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Continuing Questions About Eritrea’s History

Every once in a while I’m sent questions about Eritrean history that  people are curious about. Often they are submitted in genuine curiosity and other times by someone who has believed a “truth” their whole life and is finally starting to realize that they had been misled. Recently I was sent comments from around the web that reflect tremendous confusion on the historical relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. One point of confusion is described best by this comment:

“Yeah but that’s just a label if my name is Danny [Eritrea] and your Olivia [Ethiopia] we got the same parents but different names does that not mean we’re not related?

The point of confusion hidden within  this comment is that Eritrea and Ethiopia share a common ancestry. The problem with that comment is that it hides a lot of deeper misunderstandings about the cultures of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea recognizes its varied cultures based on the concept of ethno-linguistic group. These are essentially “nations” in the sense that they have a distinct language. These ethno-linguistic groups are not differentiated by anything but their language (i.e. they are not distinguished on dialect, religion, etc.). This is one of a number of ways that ethnographers (those who research cultures) have defined ethnic groups. Similarly, Ethiopia has scores of ethno-linguistic groups. Of these ethno-linguistic groups, Eritrea and Ethiopia share the following:

  • Tigrinya (Eritrea) & Tigrayan (Ethiopia),
  • Saho (Eritrea) & Irob (Ethiopia),
  • Afar (Djibouti, Eritrea & Ethiopia), and
  • Kunama (Eritrea & Ethiopia).

The Tigrinya and Tigrayans share a language, Tigrinya, although it is spoken differently. The different way in which Tigrinya is spoken in Eritrea from Tigray is called a dialect, where the Eritrean dialect is called Asmara Tigrinya (the “de facto standard”) while the Ethiopian way of speaking Tigrinya is known as Tigray Tigrinya.12 In fact, the way Tigrinya is spoken in Eritrea was recognized over a quarter century ago, as being substantially different and the “de facto standard” for Tigrinya.3 Do these differences however identify a current distinction or an ongoing distinction between the Asmara Tigrinya speakers and Tigray Tigrinya speakers? To make such a distinction one would have to go beyond the linguistic discussion above and continue with a historical discussion. Of course in such discussion, the distinctions made would have to include a discussion of cultural and official distinctions between the two. The most emblematic distinction is that describing the area that was historical north of the the Ethiopian Empire. This region was self-identified (by the peoples living there) as Midri Bahri. This region was identified as early as the 14th century and lasted until the colonization of the region by the Italians at the end of the 19th century.45 By those in the Ethiopian Empire however, this region was known as “Mereb Mellash” which translates to “beyond the Mereb [River],” the traditional central boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia.6 As described above, the geographical boundary between central Eritrea, and the distinction between the States has existed for nearly half a millennium.

Habesha

Another frustrating comment I’ve heard is “Don’t separate Eritrea & Ethiopia … because they are both Habesha.” The idea of “separating” Eritrea and Ethiopia was already discussed above, while the second part of the comment is the subject of this section. What does the term Habesha mean? In short, it was a term used to refer to the people living in the Eritrean highlands and northern Ethiopian highlands by those living in the southern Arabian peninsula.7 The term is therefore only inclusive of the Tigrinya (50% of Eritreans), Tigrayans (6.1%8 Ethiopians) and Amharas (34.5%9 of Ethiopians). The term was used as far back as the first century  AD.10 Therefore, although an ancient term of reference for those living in the highlands of northeast Africa, it is inaccurate as a reference to Eritreans and Ethiopians as barely 50% of Eritreans qualify and even fewer Ethiopians qualify (less than 41%). The term Habesha thus, is a short hand reference to a non-majority culture in both countries.

I hope these clarifications are helpful. If there are more clarifications needed please feel free to ask in the comments!


  1. Language Centre Resource – Tigrinya, Language Centre University of Cambridge, http://www.langcen.cam.ac.uk/resources/lang-t/lang_t.php?c=1 

  2. Taddese Beyene, Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 20 

  3. Taddese Beyene, Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 21 

  4. Okbazghi Yohannes, Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics, University of Florida Press, 1991 (31)  

  5. Lionel Cliffe & Basil Davidson, The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace, Red Sea Press, 1988 (13)  

  6. Dan Connell & Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, Scarecrow Press, 2010 (355)  

  7. Dan Connell & Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, Scarecrow Press, 2010 (279)  

  8. Ethiopia, The World Factbook, CIA, 2014, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html 

  9. Ethiopia, The World Factbook, CIA, 2014, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html 

  10. Dan Connell & Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, Scarecrow Press, 2010 (279)  

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  • Asmara Tigrinya — This is very misleading and inaccurate. Tigrinya spoken in Eritrea is simply ‘Tigrinya’; there are variations within Eritrea also but none of them is called Asmara – not officially, not colloquially.

    • merhawie

      Thanks for commenting Issayas. Please note the reference. Tigrinya, particularly the dialect (which is the de facto standard, including in Tigray) is referred to as the “Asmara variation.” This is not colloquial terminology but rather a linguistic categorization. I would refer you to the reference noted in the article (repeated here for convenience: Taddese Beyene, Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 20). *Note: I updated the references for clarity but did not change the text.