The Eritrean Religion

About Eritrea - History & Culture

As Goldie Hawn said, “people go into religion in order to feel warmer in their hearts, more connected to others, more connected to something greater and to have a sense of peace.

 

” Eritreans live in harmony and are connected to one another through religion. Religion plays a great role in defining the social makeup of societies and brings about peace, stability and communal development.

 

Religion has been defined in many ways. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American theologian, for example, defined religion as a practice to do right and a practice to love, to serve, to think and to be humble. Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud, also defines religion as an illusion that derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

American psychologist, Pascal Boyer, believes that societies have religion because social cohesion requires something like religion. According to him, social groups would fall apart if their ritual did not periodically reestablish that all members are part of a greater whole. This leads us to a very important question — what is the advantage to be part of a greater whole? And what does it mean in its political context? There are around 10,000 religions in the world today, and 85% of the world’s faiths fall within Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.

In the 19th century, the origin of religion was fiercely debated with different ideas by scholars such as Herbert Spencer (1820- 1903), Max Müller (1823-1900), Wilhelm Mannhardt (1831-1880), Edward Burnett Tylor (1832- 1917), John Lubbock (1834- 1913), among others. Although the ideas of these scholars have been criticized, they can enable us to understand the concept as a whole.

According to archaeologists, the first religious ideas are said to have originated some 300,000 years ago. This evidence has been referred to the intentional burial practices of early Homo sapiens. Despite their controversial debates, other evidence related to the beginning of the first religious ideas has been reported from several Middle Stone Age (280,000 ? 50,000 years ago) sites in Africa. Archaeologists discovered several symbolic artifacts that could possibility be related to the first religious affiliation of humans. In later times, starting from the 50,000- 13,000 years ago, several evidences related to the religious beliefs have been discovered; these include figurines, paintings, ritual burials and other symbolic remnants.

It is well documented that societies were spiritually well connected to their environment and nature as a whole. People used to worship the Sun, Rivers, the Moon, Mountains, Plants, Seas, the Universe…etc. Today, such religious faiths are considered part of societies’ Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) properties and UNESCO is encouraging State Parties to work in preserving and promoting them. In Eritrea, evidence of worship of societies on the archaeological record is represented by the engravings of the Moon and the Sun at the Steles of Metera and Keskese.

Moreover, the Paleochristian churches from Adulis and the mosque of Sahaba are among the founding religious discoveries known to date. Paleochristian churches were common from the 5th to 15th century AD. The Eritrea-Italian archaeologists believe that this kind of church could be the first discovery of its kind in the Horn of Africa. The early Paleochristian churches from Adulis are dated from the 5th-6th century AD, which is right after the advent of Christianity in the region (4th Century AD). This result confirms an early evidence of Christianity in the Horn Africa. Nearly 300 years later this same area became the entry point for the Islamic faith (615 AD). Islam entered through the Red Sea to Massawa and Adulis via the Sahaba, the followers of Prophet Mohammad. Today, Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in Eritrea.

Prior to WW II, Europeans utilized faith as a way of exercising their power through their missionaries, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Societies of the colonized nations were intentionally labeled as pagans, and their faiths substituted by the now dominant religious doctrines. As Kenyan ex-president Jemo-Kenyatta said it well, when missionaries arrived in Africa for the first time, Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible, but through time the Europeans left their Bible to the African people and took their land. Before the Independence of Eritrea, colonial powers were using religion as a political tool to control the land by dividing the people of this region. However, it did not work because Eritreans have always been united.

Today’s world is characterized by the growing influence of religious sectarianism which results in segregation, migration and killings all over the globe. The once-peaceful planet is turning to a living pandemonium. This growing disquiet serves only few individuals and groups while the public suffers.

In Eritrea, however, people live in harmony. Indeed, it is very common to see mosques and churches built side by side at the same village and town, and religious holidays are celebrated by Muslims and Christians together. The Eritrean people are demonstrating that this land has been a safe refuge for its congregations since the 7th century. Religious tolerance and harmony are deeply rooted in the Eritrean culture and they are a sign of the Eritrean people’s unique identity.