The Italian Colony of Eritrea (Colonie Italiane Eritrea) was formally proclaimed on January 1, 1890, although the first Italian settlements in the area were established in 1882 around Assab. Along with Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, it became part of Italian East Africa in 1936. The British occupied the area from 1941 until 1952, while the Italians gave up the colony in 1947 when it was federated with Ethiopia. Eritrea became fully independent in 1993. Currently, it is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast. The northeastern and eastern parts of Eritrea have an extensive coastline along the Red Sea. In 1936, the colony comprised 46,718 square miles (121,000 square kilometers) and had a population of just one million. Eritrea is based on the Greek name for the Red Sea (Erythra Thalassa — Ἐρυθρὰ Θάλασσα), which was first adopted for Italian Eritrea in 1890.
The area of Eritrea has a long prehistory. One of the oldest hominids representing a possible link between Homo erectus and an archaic Homo sapiens was found by Italian scientists at Buya in Eritrea. Dated to over one million years old, it is the oldest skeletal find of its kind and provides a link between hominids and the earliest anatomically modern humans. It is believed that the section of the Danakil Depression in Eritrea was also a major player in terms of human evolution, and may contain other traces of evolution from Homo erectus hominids to anatomically modern humans.
During the last interglacial period, the Red Sea coast of Eritrea was occupied by early anatomically modern humans. It is believed that the area was on the route out of Africa that some scholars suggest was used by early humans to colonize the rest of the Old World. In 1999, the Eritrean Research Project Team composed of Eritrean, Canadian, American, Dutch and French scientists discovered a Paleolithic site with stone and obsidian tools dated to over 125,000 years old near the Bay of Zula south of Massawa, along the Red Sea littoral. The tools are believed to have been used by early humans to harvest marine resources like clams and oysters.
According to linguists, the first Afroasiatic-speaking populations arrived in the region during the ensuing Neolithic era from the family’s proposed urheimat (“original homeland”) in the Nile Valley. Other scholars propose that the Afroasiatic family developed in situ in the Horn, with its speakers subsequently dispersing from there.
Together with Djibouti, Ethiopia, northern Somalia, and the Red Sea coast of Sudan, Eritrea is considered the most likely location of the land known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt, whose first mention dates to the twenty-fifth century BC. The ancient Puntites had close relations with Ancient Egypt during the times of Pharaoh Sahure and Queen Hatshepsut.
In 2010, a genetic study was conducted on the mummified remains of baboons that were brought back as gifts from Punt by the ancient Egyptians. Led by a research team from the Egyptian Museum and the University of California, the scientists used oxygen isotope analysis to examine hairs from two baboon mummies that had been preserved in the British Museum. One of the baboons had distorted isotopic data, so the other’s oxygen isotope values were compared to those of present-day baboon specimens from regions of interest. The researchers initially found that the mummies most closely matched modern baboon specimens in Eritrea and Ethiopia, which they suggested implied that Punt was likely a narrow region that included eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea. In 2015, isotopic analysis of other ancient baboon mummies from Punt confirmed that the specimens likely originated from an area encompassing the Eritrea-Ethiopia corridor and eastern Somalia.
Excavations at Sembel found evidence of an ancient pre-Aksumite civilization in greater Asmara. This Ona urban culture is believed to have been among the earliest pastoral and agricultural communities in the Horn region. Artifacts at the site have been dated to between 800 BC and 400 BC, contemporaneous with other pre-Aksumite settlements in the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands during the mid-first millennium BC. Additionally, the Ona culture may have had connections with the ancient Land of Punt. In a tomb in Thebes (Luxor) dated to the eighteenth dynasty reign of Pharaoh Amenophis II (Amenhotep II), long-necked pots similar to those that were made by the Ona people are depicted as part of the cargo in a ship from Punt.
Dʿmt was a kingdom that encompassed most of Eritrea and the northern frontier of Ethiopia. The polity existed during the tenth to fifth centuries BC. Given the presence of a massive temple complex, its capital was most likely at Yeha. Qohaito, often identified as the town of Koloe in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, as well as Matara were important ancient Dʿmt kingdom cities in southern Eritrea.
