A church with four yellow towers and red cone shaped roof

Eritrea, Africa's Hermit Kingdom - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 28th April 2019

Getting Permission To Go

I tried to visit Eritrea in 2012, but my visa never arrived, the permission stuck in Asmara for well over a month. The trip was called off two days before I was due to leave and I went to St Kitts instead. The tour company withheld a large chunk of the monies I had paid ‘for irrecoverable expenses’ and I lost the cost of the flights too. I’ve been visa traumatised and Eritrea phobic ever since. So, it was with trepidation, that I decided to give it another go.

The process is different now. You have to make an appointment at the embassy and turn up in person to be vetted and fill in forms. Your mobile phone is confiscated, and all the doors have security locks on them. Nevertheless, the process is more efficient than the visa company I used previously. Much to my amazement, my visa is back within two weeks. The onus is on me to call to check and I have to travel up to Islington to collect it again. But it’s all remarkably straightforward. I’m off to visit what is often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom or the North Korea of Africa. I've read that you can't travel anywhere without the requisite permit and there are secret police all over.

Getting into Eritrea

Entry in Asmara is relatively stress free, although I’m rounded up as ‘a non-native’ and made to hand over my passport as I go in the door at airport immigration. A little man goes off to check my visa is valid. Then I’m allowed to join the back of the (long) immigration lines.

My guide is called Fessehaye (I can’t pronounce it - it seems to lose the first syllable) and he’s come to meet me in a battered Toyota pick-up. He speaks very little English, but compensates by being lithe and good looking in a smooth kind of way and letting me sit in the front seat. Fessehaye tells me he used to be a boxer. He looks much too slight to me, but he says he was a lightweight and that Mike Tyson would knock out any Eritrean with no trouble. He also knows everyone, so while I’m off taking photos, he’s gossiping with his acquaintances, who seem to appear wherever we park. We even stop off to see his wife and son.

A Brief History of Eritrea

  • The Kingdom of Aksum (Axum), covering much of modern-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, was established during the first or second century AD. and it adopted Christianity around the middle of the fourth century.
  • Their empire spread under the Ethiopian Zagwe and Solomonid dynasties (monarchs purporting to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) until it extended over the entire plateau and the Red Sea coast from the twelfth century.
  • Eritrea’s central highlands, known as Midri-Bahri ("Land of the Sea"), were the northern frontier region of the Ethiopian kingdoms and were ruled by a governor titled the Bahr Negash ("Lord of the Sea").
  • However power waxed and waned and in the sixteenth century the Ottomans arrived and occupied the Eritrean coastline, for more than three centuries.
  • The Italians created the colony of Eritrea in the nineteenth century around Asmara (it was once part of the Kingdom of Axum) and named it. As a result, the capital, Asmara is often referred to as Little Rome.
  • After World War II, Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia, with some British administration, causing much discontent amongst its people. Eventually, in 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian "Derg" government. This lead to full independence in 1993, though tensions have run high between the two countries, until very recently.
  • By 1990, 40% of Eritrean freedom fighters were female. The EPLF had a higher percentage of women than any other liberation army in the world.
  • Isaias Afwerki has been Eritrea’s only president since independence to present day. This is a unitary one-party presidential republic in which national legislative and presidential elections have never been held.

Facts and Factoids

  • Eritrea means “red”, after the Red Sea, labelled Sinus Erythraeus by the Greek settlers in Egypt.
  • Eritrea has no official national language. In the main ten languages are spoken: Tigrinya, Arabic, English, Saho, Bilen, Afar, Kunana, Nara, Tigre, and Hedareb.
  • Eritrea is one of the world's least developed countries. According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government's human rights record is among the worst in the world.

Is Eritrea a Safe Country?

Eritrea seems to be one of the safest countries in Africa. There may also be a problem with secret policemen - but I'm not knowledgeable enough about these things to  be able to spot them.

The Verdict

The hotels in Eritrea may not be to everyone’s taste, but this is a country well worth visiting. The scenery is extraordinary, the people friendly, and, once you’ve managed to get here, it’s not remotely like North Korea. (Except for the vast number of permits you need to go anywhere.)

I visited:

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4 comments on “Eritrea, Africa's Hermit Kingdom - in a Nutshell”

  1. Interesting country. Very little is know to outside world. Your article pushes Eritrea several place up my list of countries to visit.
    Very well written and laid out article.

  2. Fascinating article, Sue. I knew absolutely nothing about Eritrea except for its refugee status, but this has given me great insight into a culturally and geographically rich and interesting country. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting Sharon. Much appreciated. Let me know how you all are?

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