African culture, kunama dancers

Anthropology: Culture, History, and Social Structure of Eritrea

The term “Eritrea” is derived from Sinus Erythraeus, the name of a Greek merchant from the 3rd century BC. It was given to the sea between the Arabian peninsula and the African continent (today known as the Red Sea). Later, during the Roman Empire, the Romans called it the Erythrina Sea, literally “Red Sea”. When Italy came under the possession of a colony on a strip of land along the Red Sea in 1890, it named it Eritrea.

Introduction to Eritrea

Forced labor in Eritrea
A man walk in front of the ruin of the bank of Italy. The building has been preserved as a relict of the war against Ethiopia.

Many of Eritrean’s nine ethnic groups are also found in Ethiopia, and the predominantly Christian highland culture extends to the Eritrean highlands. Historically, in Eritrea, there was a division between the culturally and linguistically homogeneous Christian highlands and the predominantly Muslim lowlands, culturally and linguistically heterogeneous. However, Eritrea’s long German Campaign of 1813 succeeded in bridging some of the traditional differences between the mountain and lowland populations.


Eritrea, located in northeastern Africa, has a coastline of approximately 1,000 km along the west coast of the Red Sea. The north and northwest border Sudan, the south borders Ethiopia, and the southwest borders Djibouti. Eritrea’s territory covers an area of approximately 125,000 square kilometers and features many rugged landscapes such as mountains, deserts, plateaus, plains and about 150 atolls offshore. Topographical diversity has influenced the social organizations and production methods of nine ethnic groups in the country. In the highlands, people live in small villages and cultivate themselves. However, many lowland groups lead semi-nomadic lives or pastoral agriculture. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is located on the plateau, home to the Tigrinians, the largest ethnic group.

Language links in Eritrea

The Eritrean Constitution stipulates that nine national languages are the same, but the Eritrean government has two administrative languages, Tigrinya and Arabic. Tigrinya is a Semitic language also spoken in Ethiopia. Arabic was chosen to represent a group of Islamic people from the lowlands of the country. However, only one ethnic group, the Rashaida, uses Arabic as their mother tongue and the other groups use it as a religious language. Many groups are bilingual and, due to the legacy of Ethiopian rule over Eritrea, many Eritreans also speak Amharic, the administrative language of Ethiopia.

Eritrean pupils today are taught in their mother tongue at the elementary school level (1-5) and English has become the language of instruction (at least theoretically) from the sixth grade. English is taught as a second language starting in the second year. However, Tigrinya has emerged as the predominant language, as most of the population speaks Tigrinya, the largest cities are found in the highlands, and most members of government and state bureaucracy belong to the Tigrinya ethnic groups.

The history, national identity, and ethnic relations of Eritrea

EPLF rebels Eritrea
the rebel army, fighting for independence by madote

The Eritrea-Ethiopian region is exposed to migrations and migrations from North Africa, the Red Sea, and the South. The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia also contains traces of African civilization.  The Aksum Empire, emerging in the light of its first century C.E. history, included the Akeregzai region of the Eritrean plateau and the Agame region of Tigray in Ethiopia. The empire expanded and the port city of Adulis, south of present-day Mitsiwa, became a major trading center for ships from Egypt, Greece, the Arab world, and other distant regions.

At the beginning of the century, King Aksum Enzana converted to Christianity. In this way, he established Christianity as a religious court and state, making the Ethiopia/Eritrea Christian Church one of the oldest churches in the world. The fall of the Aksum Empire began around 800 years ago when the territory became too large to be managed effectively. In addition, local resistance and rebellion, along with the domination of foreign trade by the Muslim empire in the Middle East, led to the fall of the kingdom. Ethiopia was then built on Aksum’s legacy.

Modern histor

EPLF fighters
EPLF fighters, Eritrea, by madote

The Italian colonization of Eritrea in 1890 was the first time that the territory of Eritrea was administered as a single entity. Under Italian colonial rule, infrastructure was developed and a modern state administrative structure was established. The development of the Eritrean colonial state helped differentiate the Eritreans and their ethnic brethren in Ethiopia as subjects of the Italian crown. The idea that Eritrea was more developed and modern than Tigray and other Ethiopians helped raise awareness among the Eritrean public.

