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Eritrea's relations with its neighbour Ethiopia have never been great since the U.N. declared the former to be a province of the latter in the 50s. Eritrean national pride and a burning thirst for independence resulted in the Struggle for Independence, a brutal 30 year war which ended, somewhat surprisingly, in victory for the smaller forces of Eritrea. 1993 marked the start of Eritrea's independence, but not the end of its Ethiopian conflicts. Border disputes resulted in further fighting, which was finally brought to a halt in 2000.
The relative peace enjoyed by Eritrea now is a promising sign. Travellers should maintain caution, but the country's attractions are safe. Italian styled architecture reveals the country's colonial past and gives Asmara, the capital, a striking appearance. The Red Sea around the Eritrean coast and the Dahlak Archipelago has been esteemed highly by divers, who are attracted by the WWII war relics hidden under the surface and the lively aqua-life.
In the period following the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, when European powers scrambled for territory in Africa and tried to establish coaling stations for their ships, Italy invaded and occupied Eritrea. On January 1, 1890 Eritrea offically became a colony of Italy. In 1936 it became a province of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana), along with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. The British armed forces expelled those of Italy in 1941 and took over the administration of the country which had been set up by the Italians. The British continued to administer the territory under a UN Mandate until 1951 when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia as per UN resolution 390(A) under the prompting of the United States adopted in December 1950; the resolution was adopted after a referendum to consult the people of Eritrea.
The strategic importance of Eritrea — because of its Red Sea coastline and mineral resources - was the main cause for the federation with Ethiopia, which was the first step in the annexing of Eritrea as its 14th province in 1962. This was the culmination of a gradual process of takeover by the Ethiopian authorities, a process which included a 1959 edict establishing the compulsory teaching of Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, in all Eritrean schools. The lack of regard for the Eritrean population led to the formation of an independence movement in the early 1960s, which erupted into a 30-year war against successive Ethiopian governments that ended in 1991. Following a UN-supervised referendum in Eritrea (dubbed UNOVER) in which the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence, Eritrea declared its independence and gained international recognition in 1993. Perhaps the conflict with the deepest impact on independent Eritrea has been the renewed hostility with Ethiopia. In 1998, a border war with Ethiopia over the town of Badme occurred. The Eritrean-Ethiopian War ended in 2000 with a negotiated agreement known as the Algiers Agreement, which assigned an independent, UN-associated boundary commission known as the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), whose task was to clearly identify the border between the two countries and issue a final and binding ruling. Ethiopia was to withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of hostilities in May 1998. The peace agreement would be completed with the implementation of the Border Commission's ruling, also ending the task of the peacekeeping mission of UNMEE. The EEBC's verdict came in April 2002, which awarded Badme to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia refused to withdraw its military from positions in the disputed areas, including Badme, and also refused to implement the EEBC's ruling, and the dispute is ongoing.
Border conflicts with both Djibouti and Yemen have been resolved overtime.
Eritrea is located in Northeast Africa and is bordered on the northeast and east by the Red Sea, on the south by Ethiopia and Djibouti, and on the northwest by Sudan. It lies between latitudes 12° and 18°N, and longitudes 36° and 44°E. The country is virtually bisected by a branch of the East African Rift. It has fertile lands to the west, descending to desert in the east. Eritrea, at the southern end of the Red Sea, is the home of the fork in the rift. The Dahlak Archipelago and its fishing grounds are situated off the sandy and arid coastline. The strategically important Bab-el-Mandeb strait connects the coasts of Eritrea and Yemen. The Afar Triangle or Danakil Depression of Eritrea is the probable location of a triple junction where three tectonic plates are pulling away from one another: the Arabian Plate, and the two parts of the African Plate splitting along the East African Rift Zone. The highest point of the country, Emba Soira, is located in the center of Eritrea, at 3,018 metres above sea level. In 2006, Eritrea announced it would become the first country in the world to turn its entire coast into an environmentally protected zone. The 1,347 kilometres coastline, along with another 1,946 kilometres of coast around its more than 350 islands, will come under governmental protection.
Eritrea is made up of six regions (zobas)
Qohaito was an ancient Aksumite city in the Debub region of Eritrea. The Ancient Greeks called the city Koloe. It was a major stop on one of the African trade routes, and may have been the summer capital for the kingdom. There are many pre- Christian ruins in the city and it lies on a high plateau at the edge of the stunning great Rift Valley. The city was most likely inhabited till the 6th century AD. Due to the civil war most of the city has not been excavated.
Dankalia, souuth of Massawa along the coastline is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The volcanic desert makes this place look like a different planet. There is no great sights or destinations here other then lifeless desert, which some travellers like. Dankalia is also the home to the legendary Afar people, who are one of the most fiercest groups on the whole planet.
Explore the amazing architecture and the old town of this amazing neighborhood in the city of Massawa. The buildings are a blend of Egyptian, Turkish and Italo-Moorish styles. Also many of the buildings are built with coral rock having mashrabeya, which are wooden screen windows.
