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Pre-colonial time (until 1860)

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In 2003, archaeologists discovered in Buya (or Buia), a locality in the northern Danakil Depression of Eritrea, the remains of a woman dating from one and half million years ago. This discovery placed Eritrea near the dawn of human kind. Evidence of both agricultural cultivations and breeding of livestock in the region can be traced back to 5000 BC. By the second millennium BC, the Eritrean coast was almost certainly visited by Egyptian trading expeditions. Historians consider Eritrea as the most likely location of the land known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt, first mentioned as early as the twenty-fifth century BC.

Punt was a gold producing country. The Punt reliefs of Queen Hatshepsut at Thebes are undoubtedly the most interesting series of reliefs in Egypt, and form almost the only early source of information for the land of Punt. They are as beautiful in execution as they are important in content. They record an important expedition of the queen thither, which was successfully concluded just before her ninth year. The reliefs illustrating her expedition, which Hatshepsut had carved in her beautiful Der el-Bahri temple, are therefore, as stated, the first and only full source for a study of ancient Punt and the voyage thither. The expedition, like those of Henub and of Khentkhetwer, may have left the Nile at Koptos, and proceeded by caravan to Wadi Gasus on the Red Sea, where the ships may have been built.

The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of athe country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's-Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold 'of Emu, with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with ihmut-incense, sonter-incense, eye-cosmetic, Swith apes, »monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning.

The only earlier evidences of intercourse with Punt are as follows. In the Fourth Dynasty a Puntite appears as the slave of one of the sons of King Khufu; in the Fifth, King Sahure sent an expedition thither and King Isesi sent another, which brought back a dancing dwarf; in the Sixth, an officer of Pepi II, named Enenkhet, was killed by the Sand-dwellers on the coast, while building a ship for the Punt voyage.

Another expedition thither under the same king was led by the assistant treasurer, Thethy; in the Eleventh Dynasty, Henu, chief treasurer of King Senekhkere-Mentuhotep III, dispatched an expedition to Punt, which he accompanied only to the coast of the Red Sea; in the Twelfth Dynasty, an officer of Amenemhet II, named Khentkhetwer, records his safe return from Punt; and finally there was also an expedition under Sesostris II (I, 618). None of these sources contains more than the meagerest reference to the fact of the expedition.

Until the first centuries AD, civilisations and kingdoms flourished on the territory of present-day Eritrea. Excavations at Sembel, a village near Asmara, uncovered evidence of one of the earliest urban, pastoral and agricultural communities of the Horn of Africa.

Similarly, archaeological excavations in and near Agordat in central Eritrea yielded the remains of a culture known as the “Gash Group” that inhabited the Nile Valley between 2500 and 1500 BC. From the eighth to the fifth century BC, the Kingdom of D’mt encompassed most of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. It built temples and irrigation systems, and fabricated iron tools and weapons. After its fall, the highlands of Eritrea were dominated by smaller successor entities until the rise of the Kingdom of Aksum, also known as the Aksumite Empire.

The Aksumite Empire extended its control over most of present-day Eritrea and the northern part of Ethiopia (as well as Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan, at its height) from the second to the tenth century A.D. The capital city of the Empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. By the end of the third century AD, it had begun minting its own currency and had become a center for trade between West and East. Dominating states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, it was named by the Persian philosopher Mani (216–274 AD) as one of the four great powers of its time along with Persia, Rome and China. As of the seventh century AD, the Aksumite Empire faced the rapid expansion of Islam. Eventually, the Islamic Caliphate took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile. Aksum, forced into economic isolation, started to decline.

After the fall of the Aksumite Empire around the tenth century A.D., the highlands passed under the rule of the Bahr Negus (lit. the "King of the Sea") and its kingdom, first called Ma'ikele Bahr (lit. “the land between the Red Sea and the Mereb river”) and later renamed Medri Bahri (lit. the “Sea land” in Tigrinya). Its capital was Debarwa, located 25 kilometres south of present-day Asmara. Medri Bahri was a distinct political entity from Abyssinia, the Ethiopian Empire founded by Mara Takla Haymanot in 1137. The Bahr Negus alternately fought with or against the Abyssinians and the neighboring Muslim states, depending on the circumstances.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the Ottomans had succeeded in conquering Medri Bahri, causing the territory to become part of the Ottoman province of Habesh Eyalet, extending to the areas of the Red Sea basin. For a short time before Jeddah, Massawa served as the capital of the new province. The Ottomans, however, failed to sustain control of lands in the interior of what today is Eritrea. In 1846, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Egyptian forces took control of Habesh Eyalet and enlarged it, notably by extending it to western Eritrea. Egypt’s domination of the Eritrean coastal and western lowlands and northern highlands lasted until the Mahdist uprising in Sudan in 1888, which set the stage for the European penetration into the Horn of Africa.



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