THE ORIGINS OF ERITREA

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by Paul B. Henze

 

I - Introduction

 

The name Eritrea came onto the map of Africa only at the end of the 19th century. Until then "Eritrean History", as far back as it extends, was Ethiopian history. During the long struggle against the Derg, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) encouraged the notion that Eritrea had been a separate entity with little connection with Ethiopia. This idea was energetically spread by EPLF propagandists and gained wide acceptance abroad among journalists and others with scant knowledge of the history of the Horn of Africa. It was mythology. Let us take a serious look at what is known of the real history of the region, starting with very ancient times and moving up to the end of the 19th century.

II - Ancient Times

The first records of the region that today includes Eritrea come from 4,000-year-old Egyptian inscriptions that recount trading voyages to the Land of Punt. Punt was a general term for the entire southern Red Sea region. The first visitors to the Dahlak Islands and the nearby coast where the port of Adulis developed were probably Egyptian sailors. From the natives they bought incense, gold, ivory, and skins of exotic animals. As commerce increased, they brought live animals--zebras, giraffes, and even elephants--back to Egypt. Some of these are pictured, along with the boats they came on, in paintings in Egyptian tombs. Later, Greek voyagers made regular trips into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond. Some of their sailing handbooks have survived. They provide extensive information about ports, peoples, and products of the region. One of the most famous is the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea written by an unknown Greek author in the First Century AD. It has been translated, studied by scholars, and published in several editions .

 

Adulis, a port on the Bay of the same name south of Massawa, became a busy trading station frequented by ships from Egypt and South Arabia. Gold, ivory, incense and other tropical products flowed in quantity to the Mediterranean world. In time Adulis developed to become the principal port of the Axumite Empire, the first Ethiopian state.

 

The origins of this empire, termed by the Persian prophet Mani one of the four great empires of the ancient world (the others being Rome, Persia, and China), are still being probed by archaeologists now working in Ethiopia and southern Arabia. Several kingdoms arose in what is today Yemen. They developed a writing system and set up monuments with inscriptions. People from South Arabia began to cross the Red Sea to the African side. Considerable numbers of South Arabians apparently emigrated to what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia and mixed with local populations. These proto-Axumites--the best name historians have found for them--formed kingdoms and engaged in warfare and trade.

A major religious and administrative center grew up at Yeha in Tigray, not far south of the present Eritrean border, where an impressive temple still stands. Its finely cut walls of tan stone, joined without mortar, rise to a height of 25 feet. They have withstood 2500 years of wars, storms, and earthquakes. The temple is surrounded by graves and stelae. French archaeologists dug there in the 1960s and began work again in the mid-1990s. Much more remains to be uncovered. All over highland Eritrea, and in Tigray to the south, inscriptions in essentially the same South Arabian alphabet used on the other side of the Red Sea have been discovered and more are found year by year.

At some time around the beginning of the Christian era political power shifted from Yeha, and perhaps other centers in the region, to Axum. Axum is situated among low hills 30 km. west of Yeha. It has long been famous for its finely carved monolithic granite obelisks, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Excavations at Axum were first undertaken by the German archaeologist Enno Littman early in the 20th century. British, Italian, and American archaeologists resumed digging around Axum after the fall of the Derg regime in Addis Ababa in 1991. They have learned many new things about the rise of the Axumite state, the daily life of the people, and the origins of agriculture in the Horn of Africa.

 

At its zenith, from the third to the seventh centuries AD, the Axumite Empire included most of modern Eritrea and large parts of present-day Sudan. Cities flourished along the route from Axum to Adulis, the main outlet to the sea. The ruins of these can be seen at Tekonda, Cohaito, and Matara. At each, as at Adulis itself, some exploration and digging has been done by archaeologists since the late 19th century. Much is already known about Axum at its height. Emperors captured lands far to the north and campaigned deep into the west, reaching the Nile. Axum was known in Rome and Egypt and there were diplomatic contacts. Emperors struck coins in bronze, silver, and gold. They provide a great deal of historical information. Greek was used along with the indigenous Semitic language, Ge'ez, on both coins and stone inscriptions.

