192-Part Guide To The World: Eritrea

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The Independent Travel

Official name: Eritrea, so named by 19th-century Italian colonialists who made the country their home until 1941.

Official name: Eritrea, so named by 19th-century Italian colonialists who made the country their home until 1941.

Language: There are so far no official languages in Eritrea but the two main working languages are Arabic and Tigrinya, with various other languages spoken, such as Afar, Bilien, Beja, Kunama, Nara, Saho and Tigre. English is commonly spoken as a foreign language, as is Italian.

Size: About 125,000 square kilometres. Approximately the size of England.

Population: Since independence there has not been a census in Eritrea. With tens of thousands killed in the war and 750,000 thought to have fled the country, a recent population estimate is 2.5 million, though some official estimates put it as high as 3.8 million (including some half a million refugees in Sudan).

National dish: Zigini, a speciality stew can be found all over the country along with various local specialities - often very spicy. Staple foods include kitcha, a thin wheat bread, and injera, a spongy pancake. The port of Massawa, lying to the east of capital Asmara, is renowned for its seafood.

Best monument: Ember EMI is an important pilgrimage site, and is famous for the mausoleums of Sheikh el Amin and Muhammad Ibn Ali.

Most famous citizen: The present president, Isaias Afewerki, who led the country to independence. Until recently hailed as a model reformist, "new" African leader, he is a cousin of the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. In the past the cousins fought together to overthrow Colonial Mengistu, the Marxist Ethiopian military dictator. More recently the two have fought each other in Africa's biggest border war, damaging all hopes for an African "renaissance".

Best moment in history: May 24 is Liberation Day, when Eritrea celebrates the formal declaration of the country's independence in 1993. After Italian colonial rule ended with the defeat of Italy in the Second World War, Eritrea was federated and later annexed to Ethiopia.

Worst moment in history: More than 40 years of guerrilla fighting against Ethiopia preceded Eritrean independence, leaving 60,000 dead and the economy in a poor state. Border disputes re-emerged two years ago with the introduction of Ethiopia's new currency. The armed conflict, bombing raids and closed borders, have only recently been ended with the ceasefire that was signed on 18 June this year. UN peace keepers will now be deployed in a buffer zone along part of the 600-mile border between the countries.

Essential accessory: An up-to-date map, as war and reconstruction have brought many changes.

What not to do: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is, at present, advising people not to travel to Eritrea. But if you are going, take note that refusing to take coffee with an Eritrean is impolite. This beverage is considered something of a delicacy so if you're offered some, it's not a casual invitation. Be prepared for the coffee ceremony, which includes roasting the beans, to take an hour. And don't leave until you've drunk three cups.

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