Not many have visited – or even heard of – the African country of Eritrea.
It is not hard to see why. Dwarfed by two of its much larger neighbours, Eritrea is small enough to overlook easily. Already at the bottom end of tourist arrivals in Africa, the country makes hardly any efforts to attract more visitors despite its vast tourism potential. Those who do know about what Eritrea can offer are often deterred from visiting by the fact that organised tours remain unaffordable for most budgets while hotels in Eritrea overwhelmingly fail to meet international standards. And it doesn’t help that, despite visible improvements compared to only a few years ago, Eritrea’s visa regime remains non-transparent, unpredictable and cumbersome.
I recently spent two weeks travelling around Eritrea. Both during my lengthy preparations for the trip and the trip itself, I was amazed by how little I knew about this not-often-discussed, small country tucked away on the periphery of the world’s second largest continent. Do you know what Eritrea’s favourite sport is – it isn’t football – or which famous Russian poet may have been of Eritrean descent? If not, read on: I present below 10 things about Eritrea – some positive, some less so – that you probably knew nothing about.
Fiat Tagliero building in Asmara: because it absolutely must feature in every publication on Eritrea
ERITREANS ARE FIERCELY PROUD OF THEIR INDEPENDENCE
This may come as a surprise, but most people I have met had little idea where Eritrea was or still believed that it was a part of Ethiopia. Any association with Ethiopia would be deeply offensive to Eritreans, most of whom are passionate about their relatively new, hard-earned independence.
Eritrea has had a tumultuous history and changed hands several times. Over the years, its Red Sea coastline was frequented by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, and the Ottoman Empire, the reason old Massawa today boasts spectacular, if somewhat faded, Ottoman architecture. At the end of the 19th century, Italians arrived and gradually battled their way into the Eritrean highlands, the first external power to penetrate Eritrea inland in a move that largely defined the country’s present-day borders. Following victory in the WWII battle of Keren in 1941, British forces drove out the Italians and put Eritrea under British administration until 1951, when Eritrea joined a federation with Ethiopia in response to pressure from the United States. Eritrea’s thus gained partial autonomy was, however, short-lived as, in 1962, Ethiopia dissolved the Eritrean Parliament and formally annexed the territory while the powers that be looked on in silence.
The Eritrean War of Independence that continued for the following 30 years ended with a victory for Eritrea and ultimately resulted in independence in 1993. The victory came against multiple odds: Eritrean freedom fighters were greatly outnumbered and did not have access to an arsenal anywhere near that of the Ethiopian forces, the latter supported first by the United States and then the Soviet Union, the world’s great powers at the time. The Eritrean guerrilla fighting force flourished amid extremely harsh conditions in a hostile, arid landscape, its ruthless efficiency famously earning it, from US intelligence experts, the title of the world’s most sophisticated. Deprived, for the most part, of palpable outside support, Eritrea has certainly not had it easy, making its fateful victory even more impressive.
Many Eritreans built their lives entirely around war for decades – with one goal in mind, that long-coveted independence. The sense of being isolated from the rest of the world while fighting for liberation is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. I recommend that you come to Eritrea with at least some understanding of the struggle this small, yet strong-spirited new nation has gone through.
Eritrean boy sits on a rusted Soviet tank near Dekemhare, one of the many abandoned or surrendered by Ethiopians during the armed conflict
RUSSIAN WRITER ALEXANDER PUSHKIN MAY HAVE BEEN PART ERITREAN
If you have seen classic depictions of Alexander Pushkin, you may have noticed the writer’s distinct curly hair and protruding jaw, giving away non-European heritage. It is known that Pushkin’s great grandfather, Abram Gannibal, descended from Africa: having been kidnapped at a young age, he emerged in Constantinople and was eventually acquired by the Russian ambassador as a gift for Peter the Great. Winning the Tsar’s liking, Gannibal soon became his godson and was raised as part of the royal household, receiving stellar education and rising through the ranks to become a general and a respected member of the imperial court.
According to the original, long-undisputed theory, Gannibal was thought to have descended from a small hamlet of Logo in Abyssinia, present-day Eritrea. This was based entirely on Gannibal himself referring to his place of origin as “Lagon”, obviously phonetically similar to the name of the Eritrean hamlet. When I was going to school – a Russian school named after Alexander Pushkin that made a point of celebrating the poet through countless events, including a ceremonial oath on the Lyceum Day (19 October, you are welcome) – we were frequently told that Gannibal was in fact Ethiopian, the prevailing popular opinion in Russia to this day. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have claimed the poet as their own, each erecting a statue of Pushkin in their respective capitals.
