30+ Facts About Eritrea You Should Know

Discover 30+ fascinating facts about Eritrea!

Eritrea, officially the State of Eritrea, occupies a strategic position on the Horn of Africa. One of Africa’s most closed and secretive countries, Eritrea possesses characteristic Abyssinian landscapes such as plateaus, soaring peaks, historic archaeological sites, and is also home to stunning beaches along the Red Sea. Here are some interesting facts about Eritrea.

Facts about Eritrea

1. Eritrea is the 99th-largest country in the world. 

The funnel-shaped country of Eritrea is wide in the northwest and tapers to a narrow strip in the southeast. The country also possesses a few of the Hanish Islands and the Dahlak Archipelago, a group of more than 100 small, barren, and reef-fringed islands, in the Red Sea.

Eritrea has a total area of 117,600 km² (45,400 sq mi). making it slightly smaller than the US state of Pennsylvania. 

2. Eritrea shares a land border with three countries. 

Eritrea is bordered by Djibouti (125 km/78 mi) to the southeast, Ethiopia (1,033 km/642 mi) to the south, and Sudan (682 km/424 mi) to the west. 

3. Eritrea has a total coastline length of 2,234 km (1,388 mi). 

The northeastern and eastern parts of mainland Eritrea have an extensive coastline (1,151 km/715 mi) along the Red Sea whereas the country’s islands account for a coastline of  1,083 km/673 mi.

4. The tallest mountain in Eritrea is Mount Soira. 

Located in the Eritrean Highlands in the south of the country, Mount Soira rises to an elevation of 3,018 m (9,902 ft).

5. The lowest point in Eritrea is -75 m (-246 ft) below sea level. 

Eritrea’s lowest point can be found at Lake Kulul within the Afar Depression. At -75 m (-246 ft) below sea level, Lake Assal is one of the lowest points in Africa.

6. Eritrea has three major climate zones. 

Eritrea’s three major climate zones are the temperate zone (comprising mainly the Central Highlands), the subtropical climatic zone (which mainly comprises the eastern escarpments and western slopes as well as part of the northern highlands), and the tropical climatic zone (which mainly comprises the eastern and western lowlands as well as the Red Sea coast). 

Each of the zones has a different climate pattern produced mainly by differences in topography. The temperate zone lies at an altitude of greater than 2,000 m (6,560 ft) above sea level and the annual temperature of this climatic zone ranges between 10ºC (50ºF) and 25ºC (77ºF).

The subtropical climatic zone varies between 700 m (2,296 ft) and 2,000 m (6,560 ft), with annual temperatures ranging between 16ºC (61ºF) and 28ºC (82ºF). Finally, the tropical climatic zone is characterized by blazing hot temperatures in the summer (over 42ºC/108ºF) and relatively cool temperatures (12ºC-24ºC/53-75ºF).

7. Eritrea gets its name from the Red Sea. 

One of the interesting facts about Eritrea is that the country’s name is of foreign origin. Eritrea’s name stems from the ancient Greek title “Erythra Thalassa” meaning the “Red Sea.”

8. Eritrea was once part of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum. 

Aksum was the name of a city and a kingdom which is essentially present-day northern Ethiopia (Tigray Province), Djibouti, and Eritrea. The kingdom existed between the early 2nd century and the 10th century, and its polity was centered in Aksum city. According to legend, Aksum is believed to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

At its apogee in the 3rd–6th centuries, the Aksum empire was reckoned to be one of the world’s foremost powers. It encompassed both sides of the southern Red Sea controlling all seaborne commerce between Ancient India and the Roman Empire. However, from the 7th century, increased competition from Muslim Arab traders saw Aksum begin to decline.

9. Eritrea was once part of the Ottoman Empire. 

Due to its strategic and commercial importance on the Red Sea coast, Eritrea was contested by many powers. In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman Turks occupied the Dahlak Archipelago and then the port city of Massawa. 

For the next three centuries, Massawa remained either directly in the hands of the Ottomans or in the possession of their vassal states (at various times it was ruled from Mecca and Egypt).

10. Eritrea was colonized by Italy. 

In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal had made the Red Sea a scene of rivalry among the world’s most powerful countries. During the “Scramble for Africa”, the Italians started making incursions in Eritrea along the Red Sea coast after successfully defeating an autonomous kingdom of the Ethiopian Empire along the coast, Italy established the colony of Italian Eritrea in 1890. 

From Eritrea the Italians launched several incursions into Ethiopia, only to be resoundingly defeated by Emperor Menilek’s army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The Treaty of Addis Ababa established new international boundaries and Eritrea became, for the first time, a separate territory.

