The earliest hominoid remains in Eritrea date from two million years ago, placing the land near the dawn of humankind on the planet. Stone tools from Abdur-at 125,000 years old-are the earliest, best-dated evidence for human occupation of a coastal marine environment.
Tools found in the Barka Valley from 8000BC are the first evidence of human settlement here. Rock paintings have been found in several sites dating from 2000BC. So far, fifty-one prehistoric sites have been identified across Eritrea, from Karora in the north to Beylul in the southeast, but many more are expected to be discovered in the coming years.
The earliest inhabitants of Eritrea were probably related to the central Africa pygmies. They later co-mingled with Nilotic, Kushitic, and Semitic peoples who migrated here from as far away as the Nubian lowlands. The legendary land of Punt so referred to by the Egyptian pharaohs was the target of major expeditions during 2920-2649 BC; for the area was rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, ostrich feathers, ebony, ivory and other precious commodities.
The Adulite Era (9th Century BC- 5th Century AD): For nearly 1,400 years, the Red Sea coastal city-state of Adulis functioned as a major regional centre for commerce and trade. Other important cultural centres also arose during this period in the Eritrean interior, linked by trade with each other and the African hinterland and only now coming under archaeological scrutiny. Among them were extensive settlements circumscribing modern-day Asmara and large sites at Qohaito, Tekhonda’e and Keskse (near Adi keih), at Metera (near senafe) and at Der’a (near Halhal), with more discovered each year.
Greek and Egyptian hunting and trading posts were established on coastal and highland Eritrea in the 3rd century BC and later. Obsidian (volcanic glass) taken from the coastal waters and Red Sea tortoise shell were among the most highly valued items in regional commerce, which also included rhino horn, elephant tusk, frankincense and hippopotamus hides from the interior.
The Axumite Empire (1st-9th century AD)
The Axumite Empire, centred in the Eritrean highlands and what is now northern Ethiopia, flourished for nearly a thousand years. At its height in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Axum’s domains stretched across the Red Sea to include much of modern Yemen. This kingdom, at times allied with the Byzantine Empire, was the avenue through which Christianity penetrated northeast Africa in the 4th century. In 615, prior to his victory at Mecca, the prophet Mohammed also sent fifteen of his followers to Adulis in an attempt to counter Byzantine power in the region, making Eritrea one of the earliest non-Arabian sites for contact with Islam.
Axumite power began to decline in the 7th century and collapsed under the strain of internal and external pressures over the next 200 years. Much if its territory in Eritrea was conquered by the Bejas, who were expanding southward from Sudan. An independent Islamic kingdom also arose in the Dahlak islands during this period. As Axum’s authority disintegrated, its main language, Ge’ez, evolved into two of the widest spoken languages in Eritrea, Tigre, and Tigrinya.
The Five Beja Kingdom (8th-13th Century):
Starting as early as the 4th century, the Beja, a Cushitic people, originating in Sudan, began making incursions into Axumite territory along the sea coast and in the highlands of north-western Eritrea. Five distinct but interrelated Beja kingdoms at their height stretched from southern Egypt to north central Eritrea. An offshoot, known as the Bellou kingdom, flourished from the 13th to the 16th century in parts of western Eritrea and eastern Sudan. The descendants of another, the Hedareb (also known by their language, T’bdawe), inhabit northern Eritrea today.
The Bahre Negash 14th-18th Century)
The kingdom of the ‘Sea kingdoms’ or Bahre Negash, arose in highland Eritrea in the 14th century and stretched from the Mereb River to the seacoast, encompassing the core of modern Eritrea. Its ruler, confirmed by a Council of Elders, presided and paid tribute to the Abyssinian king to the south.
The authority of the Bahre Negashes declined in the 18th century, as the region descended into clan warfare that lasted more than 100 years. Abyssinian kings from neighbouring Tigray brought sections of the Eritrean highlands under their rule during the last half of the 19th century, but their dominion ended with the entry of the Italians in the 1880s.
The Ottoman Turks (15th-19th centuries) arrived in the Eritrean coast at the start of the 16th century, carving out an enclave from the realm of the Bahre Negash. For the next 300 years, they controlled large sections of the northern Eritrean shoreline, including the port of Massawa, which became the capital of what they called Habesh province, but they failed to sustain control of lands in the interior, despite several attempts to penetrate the plateau.
Egypt (1846-85): In 1846, Mohammed Ali’s forces took control of Ottoman Habesh and enlarged it by annexing adjacent independently-ruled Eritrean regions in Bogos and Danakil. Egyptian forces also expanded into western Eritrea from the Sudanese town of Kessala, though they suffered major losses when they tried to drive further inland. After Egyptian rule was toppled in Sudan during the Mahdist uprising of 1888, Cairo’s authority in Eritrea collapsed.