 

In the early 4th century Christianity was adopted by the Axumite emperor Ezana. Legend attributes its arrival to two young men from the East Roman Empire, Frumentius and Aedisius, who were shipwrecked on the coast, captured, and brought to Axum. They converted Ezana. The Orthodox Church has preserved colorful accounts of the process of Christianization during the next two centuries. Ezana's coins confirm his acceptance of the new religion no later than 340 AD. The symbol of the old South Arabian religion, the crescent of the moon god Alemkah, was replaced by the cross. The cross continued from that time on to be a major feature of the coins of Axum. Coins are still being found all over the region and many have come to light in places as distant as India, for they were used in trade. The real task of Christianizing the population was done, according to tradition, by the Nine Syrian Saints. These were priests and monks from the Byzantine Empire who translated the Old and New Testaments into Ge'ez, travelled, preached, and established monasteries.

 

The oldest of the monasteries is Debre Damo, on a flat-topped mountain in Tigray, within sight of the present Eritrean border. It dates from the sixth century. Several monasteries in present-day Eritrea, for example, Debra Libanos at Ham, near Senafe, are almost as early. The Ge'ez-speaking population of the highlands became fervent Orthodox Christians, and have remained so ever since. Monasteries continued to be founded during the next several centuries. The northernmost, Debre Bizen, was established by St. Philip in 1361. It is located on a 7,800-foot ridge east of Asmara above the town of Nefasit, with a view to the sea. Its library possesses some of the oldest Orthodox manuscripts extant.

 

Links between peoples on both sides of the Red Sea remained close for hundreds of years after the initial migrations. There was steady trade, travel, cultural, and religious interchange. For a long time the languages and script seem to have remained mutually intelligible. On several occasions the Emperors of Axum undertook campaigns in South Arabia and conquered and ruled South Arabian kingdoms. Jewish communities were already well established in South Arabia when Christianity came. Some Jews seem to have crossed the Red Sea too. Initially Christianity spread in South Arabia in much the same way as in the Axumite Empire. But it was unable to survive the rise of Islam.

 

In the early 7th century the Prophet Mohammed received his revelations and began his mission. He was rejected by the men in power in Medina, fled to Mecca, and his followers were persecuted. Some fled across the Red Sea in 615, where they were welcomed and given asylum by the Axumite Emperor. They settled at Negash in Tigray, where their tombs are still a pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Muslims. Mohammed soon prevailed in Arabia and gradually more Muslims arrived in the Axumite Empire, while many people along the coast were converted to Islam. Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together. Though in later centuries strife and enmity developed, the principle of coexistence between the two religions rests on ancient foundations.

 

The rapid spread of Islam through Arabia to Egypt and the Near East disrupted Axum's trade with the Mediterranean world. The period of the Empire's decline from the 8th century onward is the most obscure in the history of this region. The cities on the route to the sea faded from history. So did Adulis, to be replaced eventually by Massawa, which began as a minor Arab port on an island off the coast. The city of Axum declined into little more than a village but remained the seat of the Orthodox church. Almost nothing is known of the later Axumite emperors--even their names are controversial. After the depredations of a mysterious warrior queen called Judith in the 10th century, the Axumite ruling line was replaced by the non-Semitic Zagwes who established their capital far to the south at Roha in Lasta. A fervent Christian, their most famous king, Lalibela, had eleven monumental rock churches carved there and the city was given his name.