Eritrea was considered the jewel in the Italian crown and under Italian rule, Eritrea’s urban sector flourished. Tens of thousands of Italians arrived, bringing with them modern skills to develop manufacturing, road, and rail construction. By the end of the 1930s, Eritrea was one of the most highly industrialized colonies in Africa.

However, little was done to improve the conditions or education of the Eritreans. Also, Eritreans weren’t employed in the colonial service except as laborers and soldiers.

11. Eritrea was under British administration from 1941 to 1952. 

After Italy entered World War II in 1940 as one of the Axis powers, Italian East Africa became a target for the Allies. In 1941, after the Italians were defeated by Allied forces in the Battle of Keren, Eritrea was placed under the British Military Administration while Ethiopia regained its independence under Emperor Haile Selassie.

12. Eritrea was formerly a part of Ethiopia. 

As part of the losing side in World War II, Italy relinquished its legal right to Eritrea. A Four-Power Commission (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) was set up to decide on how to dispose of the former Italian colony. However, since negotiations were unsuccessful, the matter was sent to the UN General Assembly.

In the meantime, landlocked Ethiopia, coveting Eritrea’s Red Sea access, launched a campaign to annex the former colony, claiming that it had always been part of Ethiopia’s domain. 

The United States backed Eritrea’s annexation by Ethiopia and in 1950 the UN decided that Eritrea would become part of Ethiopia from 1952, as an autonomous federal province with its own constitution and elected government. US strategic interests in the Red Sea and its close ties with the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie played a pivotal role in influencing Eritrea’s fate.

The Eritrean-Ethiopian Federation did not bring about harmonious integration of the entities as Ethiopia soon started to impose more direct rule at its will. The UN ignored Eritrea’s call for independence and protests against Ethiopia’s intervention in their autonomous rule. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean parliament and annexed the territory. 

13. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. 

The Eritrean War of Independence began in the early 1960s with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) at the forefront of the struggle. After the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, the self-styled Marxist military dictatorship called the ‘Derg’ (Amharic for ‘committee’), stepped up its campaign against Eritreans. 

With the help of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other countries in the Eastern Bloc, the Derg sustained a very bitter war over Eritrea between 1978 and 1991. By a fortunate turn of events, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown and in May 1991, the EPLF captured the last Ethiopian outposts in Eritrea.

In April 1993, the provisional government of Eritrea held a referendum on Eritrean independence. More than 99.5% of voters opted for full Eritrean sovereignty, and on 24 May 1993, Eritrea became an independent nation.

However, the War of Independence left Eritrea in complete tatters and created enormous land-mine and population-displacement problems. In terms of infrastructure, all basic services were virtually disrupted. In the 30 years of war, Eritrea lost more than 60,000 soldiers and about 90,000 civilians. 

14. Eritrea’s capital Asmara is the sixth-highest capital city in the world. 

Situated at an altitude of 2,325 meters (7,628 ft) above sea level, Asmara is the world’s sixth-highest capital. Asmara is also Eritrea’s commercial and cultural hub.

15. The currency of Eritrea is the Eritrean nakfa (ERN). 

The Nakfa has been in use in Eritrea since 1997 when it replaced the Ethiopian Birr. It’s interesting to know that the Eritrean currency takes its name after the town of Nafka where the Eritreans won a decisive victory during the Eritrean War of Independence.

16. Eritrea’s capital Asmara is renowned for its modernist architecture. 

In the 1930s, Asmara underwent a large-scale program of construction applying the Italian rationalist idiom of the time to governmental edifices, religious buildings, cinemas, and residential and commercial buildings. Too risqué for Italy proper, Asmara became a blank canvas for the nation’s budding architects.

As a result, the city is home to bold and whimsical Cubist (African Pension Building), Rationalist (Ministry of Education and Selam Hotel), Modernist (Asmara Bowling Alley), and Expressionist (Cinema Capitol) architectural gems harking back to the city’s heyday as “La Piccola Roma” (“Little Rome”). 

Asmara’s preeminent edifice, the Fiat Tagliero building, has often been referred to as “the world’s most beautiful petrol station.”

In particular, Asmara is renowned for its stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. Some of the best-known examples of Art Deco architecture in Asmara are Bar Zilli, Cinema Impero, Cinema Roma, the Opera House, World Bank Building, and Cinema Odeon.

17. Eritrea is home to a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups. 

Eritreans are classified into nine prominent ethnic groups—the Afar, the Tigrinya, the Tigré, the Saho, the Bilen, the Hadareb, the Kunama, the Nara, and the Rashaida. The Tigrinya (~55%) and the Tigré (~30%) constitute the majority of the population.