MODERN COLONIAL RULE
Italian Colonization (1881-1941): The Italians established an outpost at Assab in 1881, which they used as a base to move northward toward Massawa as Egyptian power declined. Four years later, they annexed the province of Habesh. On January 1st 1890, the Italian king proclaimed the colony of Eritrea, with the port of Massawa as its capital.
Italy’s attempts to drive south into Abyssinia were repelled by the Shoan King Menelik II at the 1896 Battle of Adua. Soon after this, Menelik and the king of Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Italian claims in Eritrea up to the Mereb River. A year later, Italy moved Eritrea’s capital to Asmara.
By the early 1930s, Eritrea was crisscrossed with new roads and communication networks. A narrow gauge railway linked Massawa with Asmara and inland areas west of Agordat. More than 300 small workshops and industries arose around the capital and the two ports, and many large labour-intensive farms and plantations were established in the countryside.
However, the Italians imposed strict colour-based segregation that sharply limited access to schools, jobs and social services for all Eritreans, including those of mixed racial backgrounds. In doing so, they encouraged a growing anti-colonial sentiment among the restive urban dwellers.
British administration (1941-52) : Italy’s East-African empire collapsed quickly in the face of an assault by the British-led forces during WWII in 1941. In April of the same year, after reinstating Haileseilassie as the Ethiopian Emperor, the British established a Military Administration in Eritrea and redirected the colony’s human material resources in support of the Allied Forces.
At first, the new rulers did little to alter Italian administrative structures, though some new clinics and schools were opened and Eritreans were hired in to the local police. After the end of the World War II, the British allowed new forms of organization that provided an institutional framework for political action- trade unions, publications and political parties. At this point, the responsibility of Italy’s former colonies fell to the newly formed United Nations.
Eritrean nationalists organized Muslim and Christian-led independence parties, while some members of the local elite-joined by much of the orthodox clergy-opted for union with Ethiopia.
Ethiopian annexation (1952-91): when the UN committee mandated with recommending a position to the General Assembly failed to reach a common resolution, the U.S. pushed for a federation between the two states under the authority of the Ethiopian Emperor. On 2, December 1950, the UN voted to accept this proposal, which went into effect on 15 September 1952.
The UN plan granted Eritrea the right to self-administration with the authority over the police, local taxes and other domestic affairs but it gave Ethiopia control of Eritrea’s defence, foreign affairs, currency and finance and international commerce and communications. Eritrea was given a constitution, a separate parliament, a national flag and two official languages (Tigrinya and Arabic), but the new state lacked the power to defend these externally imposed institutions.
Soon after the imposed federation, Washington signed a treaty with Addis Ababa that gave the U.S. military bases in Asmara and provided access to naval facilities in Massawa in exchange for equipping and training Ethiopia’s armed forces. Newly strengthened, the emperor quickly moved to dismantle Eritrea’s limited autonomy.
Over the next decade, Ethiopia decreed a preventive detention law, arrested newspaper editors, shut down independent publications, drove prominent nationalists in to exile, banned trade unions and political parties, replaced the Eritrean flag with that of Ethiopia, banned the use of indigenous languages in official transactions and in the schools, and seized Eritrea’s share of lucrative customs duties. Entire industries were relocated from Asmara to Addis Ababa. On 14 November 1962, Ethiopian troops forced the parliament to dissolve itself, as the emperor officially annexed Eritrea as Ethiopia’s fourteenth province.
The Liberation Struggle (1952-1991)
Early Resistance: Throughout the 1950s, Eritreans protested Ethiopia’s abrogation of the federation and its harsh repression of nationalist sentiments. However, there was no reaction from the international community. In 1957 students mounted mass demonstrations. In 1958 the trade unions launched a general strike. Ethiopian troops fired at the protestors, killing several and wounding hundreds. This convinced most Eritreans that peaceful public protest was no longer viable. In the late 1950s, after the crackdown, a group of exiles launched the underground Eritrean Liberation Movement to challenge Ethiopian rule. The ELM became a popular, clandestine national movement in towns and cities across Eritrea, but it lacked a strategy for armed resistance.
Armed struggle: In July 1960, a group of Eritreans in exile met in Cairo to establish the Eritrean Liberation Front, which declared the armed struggle to be the sole means to achieve independence. On September 1st 1961, a small band of ELF guerrillas, armed with antiquated Italian rifles, fired the revolution’s first shots on police units at Mount Adal in western Eritrea. At the outset, there was a little agreement within ELF of transforming Eritrean society- only of freeing it from Ethiopian control. Some ELF leaders hoped that a symbolic armed uprising would push the UN to intervene. However, Eritrea’s annexation generated little international attention.
The ELF grew steadily through the 1960s, but ethnic and religious division and internal rivalries severely weakened it. When Ethiopian forces counter attacked, massacring civilians and burning rural villages, thousands of people fled to neighbouring Sudan where some remained as refugees for decades. These setbacks nurtured a rising tide of discontent within the ELF. In 1968-69, the Front imploded as democratic forces fought to restructure the movement from within.
