The Nine Reasons to Visit Eritrea

Amanuel Biedemariam



Until now,  Eritrea faced unfair and severe constraints by hostilities and sanctions that undermined the development of the nation’s tourism industry.

However, tourism keeps developing because Eritrea is a natural tourism destination and unique in many ways. Eritrea is one of the most peaceful places on Earth.

Though the tourism industry is under development, Eritrea is heaven for visitors. Here is why?

The people of Eritrea are humble, friendly, and welcoming. Hospitality is naturally part of the culture. The people of Eritrea love to invite you to their homes, feed, and entertain you. That is also part of the culture.

If you visit people in their homes, they will insist that you eat. That is how they express their love. If you cannot eat, it is customary that you drink tea, coffee, or a beverage. Eritreans will give you a beautiful smile and welcome you as if they have known you all their lives, even when they have just met you. The people of Eritrea are honest and kind. Theft,  assault, and petty crimes are almost nonexistent. It is not like the Eritrean people.   Everywhere in Eritrea, you will see people busy, kids playing in every corner all over the country. Eritrea has nine ethnic groups:         

Afar: Primarily pastoralists who inhabit areas of the southern Red Sea. They are Muslims and organized in strong clans.

Bilen: They are traditionally farmers who populate Keren and its immediate surroundings. Kinship groups organize their social structure. There are equal numbers of Christians and Muslims.

Hidarb: Cushitic Beja (T’bdawie) are semi-nomadic pastoralists specializing in raising camels and cattle. They are found in the western lowlands.

Kunama: They are mainly found in villages between the Gash River and in Barentu. They are Nilotic and renowned dancers, having developed more than 25 different dancing forms. They are mainly Christians and Muslims with some traditional believers.

Nara: Nilotic, they live in the area east of the Gash River. They have a mixed culture similar to that of the Kunama. They are Muslim.

Rashaida: Most recent tribe to come to Eritrea from the Arabian Peninsula. They are predominantly nomadic people who live along the Northern Red Sea coast. They are Muslim.

Saho: They occupy the territory on the south-eastern slopes of the highlands as far as the coastal plains south of Massawa. They are small-scale farmers who emphasize bee-keeping. They are Muslims and Christians.

Tigre: They cover a large northern, northeastern, and western Eritrea. Their oral literature consists of folklores, legendary war cries, riddles, etc. They are Muslims and Christians.

Tigrina: Populate the highlands of Eritrea and are primarily farmers. They are mostly Coptic Christians, Catholics, and Protestants. A small group of Muslims also form part of the ethnic group.

In Keren, a city 71 km northwest of Asmara, you will see nine ethnic groups living side by side in harmony. If you drive 117 KM West of Keren to Barentu, you will experience the rich life of the Kunama.  And if you travel 115 miles West of Barentu, you will be in Tesenei, located 45 miles East of Kassala Sudan. There is a lot of cross-border trading between the two peoples.

The Historical, traditional, cultural, economic, and daily connections between the people on the borders of Eritrea and Sudan are ancient and endearing.

Beja is a group of nomadic shepherds scattered across the Easter regions of Sudan, Egypt, and Eritrea. The Beja tribe represents the largest non-Arabic ethnicity between the Red Sea and the Nile River.

The Beja tribe has inhabited the region for more than 4,000 years. The Beja believe that they are the descendants of Noah’s grandson, Cush, the son of Ham. Bejas have adopted the Islamic faith. In Eritrea, the Hadendowa, Beni Amer, and Hedraeb are descendants of the Bejas and speak Arabic, Tigre, and Tigrigna.

Tesenei is a frontier town in Western Eritrea’s Gash Barka region close to the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders. Tesenei reflects the rich culture, history, and costumes of the region’s people. The movement of goods and the people between Sudan and Eritrea has turned Tesenei into becoming a dry port in the region.

A visit to the Gash Barka region is likely to take you back to ancient civilizations and expose you to the undiscovered history and legacies of the Beja civilization.  It is a hidden treasure.

Eritrea survived Italian colonialism, the British Military Administration, the UN-imposed Federation arrangement, and successive Ethiopian regimes in the last century.  All the colonizers of Eritrea had no intentions to display and promote the rich history and the incredible destination sites in Eritrea. On the contrary, they tried to isolate Eritrea to forward their agendas. 

Eritrea comfortably sits on the Red Sea, a global trade route where all the goods transported from Europe into Asia and from Asia to Europe are transported.

Eritrea is the cradle of civilization and religion. Hence, every place in Eritrea can easily be considered a world heritage site. The people of Eritrea have done an incredible job of preserving their rich history for the world to see.

On July 8, 2017, the World Heritage Committee, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, commonly referred to as UNESCO, Inscribed the city of Asmara as a World Heritage Site. It is not easy to get recognized as a world heritage site and inscribed by UNESCO.  It is a serious task, an extremely difficult crusade for small countries to be designated a heritage site. Why?

