Eritrea History

Kingdom of Aksum

Eritrea in Africa has a rich and fascinating history. Evidence of pre-humans have been found in the Buya region of Eritrea and from around ten thousand years ago history records the presence of various indigenous groups including the Afar, Tigrinya, Nilotic and Pygmoid peoples. By the sixth century BCE, the search for ivory and slaves for trade with India and Persia led Arabs into the area and this influx led to the rise of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Askum (above) which was to develop to be considered to be one of the four great civilisations together with Rome, Persia and China. However, the forming of the Kingdom of Persia in the 6th century CE saw the Arab world redraw its trade map, excluding Aksum which, together with the rise of Islam, witnessed the kingdom disintegrate and fragment into a small Christian enclave. The history of the following centuries was one of isolation until the tenth century when Eritrea became a province of Ethiopia called Midri Bahri, ruled by an administrator, known as the Bahr Nagash.

Events around this time were to be the foundation for the subsequent history of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. While Ethiopia saw Eritrea as part of its territory and history, large parts of Eritrea were more firmly tied to the Ottoman and other Sudanic empires. Indeed the Ottoman Empire was extending its grip throughout the 16th century and in 1557, during the reign of Suleiman I, seized the important island and harbour of Massawa along with the city of Arqiqo and Debarwa, from where the Bahr Nagash administered Midri Bahri. The history of the present day Eritrea then panned out with the Ottoman Empire controlling the coastal region whilst other areas looked to Ethiopia and some areas operating a non aligned week feudal system. By the 1850s Ottoman power was waning and in 1865 their control of parts of Eritrea was ceded to the Egyptian Khedevites who made the Port of Massawa their seat of local government. During these years the history of Eritrea was one of conflict with the Egyptians being defeated by the Ethiopian army forcing them to retreat to the lowlands of Eritrea with the highlands again coming under Ethiopian control.

Ottoman Empire Eritrea

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Eritrea took on new significance as it offered a secure port on the new trade route from the Mediterranean to the east. The Italian Societa di Navigazione Rubattino company purchased the Port of Assab along with stretches of the coastline on 15th November that year from the local Sultan. Italian influence and control of Eritrea continued over the next few decades. In 1889 Ethiopian Emperor John IV died in fighting against an army from Sudan and was replaced by Emperor Menelik who saw advantage in developing a friendship with the Italians by signing the Treaty of Uccialli in 1889 which effectively recognised Italian 'ownership' of Eritrea along with territories around Keren, Massawa and Asmera in northern Ethiopia in exchange for 30,000 muskets and 28 cannons to secure his own position.

Eritrea at war

It was this treaty that was to prove so contentious in later years as Ethiopia saw the treaty as a mechanism for calling upon Italian military support when required, whilst the Italians saw it as a recognition that Ethiopia was effectively an Italian protectorate. So concerned was Menelik that he tore up the treaty four years later and marched 70,000 troops into Eritrea inflicting one of the most disastrous and bloody defeats on a colonial power throughout Africa's colonial history above). A peace treaty was signed in Addis Ababa in 1896 in which Italy acknowledged Ethiopia as a fully independent state and the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was defined as the Mareb river. Italy then began its colonial rule in Eritrea in earnest concentrating its energies on taking land from the indigenous population and giving to to Italian incomers. However Eritrea was on the wrong side of the allies in World War II. The British defeated the Italian Army there in 1941 and placed the colony under British military control.

Eritrea was eventually given to Ethiopia in 1952 as part of the settlement following the Second World War, despite its plea to be granted self-determination and independence although some degree of autonomy was guaranteed. However, following the establishment and the crushing of Eritrea liberation movements, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia unilaterally dissolved the Eritrea parliament and annexed the country in 1962. That action marked the beginning of a thirty year struggle for independence, and then, following the defeat of Ethiopian troops in 1991 by Eritrea rebels, the long awaited opportunity for independence was confirmed following a 1993 referendum. However war between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted once more in 1998 over disputed borders. The matter was settled in principle in 2000, however conflict remains as Ethiopia had refused to recognise the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission's findings of 2007, and there are concerns that the border dispute may well flare up again. Today Eritrea, despite its rich past, is an impoverished nation, with around 80% of its population reliant upon subsistence farming. The video documentary (below) explores the history of Eritrea.

Eritrea History: Volunteer in Eritrea

Volunteer in Eritrea

Check out all the latest fee paying and free African volunteer work placements and charity work job opportunities abroad with local projects and volunteering organisations in Eritrea.

More >

Eritrea History: Eritrea Independence

Eritrea Independence

Charting the struggle for the independence of Eritrea following its annexation by Ethiopia in 1962 together with an Eritrea independence video documentary.

More >

Eritrea History: Child Sponsor Eritrea

Child Sponsor Eritrea

Details of how to sponsor children in Eritrea with Eritrean child sponsor organisations, charities, programs and projects.

More >

Eritrea History: Eritrea Country Profile

African Country Profiles: Eritrea

In another of our African country profiles, find out all about Eritrea in a series of information articles, latest daily news, videos, and images together with volunteering and child sponsorship opportunities.

More >


Main sections of this site:

Volunteer by Country

Details of current volunteer work
opportunities in each of the
countries of Africa.

More >

Sponsor a Child
Sponsor a Child in Africa

Find how to sponsor a child in Africa
with our list of organisations,
charities, programs and projects.

More >

All About Africa

Discover all about Africa, its tourist
attractions, history, people, culture
and daily life there.

More >

African Resources

A treasure trove of African
resources from webcams to
free downloads and news.

More >