The Eritrean Cultural Heritage: Facts and Projects


Italian and Eritrean scholars held academic meeting to exchange experiences, share research findings, and refine research projects about the preservation of Eritrean cultural heritage

preservation of Eritrean cultural heritage
Inscription of Asmara on the UNESCO World Heritage List attracts international interest in the cultural heritage of the capital city. But other essential facts that contributed to the contemporary Eritrean collective identity deserves equal attention in order to reconstruct the multifaceted history of Eritrea.


From 12 to 13 December 2017, the University of Naples “L’Orientale” in Italy organized a two-day workshop that brought Eritrean and Italian scholars together to share research findings on various areas of Eritrean studies within the framework of a bilateral exchange and collaboration agreement signed in 2008 between the Research and Documentation Center (RDC), Eritrea, and the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, Italy.

The workshop gave scholars from both countries an opportunity to exchange experiences, share research findings, and propose and refine research projects about the preservation of Eritrean cultural heritage. The workshop entitled “The Eritrean Cultural Heritage: Facts and Projects“, aimed at actualizing the scope and the purpose of the exchange and collaboration agreement between the RDC and the University of Naples “L’Orientale”.

Ms. Azeb Tewolde, director of RDC, Prof. Giorgio Banti, Vice President of the Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”, and Prof. Michele Bernardini, director of the Dipartimento Asia, Africa e Mediterraneo (DAAM) attended the workshop representing authorities from both institutions and contributed to the scientific event.

The event drew the attention of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, particularly Ambassador Raffaele De Lutio, former Direttore Centrale per i Paesi dell’Africa sub-sahariana, who addressed the workshop through a recorded video speech due to his engagement outside Italy at the time of the workshop.

This institution is engaged in finding measures for effective cooperation between the two countries, based on the belief that the cultural heritage is not only an identity-building factor, but a real occasion for co-developing the two countries’ scholarship, and public awareness about the importance of their great cultural heritage. The cultural cooperation is an essential factor in reaching higher levels of mutual understanding.

Since last summer, when UNESCO added the Modernist Asmara in the World Heritage List, international community became deeply interested in the cultural heritage of the Eritrean capital city. Undoubtedly this is of great importance. But, this positive circumstance shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Eritrean cultural heritage is not confined to the beautiful buildings of the Modernist Asmara. Other essential facts that contributed over time to the forging of the contemporary Eritrean collective identity, deserve to be considered in order to reconstruct the multifaceted history of the East African country, where cultures of different origins live together.

Twelve papers were dedicated by Eritrean and Italian scholars, ranging from history to archiving, from archaeology to linguistics and from philology to arts.

In her introductory speech, Ms. Azeb Tewolde, the RDC Director, spoke about the Nature and accessibility of the archives of Eritrea as a primary source of information. She briefed the audience of the workshop about the RDC and its archival and library collections. She emphasized that some of the RDC’s collections are the only primary sources of information for researchers to study Eritrean cultural heritage. The paper also argued that these rare archives are not yet well explored and analyzed by researchers.

The paper by Professor Gianfrancesco Lusini from the University of Naples, entitled “Asmara in ancient and medieval times: The hidden story of a capital city” presented a documentation, both archaeological and philological, about the most remote phases of Asmara’s history, well before the 19th century.

The paper argued that the Eritrean capital city the Italians built in its modern shape and embellished with urban and architectural creations of high aesthetic level (but still inspired by the political projects of a foreign occupant) developed on a stratified territory, rich in historical records, subjected to the human settlement and to the human building activity for three thousand years.

Furthermore, the paper argues that at the moment we know little about all that because these aspects of the history of Asmara have been little studied although they are part of the same sequence of events which led to the Modernist Asmara.

The paper by Professor Andrea Manzo, “The Archaeology of the Eritrean Western Lowlands: a view from across the border”, summarized the results of an ongoing research project conducted by the Italian Archaeological Expedition in the Kassala region, just across the Eritrean-Sudanese border.

The data collected by this research project in the last few years has considerably enriched our knowledge of the ancient economy of the lowlands and the style life and of the social organization of their inhabitants from the 6th millennium BC to the 1st millennium AD.

In particular, it was shown that the region had been engaged in the long-distance exchanges at least from the 3rd millennium BC. In light of the recent research in the Eastern Desert, in the Fourth Nile Cataract region and on the Red Sea coast, the Eritrean – Sudanese lowlands can be considered crucial in the processes of interaction between the Mediterranean and Africa taking place via the Nile Valley and the Red Sea.