Eritrea joins the world in celebrating New Year on January 1. It is typically marked by slaughtering either a goat or a sheep, which is a sign of sacrifice to god.
This Christian holiday commemorates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the Three Wise Men. It also signals the end of the 12 days of Christmas, with the annual observance taking place in January.
Celebrated on February 10, this holiday is an integral part of Eritrean culture as it honors the gallant patriots and the martyrs of "Operation Fenkil," which ended colonial rule. Every year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Massawa to join the event.
A joyous remembrance of the birth of the prophet, this holiday is celebrated by Islam followers in Eritrea. The date changes every year according to the lunar calendar.
March 8 is a day of celebration for the social and economic achievements of women in Eritrea as well as around the world. It is a rather controversial event because of the human rights and displacement issues that Eritrean women continue to face, but the government continues to acknowledge it.
Considered the most important national holiday, Independence Day is observed annually on May 24 to remember May 4, 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front reinstated the independence of Asmara following a 30-year war against the Ethiopian army regime.
Celebrated on June 20, Martyr’s Day is an official holiday that pays tribute to the freedom fighters who died for Eritrea’s liberation. The war lasted from 1961 to 1991 and claimed an estimated 65,000 fighters and thousands of civilians. It is commemorated with mass mourning processions that end at graveyards throughout the country.
Also known as Bahti Meskerem, this important holiday on September 1 recognizes the people who scarified during their prolonged freedom campaign against Ethiopia. Observances typically include a moment of silence for the martyrs, public speeches from dignitaries and the singing of the national anthem.
This day marks the end of Ramadan, or the holy month of fasting. The date changes yearly according to the lunar calendar.
This important religious holiday in Eritrea honors the willingness of Abraham the prophet to sacrifice his first-born son. The date changes yearly.
Eritreans actually celebrate Christmas twice - on December 25 and again on January 7. The latter holiday is called Geez Christmas, which is recognized by members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The date is based on the Julian calendar.
Weather in Eritrea varies with altitude a lot. While much of the coastal area and towards the south can be very hot, the inland plateau where Asmara is located are usually much cooler and much more pleasant.
Temperatures in the lower areas can be well over 40 °C, especially during the hot May to October summer period. Winters are still plesantly warm though here and temperatures rarely drop below 18 °C. Here, most of the rain (scarce) falls between October and March, while on the inland and western plateau most rain tends to fall during July and August.
Masawa, at sea level, has average highs of 35 °C in summer and 25 °C during winter. About 200 mm of rain is recorded on average here.
Asmara which is located at 2,350 metres above sea level has temperatures between 15 °C and 22 °C year round during the day and nights can be relatively cold. The city has on average around 500 mm of rain.
Eritrean Airlines is the national airline of Eritrea and is based at Asmara International Airport (ASM) near the capital. International destinations include Djibouti, Dubai, Frankfurt, Jeddah, Milan and Rome. Lufthansa flies to Frankfurt and Jeddah as well. Other destinations with connections to Asmara are Nairobi, Cairo and Sana'a.
You can only enter Eritrea from Djibouti but you have to leave again via Djibouti or Sudan (see below). Due to this, few travellers with their own wheels go to Eritrea, but in case you do: be patient and have your papers and insurance in order.
There is no official public transport between Eritrea and Djibouti but a combination of (shared)taxis and minivans travel between the border and towns in the two countries. From Eritrea, the main starting point is Assab. In Djibouti this is Obock, a town reachable by dhow or speedboat from Djibouti City. There’s only one border crossing, at Rahaita/Moulhoulé, about 112km south of Assab.
Borders with Ethiopia are mostly closed for travellers for now, but you should be able to travel to Sudan, though not the other way around. From Teseney, bush taxis go to Adi Bara at the Sudanese border, from where you should find transport to Kassala in Sudan.
Although there is quite a long coastline, there are no official passenger services across the Red Sea towards countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen. You can get however between Yemen and Djibouti and travel overland to/from Eritrea to make this trip over sea.
Eritrean Airways flies between the capital Asmara and the city of Assab at least twice a week.
There is a railway line between Asmara and Massawa, but services are infrequent and not timetabled. There are however extra trains that can be chartered by groups of tourists. It is a great journey!
Roads between Asmara with Keren, Massawa, Adi Quala and Barentu are generally in a good condition and are paved. You can rent cars at the Eritrean Tourist agencies and usually they come with a driver that speaks English, but you might be able to drive yourself. Note that some other roads though are heavily potholed or gravel and require a 4wd vehicle. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit.
Buses are cheap, comfortable and reliable. There are at least two buses a day between the major towns like Asmara, Massawa and Keren and at least one daily service to smaller cities and towns. Buses leave when full, so there is not timetabled service. It is best to show up early at the bus station for long journeys, to assure a seat.
There are no scheduled passenger services along the Eritrean coastline, but as it is a great location to go snorkelling, diving or fishing, you might be able to charter a local boat.
