Eritrea: The Medieval Period of Modern Eritrea – Reflections on Cultural Heritage

Eritrea’s Red Sea served as the gateway for the introduction of Christian and Islamic traditions to Africa, in addition to providing corridors for interregional trade and trade networks. Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen along the coast and elsewhere in the country with indications of early Christian churches and most of the remains dating from Islamic periods in the Dahlak Islands. The first millennium of our era saw the emergence of two monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, which extended their influence to the territories bordering the Red Sea. The medieval period in Eritrea, as far as cultural heritage is concerned, exhibits vestiges of Christian and Islamic traditions as well as the historical and cultural processes associated with them. Bounded between the introduction of monotheistic religions in Eritrea and the 15th century, the period provides an interface for understanding the socio-cultural transformations and processes that culminated after the introduction of Christianity and Islam respectively.

Christianity was introduced in the 4th century AD to this part of the Horn with the enterprise of Frumentius, a Christian monk from Tire in Syria. The highlands of Eritrea were the sites of the first Christian communities in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea is indeed a country among the first to accept monastic life. Monastic communities and traditions provide insight into early Christian eras, including those found in and around Christian shrines. Local traditions attribute the founding of the monasteries to missionaries from the Near East at the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century. Many of the oldest monasteries found in Eritrea have been centers of pilgrimage and Christian religious education. Monasteries in Eritrea are therefore the guardians of irreplaceable Christian art, a liturgical treasure, cultural traditions and spiritual and religious practices protected on hills and cliffs. Manuscript inscriptions from several Eritrean monasteries as well as ecclesiastical buildings, for example, are associated with earlier traditions of Christian civilization in this part of the Horn. The full-fledged development of the Ge’ez script and the heyday of the Ge’ez literature characterize Christian civilization in Eritrea and elsewhere in the Horn.

Many monasteries and churches from this period also incorporate ancient architectural elements and contain artifacts dating from the cultural landscape of the 1st millennium AD. The mixture of ancient local architectural features with intricate geometric edifices symbolizing Christian motifs generally represents medieval architecture in this part of the Horn. Religious connotations blend with the architectural styles of the time as they incorporate inevitable influences. Remarkable styles adorn the medieval churches and monasteries of Er-itrea, as well as iconography and wall paintings. Examples of such architectural ensembles are provided by the medieval Kidane Mehret Church in Senafe, Baraknha, Bihat, etc. The combination of artistic beauty and usefulness therefore offers in part a glimpse of the extent of socio-cultural transformation and continuities. pertaining to medieval Eritrea.

Moreover, some of the first monasteries housed mummies among their cultural heritage thanks to the contribution of Christian civilization. Mummies have been found in several places such as Debre Hawaryat of Ham, Metera, Bara’knaha, Bek’ar, etc. mainly in southern Eritrea. While the exact timing of the practice and introduction of mummification in Eritrea remains virtually uncertain, the association of mummified skeletal remains with saints who inhabited ancient monasteries demands further understanding. The practice, however, has been consistent with oral traditions linked to the coming of the nine saints to Eritrea via Alexandria around the 6th century AD Further research and the inevitable dating of mummified remains may reveal the intent behind the mummification process and its exact timing, possibly confirming or refuting the pre-Christian roots of the practice. Monasteries across the country in general have therefore retained heritages and historical narratives from the medieval period further contributing to religious identities that have been sealed for centuries.

Likewise, evidence related to the introduction of Islam in the 7th century AD to Eritrea is widespread along the coast. In the early 7th century, some of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad fled persecution at the hands of rulers in Mecca and came to the African Red Sea coast of Eritrea. This is considered to be the first Hejirra and the first followers of Prophet Mohammad (called Sahaba) must have passed through the Dahlak Islands. Sahaba Shrine, located in the port city of Massawa, is the first religious shrine where early Muslims set foot and set foot on this side of the Red Sea. It was then that the Prophet Muhammad began to awaken Arabs to believe in Islam, which focuses on a spirit that is against inequality and polytheism. Evidence of Saha-ba migration to Eritrea and other hinterland kingdoms of the Horn testifies to the first introduction of Islam to our region through a peaceful process and the Sahaba shrine indicates the earliest structure Islamic nun in Africa erected when the religion was in its infancy, 14 centuries ago.

The Dahlak Islands are also home to a rich heritage of Islamic civilization in Eritrea with an array of necropolises, Kufic (Classical Arabic) inscriptions and remains of domed mosques attributed to the sultanates of the archipelago. The rich Islamic heritage found in the Dahlak Islands demonstrates the range of historical events of the medieval period in Eritrea and the height of Islamic civilization in this part of the Horn.

Additionally, many valuable and rare ancient mosques dating from 1100 to 500 years old are found within the grounds of the port city of Massawa and depict the variety of Islamic architecture present in Eritrea. Due to the legacy of medieval events, the port city of Massawa has maintained intimate ties with the Islamic world and the holy centers of Islam in Arabia to embrace the rich Islamic heritage in its public and private buildings. The nature and variety of Islamic architecture in Eritrea is indeed an indication that ancient Eritrea marks one of the earliest Islamic civilizations on the African continent and perhaps in the world. An overview of the rich Islamic heritage of the Dahlak Islands and the port city of Massawa will feature in subsequent editions of this column.

Finally, evidence of medieval tombs associated with famous sheikhs is widespread in northern Eritrea in areas such as Kubkub and Gadem Haleb. The integration of Sufi traditions in these tombs is in fact an indication of the credibility of the doctrine on ordinary life and indicates the rooting of the local philosophy of life in the religious beliefs of the local communities.

In summary, medieval Eritrea offers insight into the interplay of Christian and Islamic traditions inherent in the monotheistic religions of the country and the culmination of these traditions helped shape the peaceful coexistence and harmony of the traditions over the millennia. to create the modern state.

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