18. Eritrea has no official language. 

One of the unique Eritrea facts is that according to the country’s constitution no official language has been proclaimed. However, Arabic and the indigenous language of Tigrinya are the working languages of the Eritrean government. Tigrinya serves as a sort of lingua franca among the various ethnic groups. 

19. An assortment of regional languages are spoken in Eritrea. 

Besides Tigrinya, Tigré, Afar, Beja, Bilen, Kunama, Nara, and Saho are spoken by the Eritrean population.

20. Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in Eritrea. 

About 50-60% of the Eritrean population adheres to Christianity while about 35-50% of the population follows Islam. Virtually all Muslims are Sunni and an overwhelming majority of Christians are Orthodox. 

21. Football and cycling are the most popular sports in Eritrea. 

Like in most African nations, football is extremely popular in Eritrea. However, the Eritrean men’s national football team has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup or even the Africa Cup of Nations. The Eritrean men’s national football team is nicknamed the “Red Sea Boys.”

Cycling has been popular in Eritrea since the colonial era. The Eritrean cycling team is consistently ranked among the top two African cycling teams.

22. There is only one UNESCO World Heritage Site in Eritrea. 

The modernist city of Asmara is Eritrea’s one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

23. Eritrea has had the same President since its independence in 1993. 

Isaias Afewerki has been Eritrea’s only President since independence. The enigmatic Afewerki has been labeled as an austere and narcissistic dictator whose political ballast derives from Maoist ideology fine-tuned during Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence.

Under Afewerki’s rule, Eritrea has never had an election and the country has languished in poverty and repression. He has faced accusations of totalitarianism, and he has been cited for human rights violations.

24. Eritrea has only one political party. 

Quite unbelievable, but sadly true. Eritrea’s only sole legal political party is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The PDFJ maintains complete dominance over the country’s political life and has taken significant steps away from a democratic system.

25. Eritrea is one of the least free countries in the world in terms of freedom of expression. 

Eritrea is one of the most censored countries in the world and consistently ranks in the bottom three in terms of press freedom. Under President Isaias Afewerki, the country has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary

The ruling regime’s spies closely monitor the flow of information and communications. Any opinion, views, narratives, and conversations that deviate from the government narrative can lead to the arrest, detention, and torture of those involved in the country’s notorious, overcrowded prisons.

26. Conscription in Eritrea is mandatory and indefinite. 

Conscription into the army is compulsory in Eritrea and since 2002 national service—of both the military and civilian kind—has been indefinite! Only women who marry and have children (plus the sickest, disabled, or well-connected) can hope to be discharged. 

The government assigns conscripts to military duties but many are assigned to civil service jobs or work on agricultural or construction projects. Conscripts often work 70 plus hours a week in extremely harsh conditions with inadequate food and are paid a pittance. 

They also have no say about where they will be assigned or the length of their assignment. According to the UN, Eritrea’s draconian conscription practices are akin to slave labor. For this reason, Eritrea is sometimes called the “North Korea of Africa.”

Fearful that citizens will flee rather than submit to this fate, the Eritrean government imposes an exit permit, which conscripts are seldom granted. Consequently, Eritrea’s ongoing rights crisis continues to drive scores of Eritreans into exile, with many children and youth fleeing the country to escape conscription.

27. Eritrea was engaged in a two-decade-long conflict with Ethiopia over its borders. 

After Eritrean independence, relations with Ethiopia were initially good and the Eritrean Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa remained open to Ethiopia free of charge. However, in 1998 relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly when a border dispute, centered around the hamlet of Badme, exploded into violence. 

The outbreak of hostilities from May 1998 to June 2000 claimed approximately 70,000 lives from both sides. The border conflict decimated Eritrea’s economy as it cost hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The ‘no war-no peace’ scenario continued until a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed in July 2018 formally ending their 1998-2000 war. This led to the two countries reopening their borders and reestablishing communication and transportation ties.

28. The Arabian camel is the National animal of Eritrea.

The Arabian camel is the tallest of the three camel species and has only one hump. It is also known as the dromedary and features on Eritrea’s national emblem, which mainly depicts a camel surrounded by an olive wreath.

29. Eritrea is not at all LGBT-friendly.

Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Eritrea. Homosexual acts are punishable by up to 3 years in prison or death. Beatings and torture are also tolerated.

30. Eritrea has won only one Olympic medal.

Eritrea first competed at the Summer Olympics in 2000. The country’s first and only Olympic medal came at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens when Zersenay Tadese won bronze in the men’s 10,000 meters.

31. The national dish of Eritrea is Zigni.

Zigni is essentially a spicy stew consisting of cubed meat (mostly beef or lamb), onions, garlic, tomatoes, and tomato paste. Zigni is traditionally eaten with Injera, a soft spongy sourdough risen flatbread.

32. Eritrea drives on the right.