Askum, Islam and the Ottomans

Around the 4th century BC the powerful kingdom of Aksum, situated in Tigray in the north of modern Ethiopia, began to develop. Much foreign trade – on which Aksum's prosperity depended – was seaborne, and came to be handled by the ancient port of Adulis in what is now Eritrea.

By the 4th century AD Christianity had become the Aksumite state religion. The new religion had a profound impact on Eritrea's culture, influencing much of the country's art and literature.

Islam, the arrival of which coincided with the beginning of Christian Aksum's decline in the 7th century, was the other great influence on the region. The religion is said to have arrived in the country with the first of the Rashaida population, who claim ancestry from the Prophet Mohammed's first followers who fled persecution in Mecca in what is known as the First Hegira. Islam made the greatest inroads in the Dahlak Islands, while Muslim traders also settled in nearby Massawa on the mainland.

The Turks first arrived in the Red Sea at the beginning of the 16th century. For the next 300 years (with a few short-lived intervals) the coast, including the port of Massawa, belonged to the Ottomans.

European Aspirations & WWII

By the middle of the 19th century, new powers were casting covetous eyes over the region. The Egyptians took the western lowlands of modern-day Eritrea. When the Egyptian armies were defeated by the Ethiopian forces in 1875, another foreign power – Italy – stepped in. Italian colonisation started in 1869 near Assab.

Following the Battle of Adwa in 1896, when the Ethiopians resoundingly defeated the Italian armies, new international boundaries were drawn up: Ethiopia remained independent and Eritrea became, for the first time, a separate territory – and an Italian colony. Of all Italy's colonies (Eritrea, Libya and Italian Somaliland), Eritrea was considered the jewel in the crown, and much effort was put into industrialising the little territory. By the end of the 1930s Eritrea was one of the most highly industrialised colonies in Africa, and artefacts of this development can still be seen scattered across the country today.

In 1940, with the outbreak of WWII, Italy declared war on Britain and soon became embroiled in conflicts in what was then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The year 1941 marked a turning point: the British took the strategically important town of Keren and forced the Italians to flee from Asmara. The colony became administered by the British until, with the end of WWII, the territory lost its strategic importance, and in 1945 the British began a slow withdrawal.

Fight for Independence

In 1948 Eritrea's fate was pondered by a commission consisting of the UK, the USA, France and the Soviet Union. Unable to reach a decision, the commission passed the issue on to the United Nation's General Assembly. In 1950 the contentious Resolution 390 A (V) was passed. Eritrea became Ethiopia's 14th province and disappeared from the map of Africa. Little by little, Ethiopia began to exert an ever-tighter hold over Eritrea, as both industry and political control were shifted to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. When in the early 1960s Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in violation of international law, Cold War politics ensured that both the US and the UN kept silent.

With no recourse to the international community, the frustration of the Eritrean people grew. In 1961 the fight for independence began. In 1978 the Eritreans were on the brink of winning back their country, but the Ethiopians benefited from the logistical support of the Soviet Union. From 1988 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the most important resistance movement, began to inflict major losses on the Ethiopian army. In 1990 amid some of the fiercest fighting of the war the EPLF took the strategically important port of Massawa.

By a fortuitous turn of events, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, his 140,000 troops fled Eritrea and a final confrontation in the capital was avoided. The EPLF walked into Asmara without having to fire a single bullet. As a result, Asmara was one of the very few Eritrean towns to survive the war undamaged. Heavy fighting in Nakfa and Massawa saw both towns inflicted with massive amounts of damage that have taken decades to repair.

In April 1993 the provisional government of Eritrea held a referendum on Eritrean independence. More than 99% of voters opted for full Eritrean sovereignty, and on 24 May 1993 independence was declared. Eritrea was back on the African map.


After the war, the 'National Service' concept was introduced in 1995 in which all able-bodied citizens were expected to serve up to 18 months as conscript soldiers or civil servants for a salary of around US$30 per month. With this source of cheap public labour, the little nation worked hard to rebuild its infrastructure, repair the economy, and improve conditions for its people. Eritrea was also at pains to establish good international relations with, among others, Ethiopia, the Gulf States, Asia, the USA and Europe. However, this progress was seriously undermined in 1998, when war broke out with Ethiopia. In early May 1998 a number of Eritrean officials were killed near the border. On 12 May Eritrea upped the stakes by occupying the border town of Badme. Over the next month there was intense fighting between the two sides. Citing the conflict as a threat to national security, National Service was extend indefinitely; Eritreans now serve on active duty until around the age of 50 and in reserve indefinitely.

In February 1999 a full-scale military conflict broke out that left tens of thousands dead on both sides before it finally ceased for good in mid-2000. In December 2000 a formal peace settlement was signed in Algiers. In April 2001 a 25km-wide demilitarised strip, which ran the length of the internationally recognised border on the Eritrean side, was set up under supervision of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). UN forces remained in the country until 2008 when, with the two sides still unwilling to agree to a proposed delineation of the border, the international peacekeeping force left at the request of the Eritrean government.

Since the guns fell silent there have been periods of extreme tension between the two nations that have seen forces massed on both sides of the border, and today the two armies continue to eye each other suspiciously over the desert. For the moment a wary calm prevails, but everyone knows that the merest spark could re-ignite a war that neither country can afford, as seemed likely as recently as June 2016 when hundreds died in clashes between the two countries.