Some Eritreans like to say that their country has a long, separate history. This is true in the limited sense that Brooklyn has a separate history from Manhattan, or North Carolina from South Carolina.

The northern third of highland territory of ‘Abyssinia’ and down to the coast at Massawa was once the Empire of Axum from about the first to the tenth centuries.  It was ruled from the city of Axum, which is in today’s Ethiopia just south of the border with Eritrea. Around the tenth century Axum fell into the hands of the Zagwes, and the center of power moved southwards into the mountains.  These were the builders of the churches of Lalibela. They ruled until 1270, when the last of the Zagwe emperors was killed by the first Amhara emperor.  The center of power continued southwards.

The highlands north and south shared a culture and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and mostly spoke cousin languages (predominantly Tigrinya and Amharic) that came from Ge’ez the way French, Spanish and Italian come from Latin and eventually became mutually unintelligible languages.

Except for several limited periods, Ethiopia’s capital was wherever the emperor and his entourage lived, in a tent city that descended on some unlucky nobleman until the emperor took pity and moved on. Gondar was the biggest exception, built of stone as a capital, which it remained for 150 years.

The reach of each emperor’s rule depended on his political and fighting skills. It varied from a big and expanding empire to as little as the room where the crown sometimes rested on figurehead while real power was fought over by local noblemen.  Powerful or weak, from 1270 until 1868 the emperor was an Amhara . The fight to replace Emperor Tewodoros, who committed suicide in 1868, was won a few years later by a Tigrean named Kassa, who took the throne name Yohannes IV.

Tewodoros had committed suicide to avoid capture by the British, which is too complex a story to be told here.  For a broad picture, see A History of Ethiopia by Harold Marcus, U. of California Press, 2nd edition. For a dramatic but somewhat lopsided version, see:  The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy , by Philip Marsden, published so far in the UK only;  used copies are available online or in a Kindle version.

For several centuries before the time of Yohannes, the area call Tigre today had been under only occasional control by emperors.  Further north, what is highland Eritrea today had been too far away for the emperors to control at all.  The nearby coast was often in Muslim hands now, along with trade, so emperors had little reason to venture up there.  The Christian faith and highland culture were still shared throughout the highlands, however, even without an Imperial presence.

Yohannes was a capable leader who had every intention of being a strong ruler.  Among other things, ruling meant collecting taxes from regions where it hadn’t been collected for decades, even centuries.  Ruling from Tigre, the far north was again within reach of imperial authority. Yohannes sent his enforcer, Ras Alula, to represent him.  Alula’s memory is still cursed there.

Yohannes and Alula had a bigger impact than just making people mad at the tax collector.  It happened that the Italians at that time were starting to sneak into the highlands from Massawa to create a colony.  In their first encounter, Yohannes beat them up badly (the Piazza dei Cinquecento in Rome, about which most guidebooks say very little, might suggest a glorious moment in Italian history.  In fact it is named for the 500 Italian soldiers who died at Dogali just inland from the port of Massawa, at the hands of Yohannes’ soldiers.  It was Italy’s first, failed, attempt to move inland from Massawa.

The Italians kept up the pressure and eventually succeeded, with help from local enemies who were angry at Yohannes and Alula.  Their reward was to see an Italian colony named Eritrea proclaimed in 1890.  They might have been better off paying their taxes.

A wedge was now in place in old Abyssinia in the form of a European presence and border where there had formerly been only home-grown competition for dominance.  Italian success was likely even without have a local conflict to exploit.  Yohannes had died in battle in 1889, fighting the invading Mahdi on the Sudan border.  A year later Italy formally claimed and named its colony. The new emperor, Menelik, was based too far south to stop them.  Eritrea, an ancient name for the Red Sea, the Erithrean Sea, appeared on a map for the first time.