The realm developed irrigation schemes, used plows, grew millet, and made iron tools and weapons. After the fall of Dʿmt in the fifth century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms. This lasted until the rise of one of these polities during the first century, the Kingdom of Aksum, which was able to reunite the area. Aksum was a trading empire centered in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. It existed from approximately 100–940 AD, growing from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around the fourth century BC to achieve prominence by the first century AD.
According to the medieval Liber Axumae (Book of Aksum), Aksum’s first capital, Mazaber, was built by Itiyopis, son of Cush. The capital was later moved to Aksum in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name Ethiopia as early as the fourth century.
The Aksumites erected a number of large stelae, which served a religious purpose in pre-Christian times. One of these granite columns, the Obelisk of Aksum, is the largest such structure in the world, standing at 90 feet. Under Ezana (fl. 320–360), Aksum later adopted Christianity. In the seventh century, early Muslims from Mecca also sought refuge from Quraysh persecution by traveling to the kingdom, a journey known in Islamic history as the First Hijra. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.
The kingdom is mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as an important market place for ivory, which was exported throughout the ancient world. Aksum was at the time ruled by Zoskales, who also governed the port of Adulis. The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own Aksumite currency. The state also established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom.
After the decline of Aksum, the Eritrean highlands were under the domain of Bahr Negash ruled by the Bahr Negus. The area was then known as Ma’ikele Bahr (“between the seas/rivers,” i.e. the land between the Red Sea and the Mereb River). It was later renamed under Emperor Zara Yaqob as the domain of the Bahr Negash, the Medri Bahri (“Sea land” in Tingrinya, although it included some areas like Shire on the other side of the Mereb, today in Ethiopia). With its capital at Debarwa, the state’s main provinces were Hamasien, Serae and Akele Guzai.
Turks briefly occupied the highland parts of Baharnagash in 1559 and withdrew after they encountered resistance and were pushed back by the Bahrnegash and highland forces. In 1578, they tried to expand into the highlands with the help of Bahr Negash Yisehaq who had switched alliances due to power struggle, and by 1589 once again they were apparently compelled to withdraw their forces to the coast. After that Ottomans abandoned their ambitions to establish themselves on the highlands and remained in the lowlands until they left the region by 1872.
The Scottish traveler James Bruce reported in 1770 that Medri Bahri was a distinct political entity from Abyssinia, noting that the two territories were frequently in conflict. The Bahre-Nagassi (“Kings of the Sea”) alternately fought with or against the Abyssinians and the neighboring Muslim Adal Sultanate depending on the geopolitical circumstances. Medri Bahri was thus part of the Christian resistance against Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi of Adal’s forces, but later joined the Adalite states and the Ottoman Empire front against Abyssinia in 1572. The sixteenth century also marked the arrival of the Ottomans, who began making inroads in the Red Sea area.
At the end of the sisteenth century, the Aussa Sultanate was established in the Denkel lowlands of Eritrea. The polity had come into existence in 1577, when Muhammed Jasa moved his capital from Harar to Aussa (Asaita) with the split of the Adal Sultanate into Aussa and the Sultanate of Harar. At some point after 1672, Aussa declined in conjunction with Imam Umar Din bin Adam’s recorded ascension to the throne. In 1734, the Afar leader Kedafu, head of the Mudaito clan, seized power and established the Mudaito Dynasty. This marked the start of a new and more sophisticated polity that would last into the colonial period.
By 1517, the Ottomans had succeeded in conquering Medri Bahri. They occupied all of northeastern present-day Eritrea for the next two decades, an area which stretched from Massawa to Swakin in Sudan. The territory became an Ottoman governorate (eyalet) known as the Habesh Eyalet. Massawa served as the new province’s first capital. When the city became of secondary economical importance, the administrative capital was soon moved across the Red Sea to Jeddah. Its headquarters remained there from the end of the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, with Medina temporarily serving as the capital in the eighteenth century.
