During the 1st millennium BC, tribes from present-day Yemen migrated to the southern highlands of Eritrea, settling on both sides of today’s Eritrea–Ethiopia border. The contemporary Tigrinya and Amharic languages derive from their language, Ge’ez.
The powerful Aksumite kingdom flourished in Eritrea from the 4th century BC to the 9th century AD. While the kingdom’s capital city, Aksum, was in today’s Ethiopia, important Aksumite towns were built in Eritrea. Much foreign trade – on which Aksum’s prosperity depended – was seaborne, and came to be handled by the ancient port of Adulis, to the south of today’s Massawa.
Christianity is supposed to have been brought here by Christian Syrian merchants who were shipwrecked on the Red Sea Coast. By the 4th century AD Christianity had become the Aksumite state religion.
Islam, the arrival of which coincided with Christian Aksum’s decline in the 7th century, was the other great influence on the region. For centuries the dividing line between the Muslim Red Sea Coast and the Christian Ethiopian highlands moved back and forth over what is now Eritrea.
From the early 16th century to the late 19th century, the Ottoman Turks and the Egyptians fought each other for control of the Eritrean coast and its ports, but they left few imprints. Not like the Europeans powers, who undertook a massive colonisation process in Africa in the second half of the 19th century. The Italians managed to grab a slice of North and East Africa, and Eritrea became a full-blown Italian colony in 1896. By the end of the 1930s, Eritrea was one of the most highly industrialised colonies in Africa. All the architectural treasures in Asmara date from this period.
The Italians’ golden era ceased in 1941, when the Allied forces defeated the Italian army in Europe. Italy was forced to give up its African possessions, including Eritrea. The colony became an administration of the British until 1950, when a contentious UN resolution granted Eritrea self-government within a federal union with Ethiopia. Eritrea disappeared from the map of Africa.
Little by little, Ethiopia began to exert an ever-tighter hold over Eritrea and formally annexed it in violation of international law in the early 1960s. This was unbearable for the Eritrean people, who started their struggle for independence in 1961. This was the beginning of Africa’s longest conflict of the 20th century. After numerous harsh guerrilla attacks, fierce fights and major offensives, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces (EPLF) finally won the war in 1991 and the Ethiopian troops left the country. Following a referendum, independence was declared on 24 May 1993. Eritrea was back on the African map.
Alas, after only five years of peaceful relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, another conflict, known as the ‘border dispute’, reared its ugly head in 1998. What followed were two bitter years of conflict that saw tens of thousands killed. After tortuous negotiations, a ceasefire was signed on 18 June 2000. According to the peace deal that was brokered, a UN peacekeeping force was deployed in Eritrean territory pending a final demarcation of the disputed border. In April 2002 the UN Boundary Commission announced its decision on the demarcation of the border. Surveying of boundary posts began in May 2003, but Ethiopia soon began to contest the demarcation again.
The psychological war between the two countries is ongoing. The tensions peaked again in late 2005, when the two enemies were poised on the brink of a new war. Frustrated by not seeing the enforcement of the Boundary Commission ruling, Eritrea shifted troops to the border and banned the UN from overflying its territory.
As if this was not enough, Eritrea’s isolation is mounting, as is internal resentment against its intransigent government. Freedom of press and speech is nonexistent. The economy is in tatters, with both food and oil shortages. Mass conscription has deprived many industries of manpower and there is no longer a private sector. In January 2005 the government introduced a currency declaration form to control all transactions, deterring foreign investments.
It has become vital to find a solution to the seemingly never-ending conflict with Ethiopia. The situation was still tense and volatile when this book went to print, despite the presence of the United Nation’s Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), whose mission is to monitor the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) between the two countries.