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Eritrea History, Language and Culture

History of Eritrea

Eritrea has for thousands of years been home to people of diverse living patterns, religions and traditions. After the South Arabian immigrations in the first millennium BC, Eritrea and much of Tigray were known as the Kingdom of the Habeshat. From the third to the seventh centuries AD, much of the present day territory lay within the Axumite Kingdom. 

The Italians took the port of Massawa in 1885. They were relative latecomers in the so-called 'Scramble for Africa', but this was the beginning of an ambitious imperial campaign that sought to create a new Roman Empire in Africa. By 1900 they moved their capital from the steaming coastal lowlands to the salubrious climate enjoyed by the highland settlement of Asmara. The principal aims were to develop the colony with Italian immigrants, to exploit the natural resources and to equip it as a base for further expansion, which they later achieved in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

In the early 20th century, Eritrea became one of the six provinces of Italian East Africa and the capital, Asmara, was the jewel in their imperial crown – a truly modern city with stunning architecture, spacious planning and the most advanced infrastructure, including more traffic lights than Rome. However, Italy's African dream was short lived and in 1941 the British expelled them from Eritrea and administered the territory as a protectorate for a decade.

In 1952 the UN decided that Eritrea should become part of a federated Ethiopia, but this arrangement only lasted a decade. Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea in 1962 sparked a war for independence that lasted until 1991 and ended with Eritrean victory. In the subsequent referendum 99.8 per cent voted in favour of independence.

However, hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea persisted and the two countries went to war again from 1998 to 2000, with Eritrean forces also fighting skirmishes with forces from Yemen and Djibouti.

The war ended and a UN peacekeeping Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia was installed. In 2002 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague agreed upon a "final and binding" verdict that awarded the contested territory to Eritrea. Ethiopia rejected the verdict and the border issue remains unresolved with the consequent 'no war, no peace' scenario that has devastated so many lives throughout the region.

Did you know?

• Eritrea, with parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Northern Somalia and Sudan is the likely location of the land known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt.

• There are thought to be around 100 African bush elephants left in Eritrea, but between 1951 and 2001 there were no reported sightings at all.

• As in Ethiopia the ritualised coffee ceremony is a key part of Eritrean culture.

Eritrea Culture

Religion in Eritrea

Eritrea's religious community is divided in two almost equal portions of Orthodox Christians and Muslims. There are some Catholics, Protestants and Jews in the highlands, especially in Asmara, and some animists in the western lowland regions.

Social Conventions in Eritrea

Shaking hands is the normal form of greeting, though you will also see locals performing the shoulder greeting. This looks like two people engaging in a mild scuffle as they press their shoulders together three times as a symbol of friendship, especially among ex-fighters. As with shaking hands, this greeting may take some time, so do not be disconcerted by this.

Casual tourist wear is suitable for most places, but visitors should dress modestly. For business, a suit is most appropriate, though ties are not necessary, unless for very formal occasions.

Coffee is a delicacy in Eritrea and to be asked to take coffee is a symbol of hospitality and the way that Eritreans honour their guests. It takes up to an hour for the coffee to be prepared in a coffee ceremony and it is standard practice that you must have three cups and compliment the taste before leaving.

Smoking is not popular with traditional or elderly Eritreans. Shoes should be taken off in churches and, particularly, in mosques. Homosexual behaviour is illegal.

Photography: It is not permitted to photograph government or military buildings.

Language in Eritrea

Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic and English are spoken. English is rapidly becoming the language of business and education.


Hello = Selam
Goodbye = Selamat / Dehaan waal
How are you? = Kemayla ha? (male) /-hee (female) /-hoom (male or mixed plural) /-hen (female plural)
Good morning = Dehaan haudir ka /-kee /-koom /-ken
Good afternoon = Kemay wyl ka /-kee /-koom /-ken
Goodnight = Dehann hd er /-ee /-oo /-a
Good evening (parting) = Dehaun ams ee /-i /-oo /-a
Good evening (greeting) = Kemay amsee ha /-hee /-hoom /-hen
Where are you from? = Kabey ig aa /-ee /-oom /-en metsi ka /-kee /-koom /-ken?
Where are you going? = Nabay tygey id /-ee /-oo /-a?
Thank you = Yekanyelay
Please (rarely used) = Beja ha /-hee /-hoom /-hen
Yes = Uwa / uway
No = Aylonen
Good = Tsebuk / tsebo
OK = Dehaun
Bad = Hmak
Good (more positive than tsebuk) = Tsebo alo
What is your name? = Men shem ka /-kee /-koom /-ken?
Do you understand? = Teredioo-ka /-kee /-koom /-ken?
I understand = Terediuni
I don’t understand = Ayeteredanen
What is this? = Izi entai iyu?
No problem = Sheguryelen
Help me = Hagezaynee
Show me = Ahreyene
Give me = Habenee
I want = Deleeay
There is = Alo
Wait a minute = Haansab tshanee
Enough = Backa
The same = Kooloohaade
I know = Felete
I don’t know = Ayefelton
Beautiful day = Tsebo maalti
Not here = Abzi yelen
No more = Yelen  
One = Haade    
Two = Kilte    
Three = Seleste
Four = Arboate
Five = Hamushte    
Six = Shuduste    
Seven = Shuate    
Eight = Shomonte    
Nine = Teshuate    
Ten = Aserte    
Eleven = Aserte haade    
Twelve Aserte kilte etc
Twenty = Esra
Thirty = Salasa
Forty = Arba
Fifty = Hamsa
Sixty = Susa
Seventy = Seba
Eighty = Semanya
Ninety = Tesa
One hundred = Miti
One thousand = Sheh

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