 

III - The Middle Ages

Christianity continued dominant in the highlands, while the coast and the lowlands to the north and west rapidly became

Islamized. Contact with South Arabia ceased. In the Eritrean highlands and Tigray to the south, Ge'ez evolved into a new language, Tigrinya, in the same way that Italian replaced Latin in Italy. The regions that today form the western and northern provinces of Eritrea alternated between control of local rulers and subjection by Sudanese kingdoms to the west. When the Zagwe dynasty was replaced by the Amharic-speaking king, Yekuno Amlak, in 1270, the traditions of the Axumite Empire and its links to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon were revived. The new rulers called their empire Ethiopia and claimed the lands that had belonged to Axum all the way to the sea. When Ethiopian emperors were strong, they appointed a prince called the Bahr Negash--Ruler of the Sea--as the Viceroy of the northern highlands and the coast. Ethiopian emperors never gave up their claim to Massawa.

 

The light of history in this region brightens at the end of the 15th century. The Portuguese sea captain Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and sailed on to India. There the city of Goa grew rapidly and became Portuguese headquarters for the entire Indian Ocean region. Even earlier the King of Portugal had sent explorers through the Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa to open a way to the mysterious Christian Kingdom of Prester John, the subject of curiosity and rumor in Europe for centuries. The Portuguese were motivated both by trade and missionary zeal, and the first of them reached the Ethiopian emperor's court in the 1490s. A major Portuguese expedition arrived at Massawa in 1520, trekked up the escarpment into the highlands, and met their countrymen there. The mission remained six years in Ethiopia. A Jesuit priest who accompanied it, Father Francisco Alvares, kept a detailed account of their travels and impressions.

 

During the same period, the ruler of the Muslim Kingdom of Adal (centered around Harar), Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, started planning a jihad--holy war--to eradicate Christianity from the Ethiopian highlands and convert the inhabitants to Islam. Starting in 1527, his armies advanced rapidly, destroying churches and monasteries, and reaching Hamasien, the area around Asmara, in the 1530s. The monks at Debre Bizen still tell visitors how God made the monastery invisible and thus saved it from being sacked by Ahmad Gragn--Ahmad the Left-Handed--as this ruler of Adal is known among Orthodox Christians.

 

Emperor Lebna Dengel appealed to Portugal for help, for Ahmad Gragn's army was well supplied with firearms and repeatedly defeated much larger Ethiopian forces. It took King Joao of Portugal a decade to respond to the appeal, but in 1541 a well-armed contingent of 400 sharpshooters under Christovao da Gama landed at Massawa. Lebna Dengel had died and been succeed by his son, Galawdewos. The Portuguese proceeded up to the highlands and rescued the beleaguered new emperor. They killed Ahmad Gragn in a battle in Dembea, northeast of Lake Tana, in 1543. Ethiopia was saved. Many of the Portuguese soldiers stayed, married local women, and their children were gradually absorbed into local life.

For the better part of the next hundred years Portuguese traders and priests, usually coming and going through Massawa, played an important role in Ethiopia as imperial advisors. Jesuit missionaries became overconfident and overplayed their hand when they persuaded Emperor Susenyos to accept Roman Catholicism in the 1620s. Both the aristocracy and the common people refused to abandon Orthodoxy. They revolted and Susenyos abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilidas in 1632.

 

Meanwhile Massawa itself was taken over by the expanding Ottoman Empire in 1557 as the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent advanced from Egypt down the Red Sea. The Ottomans subjugated northern Sudan and much of Arabia and all Muslims acknowledged the Ottoman sultan as Caliph. From time to time Ottoman armies penetrated into the Ethiopian highlands, but for the most part--and characteristic of Ottoman practice--they persuaded local rulers to recognize their sovereignty and pay tribute, so the full reach of their power was sometimes vague. Turkish governors did not try to eradicate Christianity. They encouraged trade and travel through Massawa. The Turks called the area along the coast the Province of Habesh--the Arabic word from which the European form Abyssinia is derived. Ottoman rule of the coast lasted into the 19th century but after 1813 it was exercised through Egypt. Egypt belonged to the Ottoman Empire, but Mohammed Ali, the Albanian-origin pasha who held power from 1805 to 1848, and his successors, were only nominally the Ottoman Sultan's vassals. Their own vassals, the Naibs of Arkiko, a town on the coast south of Massawa now called Hargigo, were the recognized rulers of the Ethiopian coast during the first three-quarters of the 19th century.

