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The Medieval Period of Modern day Eritrea: Reflections from Cultural Heritage

By: Abrham Zerai

The Red Sea of Eritrea was the gateway for the introduction of Christian and Islamic traditions into Africa apart from provid­ing corridors to interregional exchanges and trade networks. Evidence of this phenomenon is visible along the coast and elsewhere in the country with indications of early Christian churches and the bulk of remains dating from Islamic periods in the Dahlak islands. The first mil­lennium A.D. saw the emergence of two monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, which extended their influence over the territories bordering the Red Sea. The Medieval Period in Eritrea, as concerns the cultural heritage, exhibits vestiges of Christian and Islamic traditions in as much as the historical and cultural pro­cesses associated with them. De­limited between the introduction of the monotheistic religions into Eritrea and the 15th century, the period provides an interface to understand socio-cultural trans­formations and processes that culminated subsequent to the in­troduction of Christianity and Is­lam respectively.

Christianity was introduced by the 4th century A.D. into this part of the Horn with the enterprise of Frumentius, a Christian monk from Tyre in Syria. The highlands of Eritrea were the locations for the earliest Christian communi­ties in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea is indeed a country among the first to accept monastic life. Mo­nastic communities and traditions provide insights into early Chris­tian eras, including those found in and around the Christian sanc­tuaries. Local traditions credit the foundation of monasteries to missionaries from the Near East during the late 5th or early 6th centuries A.D. Many of the oldest monasteries found in Eritrea have been the centers for pilgrimage and Christian religious educa­tion. Monasteries in Eritrea are, thus, the custodians of irreplace­able Christian art, liturgical trea­sure, cultural traditions, and spiritual as well as religious practices pro­tected upon hills and cliffs. Man­uscripts from several monasteries in Eritrea as well as ecclesiastical buildings, for instance, are asso­ciated with earlier traditions of the Christian civilization in this part of the Horn. The full‐fledged development of the Ge’ez script and the height of Ge’ez literature features the Christian civilization in Eritrea and elsewhere in the Horn.

Many monasteries and churches of this period also incorporate an­cient architectural elements and contain artifacts dating to the 1st millennium A.D. cultural land­scape. The mix of ancient local architectural features with intri­cate geometric edifices symbol­izing Christian motifs typically represent medieval architecture in this part of the Horn. Religious connotations are interwoven with architectural styles of the period in as much as incorporating in­evitable influences. Remark­able styles adorn the medieval churches and monasteries in Er­itrea together with iconography and wall paintings. Examples of such architectural ensembles are provided from the medieval church of Kidane Mehret Church in Senafe, Baraknha, Bihat, etc. The combination of artistic beau­ty and utility, therefore, partly offers a glimpse into the scale of socio-cultural transformation and continuities pertaining to medi­eval Eritrea.

Moreover, some of the earliest monasteries housed mummies among their cultural patrimony owing to the contribution of the Christian civilization. Mummies have been found in several places such as Debre Hawaryat of Ham, Metera, Bara’knaha, Bek’ar, etc mainly in southern Eritrea. While the exact timing for the practice and introduction of mummifica­tion in Eritrea remains virtually unclear, the association of mum­mified skeletal remains to saints that inhabited old monasteries begs a better understanding. The practice, however, has been ac­cording to oral traditions related to the coming of the nine saints to Eritrea via Alexandria around the 6th century A.D. Further re­search and the inevitable dating of mummified remains can reveal the intent behind the mummifica­tion process and its exact timing, possibly confirming or refuting the Pre-Christian roots of the practice. Monasteries through­out the country in general have, therefore, preserved patrimonies and historical narratives of the medieval period further contrib­uting to the religious identities sealed for centuries.

Similarly, evidence related to the introduction of Islam by the 7th century A.D. into Eritrea is widespread along the Coast. In the early 7th century, some of the followers of Prophet Mohammad fled the persecution at the hands of the rulers of Mecca and came to the African Red Sea Coast in Eritrea. This is considered the first Hejirra and the first follow­ers of Prophet Mohammad (re­ferred to as Sahaba) must have passed through the Dahlak is­lands. The Sahaba shrine, found in the port city of Massawa, is the first religious shrine where the first Moslems stepped and land­ed their foot on this side of the Red Sea. This was when Prophet Mohammed started to awaken Arabs to believe in Islam, which focused on a spirit that is against inequality and polytheism.  Evidence for the Saha­ba migration into Eritrea and other kingdoms in the hinterland in the Horn evince the first introduction of Islam in our region via a peaceful process and the Sahaba shrine indicates the earliest Islamic religious structure in Africa erected while the religion was in its infancy, 14 centuries ago.

The Dahlak islands also store a rich heritage of Islamic civiliza­tion in Eritrea with an array of necropolis, Kufic inscriptions (classical Arabic), and remains of dome-shaped mosques attributed to sultanates in the archipelago. The rich Islamic heritage found in the Dahlak islands demon­strate the range of historical events in the medieval period in Eritrea and the culmination of Is­lamic civilization in this part of the Horn.

Moreover, many precious and rare old mosques that date back to 1100 – 500 years ago are found in the precinct of the port city of Massawa and depict the variety of Islamic architecture present in Eritrea. Owing to the legacy of medieval events, the port city of Massawa has maintained inti­mate links with the Islamic world and the holy centers of Islam in Arabia to embrace rich Islamic heritage in its public and private buildings. The nature and vari­ety of Islamic architecture in Er­itrea is indeed an indication that ancient Eritrea marks one of the earliest Islamic civilizations on the African continent and per­haps in the world. A glimpse into the rich Islamic heritage in the Dahlak islands and the port city of Massawa will feature in the subsequent editions of this col­umn.

Finally, evidence of medieval tombs associated with famous sheiks is widespread across northern Eritrea in areas such as Kubkub and Gadem Haleb. The integration of Sufist traditions in these tombs as a matter of fact is an indication of the credence of doc­trine over ordinary life and indi­cate the embedding of local phi­losophy of life in the religious beliefs of the local communities.

In summary, medieval Eritrea provides an outlook into the in­terplay of Christian and Islamic traditions inherent to the mono­theistic religions of the country and the culmination of these tra­ditions has helped shape the co-existence and peaceful harmony of traditions over millennia to create the modern state.



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