However, there is yet another theory. As part of his research for the translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, Vladimir Nabokov first cast serious doubt on Gannibal’s East African origin. In 1995, a West African scholar Dieudonné Gnammankou made a strong case that “Lagon” was in fact Logone, the capital of the ancient Kotoko kingdom of Logone-Birni on the southern side of Lake Chad located in present-day Cameroon. I haven’t read Gnammankou’s study, but it has since been accepted by many scholars, making it impossible to say with confidence that Gannibal came from the Horn of Africa. One thing for sure though: Pushkin was indisputably Russian.
ERITREAN AIRLINES PROBABLY EXIST IN NAME ONLY
The Eritrean flag carrier, Eritrean Airlines, is a bit of a dark horse. Very few online resources are available about it, and none seem to agree on the basic facts about the airline, including its fleet size. Most sources quote the fleet of Eritrean to consist of one leased Boeing 737, while Flight Radar additionally shows a Boeing 767. Assuming the 767 is the aircraft I saw permanently parked at Asmara International Airport, it cannot possibly be flying: with its rust-streaked tail and fuselage and sealed nacelles, it looked decidedly non-flightworthy. And, suspiciously, in all existing imagery, be it travellers’ photos or satellite, the 737 parked at Asmara airport never seems to change position.
The much-lauded first Eritrean flight to Addis Ababa following the reopening of borders between the two nations may have received a lot of publicity, but, judging by the sources available, it doesn’t look like it became a scheduled service. A tweet from Eritrea’s Minister of Information dated 4 August 2018 listed destinations served by Eritrean Airlines as Khartoum, Cairo, Dubai, Jeddah and Addis Ababa, while Flight Radar additionally shows scheduled flights to Djibouti and Assab, one of Eritrea’s two Red Sea ports. However, there are close to no Flight Radar records for Eritrean flights, online booking is non-existent and the last review of Eritrean on SkyTrax is dated 2012.
The last Flight Radar record of Eritrean flights I could find was for about a dozen flights to Milan, Jeddah, Dubai and Khartoum in March 2018 using an Airbus A320, wet-leased from Olympus Air, not Eritrean fleet – possibly solely brought into service for the government’s needs. Despite extensive research, I have been able to speak to precisely one traveller who flew Eritrean Airlines in 2013: he was almost left behind in Jeddah as the flight wasn’t showing on the monitors and there were no check-in desks; he was eventually escorted on-board by airport staff without as much as a boarding pass. And Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president since independence, recently paid a state visit to South Sudan on a plane belonging to the president of Ethiopia – the sign of the leaders’ rekindled friendship as much as of Eritrea lacking functioning aircraft.
ERITREANS USE PATRONYMICS RATHER THAN FAMILY NAMES
Fascinatingly, the concept of a family name is non-existent in Eritrea. Eritreans are given an individual first name at birth and will normally be addressed by that name through their lives. To differentiate among many people with the same first name, a patronymic – father’s name – is used as a second name, also followed by the grandfather’s name in official documentation. The patronymic may look like a family name to a Western eye, but it isn’t: different generations of the same family will use different patronymics and not a single family name. Married women will not change their second or third name but will continue carrying the patronymic they have held since birth. The same system is in place in the neighbouring Ethiopia, and a similar naming convention is followed in Iceland, Somalia and Mongolia.
The growing Eritrean diaspora in the West often adopts local naming conventions, which typically means using their third (grandfather’s) name imported from Eritrea as a family name and passing it on to one’s children. In this set-up, the father’s name becomes a middle name.
ERITREANS’ FAVOURITE SPORT IS CYCLING
Brought into the country by Italians when Eritrea was its colony, cycling has grown to become, by a long margin, the favourite sport in Eritrea today. It is remarkable how a sport can affect a capital city as much as cycling controls the rhythm of life in Asmara. Most weekends, Asmara’s largest thoroughfares get cordoned off to make room for dozens of cyclists as medium-sized crowds gather to watch and cheer. On main motorways connecting Asmara with Eritrea’s other urban centres, professional cyclists in distinct bright jerseys are often the only sign of traffic for tens of kilometres. And Eritreans have been good at the sport for a long time, competing as the only black Africans in Olympic cycling events in the 1960s (wearing Ethiopian colours) and as the first black Africans in the Tour de France in 2015.
It was a unique combination of factors that brought about the tremendous popularity of cycling in Eritrea. The capital, Asmara, is located on a plateau at the altitude of 2.3 km, with dry conditions ideal for the sport, while the shortage of imported goods in Eritrea due to prolonged international isolation meant that very few locals could afford cars. Traffic in Asmara is sparse – there isn’t a single functioning traffic light – while public buses remain crowded and few and far between, making bicycles not just a leisure item but an everyday necessity. And the recent border reopening with Ethiopia, which quickly led to an influx of cheaper goods into Eritrea and opened doors to new opportunities, is likely to boost the popularity of cycling even further.