All nationalities must apply for a visa in advance before entering the country. When you apply for a visa to Eritrea, you must do it at an Eritrean Embassy in - or accredited to - the country where you are a citizen and nowhere else. If there is no Eritrean Embassy or mission in your country, contact your foreign office/ministry to verify the nearest accredited Eritrean mission.
See also Money Matters
The currency is the Eritrean nakfa. It is pegged to the US dollar. There are 15 nakfas to the USD. Coins are issued in denominations of 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents and 100 cents and 1 nakfa. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 nakfas.
A few foreigners, mainly from South Asia, work for the Eritrean government in various state-job contracts. Most, if not all, of these individuals acquired their jobs in their home country and/or were recruited and provided with their legal documentation by the Eritrean government while in their home country. It is unusual and perhaps difficult to arrive in Eritrea on a tourist visa and later apply for a work and residence permit while there.
The official languages of Eritrea are Tigrinya and Arabic, with Tigrinya used for most official purposes. Because Eritrea was an Italian colony (1890-1940), Italian is widely understood and spoken. In addition, people understand – and some still speak – Amharic (Amarinya), the official language of Ethiopia. English, however, won't get you far.
Eritrean cuisine in the highlands (around Asmara) consists largely of spicy dishes and is very similar to Ethiopian food. The staple is a flat, spongy crepe or bread called injera, made from a batter of fermented grains. Spicy stews with meat and vegetables are served on top of it and eaten with the hands. This cuisine is generally found in many restaurants in the country.
Middle Eastern dishes such as shahan-ful (bean stew) served with pitas are also readily available everywhere but more commonly eaten for breakfast or brunch in modest establishments.
Lowland cuisine is not readily available in many restaurants, but in the old town (outermost island) of Massawa, adjacent to the freeport area, there are some simple restaurants that serve cuisine typical to the Red Sea area such as grilled spicy fish and "khobzen" (pitas drenched in goats butter and honey).
Owing to its colonial history, Italian food is abundant, albeit not too varied all across Eritrea. You will always find a restaurant that serves good pasta, lasagna, steak, grilled fish, etc.
In Asmara, there are also several Chinese restaurants, a Sudanese restaurant, and an Indian restaurant (Rooftop).
There are hotels at all prices and standard ranges in Asmara, from the modest ones for 200 Nakfa ($30 per night) to the overpriced Intercontinental Hotel Asmara, the only international hotel present in the country at the moment, (a little over $150 per night). Some hotels have one price for foreigners and another for locals. In most smaller towns, the lodging is quite modest and priced accordingly. The only expensive hotels outside of Asmara would be the two hotels on the sea in Massawa, neither of which exceeds $65 per night as of 2007. Modest in Eritrean terms usually means shared bathroom with several other guests, no room-service, a common room TV, no air-conditioning and no change of sheets or cleaning throughout occupancy unless asked for (and then you might be charged extra just as if you had your clothes washed and ironed, which is also readily available for an additional price). The middle-range hotels will have all these missing amenities (private bathroom, TV, air-conditioning, etc.) but no room-service nor inclusive laundering of sheets or clothes during occupancy. Restaurants and/or cafes are available at most mid-range hotels are regular hangout places for non-guests. In a hot place like Massawa, it is very highly recommended to stay at least at a middle-range hotel where air-conditioning is available. The only hotel that accepts credit cards in Eritrea is the Intercontinental (for a fee) and it is also the only hotel in the entire country with a swimming pool (both indoor and outdoor), gym and other common amenities in a modern standard hotel. Most, if not all, hotels beyond the towns of Asmara, Massawa, Keren and Assab are of the modest category. There are reported to be mid-range hotels in Nakfa, Barentu and Tessenei as well as resorts in Gel'alo and Dahlak (on the South coast and east of Massawa, respectively).
The most common beverage in Eritrea by far is beer. There is only one (state-owned) brand in the country so there is not much choice, but it is quite good. Beer is consumed cold in Eritrea. Beer's popularity is closely followed by various soft drinks, and the most common flavours are as elsewhere in the world: orange, lemon/lime and cola, produced by one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The same company that holds the beer monopoly also holds the monopoly on producing the local form of Sambouca, colloquially called "Araqi", as well as Vermouth and other spirits.
Traditionally Eritreans also drink the local form of mead called "suwa", which consists of old bread fermented in water with honey, as well as a sweet honeywine called "mies".
Tap water should not be drunk by foreigners. There is plenty of relatively cheap bottled mineral water, both carbonated and non-carbonated in Eritrea.
See also Travel Health
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering Eritrea when you have been in a yellow fever country within 7 days of entering Eritrea. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Eritrea. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Eritrea is a very safe country and few travellers will have any problems here. Even Asmara is a very safe city.
The main concerns are the extreme high temperatures in Dankalia (summers of more than 50 °C) and annoying things like roadblocks. These are harmless though. Don't wander off the main roads, as mines are a real possibility here.
See also International Telephone Calls
Eritrea's country code is 291.
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