The Ottomans were eventually driven out in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. However, they retained control over the seaboard until the establishment of Italian Eritrea in the late 1800s.
The boundaries of the present-day Eritrea nation state were established during the Scramble for Africa. In 1869 or 1870, the ruling Sultan of Raheita sold lands surrounding the Bay of Assab to the Rubattino Shipping Company. The area served as a coaling station along the shipping lanes introduced by the recently completed Suez Canal. Long dominated by the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, the area was not settled by the Italians until 1880; two years later, the Kingdom of Italy took possession of the nascent colony from its commercial owners.
Most of the western coast of the Red Sea was then formally claimed by the Khedivate of Egypt (under the notional rule of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, who held the eastern coast) but the region was thrown into chaos by major Egyptian defeats in the Ethio-Egyptian War and by the success of the Mahdi’s uprising in the Sudan. In 1884, the British Hewett Treaty promised the Bogos — the highlands of modern Eritrea — and free access to the Massawan coast to Emperor Yohannes IV in exchange for his help evacuating garrisons from the Sudan.
In the vacuum left by the Egyptian withdrawal, though, British diplomats were concerned about the rapid expansion of French Somaliland, France’s colony along the Gulf of Tadjoura. Ignoring their treaty with Ethiopia, they openly encouraged Italy to expand north into Massawa, which was taken without a shot from its Egyptian garrison. Located on a coral island surrounded by lucrative pearl-fishing grounds, the superior port was fortified and made the capital of the Italian governor. Assab, meanwhile, continued to find service as a coaling station. As they were not a party to the Hewett Treaty, the Italians began restricting access to arms shipments and imposing customs duties on Ethiopian goods immediately.
In the disorder that followed the 1889 death of Emperor Yohannes IV, General Oreste Baratieri occupied the highlands along the Italian coast and Italy proclaimed the establishment of a new colony of Eritrea. In the Treaty of Wuchale (Uccialli) signed the same year, King Menelik of Shewa — a southern Ethiopian kingdom — recognized the Italian occupation of his rivals’ lands of Bogos, Hamasien, Akkele Guzay, and Serae in exchange for guarantees of financial assistance and continuing access to European arms and ammunition. His subsequent victory over his rival kings and enthronement as Emperor Menelek II made the treaty formally binding upon the entire country. Once established, however, Menelik took a dim view towards Italian involvement with local leaders in his northern province of Tigray.
The Tigrayan leaders themselves continued to claim the provinces now held by Italy. Negotiations with the French over a railway brought things to a head. The Italian — but not Amharic — version of the Treaty of Wuchale had prohibited Ethiopia with foreign negotiations except through Italy, effectively making the realm an Italian protectorate. Secure both domestically and militarily (thanks to arms shipments via French Djibouti and Harar), Menelik denounced the treaty in whole and the ensuing war, culminating in Italy’s disastrous defeat at Adwa, ended their hopes of annexing Ethiopia for a time.
During the late twentieth century Assab would become Ethiopia’s main port, but it was long overshadowed by nearby Djibouti, whose railway (completed to Dire Dawa in 1902) permitted it to quickly supplant traditional caravan-based routes to Assab and Zeila. Massawa remained the primary port for most of northern Ethiopia, but its relatively high customs dues, dependence on caravans, and political antagonism limited the volume on its trade with Ethiopia.
Seeking to develop their own lands, the Italian government launched the first development projects in the new colony in the late 1880s. The Eritrean Railway was completed to Saati in 1888 and reached Asmara in the highlands in 1911. The Asmara–Massawa Cableway (dismantled by the British as war reparations in World War II) was the longest line in the world during its time.
The first stamps of Eritrea were overprinted stamps of Italy issued on January 1, 1893. Before that, Egyptian stamps were used at Massawa between 1869 and 1885. The first stamps specifically for Eritrea were stamps inscribed COLONIA ERITREA issued in 1910.
Italian administration of Eritrea brought improvements in the medical and agricultural sectors of Eritrean society. Despite an imposition of racial laws, all urban Eritreans had access to modern sanitation and hospital services. The Italians also employed local Eritreans in public service, particularly the police and public works departments. In a region marked by cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity, a succession of Italian governors maintained a notable degree of unity and public order.