After the late 17th century, Europeans became increasingly interested in the Horn of Africa. By the end of the 18th century, European visitors to the region were relatively frequent. Among the most famous are the Scot, James Bruce, who spent the years 1769-71 in Ethiopia and reached the source of the Blue Nile at Gish Abbay in 1770; and Lord Valentia (Viscount Annesley) who explored the Red Sea region during the years 1803-06. Valentia even named the Bay of Zula (Adulis) for himself. Bruce published eight volumes when he returned to England, Valentia three. Both are replete with fine drawings of people, artifacts, and scenes. Valentia's include some of the etchings of Henry Salt, a member of the expedition, who was sent to explore Tigray in 1804 and returned again for more travel in 1809. Many other Europeans followed and published accounts of their experiences. This vast literature is now in part available in modern reprints. In the 19th century Protestant and Catholic missionaries were attracted to the region. They converted local communities that still flourish in Eritrea and Tigray.

 

 

IV - Into Modern Times

 

Politically, much of the territory which became independent Eritrea in 1993 was contested by several different powers during the first seven decades of the 19th century. Though its authority was mostly nominal, Ethiopia never abandoned its claim to the region, but it was too weak to hold it effectively. After the brilliant Gondar emperors, power in Ethiopia had dispersed during the Era of the Princes which lasted until 1855. Then Emperor Tewodros rose from obscure beginnings and unified the country in a few years. He was too impetuous to prevail for long. By taking a group of Europeans hostage, he aroused Britain and the Napier mission was mounted from India. This well-equipped British military expedition landed in late 1867 near the site of Adulis and climbed up to the highlands along tracks Axumite traders had used. They passed the ruins of Cohaito and Matara and moved on toward the southwest. On the great mountain of Magdala in Wollo they cornered Tewodros in April 1868. Defeated, the emperor shot himself.

 

General Napier withdrew his army over the same route he had come and left Ethiopia in confusion. The future King Menelik of Shoa had escaped from Magdala before the great battle and returned to his kingdom. Yohannes IV, a Tigrayan prince, was crowned emperor. What are now the Eritrean highlands then formed part of the northernmost Ethiopian province of Tigray, and Yohannes' authority extended there. The Eritrean lowlands were, however, literally up for grabs, with Egyptians, Italians, British, French, and even Russians interested in gaining a Red Sea foothold.

 

For a brief while Egypt was a major player on this scene. Its ruler, Khedive Ismail, was eager to expand into Sudan and extend Egyptian control over northern Ethiopia. To modernize his army, Ismail recruited more than 40, mostly Confederate, American officers who had fought in the Civil War. These officers were vital in securing Egyptian victories in the Battles of Gundet in 1875 and Gura in 1876. But the Scramble for Africa had begun and European powers were wary of letting Egypt play a dominant role in a region where they were already competing with each other. Italy, late in the Scramble, had bought a base in Assab in 1869. The British took Massawa from the Egyptians in 1875. As rivals of France, Britain favored the Italian aim of securing a substantial foothold in the Horn. The British turned Massawa over to Italy in 1885. The Italians were eager to advance into the highlands. They were in for a surprise.

 

When the Egyptians were pushed out of Massawa at the end of the 1870s, the whole region fell back under Tigrayan control. Ras Alula Ingida, born at Manawe in the central Tigrayan province of Tembien in 1847, established himself as the ruler of the northern province of Hamasien with his capital at Asmara, At that time only the site of an ancient church and a cluster of small villages. Emperor Yohannes IV was preoccupied with incursions of the Sudanese dervish armies of the Mahdi and left defense against the Italians to Ras Alula. In 1887 the Italians sent an expeditionary force up into the highlands from Massawa. At the Wadi Dogali, about 25 km. inland, it was confronted by Ras Alula's army and dealt a stunning defeat. Ras Alula's triumph was short-lived.

