Eritrea is a peculiar country. This small tract of land poised at the crossroads of three continents offers visitors a unique experience. Although in Africa, it is not wholly African. While its broad shoreline faces the Middle East, it is not overtly Arabian. And although its capital evokes Europe it is not European. However, being positioned at this unique cultural and geographical junction, the forces that have imbued Eritrea with an astonishingly rich cultural heritage have also caused bitter divisiveness. This is a land of great history, diverse culture, remarkable landscapes, disparate climates, and charming people.
For such a small country, Eritrea offers astonishing variety, therefore visitors tend to have a wide range of interests and expectations – from archaeologists to architects; from scholars to scuba divers; from aid workers to adventurers; from historians to hikers; and from cyclists to steam railway buffs. While there are many reasons to come to Eritrea, there is one impression that endures when you leave – the remarkable kindliness and unreserved humanity of the Eritrean people. Countless words have been penned by travel writers extolling the virtues of a particular place and its people and many would be forgiven for slight bias or the odd transgression into mild exaggeration, but in Eritrea, eulogizing is justified. Making friends in Eritrea is an unavoidable pleasure and one that touches the lives of so many visitors.
The country stretches along the Red Sea and is low-lying in the eastern coastal regions and western border with Sudan, with a precipitous mountainous interior rising to a majestic 2,500m (8200ft) above sea level. Having been colonised in part by the Turks and Egyptians, Eritrea was defined following the arrival of the Italians in 1885 during their belated entry in the ‘scramble for Africa’. The legacies of successive foreign forces, combined with a rich mix of nine local ethnic groups have created a diverse cultural landscape that offers the best of African, Middle Eastern and European influences.
Despite its many changes in fortune, Eritrea boasts an abundance of cultural and natural attractions. The colonial and Modernist architecture of its towns and cities is as stunning and startling as the wildlife that populates its mountainous escarpments, deserts and coastline. Elephants, lions, baboons, gazelles, leopards, ostriches, turtles, dugongs and some of the continent’s rarest birds can all be found here. With a coastline extending nearly 1,000km along the Red Sea, where it is not uncommon to see angelfish, barracudas, butterfly fish and several varieties of crabs, sea cucumbers and jellyfish, Eritrea offers some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world, as well as the most secluded beaches. Any visitor who has the chance to experience Eritrea’s many secrets, travel across its mountains and deserts, swim off its coastline, and meet its people will feel their life has been touched by something very special.
- Area: 117,600 sq km (45,405 sq miles).
- Population: 6.2 million (2013).
- Population density: 53.0 per sq km.
- Capital: Asmara.
- Government: Independent state since 1993.
- Head of state: President Isaias Afewerki since 1993.
- Head of government: President Isaias Afewerki since 1993.
- Electricity: 110/220 volts AC; there are occasional power surges.