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A Glance at Eritrea's Ancient History

Dr. Tsegai Medin

Eritrea is situated at a strategic location in the Horn of Africa and it is the birth place of many great civilizations in the African continent. The country`s topography is characterized by arid and semi-arid in the lowlands while the highland escarpments are fertile land with favorable environment. Approximately 4% of this land is arable. This topography is generally dominated by the extension of the north-south trending highlands, descending on the east to a coastal desert plain and on the northeast to hills and on the southwest to flat-to-rolling plains. The coastal territory covers about 1200 kilometers of the total Red Sea area; the world’s first saline water body known to humanity.

Location map of Eritrea

The country became the center of civilizations for many reasons; one of these is its strategic location. The unparalleled natural significance, heterogeneous landscape and a favorable habitat enables a sustainable life in this region millions of years back. This part of the horn of Africa has been a magnet to life millions of years ago. For example, it attracted large mammals from the Arabian land about 27 million years before present. This time frame represents a portion of African mammal evolutionary history, which is substantially unknown to science.

An extinct elephant from Kudofelassi area (Mendefera) dated to 27 Million years

The ancient history of Eritrea plays a big role in shaping the general fabric of today`s human civilization. It`s land is an open museum with unprecedented evidences of ancient history known to man. A huge part of Eritrea`s ancient history is not fully studied yet and this impedes from having an exclusive and cohesive information. However, in the last two decades several research projects have come with interesting evidences. Therefore, in this thumbnail sketch presentation, I will broadly explain Eritrea`s extraordinary ancient history. Mostly the historic events can be roughly embedded on the following points: (i) significant evidences of our ancestry (human origin); (ii) breathtaking techno-cultural innovations; (iii) most ancient symbolic evidences and writing systems; (iv) first settled life of complex agro-cultural society; (v) birth of mysterious empires and kingdoms; (vi) hub of extensive ancient trade networks and (vii) finally the most leading religions of the world (Christianity and Islam) put down roots in the land of Eritrea. Moreover, the land of Eritrea has been known to the external civilizations and was the main gateway to the hinterlands of Africa since antiquity.

The Eritrean Danakil depression or Afar depression plays an extraordinary role in understanding the evolution of our direct human ancestors and their ancient ecosystems within the African continent 5 million-years-ago to the present. By about 1.0 million the Danakil depression was populated by our ancestors and large animals. This human population is ancestor of Homo sapiens, the only and last human species found in this planet. By about 125, 000 years modern humans adapted to the coastal and maritime environment of the Red Sea. Our ancestors lived in this region of our land millions of years back and their evidence is well documented on the continental and coastal landscapes of the extended Danakil depression. This area is one of world`s great importance in understanding modern human`s evolution. Modern human populations (modern humans) emerged from this part of Africa 200, 000 years ago and populated the entire world.

A1.0 million year`s a old Human cranium found in Buia Eritrea

The subsequent ancient history of Eritrea is related to the evidence of symbolic art (rock-cave-art) which represents human’s great cognitive creativity. These arts are man-made expressions marked/painted on a natural stone and reflect to humanity’s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. The Eritrean rock-art further shows the emergence of symbolic behavior and emergence of artistic meanings by humans before the advent of writing. Symbolic art is still well exercised by the present ethno-linguistic groups in the country in which their first evidence can be traced roughly to about 5000 years. Most of these symbolic arts were depicted to express human’s lifestyles and their attachment to the environment. And they were important in shaping the latter developed linguistic culture in the region.

