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Eritrea, country of the Horn of Africa, located on the Red Sea. Eritrea’s coastal location has long been important in its history and culture—a fact reflected in its name, which is an Italianized version of Mare Erythraeum, Latin for “Red Sea.” The Red Sea was the route by which Christianity and Islam reached the area, and it was an important trade route that such powers as Turkey, Egypt, and Italy hoped to dominate by seizing control of ports on the Eritrean coast. Those ports promised access to the gold, coffee, and slaves sold by traders in the Ethiopian highlands to the south, and, in the second half of the 20th century, Ethiopia became the power from which the Eritrean people had to free themselves in order to create their own state.
In 1993, after a war of independence that lasted nearly three decades, Eritrea became a sovereign country. During the long struggle, the people of Eritrea managed to forge a common national consciousness, but, with peace established, they faced the task of overcoming their ethnic and religious differences in order to raise the country from a poverty made worse by years of drought, neglect, and war. Eritrea’s capital and largest city is Asmara (Asmera).
Eritrea’s coastline, forming the northeastern edge of the country, extends for roughly 600 miles (1,000 km) from Cape Kasar, in the north, to the Strait of Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden in the south. The country is bounded to the southeast by Djibouti, to the south by Ethiopia, and to the west by Sudan.
Eritrea’s land is highly variegated. Running on a north-south axis through the middle of the country are the central highlands, a narrow strip of country some 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) above sea level that represents the northern reaches of the Ethiopian Plateau. The highest point is Mount Soira, at 9,885 feet (3,013 metres). Geologically, the plateau consists of a foundation of crystalline rock (e.g., granite, gneiss, and mica schist) that is overlain by sedimentary rock (limestone and sandstone) and capped by basalt (rock of volcanic origin). The upper layers have been highly dissected by deep gorges and river channels, forming small, steep-sided, flat-topped tablelands known as ambas. Encouraged by the steady expansion of cultivation, soil erosion on the plateau has left few wooded areas.
Eritrea has a wide variety of climatic conditions, produced mainly by differences in elevation. The effects of elevation are seen most clearly in the wide range of temperatures experienced throughout the country. On the coast, Massawa (Mitsiwa) has one of the highest averages in the world (the mid-80s F [about 30 °C]), while Asmara, only 40 miles (65 km) away yet roughly 7,500 feet (2,300 metres) higher on the plateau, averages in the low 60s F (about 17 °C).
Mean annual rainfall on the plateau is about 16 to 20 inches (400 to 500 mm), while on the western plain it is less than 16 inches. In both the highlands and the western lowlands, rainfall comes in summer, carried on a southwesterly airstream. Toward the northeastern extremes of the plateau, the amount of precipitation decreases, and the length of the rainy season becomes shorter. The eastern edges of the plateau and, to a lesser extent, the coastal fringes receive much smaller quantities of rain from a northeasterly airstream that arrives in winter and spring. The interior regions of the Danakil Plain are practically rainless.
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