These results can shed some light also on the Eritrean side of the lowlands, certainly a very rich area in terms of archaeological heritage, as shown by some preliminary explorations and rescue archaeology conducted in the Bisha region by Eritrean researchers in the last few years.

After discussing the different names of the Nara and their first occurrences in written sources, the paper by Professor Giorgio Banti, Vice President of the Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”, The linguistic history of the Nara in their regional context, highlighted the current opinions about the genetic position of the Nara language within the Nilo-Saharan phylum, and the phonological, grammatical, and lexical evidence that have been recently published by Claude Rilly and others about the relationships between the different subgroups of the Northern East Sudanic (NES) language family.

Subsequently, the paper compared data between the pronominal and numeral systems of Nara and Nubian, the two best-known subgroups, concluding that while the morphological similarities within the Nubian languages are considerable, Nara shows strong differences. If it indeed belongs to NES, there must have been a very long time of independent development. Its pronominal system is organized quite differently, and Rilly’s idea that Nara has been strongly innovative here is not necessarily the proper explanation. In addition, the big differences in the cardinal numbers are striking in “closely” related languages.

Dr. Gilda Ferrandino presented a paper on the link between Meroitic and Nara and how the knowledge of the Nara language may have contributed to the long-awaited translation of Meroitic. Dr. Graziano Savà also summarized the findings and progress of a research project on the documentation of Nara grammar, lexicon and texts.

Dr. Tesfay Tewolde, an Eritrean scholar from the University of Florence, compared 250 Proto-Semitic basic lexical items with that of Tigre, Tigrinya and Amharic languages. His study shows no common innovations among these Semitic languages of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Moreover, in many cases, the findings show each of these languages is closer to the Proto-Semitic than to one another. The study concludes that it is difficult to claim a Proto-Ethio-Eritrean Semitic stage in the absence of common innovations.

In his paper entitled Revisiting the description of the Tigre basic verb stems, Dr. Saleh Mahmud from the National Commission for Higher Education, Eritrea, presented a critical review of the literature pertaining to the description of the Tigre verb, and suggested a new modified classification of the Tigre verb based on his new field data. His field findings show a fifth verb stem type that has never been described before. This type, which semantically denotes the notion of pretentiousness, is morphologically characterized by a penultimate e vowel in the stem and a repetition of the medial radical. Hitherto, it is not attested in any other Ethio-Eritrean Semitic language.

Dr. Gianni Dore and Dr. Moreno Vergari, in their paper entitled “Housing and dwelling among the Saho: History and linguistic anthropology”, summarized research done by an Italian team of linguists and historians/anthropologists on housing and dwelling systems among the Saho people.

The research, conducted in Eritrea between the 2008 and 2011, was done within the framework of Atlas of the traditional material culture of the Saho and linguistic and cultural area of transition in Africa project, and it will soon be published in a book. The book will contain detailed historical and anthropological introduction, an encyclopedic lexicon and analysis of some texts (proverbs, songs, poems, etc.) related to the topic of the research.

Other papers presented in the workshop include: Colonial archives, memory and political culture in Italy: The Italo-Eritrean historical heritage, by Dr. Silvana Palma; The cultural heritage of the Eritrean coast, by Dr. Chiara Zazzaro; Manuscript collections from Christian Eritrea: From cataloguing to text editing, by Dr. Massimo Villa; and The artistic heritage of Christian Eritrea: The illustrated manuscripts, by Dr. Lorenza Mazzei. From Adulis to Metera: A road to the highlands, by Dr. Luisa Sernicola, was not presented because the researcher was not able to come to Naples due to bad weather.

This was the third academic meeting to be held between scholars of the two countries following the signing of the bilateral exchange agreement between RDC of Eritrea and the University of Naples “L’Orientale” in Italy.

The first, meeting took place on February 7-8, 2008 under the theme “History and Language of the Tigre Speaking Peoples”, and its proceedings were published in 2010 in Naples.

The second, under the theme “Giornata Internazionale di Sudi sull’Eritrea”, took place on May 13, 2010 and its proceedings appeared on a special issue of the journal Annali 70 (2010), under the title Current Trends in Eritrean Studies.

In addition, researchers working both in the RDC (Asmara) and in the DAAM (Naples) are cooperating within the framework of an exchange and collaboration agreement between the two institutions.

Furthermore, besides numerous research papers on Eritrean culture and history, scholars from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” have prepared and published the dictionary and grammar of the Saho language, and they are working on the dictionary and grammar of the Nara language.