Rock art evidence from Derà area, Eritrea

Ancient history of Eritrea is characterized by different dynamisms of historic events. Archaeological studies on the Eritrean highlands show that these communities were the first urban precursors in the horn of Africa. Nowadays archaeologists claim that the highland communities of Eritrea have developed totally endogenous civilizations not influenced by the Ethio-Sabean cultural complex. The highland people were pastoral people from the deserts of southern Egypt and northern Sudan entered the Barka Valley and northern highlands, pushing the first wave southwards. These people were the forerunners of the Beja tribes, who for many hundreds of years seem to have been the only independent pastoralists in Africa. These are the people known for the emergence of complex agro-pastoral societies on the highlands of Eritrea dated back to 800 to 350 BC. This evidence shows the emergence of ancient urban civilizations in our region which is 900 years before the foundation of Axum. The highlands and lowlands of Eritrea had strong economic and cultural ties to the kingdoms of Egypt and Kush (Meroë). Moreover, the place of the land of punt is situated at the crossroads of the Eritrean lowlands and part of Sudan. Egyptians were importing gold, aromatic resins, black-wood, ebony, ivory, and wild animals from this part of Eritrea and Sudan. Later on the Eritrea highlands flourished with extraordinary cities like, Qohaito, Metera, Keskese, Tokonadaè…etc. These were amongst the most prosperous ancient cities, of the Di'amat (D`mt) kingdom during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. These areas, during the 1st century AD or earlier, developed strong ties of trade and administration with the ancient port city of Adulis.

Qohaito archaeological landscape, southern part of Eritrea

Eritrea`s medieval period represent a most significant slice of its ancient history. The country was one of the first to adopt (without force) the world's two leading religions, Christianity and Islam around the 4th and the 7th century AD, respectively. Remnants of these two prominent religions are well documented across the country. The ancient monasteries on the highlands of Eritrea are testimonies of our ancient Christian legacies. The first evidence is known from Frumentius, also known as Abba Selama, Kesate Birhan in Eritrean churches. He had been the first person to shipwreck with his brother Aedesius on the Eritrean coast before he made his journey to the hinterland. Nowadays, the highland of Eritrea is endowed with several ancient monasteries, which are precious Christian treasures with very few parallels in the world.

One of Eritrean many monasteries and the mosque of the Sahabas (Massawa)

Similarly, when Prophet Mohammed's prophecy and education was initially rejected by his fellow citizens, he and his followers were persecuted. As a matter of fact, he and his followers were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Some of Prophet Mohammed's followers sought refuge across the Red Seat in current Eritrea. The Sahabas, as they were called, were welcomed by the ruler of the Bahri Negash (Ruler of the Sea). These are very crucial evidences of Islamic advent in our region before any other places. They built a small Mosque (which faces Jerusalem) and named it Al-Sahaba Mosque. In Arabic sahaba means disciple and that is to imply that Al-Sahaba Mosque was built by the disciples of the Prophet Mohammed in 615 A.D. In addition, the well known kufic (the oldest calligraphic form of Arabic scripts) inscriptions from the Island of Dahalak are testimonies of the ancient Islamic culture in the region. Moreover, throughout the country Islamic legacies are well represented with extraordinary architecture of marvelous technical brilliance.

One of the many underground trenches of Naqfa & our iconic picture of the long, genuine Eritrean struggle

Eritrea has experienced a rich and diverse history overwrought with intense periods of difficulty. The present day Eritrea with its diverse ethno-linguistic culture is not by any means an overnight creation. In this regard, the process of the historical evolution of our society have been started over millions of years from the cradle of humanity evidenced by the fossil legacy of our ancestors. Our recent history represents the dark and centuries long clutches of colonialism and to their colossal impacts. Following successive colonial oppression, the gallant Eritrean people oppose the dominance and successive colonial oppression. It is a historic record, where Eritreans fought against giant forces for more than half a century, to define their self-determination. The struggle for independence is a testimony to the strong resistance of Eritreans against relentless and all kinds of fabricated aggression. The sacrifices and commitments of these fighters alongside the fearless people were historically unique and a big lesson to the giant oppressors. This history is primarily linked to the unprecedented struggle for liberation, preceded by desolate and successive colonial times. This is labeled as our Recent History that is, a history bounded in hardship, resistance and solidarity throughout time.

Eritrean history is as old as humanity!

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