Eritrea’s prehistory is closely linked to that of the Horn of Africa in general, where stock sequences with stone implements from the middle and younger Paleolithic have been found. In neighboring Ethiopia, these constitute the longest consequence of stone tool manufacturing ever documented. In Eritrea, special attention has been paid to the rock paintings found in the three regions of Amassia, Acchelè Guzai and Serae. Here, both human carvings and monochromatic and polychrome naturalistic paintings of domesticated livestock appear, suggesting the development of livestock management.
Excavations of early agricultural settlements in the Gash Delta have shown grain cultivation and an animal husbandry that included both cattle and sheep, dating to between 2700 and 1400 BC. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Eritrea. A long mutual influence between Eritrea and the Arabian Peninsula culminated around 700 BC. through the emergence of the Kingdom of Damaat. State formation and urbanization have been demonstrated in, for example, Matara, the leading center in Aksum, a state formation that developed on the Central Eritrean Plateau around 100–600 AD. Aksum controlled the trade from the East African highlands to the Red Sea, partly through the important port of Adulis, which was destroyed in 710.
In the 7th century, Islamic settlers settled along the Red Sea coast, and the port city of Badi was probably built near the island of Jazirat er-Rih on the border between Eritrea and Sudan. A sultanate was established on the island of Dahlak Kebir between the 9th and 16th centuries. In the Highlands, during the 700s, five independent kingships emerged among the Beja people: Nagash, Belgin, Bazin, Jarin and Quaita’a.
As a political entity, Eritrea emerged with the Italian colonization of the Ethiopian Red Sea coast in the late 1800s; before that, the area was part of the Ethiopian Empire. During the Aksum period, when Ethiopia was a significant trading nation, Eritrea as a coastal area held a central position, lost as Islam spread in the area. The Portuguese-Turkish survey of power around the Indian Ocean during the 16th century led to a Turkish land rise in Mitsiwa (Massawa) in 1557 and an attempt to occupy parts of the inland. This failed, and the Turks retreated to Mitsiwa, which was then administered from Jeddah while the rest of present-day Eritrea remained an Ethiopian province, often referred to as the “sea land”. Compare Ethiopia (History).
During the 19th century, the area was reintegrated into international politics. Egyptian invasions during the 1840s and 50s escalated to an occupation of the Keran district in 1872. The Ethiopian victories of 1875-76 finally led to a peace treaty in 1884, in which Egypt (under British patronage since 1882) pledged to return all occupied territories and make Mitsiwa to a free port for Ethiopia. Six months later, Britain offered the port to Italy. In February 1885 it was taken over by Italy, which quickly extended its possession to the mainland through treaties with local chieftains and direct military advance.
In the Wichale Treaty of 1889, Ethiopia exited the country north of a line from Arafali just south of Mitsiwa via Asmera (Asmara) and due west (about one-third of the present Eritrea). This became January 1, 1890 the Italian colony of Eritrea. The Ethiopian victory at Adwa in 1896 continued to halt Italian prominence, but it was not until 1908 that Eritrea reached the limit which then applied to 1936.
The original plan to make Eritrea a settlement colony for landless Italian peasants quickly came to fruition. A revolt in 1894 made clear that land expropriation posed great risks. Instead, the colony developed primarily into a source of raw materials for the home country and a market for Italian industrial goods. The Italians in the colony devoted themselves mainly to the transit trade and small-scale industry. Most important was the transit trade with Ethiopia, and the real goal of Italy’s policy was to transform Ethiopia into Eritrea’s hinterland or to conquer it completely.
From 1910, Eritrea served as a recruiting base for Italy’s war in Libya and Somalia. When the war plans against Ethiopia took shape in the early 1930s, Italian immigration increased. The economy flourished, and the Eritrean population became increasingly militarized. In the war against Ethiopia in 1935–41, 60,000 Eritrean soldiers participated, about 40 percent of the adult male population. Following the fall of Addis Ababa in 1936, Eritrea became a province of Italian East Africa, but was separated in 1941 by the war events from the rest of Ethiopia and administered by the United Kingdom until 1952. In the 1946 peace treaty, Italy was allowed to waive its colonies. The future of Eritrea became a matter for the victorious powers and ultimately the UN.
In 1950, the United Nations decided to recommend that Eritrea be included in a federation with Ethiopia. The decision was welcomed by most, partly because both unionists and separatists interpreted the outcome as a victory for their line. While Eritrea was given its own parliament and government, during the first years of the Unionist leader Tedla Bairu (1914–81), defense, foreign policy, currency, fiscal policy, foreign trade and intergovernmental communications had been reserved for the federal government. Thus, autonomy was limited to internal Eritrean affairs. This, together with the imbalance in population size and not least the emperor’s position as the superior of all other political institutions, inevitably led to increasing pressure from Addis Ababa and a growing dissatisfaction in Eritrea.
In 1958, the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) was formed by exile rites in Sudan with the goal of separating Eritrea from Ethiopia. In September 1961, Muslims in western Eritrea took up arms and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). One year later, the federal state law was abolished, formally by decision of the two parliaments. During the 1960s, sporadic guerrilla activity occurred. Rivalry within the liberation movement led to the formation of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1971. From 1977–78, the ELF and EPLF fought side by side against the Ethiopian army. A few years later they happened to be in conflict with each other, and the ELF was eliminated as an army in Eritrea.
During the Federation years and the 1960s, the Eritrean economy, especially the industrial sector, grew while integrating with the Ethiopian. In Aseb (Assab) a refinery was set up and in Debarwa a new mining industry (copper). A merchant fleet was established, the school system was expanded and a university was founded in Asmera. Much of this was ravaged by the events of the war.
Political conflicts and riots in the rest of Ethiopia weakened the government’s position and paved the way for the EPLF’s offensive and Mitsiwa’s fall in February 1990. The Ethiopian army capitulated in May 1991, at the same time as the EPLF and the Ethiopian Liberation Movement organized a EPRDF leader at a meeting by the United States in London, the Eritreans decided by referendum to decide whether the country should become independent. In the 1993 vote, the Jas side won an almost 100 percent victory. EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki was installed as Eritrea’s first president, after which the 1994 liberation movement was formally transformed into a political party under the name People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
Eritrea’s time as an independent state has been characterized by a number of problems. The country has been involved in conflicts with all neighboring countries, the most serious of which was a war against Ethiopia in 1998–2000 that claimed over 100,000 casualties and made up to 1.5 million Eritreans homeless. The war was formally triggered by unclear border crossing but had its origin in Eritrea’s decision to exchange the Ethiopian currency with a new, own currency, which made border trade more difficult and made Ethiopia’s use of Eritrean ports more expensive. The UN’s inability to force Ethiopia to accept the boundary line recommended by a UN-led joint commission after the end of the war also strained Eritrea’s relations with the World Organization.
After Abiy Ahmed took over as new Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018, relations between the countries thawed. In July of that year, Ahmed and Afwerki signed a declaration of peace and friendship between the countries. Diplomatic relations were re-established and flights between the countries were established. In addition, Eritrea opened an important border crossing, giving Ethiopia access to the port city of Aseb.
In domestic politics, Afwerki’s regime has progressed hard and all attempts at opposition have been silenced. Regime-critical politicians and journalists have been imprisoned, including Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak.