Since the beginning of time, Eritrea has attracted migrants, merchants and meddlesome foreign powers. Today, these influences are reflected in the countrys diverse ethnic population.The Italian historian, Conti Rossini, described Eritrea as un museo populi (a museum of peoples).
In Eritrea, friends and strangers are welcomed alike with a smiling face, a trademark of the Eritrean culture. Bright and colourful, cheerful and hospitable, a mixture of faiths and cultures the people of Eritrea find harmony and unity in diversity. Eritrea has been home to various ethnic groups for thousands of years. In todays Eritrea, there are nine distinct ethnic groups.
The Tigrinya make up 50% of the Eritrean population and inhabit the densely populated central highlands, extending over the Regions of Maekel and Debub. The people are sedentary farmers and are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians, with just a small minority of Muslims, who are known as Jeberti. The very distinct plaited hair-style of the women has been depicted for centuries in local art.The people have always been attached to their land and the community is traditionally tightly knit and conservative. Tigrinya is one of the countrys official languages.
The Tigre make up 31.4% of the population, and inhabit the northern lowlands, from the Sudanese frontier to the western limits of the Danakil.A very heterogeneous people, the Tigre are divided into groups and clans. Most are Muslims, and they are both sedentary and nomadic. The sedentary farmers cultivate maize,durra(sorghum) and other cereals.The society is traditionally hierarchical, with a small aristocracy known asshemagilleruling the masses. When the village leader dies, his power passes into his offspring.Their oral literature is rich and ranges from fables, riddles ad poetry to funeral dirges, war cries and supernatural stories. The Tigre are also known for their love of singing and dancing, usually to the accompaniment of a drum andmesenko(a type of guitar). Dances are celebrated on many occasions, such as when a new water hole is found.
The Saho make up 5% of the population; they inhabit the coast and the hinterland south of Asmara and Massawa. Towards the end of April, when the rains stop in the lowlands, many Saho leave the coastal area and trek with their livestock up to the highlands of Akele Guzay. When the rains stop in September, the people return for the wet season on the coastal lowlands.
The people are predominantly Muslim. Today, they often tend other peoples cattle, including those of Tigrinya, in exchange for grain. Many Saho children (up to the age 16) wear little leather pouches around their neck, which are full of herbs and spices to ward off evil spirits. Some Saho are sedentary farmers who have settled in the highlands of Akele Guzay. Honey is an important part of the Saho diet and the people are also known as good beekeepers. In the past, they were also reputed as warriors, and were often enlisted to escort trade caravans to the port of Massawa.
The Saho are organized in patrilineal descent groups. The leaders, elected by the male assembly, are known asrezantos, and were formerly the military chiefs in times of war.
Since early times, the Afar territory has been divided into kingdoms and ruled by individual sultans who have always remained fiercely independent of any foreign power.The sole inhabitants of one of the most inhospitable regions on earth, during the last 100 years the Afars had acquired a fearsome reputation, but this is not the case since 1950s.The men still carry the famousjileor curved knife, and some file their teeth to points. Afar oral literature reveals a high esteem for military prowess, with a whole repertoire of war chants. Today, their songs tend to extol the virtues of the camel.
The Hedareb, along with their brother tribes the Beni Amer and Beja, make up 2.5% of the population, and inhabit the north-western valleys of Eritrea, straddling the border with Sudan.Most Hedarebs are nomadic and travel great distances in search of pastures. The people are Cushitic in origin (probably directly descended from the ancient Beja tribe) and speak mainly Tigre and an ancient Beja language.The Beni Amer are strongly patriarchal, socially stratified, almost feudal people. Their skills as camel drivers and in raising camels are legendary. Many of the men scarify their cheeks with three short, vertical strokes.
The Bilen inhabit the environs of Keren and make up 2.1% of the population. Cushitic in origin, the Bilen are either sedentary Christian farmers or Muslim cattle rearers.Bilen traditional society is organized into kinship groups. The Women are known for their bright coloured clothes and their gold, silver or copper nose rings which indicate their means and social status. Henna tattoos that mimic diamond necklaces or little freckles are fashionable among the women.
The Kunama inhabit the Gash-Setit province in the south-western corners of Eritrea, close to Ethiopia and Sudanese border, and make up 2% of the population. Barentu is their capital. The Kunama people are Nilotic in origin, and very dark skinned. They are the original inhabitants of the region.
A few Kunama are Muslim, some Christian, but the great majority are animist. According to their beliefs, the higher divinity, Anna, created the sky and the earth but is largely indifferent to human face. The spirits, by contrast, must be placated before every event, even ploughing of a field.
Kunama society is patriarchal, but contains certain matriarchal elements, including inheritance through the female side. The society is egalitarian, recognizing only authority of the elders and the village assemblies. The Kunama community is closely knit, and many educated Kunama abandon the city to return to the country.
Land is often farmed cooperatively, and after the work is finished, the village united to celebrate with feasting and dancing.The Kunama are known for their dances, and have developed more than 25 dance forms, often re-enacting great historical events and victories which was popularized during resistance movement against Ethiopia.
The Nara make 1.5% of the population and inhabit the Barka Valley near the Sudanese border. Along with the Kunama, they are the only Nilotic (Negroid) Eritrean tribe, and are mainly Muslims. The People are sedentary farmers and share many customs with their neighbors the Kunama.
Making up just 0.5% of the population, the Rashaida roam the northern coasts of Eritrea and Sudan, as well as the southern reaches of the Nubian Desert. Like their neighbours, the Beja (related to the Hedareb), they live by raising cattle and are Muslims.
The Rashaida were the last of the Semitic people to arrive in Eritrea in the middle of the 19th century. Their language is Arabic.
The magnificent Rashaida women are famous for their black-and-red geometrically patterned dresses, and their long, heavy veils, the burga, elaborately embroidered with silver threads, beads, and sometimes seed pearls.
The Rashaida people are known for their great pride; marriage is only permitted within their own clan. The people are expert goat and cattle rearers, as well as merchants and traders along the Red Sea coasts.