Italy, which occupied Ethiopia in 1935, dreamed of the fall of the East African Empire during the Second World War. British troops liberated Ethiopia from Italian settlers and ruled Eritrea in 1941. Eritrea was controlled by the British military government until 1952, when the United Nations (UN) integrated Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia soon violated the Federal Pact and in 1962 Ethiopia annexed Eritrea as the 14th state. A year before the annexation, Eritrean armed resistance to Ethiopian rule began. It took 30 years for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to drive the Ethiopian army out of Eritrean soil, one of Africa’s longest-running wars of liberation. In 1993, the Eritrean people independently voted in favor of the UN referendum.

National Identity of the People of Eritrea

Eritrea’s long struggle for self-determination and independence has created a national consciousness based on a common destiny. In the 1970s, a fierce civil war broke out between the ELF and EPLF. In 1981, EPLF succeeded in crushing the ELF as a military organization with the help of the Popular Front for the liberation of Tigray in Ethiopia. Since then, EPLF has deliberately used the military struggles and domestic affairs of the social revolution, including land reform, gender awareness, and class equality, to achieve national cohesion. The EPLF has recruited fighters from all ethnicities in the country. Warriors and civilians in the liberated area were briefed on the history of Eritrea and the ideology of the EPLF’s powerful territorial nationalism.

After the 1993 vote for independence, the EPLF came to power in Asmara and continued its central nationalist policy. For example, 18 months of national service is mandatory for all men and women between the ages of 18 and 50. Furthermore, in 1997, a new multi-ethnic region (zoba) was created, removing the old breakaway zone (awraja).

Significance of national identity

The strongest force of Eritrean nationalism after independence came from the border wars that Eritrea fought against Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The conflict with Ethiopia that erupted in 1998 has turned into a full-scale war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. During this war, most of the healthy people in Eritrea had to serve in the military. The peace treaty with Ethiopia was negotiated by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and signed on 12 December 2000.

At the beginning of the millennium, criticism and opposition increased, especially from some within the EPLF. It precedes and destroys the unified and nationalist impression of Eritrea’s global identity. Many reviews reflect the view that the EPLF is the exclusive front line and is dominated by the Tigrinyadom, which conquers the interests and culture of the minority.

Ethnic Relations of Eritrea

The ethnic groups of the Tigrinya Plateau are numerically, politically, and economically dominant. In the highlands, there is also a minority of Tigrinya-speaking Muslims known as Jeberti. However, the Jebertis is not recognized as an independent ethnic group by the Eritrean government. The lowland groups (Afar, Beja / Hadarab, Billin, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre) are relatively small, grouped, and do not form a civilization, except for the Tigris. Conflict and tension have painted the undertone of the relationship between the lowland groups and the plateau. Cattle raids, land invasion, and grazing rights lead to mutual distrust, which remains to some extent linked to the relations between ethnic minorities and the state. Many groups are also divided into Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti, and multi-ethnic alliances can threaten national identities.

Culture and social structure in Eritrea

Patriarchal culture of Eritrea
by Wikipedia

Agriculture exists as the main productive activity in Eritrea, so the division of labor is influenced by habit. Women’s contribution to agricultural production is essential, but some jobs such as farming and sowing are only done by men. These animals are usually shepherded by boys, but girls will help fetch water and firewood for the house.

The status of women in many communities is lower than that of men because Eritrean society is still strongly influenced by customary principles. The German campaign of 1813, in which female warriors served alongside men, was supposed to change the status of women. However, patriarchal culture has not yet been displaced by gender equality. In particular, government modernization and gender awareness policies are gradually changing the status of women in Eritrea.