Nicknamed Colonia Primogenita (“First-born Colony”) in contrast to the newer and less-developed territories of Italian Somaliland and Libya, Eritrea boasted a larger native Italian settlement than the other lands. The first few dozen families were sponsored by the Italian government around the start of the twentieth century and settled around Asmara and Massawa. The Italian-Eritrean community then grew from around 4,000 during World War I to nearly 100,000 at the beginning of World War II. While tolerating Islamic adherence, the Italians endorsed a huge expansion of Catholicism in Eritrea and constructed many churches in the highlands around Asmara and Keren, centered on the St Joseph Cathedral in the capital. By the early 1940s, Catholicism was the declared religion of around 28% of the colony’s population.
Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy in 1922 brought profound changes to the colonial government in Eritrea. After il Duce declared the birth of Italian Empire in May 1936, Italian Eritrea (enlarged with northern Ethiopia’s regions) and Italian Somaliland were merged with the just conquered Ethiopia in the new Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) administrative territory. This was formed Italian East Africa on June 1, 1936. Stamps for Italian East Africa were first issued on February 7, 1938, and continued until 1941.
The Fascist period was characterized by imperial expansion in the name of a “new Roman Empire”. Eritrea was chosen by the Italian government to be the industrial center of Italian East Africa: The capital of Eritrea experienced a huge increase in population: in 1935 there were only 4,000 Italians and 12,000 Eritreans, while in 1938 there were 48,000 Italians and 36,000 Eritreans.
The Italian government continued to implement agricultural reforms but primarily on farms owned by Italian colonists (exports of coffee boomed in the 1930s). In the area of Asmara, there were in 1940 more than 2,000 small and medium-sized industrial companies, which were concentrated in the areas of construction, mechanics, textiles, food processing and electricity. Consequently, the standard of living in Eritrea in 1939 was considered among the best on the continent for both the local Eritreans and the Italian settlers.
Mussolini’s government considered the colony as a strategic base for future aggrandizement and ruled accordingly, using Eritrea as a base to launch its 1935–1936 campaign to conquer and colonize Ethiopia. Even in World War II the Italians used Eritrea to attack Sudan and occupy the Kassala area. Indeed, the best Italian colonial troops were the Eritrean Ascari, as stated by Italian Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and legendary officer Amedeo Guillet. Furthermore, after World War I, service with the Ascari become the main source of paid employment for the indigenous male population of Italian Eritrea. During the expansion required by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, 40% of eligible Eritreans were enrolled in these colonial troops.
According to the Italian census of 1939 the city of Asmara had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were Italians. This fact made Asmara the main “Italian town” of the Italian empire in Africa. Furthermore, because of the Italian architecture of the city, Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).
Asmara was known to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but Asmara also had more traffic lights than Rome did when the city was being built. The city incorporates many features of a planned city. Asmara was an early example of an ideal modern city created by architects, an idea which was introduced into many cities across the world, such as Brasilia, but which was not altogether popular. Features include designated city zoning and planning, wide treed boulevards, political areas and districts and space and scope for development. Asmara was not built for the Eritreans however; the Italians built it primarily for themselves and made the city a typical Italian city with even its own car race (called the Asmara circuit).
The city has been regarded as “New Rome” due to its quintessential Italian touch, not only for the architecture, but also for the wide streets, piazzas and coffee bars. While the boulevards are lined with palms and indigenous shiba’kha trees, there are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving cappucinos and lattes, as well as ice cream parlors.
Many industrial investments were endorsed by the Italians in the area of Asmara and Massawa, but the beginning of World War II stopped the blossoming industrialization of Eritrea.
When the British army conquered Eritrea in January 1941, most of the infrastructures and the industrial areas were extremely damaged and the remaining ones (like the Asmara-Massawa Cableway) were successively removed and sent toward India and British possessions in Africa as a war booty. The following Italian guerrilla war was supported by many Eritrean colonial troops (like the “hero” of Eritrean independence, Hamid Idris Awate ) until the Italian armistice in September 1943. Eritrea was placed under British military administration after the Italian surrender in World War II.