Because it is technical, it requires resources, a lot of time, dedication, and cultural prejudices to take center stage. Western nations have a distinct advantage for many reasons, and that is why Italy, France, and Spain have more sites than the entire continent of Africa. So Africa has a lot of catching up to do. But Eritreans are taking the proper steps and approaching it successfully. Now, the world knows about the World Heritage City of Asmara.  According to the World Heritage Committee, Asmara,

” The Capital city of Eritrea, Located on a highland plateau at the center of Eritrea. Asmara is a Modernist city of Africa, an exceptionally well-preserved example of a planned colonial city, which resulted from the subsequent phases of planning between 1893 and 1941, under the Italian colonial occupation.”

When the World Heritage Committee decided to designate Asmara, they looked at “The architectural Integrity of all the significant architectural structures. They looked at the original urban layout.  They looked at the characteristic features and public spaces and found that it has been retained in its entirety. Eritrea has preserved its historical, cultural, functional, and architectural integrity, intact and relatively acceptable. However, many buildings suffer from lack of maintenance.”

Though it lacked the resources to maintain it at the expected level, Eritrea preserved the city of Asmara very well.  The World Heritage Committee concluded,

“Asmara’s combination of innovative town planning and modernist architecture in an African context represents important and early developmental phases of town planning and architectural modernism.”

The city of Asmara has to be on your list of must-see places in Africa. The people of Eritrea have long believed and said that Asmara is unique and that there is no other city in Africa to compare with it. The United Nations agreed by designating Asmara a World Heritage site. 

Similarly, the port city of Massawa deserves recognition because the role of Massawa and the Eritrean Red Sea in world history is undeniable.  For example, the history of Islam in Eritrea dates back to the early days of Islam. Eritrea is close to Mecca and one of the first early recipients of Islam. Consequently, Islam has profoundly shaped Eritrean history, culture, and societal norms.

The Mosque of the Companions sitting in the heart of the port city is among the first mosques, if not the first Mosque, built in Africa. Massawa was also the learning center of Islamic civilization. After the conquest by the Ottoman Empire, the cities of Massawa and environs like Hirgigo rose to prominence.

Massawa became the seat of Naeb family that ruled the area for three centuries. The Naeb rulers were deputies of the Ottoman empire. And during their rule, they established Numerous mosques, courts, and educational institutions.

This history is reflected in the architecture of the buildings standing untouched in Eritrea. The government of Eritrea left these buildings intact to ensure the integrity of its history. During the struggle for the liberation of Eritrea, one of the most devastating and significant wars took place in the city of Massawa.

On February 8, 1990, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, EPLF, launched a successful attack called Sirihit Fenkil or Fenkil operation, which means “uproot,” against the Ethiopian Navy located in Massawa and won.

The defeat of the Ethiopian army in Massawa was the most significant blow that determined the outcome leading to the independence of Eritrea. Unfortunately, the war has damaged the historical building of Massawa. Today, the people of Eritrea honor the liberation of Massawa in February in a grand fashion.

The Fenkil festivities are now an integral part of Eritrea’s history and culture. Various activities are conducted during the celebrations, including marches, entertainment, sports, and various activities that attract tourists from all over Africa and the world. The cycling competition, soccer, running, and talent competitions are very popular and bring competitors from African countries, especially the neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan.

There is a lot to see and do in the city of Massawa. The Mosque of the Companions sitting in the heart of the port city is a must-visit. Dating to the early 7th Century C.E, it is believed to be the first Mosque on the African continent.

There are around 360 islands and three types of islands in Eritrea. According to the ministry of tourism in Eritrea,

“There are three types of islands in Eritrea. Around 317 of the islands are of coralline origin (made of dead corals and rocks); 36 are of volcanic origin; seven are of continental origin (with bodies of land that lie on the continental shelf). Desie is one of the seven islands of continental origin and is the only continental island in the Dahlak archipelago.”

The Island of Desie: Located between Zula and Buri peninsula, is one of the few populated Eritrean islands in the Dahlak archipelago. Desie is bio-diverse and home to various creatures. It is historically, geographically, and archeologically important. It has a clear sky, breathtaking sunrise and sunset, crystal clear waters, and clean sandy beaches.

The seashores are evergreen with a tremendous amount of mangrove trees, a haven for sea creatures to lay eggs, and home to various species of birds. Desie is favorable for the existence of various marine birds. Marine birds include shorebirds and sea birds. Seabirds usually feed directly from the sea’s surface, while the shorebirds feed on small animals in the sand and some dead fish and seaweeds deposited by waves. But they all lay their eggs on the dry land.

Around 200 species of birds are found in the Eritrean coastal areas and islands. Out of the 74 species found in Desie, 26 are migratory and use the island as a transit haven in cross-continental migration.

Eritrea has done an incredible job of maintaining the ecosystem, and as a result, Eritrea is a haven for wildlife. For example, five of the seven species of turtle in the world are found in the marine territory of Eritrea.

Eritrea’s diverse coral reefs are scattered. And studies show that out of 300 species of corals in the Red Sea, 200 are found in Eritrea. The corals are the perfect habitat for various marine creatures, some of which are endemic to Eritrea. It is colorful and beautiful.

The coral reefs are compact colonies of many organisms. The region is also archeologically and historically significant. The archeological artifacts show the presence of ancient human beings. During the ancient civilizations of Zula and Adulis, the Eritrean ports were used by many societies, including the Romans.

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