnants. In Eritrea, archaeological remains may be categorized into prehistoric technologies and symbols, historic monuments and sites and modern structures. The study of these remains increases our understanding and knowledge of the structure and culture of past and ancient societies that are not recorded. What matters most about an archeological resource is its potential to describe and explain human behavior. Archeological remains shed light on social behavior, and they help us to understand the spread of ideas over time and the development of human migrations and settlements. To understand our remotest origins and human behaviour requires the investigation of the material objects and intangibles including forms of consciousness (knowledge and reasoning) of humanity, which has shared origins but took different paths to evolve.

One of the categories of prehistoric records is rock art which occurs so widely in Eritrea. Rock art, in the form of paintings and engravings, is a clear and lasting relic of the transmission of human thoughts and beliefs through graphical representation. Rock art functions as a major repository of memory and historical archive of hunters and pastoralist societies that had no writing systems and covers a wide range of time and space.

Another comprehensive and abundant cultural heritage resource in Eritrea is the historical period encompassing the remnants of the urban societies in the western lowlands and in the plateau. This includes the remnants of the great classical age known as the Aksumite culture and the spread of Christianity and Islam, the impacts of colonial powers and the long armed struggle for Eritrea’s independence. Collectively, these archaeological sites and monuments are the basic records and manifestations of our past that contribute towards exploring and learning the past human societies. Unfortunately, heritage assets are permanently exposed to natural and human hazards. They are fragile and non-renewable resources, and if we do not take good care of them, they may be lost forever and result in the impoverishment of Eritrea’s valuable heritage. For this reason, every effort should be made to preserve all cultural heritage assets before they are destroyed.