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Atlas Eritrea

Country (long form)
State of Eritrea
Asmara (formerly Asmera)
Total Area
46,841.91 sq mi
121,320.00 sq km
4,135,933 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Afar, Amharic, Arabic, Tigre and Kunama, Tigrinya, other Cushitic languages
25.0% total, N/A% male, N/A% female
Muslim, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholic, Protestant
Life Expectancy
53.36 male, 58.29 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
transitional government
1 nafka = 100 cents
GDP (per capita)
$750 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 80%, industry and commerce 20%
food processing, beverages, clothing and textiles
sorghum, lentils, vegetables, corn, cotton, tobacco, coffee, sisal; livestock, goats; fish
Arable Land
livestock, sorghum, textiles, food, small manufactures
processed goods, machinery, petroleum products
Natural Resources
gold, potash, zinc, copper, salt, possibly oil and natural gas, fish
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; desertification; soil erosion; overgrazing; loss of infrastructure from civil warfare
Telephones (main lines in use)
23,578 (2000)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
0 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
1 (1999)

Along with Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Kenya, Eritrea has laid claim to being the site of the fabled 'Land of Punt', a rich, commodity-laden Horn of Africa region which the Egyptian Pharaohs were known to rave about in the vicinity of 2900 BC. Also known as the 'Land of the Gods', it was an area that traded heavily in such sought-after items as gold, frankincense and - unfortunately for the local flora, fauna and people - ebony, ivory and slaves. The very first human settlement in what is now Eritrea, however, is thought to have plunked itself in the Barka Valley in 8000 BC. Its residents are believed to have been related to central African pygmies and, after several thousand years of hefty cultural intermingling, had established strong trade relations with neighbouring ethnic groups.

The powerful kingdom of Aksum, sited in what is now the north of Ethiopia, began to make its presence felt in the first century AD, relying heavily on the ancient port of Adulis in Eritrea to handle its sea-going goods. Not content with merely being the facilitators of Aksum's foreign trade, the Eritreans marketed their own stuff overseas, including loads of the black volcanic rock obsidian (prized in the making of jewellery) and tortoiseshells fresh from the Red Sea. The unconventional arrival of Christianity in the land, via shipwrecked Christian Syrian merchants, saw it quickly becoming the religion of choice; it subsequently exerted a profound influence on the development of Eritrean culture.

The Aksumite civilisation went into decline in the seventh century, a time when Arabs began dominating trade over the Red Sea, Islam started making inroads in the Dahlak Islands and parts of the coastal mainland, and assorted neighbouring tribes such as the Beja had finished launching mass migrations into the interior of the country. The Eritrean coast's significance as an access point for the lucrative Red Sea trade meant that entrepreneurially-minded invaders were never far away. And so it was no surprise that in the 16th century, the Turks arrived to wave the Ottoman flag all over the foreshore, which they did energetically for the next 300 years.

By the mid-19th century, Egypt had realised that the Turks were on to a pretty good thing and casually ho-hummed its way through the western lowlands of Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia, not to mention Sudan. The reigning Ethiopian king, Yohannes, decided he didn't like this state of invasive affairs and promptly flattened the Egyptian army. But that tactic didn't work out quite so well for Yohannes when it came to the next bunch of uninvited guests - the Italians. Feeling a bit left out after France had grabbed Djibouti and Britain had nabbed bits of Yemen and Somalia, Italy started the colonisation of southern Eritrea in 1882. Yohannes, fearing the European power's further expansion, finally confronted the Italians with some success in 1887 but lucked out big time two years later when he died in battle. The next Ethiopian emperor, Menelik, promptly chose life over valour and signed a deal which gave the Italians the region that later became Eritrea.

Italy began pouring lira into the development of its new, economically strategic bit of real estate, including the construction of a railway line between Massawa and Asmara, a national network of roads, tunnels and bridges, and a surprisingly efficient (for the period) telecommunications system. By the 1930s, Eritrea was one of the most highly industrialised colonies in Africa - the cost to the local population, however, was the dispossession of most of their land and the stamp of colonialism on just about every facet of the country.

Italy's domination of the region started crumbling when it declared war on Britain shortly after the commencement of WWII. Just over a year later, Asmara had fallen and Eritrea was a British mandate, though the old Italian administration was allowed to continue sulkily 'looking after' the colony until the end of the war in 1945. The postwar years saw Eritrea struggling to keep itself afloat economically - mainly due to Britain's insistence on taking every removable bit of the local infrastructure home with them as souvenirs - and things only got worse after a United Nation's resolution in 1950 declared the country was, for the time being, better off being Ethiopia's 14th province.

There was never really a honeymoon after Eritrea's shotgun wedding with Ethiopia. Instead, Eritrea was quickly shackled to a cultural sink by having its economy drained, its political leaders removed and a new national language - Ethiopian Amharic - replace Tigrinya in its schools. The arranged marriage scaled new heights of bitterness in 1960 when Ethiopia formally (and illegally) annexed its new companion, and a year later Eritrea began the Struggle for Independence. The longest African war of the 20th century ended up lasting 30 years and costing around 65,000 lives. When victory finally went to the Eritrean forces in 1991, it was incredible not just because the bloodshed was finally at an end, but also because they'd defeated a comparatively much larger army that had at various times been supported by the Americans and the Russians.

The Provisional Government of Eritrea held a referendum on independence early in 1993 in which 99.81% of voters said 'yes', and they got their wish on 24 May of that year. Over the next four years, the new administration rebuilt the country from the ground up, introduced far-sighted laws which helped ensure such things as the protection of the environment and the rights of women, and tried hard to make friends with its African neighbours (including Ethiopia) and many others in the international community. But in late 1997, the two old rivals started squabbling again, first over Eritrea's rejection of the old Ethiopian birr in favour of its own new currency (the nakfa), then over bilateral trade relations, and finally and violently (in May 1998) over a ridiculously small piece of dirt on their common border called the Yirga Triangle - the 390-sq-km (152-sq-mi) region is also known as Badme, after the major town in the area.

Seemingly based on not much more than their respective prides, Eritrea and Ethiopia welcomed back the bad old days by proceeding to kill tens of thousands of each other's soldiers and civilians, with the grisly encouragement of such countries as Somalia and Djibouti.

The conflict with Ethiopia, which saw both countries' economies shudder to a halt, ended in June 2000 with the signing of a preliminary cease-fire. This was rubber-stamped six months later with a peace agreement that led to the creation of a 25km (15.5mi) buffer zone around the border patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force, and an alleged commitment by both Eritrea and Ethiopia to - once and for all - work out their borderline differences. In April 2002, the Boundary Commission announced its decision on the demarcation of the border. Surveying and the construction of boundary posts began in May 2003. Relations with Ethiopia will remain tense until the border demarcation is completed probably sometime in 2004.