In short, cycling has flourished to become the national obsession no other sport in Eritrea has ever known. Coming second, football has had its popularity tarnished by Eritrea’s entire national team defecting on three separate occasions while on matches abroad, understandably slashing the official support for the sport – and further putting cycling on the pedestal.
INTERNET IN ERITREA IS AMONG THE WORST IN THE WORLD
Eritrea is one of the least connected countries in the world: reportedly, only around 1% of the population are internet users, internet quality is poor and home broadband is prohibitively expensive for many Eritreans. Despite this, there are dozens of internet cafes all over Asmara, with groups of young people permanently hanging around the most popular ones. I haven’t tested the connection quality there, but prices are manageable at 15 Nf (less than $1 at the black-market rate) per hour. Some upper-end hotels such as Crystal Hotel in Asmara reportedly charge 100 Nf per day for not much internet actually delivered.
For the lack of the necessary roaming agreements, foreign SIM cards do not work in Eritrea. A local SIM is cumbersome to buy and would hardly be of any use: there is no 3G network in Eritrea, and even locals aren’t able to access mobile data. However, Ethiopian networks offering data are accessible in border areas such as the town of Senafe, and some Eritreans use Ethiopian SIMs to access data in the border-adjacent areas. It is a relatively long journey from Asmara, however, and you are unlikely to be trekking out there just to check Facebook.
I found WiFi in hotels to be patchy: it ranged from acceptable at the Albergo Italia in Asmara and Sarina in Keren to barely usable at the Grand Dahlak in Massawa to non-existent anywhere else. Albergo Italia offered by far the best WiFi in the country: I could access social media apps, including being able to upload simple phone-shot photos to Twitter during off-peak times. Opening complex sites was, however, out of question most of the time. Enjoy the digital detox!
ARMY CONSCRIPTION IN ERITREA MAY LAST FOR DECADES
Few people in the Western world are aware of the wide-scale human rights violations in Eritrea, of which the mandatory conscription is a major part. Most Eritrean children spend their final year of school at a military-style Sawa camp in the Gash-Barka region near the border with Sudan, reportedly living in squalid conditions amid extreme temperatures, inadequate food and water supplies and exhausting routines. The ordeal does not end there: every high school graduate in Eritrea proceeds to embark on so-called national service. Originally 18 months long, national service was extended indefinitely following Eritrea’s border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, and has been widely reported to pose a major strain on family lives and aspirations of young Eritreans. Whether in the army or in a civilian role, national service can and does last for decades, is not adequately compensated, leaves recruits at the whim of their commanders and has no clear criteria as to whether one has fulfilled the expectations of the state to be discharged. Eritreans who attempt to avoid national service are jailed, and a citizen can only be issued international travel documents and permission to travel abroad (the infamous exit visa) after presenting evidence of having completed the national service.
It is not a surprise therefore that many flee. After publishing some photos from Eritrea on social media, I have been contacted by numerous Eritreans in exile, scattered from Switzerland to Israel to Ethiopia, who lamented not being able to go back. One woman sent me photos of herself in a military camp, fully clad in khaki and wielding an AK-47; she spent 2.5 years in the national service, eventually had enough and crossed into Ethiopia in the dark of the night, risking severe punishment if caught. She is now happily based in Addis Ababa, but the route to freedom for many other Eritreans involves a far more treacherous journey to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea, held at the mercy of their smugglers.
Being based in Europe, it is easy to miss Eritrea in the statistics for asylum seekers dominated by the more populous Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. However, a closer look reveals a disturbing picture. According to the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, Eritreans comprised the ninth largest refugee group in the world in 2017, with around half a million people displaced. A total of 8,700 unaccompanied and separated Eritrean children were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as of 2017, altogether the eighth largest children’s group in the world. In 2015, it was reported that an average of 5,000 Eritreans fled their country every month against the total population of around 5 million, and 15 thousand people, most of them not planning to return, were reported to have crossed into Ethiopia during the two weeks that followed the border reopening last year.
ALL OF ASMARA IS A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Having been under Italian colonial rule for over half a century in the past, Eritrea is home to hundreds of well-preserved – if crumbling in places – buildings built in the modernist style. Known as “Little Rome” in the 1930s for its significant Italian population, the Eritrean capital, Asmara, boasts by far the biggest concentration of modernist pieces in the country – around 400, in fact – the result of Italian architects letting their imagination run free here, void of the rigid aesthetic norms prevailing in Europe in the early 20th century. All of Asmara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, a huge feat for Eritrean authorities who for a while had been putting in efforts for this to happen.