The Italians in Eritrea started to move away from the country after the defeat of the Kingdom of Italy by the Allies, and by the time of the British census of 1949 Asmara had only 17,183 Italian Eritreans of a total population of 127,579. Most Italian settlers left for Italy, with others to the United States, Middle East, and Australia.
After British forces occupied Eritrea and the other Italian colonies, British postage stamps overprinted M.E.F. (Middle East Forces) were used. These were replaced by issues overprinted B.M.A. ERITREA or later B.A. ERITREA to reflect the change from British military to British civil administration. Stamps overprinted in this way were in use from March 2, 1942, to September 14, 1952.
The British maintained initially the Italian administration of Eritrea, but the country soon started to be involved in a violent process of independence (from the British in the late forties and after 1952 from the Ethiopians, who annexed Eritrea in that year).
During the last years of World War II some Italian Eritreans like Dr. Vincenzo Di Meglio defended politically the presence of Italians in Eritrea and successively promoted the independence of Eritrea. He went to Rome to participate in a Conference for the independence of Eritrea, promoted by the Vatican. After the war Di Meglio was named Director of the Comitato Rappresentativo Italiani dell’ Eritrea (CRIE). In 1947, he supported the creation of the Associazione Italo-Eritrei and the Associazione Veterani Ascari, in order to get alliance with the Eritreans favorable to Italy in Eritrea. As a result of these creations, he cofounded the Partito Eritrea Pro Italia (Party of Shara Italy) in September 1947, an Eritrean political Party favorable to the Italian presence in Eritrea that obtained more than 200,000 inscriptions of membership in one single month.
The Italian Eritreans strongly rejected the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea after the war: the Party of Shara Italy was established in Asmara in 1947 and the majority of the members were former Italian soldiers with many Eritrean Ascari (the organization was even backed up by the government of Italy). The main objective of this party was Eritrean freedom, but they had a pre-condition that stated that before independence the country should be governed by Italy for at least 15 years.
With the Peace Treaty of 1947 Italy officially accepted the end of the colony. As a consequence the Italian community started to disappear, mainly after the Ethiopian government took control of Eritrea.
Scott #158 was the low value — 2 centimes — in a set of 10 definitives (Scott #158-167) released by the Italian colony in 1934. The deep blue stamp was printed by the photogravure process and is perforated 14. It portrays a dromedary, also called the Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius), the smallest of the three species of camel. It which is a large, even-toed ungulate with one hump on its back. Adult males stand 5.9-6.6 feet (1.8–2 meters) at the shoulder, while females are 5.6-6.2 feet (1.7–1.9 meters) tall. Males typically weigh between 800 and 1,320 pounds (400 and 600 kilograms), and females weigh between 660 and 1,190 pounds (300 and 540 kg). The species’ distinctive features include its long, curved neck, narrow chest, a single hump (compared with two on the Bactrian camel and wild Bactrian camel), and long hairs on the throat, shoulders and hump. The coat is generally a shade of brown. The hump, 7.9 inches (20 centimeters) tall or more, is made of fat bound together by fibrous tissue.
Dromedaries are mainly active during daylight hours. They form herds of about 20 individuals, which are led by a dominant male. This camel feeds on foliage and desert vegetation; several adaptations, such as the ability to tolerate losing more than 30% of its total water content, allow it to thrive in its desert habitat. Mating occurs annually and peaks in the rainy season; females bear a single calf after a gestation of 15 months.
The dromedary has not occurred naturally in the wild for nearly 2,000 years. It was probably first domesticated in Somalia or the Arabian Peninsula about 4,000 years ago. In the wild, the dromedary inhabited arid regions, including the Sahara Desert. The domesticated dromedary is generally found in the semi-arid to arid regions of the Old World, mainly in Africa, and a significant feral population occurs in Australia. Products of the dromedary, including its meat and milk, support several north Arabian tribes; it is also commonly used for riding and as a beast of burden.