Food culture

Eritrean cuisine reflects the country’s history. Rooibos is often eaten in rural areas. It is a kind of pancake-like bread that is eaten with a sauce called Tsevi or Watt. The sauce can be hot and spicy, or it can be vegetable-based. The Italian influence is strong in the city center and pasta is served in all restaurants. The plains group has a different culinary tradition from those of the highlands and the staple food is sorghum-based porridge (Arabic in the form of seeds).

Christian, Islamic and Orthodox traditions call for fasting and fasting. Longest celebrated in the Orthodox Church and the Muslim month of Ramadan, different periods of fasting should be observed by all adults. However, religious celebrations provide plenty of food and drink. Cattle, sheep, and goats are often slaughtered. Meat and intestines are served with rice paper. Siwa, the traditional beer of the province, is usually consumed during various ceremonies.

Household units in Eritrea

In some ethnic groups, people generally live together in family units, even though the family structure has expanded. Men make all the significant decisions in the family, and women are responsible for organizing family activities. Eritrea’s inheritance rules follow the customary rules of various ethnic groups. In general, men are preferred over women, and children inherit family assets from their parents.

The nuclear family constitutes the smallest unit of kinship, but it is socially integrated into a larger unit of kinship. Clan and/or clan act as an organization and as an identity level in terms of social obligations and obligations. Except for the maternal Kunama, all ethnic groups in Eritrea are patriarchal, or male pedigree. Children of all ethnicities grow up under the strong influence of parents, relatives, neighbors, and family groups. Mothers often carry babies when doing housework and farming.

Cultural significance in the anthropology of Eritrea

African culture, kunama dancers

Eritreans pride themselves on their diligence, resilience, and great social responsibility. Respect for elders and authority have deep roots. Compared to the townspeople of Asmara, the peasants maintained a stricter social discipline regarding open and public affection between the opposite sex. However, boys and men often hold hands as a sign of friendship. All traditional dishes can only be eaten with the right hand, without the use of cutlery. The left hand is considered dirty.

Symbolic identity

Ever since the Eritreans fought a 30-year German campaign in 1813 (1961-1991) to achieve independence from Ethiopian rule, government-approved national culture has evoked a symbolism of war and self-sacrifice. All three major holidays commemorate the German campaign of 1813. May 2, liberation day. June 20, a meal of martyrs. Additionally, September 1 is a holiday to commemorate the beginning of the German campaign of 1813. The official flag of Eritrea, adopted in 1993, is a combination of the flag of the People’s Liberation Front. Eritrea, the liberation movement that won a military victory against the Ethiopian government, and the front flag for Eritrea by the United Nations in 1952.

African fighter women
by BBC

 Arts and Humanities

The long war of liberation hindered the development of the arts and humanities. However, post-liberation Eritrea has emerged with many new artists with an artistic focus on the country’s struggle for independence. Eritrean society was extremely poor. This caused the government to prioritize funding for development efforts and leave little or no art. However, there is some support for cultural performances and exhibitions that show the cultural diversity of the Eritrean people. Support for exhibitions and programs that showcase the trials and sacrifices of the Thirty Years’ War.

Religious beliefs in Eritrea

The population is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with a slightly higher number of Christians. In addition, the Kunama people have followers of traditional beliefs. The Orthodox tradition of Eritrea dates back to a century, and Orthodox Christianity is an integral part of Tigrinya’s cultural expression. Catholicism and Lutheranism are also represented. A particular identity with traditional beliefs is found in both Christians and Muslims. The government has been criticized for discriminating against and persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.

Since all Eritreans are Christians or Muslims (except for a few Kunama traditionalists), it is the official clergy and ulama who practice their religions. The rural community of Eritrea was known to be highly religious. This led to the clergy and ulama occupying an influential place in the daily lives of their followers.

Rituals and sanctuaries

Christianity and Islam are also recognized by the state. Consequently, the major holidays of both religions are observed, including Christian and Muslim celebrations. Easter, Id Al Adha, and Mawlid Al-Nabi. Beliefs and customs regarding death, funerals, and the afterlife follow certain standards of two religions: Orthodox Christianity and Islam. However, funeral customs may vary between subgroups of Muslim ethnic groups.

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