Exploring Asmara’s modernist jewels is a unique experience. There is the Bar Zilli building, whose round windows and peculiar shape resemble an old radio set. Cinema Impero, its name a reflection of Mussolini’s vast ambitions, boasts 45 porthole lamps on the distinctly Art Deco façade and continues to screen films to this day. And the de-facto symbol of Asmara, the Fiat Tagliero building equipped with 15 meter long wings, stands intact despite widespread doubts about its structural integrity when it was unveiled back in 1938.
My unlikely favourite though was a small petrol station in the south of Asmara, at the entry to the motorways leading to Adi Quala and Adi Keyh. Built in 1937, it resembles a hull of a ship with porthole windows, preserving certain seafarer’s dignity despite its admittedly sorry state. A handful of smaller versions of the petrol station, with the same unmistakeable windows and flat overhanging roof, can be spotted elsewhere in the country, their unusual shape easily recognisable by Eritreans abroad.
Unfortunately, the neglected condition of the priceless structure is common to most modernist monuments in Asmara. No foreign journalists were reportedly present at the festivities marking Asmara’s achievement, making many question the Eritrean authorities’ ability to capitalise on the capital’s newly gained UNESCO status. Despite its tourism potential from a vast range of attractions besides modernist architecture – historic sites in Keren, unspoilt paradise islands of the Dahlak archipelago, Ottoman-inspired old Massawa – Eritrea still receives very few tourists. And, nearly one year after securing the long-coveted UNESCO status, Eritreans are questioning the continued lack of maintenance and investment of the very structures which made this possible.
THERE IS NO OFFICIAL LANGUAGE IN ERITREA
A multi-ethnic state, Eritrea does not have one official language. Ratified in 1997 but never implemented, the Constitution of Eritrea guarantees equality of the indigenous languages spoken by the country’s nine ethnic groups. Native to over half of Eritrea’s population, Tigrinya is the most widely spoken and a de facto language of the national identity. Other indigenous languages spoken in Eritrea are Afar, Beja (spoken by the Hedareb), Bilen, Dahlik, Kunama, Nara, Saho and Tigre.
Eritrea was under Italian rule for around 50 years until 1941, and many older Eritreans speak varying degrees of Italian. Italians still make up a lions’ share of tourist arrivals in Eritrea, and visitors of Caucasian appearance are likely to be first addressed in Italian in Asmara and other major settlements. An overhang from the old times, there is an Italian school in Asmara which follows an Italian school curriculum, with lessons taught in Italian by Italian teachers. An overwhelming majority of Eritreans working in tourism speak fluent Italian, but younger generations are increasingly less likely to understand the language.
English is the language of instruction in Eritrea starting from secondary school and is widely spoken in major settlements like Asmara, Massawa and Keren. Arabic is effectively a working language in Eritrea alongside Tigrinya and English and is spoken as a native language by the Rashaida ethnic group.
AN ITALIAN STEAM LOCOMOTIVE STILL RUNS IN ERITREA
One of the highlights of my visit to Eritrea was riding a vintage steam train on railway tracks over a century old. Negotiating 2.4 km of altitude along the way, the 117 km line from Asmara to Massawa was lauded as a masterpiece of Italian engineering when inaugurated in 1912. Back then, it comprised 29 tunnels, 13 stations, five big water tanks for cooling the engine and 45 bridges and viaducts, a major feat of Italy’s technical prowess in the early 20th century. In its heyday in the 1930s, the line was heavily used as part of Italy’s war effort in Ethiopia, transporting tens of thousands of Italian soldiers on dozens of daily services.
Largely destroyed by the 1970s, the track was gradually rebuilt after Eritrea gained independence, but, at the time of writing, hasn’t seen scheduled services for over a decade. These days trains run only as a charter service for tourists, covering a mere 18 km stretch of the original line, between Asmara and the small town of Nefasit.
A ride aboard the train is certainly a journey back in time: a plate on our vintage Italian-built Mallet locomotive evidenced its origins to 1938, while our green vintage car equipped with wooden benches was dated 1912. And it was my first ever train ride to feature real coal being thrown into a raging furnace as we dragged on, at barely 10 km per hour, leaving a dense cloud of smoke in our wake.
Booking a full car costs an exorbitant $1,050, although it seats up to 21 passengers, translating into a reasonable $50 per foreign visitor – a price no local could easily afford. The fact that few tourists find themselves in Eritrea at the same time means that the train only undertakes around 10 return journeys every year. Visiting Eritrea during Western holidays increases the chance of the train running, but, on the other hand, also means that you may find yourself in the company of every other tourist present in Eritrea at a given moment, which may or may not be a pleasant experience. I was nearly thrown out of the train window by a group of very angry Genovesi demanding my seat and eventually sought refuge in another, newly attached, car. A story to tell!