The Birth of EPLF: Three groups split off from the crumbling ELF with a few hundred fighters among them and began a dialogue that later produced Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The new movement’s program placed a strong emphasis on overcoming ethnic and religious differences and achieving greater social equality. In doing so, it committed the liberation movement to social transformation along with national self-determination. However, ELF attacks on the new EPLF at first constrained the new front’s ability to develop and grow.
After the collapse of Ethiopia’s Imperial order in September 1974 following a military coup led by the Derg, the two Eritrean Fronts reached a truce and turned their guns on the occupying army. By the end of 1977, they controlled most of rural Eritrea and all but a handful of the country’s major towns and cities. Only the large-scale intervention of the Soviet Union on Ethiopia’s behalf prevented the liberation forces from achieving a final victory.
Ethiopia and the Superpower powers: Despite its early weaknesses, the Eritrean revolution generated an escalating response from Ethiopia’s global backers, starting with the U.S., whose strategic interests included an intelligence base at Kagnew Station in Asmara set up to intercept communication across Africa, the Middle East and the southern Soviet Union. As late as 1976, over two-thirds of all U.S. aid to Africa went to Ethiopia, including the first jet fighters on the continent.
However, once the Derg, headed by Lt. Col. Mengstu Hailemariam, was fully in control, the new regime severed ties with the U.S. and realigned Ethiopia with Soviet Union. Moscow quickly adopted Ethiopia as its eminent ally in Africa, sending its military and political advisors and billions of dollars worth of arms.
In 1978 Ethiopia launched a massive military campaign to reoccupy Eritrea. More than 100,000 heavily armed troops attacked EPLF and ELF positions from bases in Ethiopia, from government-controlled enclaves in Eritrea, from amphibious landings along the Red Sea coast. Soviet advisers played a key role in planning and executing four large offensives over the next six months before the EPLF halted the advance outside the town of Nakfa in the Sahel Mountains. A fifth offensive in July 1979 was beaten back at Nakfa with heavy Ethiopian losses.
Stalemate: As Ethiopia prepared for new rounds of fighting, disunity weakened the liberation movement. EPLF attempts to revive talks on unity with ELF were unsuccessful. When renewed civil war broke out in 1981, the EPLF drove ELF units in to Sudan where they splintered in to competing factions. Some ELF members later reconciled with EPLF and rejoined the war with Ethiopia. Others remained in Sudan or migrated elsewhere as refugees.
Huge but largely unreported battles took place in Eritrea during the early 1980s, involving hundreds of thousands of troops in campaigns that went on for months at a time. Ethiopia’s sixth offensive-dubbed red star- lasted more than four months in early 1982 and involved round-the-clock-bombing of military and civilian targets, more than 120,000 troops engaged in repeated human wave attacks on EPLF positions and extensive napalm and chemical weapons before it was finally repulsed.
EPLF fighters, dug into a network of heavily fortified bunkers and trenches, inflicted over 31,000 casualties on the attacking forces while minimizing their own. They also captured large quantities of soviet arms and equipment. At the same time, mobile units operated behind enemy lines, not only launching military attacks but also organizing the people and providing badly needed social services.
Famine: In the mid-1980s, war and famine combined to create a humanitarian crisis of horrific proportions. Persistent draught seared the brittle land until the population of much of Eritrea teetered on the brink of starvation. But politics played a central role in the size and scope of this disaster, as Ethiopia prevented aid from reaching the hungry farmers in EPLF-controlled villages. Much of the donated food ended up in the hands of Ethiopian army, while the international community stood by (again) in silence.
By 1985, about 360,000 Eritrean refugees had fled to Sudan, most due to the war, but a growing number due to hunger. Several hundred thousand more were internally displaced, most subsisting with help from EPLF, whose humanitarian arm, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), carried out an under-resourced but highly efficient relief operation.
Liberation: Throughout the 1980s, the EPLF gained parity with Ethiopia on the battlefield. In March 1988, EPLF units hit the Ethiopians at their strongest point near Afabet, smashing the Nadow Command and, in doing so, shattered the ten-year stalemate and turned the tables on the Derg. In one 48-hour battle, Eritrean fighters wiped out three Ethiopian divisions and over-run the largest supply depot in the country, collecting enough heavy weapons, ammunition and equipment to supply it for the next year. In February 1990, using small but speedy motor boats to surprise the Ethiopians from the rear, the EPLF captured the port of Massawa and sealed off Ethiopia’s land forces from all but air-borne supplies.
The final battle of the war took place near Dekemhare in May 1991, in the midst of which Ethiopia’s mercurial dictator fled to Zimbabwe. When the Ethiopian army in Eritrea collapsed, the EPLF marched into Asmara and began the process of constructing the new state. Four days later, the Addis Ababa government surrendered to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-government groups controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and assisted by the EPLF.