Eritrea is stretched strategically along the Red Sea, cutting off Ethiopia’s access to the coast. Naturally, this country boasts some stunning beaches that are rich with fish and coral reefs. It also offers visitors safari wildlife reserves, cities colorfully decorated with Turkish-Ottoman architecture and pilgrimage sites of religious importance to Eritreans.
Geographically, Eritrea is rather mountainous. Its highlands, which rise more than 7,000 feet, descend to the Red Sea coast in the east. In the north and west, the country is dominated by lowlands and arid deserts. The highlands consist of open woodland while the lowlands are filled with acacia scrubs. Erosion and deforestation continue to be a major problem for Eritrea. In the south, both the Mareb and Setit Rivers drain westward into the Nile along the country’s border with Ethiopia. The country’s major resource is the salt plains of the Danakil Depression, which are mined for salt bars that were once used for centuries as currency.
Eritrea is rich in natural attractions. Its chief draw is its azure blue waters and stunning beaches along the Red Sea coast, which teem with various marine life such as barracudas, crabs, sea cucumbers, butterfly fishes, jellyfishes, and angelfishes. The best beaches are in the southeastern province of Denkalia around Asseb. The sea is calm in this area and the sandy beaches wide and long. Some ideal locations for sunbathing and swimming include Zula Bay, Ras Kuba, Gugussum, Mersa Gulbub, Buri Peninsula, and Mersa Ibrahim. The best place to snorkel and scuba-dive is at the more than 200 islands of the Dahlak Archipelago, where varieties of fish swim among flat coral reef gardens.
Eritrea also boasts a diverse set of wildlife such as elephants, gazelles, baboons, lions, leopards, turtles, and ostriches. The best place for game viewing is at the Nakfa Wildlife Reserve.
Turkish-Ottoman, Egyptian, and Italian colonial architecture is another draw of Eritrea. Massawa features various styles of architecture, from 16th century Ottoman to 19th century Egyptian to early 20th century Italian. Be sure to check out the Iman Hanbeli Mosque, the Italian cathedrals in Tualud, which includes St Mariam’s Cathedral, the Italian Carrara quarry in Asmara, a city that also features various other churches, mosques, and palaces, including the Ghibi where former colonial rulers used to reside.
You’ll also find interesting religious sites in Eritrea. Emberemi is an important pilgrimage site for the mausoleums of Muhammad Ibn Ali and Sheikh el Amin. Other religious sites include the Mariam de Arit, the Tomb of Said Abu Bakr el Mirgani, and the Debre Sina monastery near Elabered. Also, don’t miss out on the tomb of Said Mustafa wad Hasan in the Barka province.
The temperatures in Eritrea’s highlands range from 10° to 30°C (50° to 85° F). The lowlands are much hotter, regularly reaching temperatures around 38° C (100° F). Unfortunately, much of Eritrea receives less than 20 inches of rain every year. While the highlands receive a little bit more, on average 35 inches per year, the country is generally proned to long droughts, which has caused major famines, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
Eritrea was first formed as part of the Aksum Empire around 100AD. For much of its history, Eritrea’s location on the Red Coast has made it a target for a number of invasions, including one from the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, another one from Egypt in the 19th century, and one by Italy in 1890. Italy developed industry and infrastructure in Eritrea to serve as the base for its expanding colonial empire, using it to successfully invade Ethiopia in 1935. The Italians made Eritrea, Ethiopia, and northern Somalia part of the Italian East Africa colony. During WWII, Eritrea came under British rule after the Italians were defeated.
In 1952, Eritrea and Ethiopia were federated under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie I, but Eritrea kept its own parliament and retained control over its economy. In 1962, however, Ethiopia forcibly annexed Eritrea. Resistance movements began in the western lowlands and grew into a revolution in 1974 when highlanders joined in. The war persisted for more than decade, displacing hundreds of thousands of Eritreans. Eventually, the Ethiopian government collapsed in 1991 and withdrew from Eritrea, leading to Eritrean independence in 1993.
In 1998, hostilities with Ethiopia were renewed in a border war over the town of Badme. The war ended in 2000 and the UN was given the task of identifying and ruling on a clear border. Badme was awarded to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has so far refused to sign the ruling resulting in continued hostilities between the two states.
Today, Eritrea is working hard to rebuild and reconstruct from decades of war. Its lack of resources, political instability, and tensions with regional neighbors makes it tough to develop its tourism industry. That being said, Eritrea is the first African nation to successfully secede since the end of the colonial era.