Eritrean Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Eritrea is an African nation along the Red Sea and home to a diverse range of people. But, what does this diversity mean? In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnicity in Eritrea and discuss life for the people who call it home.


Living on a sea can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, you've got the beach and access to open-water trade routes. On the other, you've got to deal with people who want access to your ports and harbors. Seas have played a major role in the histories of many nations, serving to both bring diverse people together as well as providing sources for conflict. Both of these issues can be seen in the nation of Eritrea. Located in East Africa on the Red Sea, the narrow body of water that separates Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Eritrea has seen its share of people, ideas, and goods passing by. This has left Eritrea with a very unique identity. Officially, there are nine recognized ethnic groups who call Eritrea home, and each have experienced the benefits and risks of life by the sea.


The Tigrinya

The largest ethnic group in Eritrea are the Tigrinya, a group ancestrally indigenous to this area. They make up about 55% of the total population and their ancestors may have lived here for over 2000 years. The Tigrinya language belongs to the Semitic language family, making it closely related to languages of the Arabian Peninsula such as Arabic and Hebrew. It is written using an ancient alphabet called the Ge'ez script, and is the most commonly used language in Eritrea. Tigrinya is the nation's official language (along with Arabic), but this is mostly a formality, and each region generally uses the language specific to its main ethnic group.

The Tigrinya language

The Tigre

Closely related to the Tigrinya are another ethnic group called the Tigre. The Tigre language is also Semitic, and is spoken by the roughly 30% of Eritreans who identify with this ethnicity. While the Tigre people are ancestrally related to the Tigrinya, these are distinct ethnic groups. The Tigre mostly live in the northwestern part of the nation, bordering Sudan, and are almost entirely composed of nomadic pastoralists. Rather than staying in one place, they move around with their herds and small family-based clans. The Tigre are predominantly Muslim, and follow a distinctly Sudanese sect of Islam.

The Tigre people are mostly nomadic pastoralists
Tigre people

Other Ethnic Groups

The Tigrinya and Tigre make up most of Eritrea's population, but they're not alone. Remember that there are nine recognized ethnicities in this nation. The other seven, however, are minority groups who each make up no more than 5% of the total population. Of course, they are still important in Eritrean society and contribute to the nation's politics, arts, and cuisine. The musical styles of each group have become important parts of ethnic pride and daily life in Eritrea as well.

The Saho are descendants of the ancient Kushite people of northeast Africa who claim cultural traditions up to 5,000 years old. The Kunama people are related Nile River groups in Sudan, also claim an ancient heritage in what is now Eritrea, and pride themselves on a highly egalitarian culture that sometimes clashes with the more male-dominated societies of northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Rashaida people, mostly found along Eritrea's northern coast, migrated to Eritrea from Saudi Arabia as a result of warfare on the peninsula. For the most part, the Rashaida strictly adhere to Sunni Islam. The Bilen people are one of the few groups to retain substantial Christian and Muslim populations. While Christians tend to live in the cities, Muslim Bilen tend to be more rural. The smallest ethnic groups in Eritrea, the Afar, Beni Amir, and Nera, are generally related to larger populations in other neighboring nations like Ethiopia. These groups along borders are the ones most likely to get caught up in conflict between nations.

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