 

Emperor Yohannes IV died fighting the Sudanese at Metemma in 1889. King Menelik of Shoa succeeded him as emperor. But in northern Ethiopia, confusion spread and the Italians took advantage of it, applying lessons learned from their defeat at Dogali. In a series of well-planned operations they advanced to the Mareb River by 1890. This was the year they proclaimed their newly conquered territory Colonia Eritrea--the Red Sea Colony--and chose Asmara as its capital.

 

Thus Eritrea came onto the map as a geographic and political entity, but expansionist Italians regarded it as merely a base for the future conquest of Ethiopia. Italian emissaries and agents intrigued among Tigrayan leaders, some of whom resented Yohannes' replacement by an emperor from Shoa. They brought in more soldiers from Italy and recruited Eritreans as auxiliaries. In less than five years they were ready to advance against Ethiopia. Not all Italians favored these plans, but imperial-minded civilians and generals dominated political decision-making in Rome. A major offensive began in 1895. Italian forces advanced deep into Tigray, taking Adigrat and Makelle. The appetite for further advances grew rapidly. Generals were eager for glory and promotion. The Ethiopians were thought too backward to mount effective resistance. Emperor Menelik, who had refused to accept an Italian protectorate, was scorned by the ambitious Italian empire-builders. It was a serious misjudgment.

 

Menelik had mobilized his Shoan forces, moved them north, and regional kings and princes from all parts of Ethiopia responded to his appeal to join in defending the country's independence. Menelik assembled his armies around Adwa, a short distance south of historic old Axum. He placed his headquarters at the Monastery of Abba Gerima, founded by one of the Nine Syrian Saints. Other Ethiopian leaders established their troops at strategic locations among the spectacular volcanic mountains which extend eastward from Axum and Adwa for 40 km.--the direction from which the Italians were known to be advancing. Menelik had 100,000 men under his command. With less than a fifth of that number, almost half of them Eritrean auxiliaries of doubtful loyalty, the Italians rushed to attack the Ethiopians. Battle was joined the morning of March 2, 1896. Within hours the Italian army had been literally decimated. Many of the Eritrean troops defected to the Ethiopians. Most of the Italian generals and many lower-ranking officers were killed, thousands of Italians were taken prisoner.

 

By telegraph and cable news of the stunning defeat arrived in Italy in a day and word of the Ethiopian victory--the first of its kind by what is now called a Third World country against a European power--spread around the world. Menelik had secured Ethiopia's independence for another forty years. A Tigrayan emperor might have pursued the fleeing Italians to Asmara and helter-skelter down the escarpment to Massawa and the sea, expelling them permanently from Eritrea. Many Italians were in panic at this prospect. But could he have succeeded? We will never know. In Rome the government fell, riots broke out in Italian cities, and political confusion ensued. Imperialist politicians and generals called for reinforcements to be sent to Eritrea to mount a new campaign against Menelik.

 

Sober judgment prevailed on both sides. Menelik sought reconciliation, not revenge. He made no effort to pursue the disorganized Italians to Asmara. He still had to secure Ethiopia's eastern, southern, and western borders against other Europeans eager to expand their colonial holdings. Victory at Adwa increased respect for Ethiopia in Europe. Menelik concluded peace with Italy in the Treaty of Addis Ababa signed on 26 October 1896. He let the Italians retain Eritrea. This gave Ethiopia a secure northern border in a region that had experienced invaders from all directions since ancient times. For the next three decades sensible Italians concentrated on turning Eritrea into a colony where Italians might settle. The process of colonial evolution, with Christian highlanders retaining close links to Ethiopia, began. Italian imperial aspirations had not completely died, however, but they had been contained. They were revived 40 years later in the Fascist era when Benito Mussolini launched his scheme to conquer all East Africa in the 1935.

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