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Fact Sheet: Eritrea

Fact Sheet: ERITREA

Provincial capital: Asmara
Chief Cities: Asmara, Massawa, Keren, Orota (rebel headquarters)
Population: 3.5 million
Languages: Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic, Amharic
Government: Ethiopian provincial authority (EPLF controls 85 percent of region)
Chief religions: Islam (Sunni), Ethiopian Orthodox Christian

The Land and the People

Even as they have developed along distinct lines, the destinies of Eritrea and Ethiopia have been bound up with each other for 5,000 years. Whatever the image it has of itself, Eritrea has consequently never quite stood apart from its southern neighbor in the minds of foreigners.

Its name derived from the Greek name for the Red Sea, “Erythra Thalassa,” Eritrea is dominated by a range of moun-tains that flattens out to form the Barka Plains in the west The arm of the Danakil depression – one of the hottest regions on the earth – juts to the southeast along the Red Sea. Eritrea’s total area is 46,000 square miles, about the size of England. Without it, Ethiopia would be landlocked.

The Semitic population of Eritrea is more or less split between the Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of the highlands and the Tigre- and Arabic-speaking Muslims of the coast and western plains. In all of Ethiopia animist religions, which accounted for 37 percent of the population at the turn of the century; have dwindled to less than eight percent, and they are largely confined to the southwestern part of the country.

While some say Judaism was introduced to the region at the time of Solomon and that the Queen of Saba (Sheba) was an Ethiopian, it is known for certain that present day Jews, known as Falasha, date back some 20 centuries. In the past several years most have emigrated to Israel. Those remaining are in temporary refugee camps around Addis Ababa, awaiting transport to Israel.

Islam and Christianity

A shipwrecked youth from lyre, Frumentius, brought Christianity to Eritrea and Ethiopia in the early part of the fourth century Despite constant pressure front Islam after the seventh century Ethiopia has remained officially Orthodox. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is far and away the largest Christian denomination in Ethiopia and the largest pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church in the world. This church rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., which sought to clarify the human and divine natures of Jesus.

A new Muslim threat in the early part of the 16th century was challenged with the aid of Portugal and this was followed by the arrival of a Jesuit missionary in 1555. A failed attempt to bring the Ethiopian Church under Roman authority engendered lasting resentment, and neither Catholics (one percent) or Protestants (3.5 percent) are numerous. Several Catholic religious orders, however, are highly regarded for their more significant role in education (CNE, Vol. 16, No. 3).

Islam has a long history in Eritrea, especially in its coastal region, where Mohammed sent a group of his, followers before the Hegira in 622, the year fixed as the first of the Islamic era. It is strongest in Eritrea and in the east and southeast of Ethiopia. Adherents are mostly Sunnis of the Shafiite rite, one of the orthodox codes of Islamic jurisprudence.

The Path of Empire

The first great Ethiopian empire was the Roman-era kingdom of Axum. It was centered in Tigre, but Axum’s maritime trade was conducted through the ancient Eritrean ports of Adulis and Zula, north of modern-day Massawa. The rise of Islam helped lead to Axum’s demise, and after the 10th century the center of power gradually moved south. This caused Eritrea to drift from the rest of the region.

Even when the ruling Amhara people were able to restore a tenuous hold over Eritrea, its coast was frequented by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs and finally Ottoman Turks, who controlled it for three centuries.

Egyptians replaced the Turks in 1875. Ten years later the Italians occupied Massawa, began an invasion of the highlands and after heavy fighting subdued the province in 1889.

Eritrea bad become more developed and technologically advanced than most of Ethiopia, due in part to Italian investment during the occupation. Its political culture also became the most advanced on the continent outside Egypt and South Africa. Britain occupied the region for 10 years after its defeat of Italy, and then the Western powers imposed a United Nations mandate in 1950, Resolution 390A(V) making Eritrea a semi-autonomous territory under the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie never respected the agreement, gradually suppressing independent institutions and political parties and supplanting local languages with Amharic. Civil war broke out in 1961, and the following year Eritrea was formerly annexed by Ethiopia as just another one of its many provinces.

Technically living in a province of Ethiopia, the Eritreans nevertheless perceive the Amharas as no less colonial than the Italians. They see themselves as distinct from the Amharas, who also speak a different Semitic tongue.

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