None are absolutely homogeneous, and all have some internal cultural, religious or socioeconomic cleavages.
The Italians created a colonial state composed of distinct tribal, ethnic and linguistic groups, a distinctiveness often reinforced by their residence in the different ecological settings mentioned above.
The main ethno-linguistic groups are generally referred to as nationalities in Eritrea and as such have been the basis of EPLF cultural and language policies.' They can be divided into two dominant ones, the Tigrinya and Tigre speakers, and seven small minorities.
Despite the relative prosperity of this mercantile group in relation to the peasantry, the former were subordinated to the latter under the terms of provincial customary laws when resident in Christian villages.
Today, there remains a clearly delineated Muslim quarter surrounding the main mosque in Asmara.
7 The priests of villages officiated at christenings, marriages and burials, and generally came from the restenyat of the village.
Although Nadel pointed out that the peasants were often cynical about the spirituality of the priesthood and that disputes between villagers and priests were common, the church had the 'formidable weapons of excommunication and refusal to celebrate mass'.
Such provision marked the right of a particular descent group to acceptance as restenyat.
A further index of the centrality of the church to power was that when a new church was constructed the makalal ailat would attempt to participate in its foundation to gain recognition as restenyat.
A survey of language use in the grain and vegetable market of Asmara in the late 1960s showed that 15 per cent of transactions were in Arabic, providing a further index of the different cultural orientation between the Asmaran merchant group and the majority Christian Tigrinyans.' At the fringes of the highlands there are also minorities of Tigre-speaking Muslims in western Serai province and Muslim Sahho-speakers at the eastern edge of the plateau.
Both of these communities were agro-pastoralists, and on occasions came into conflict with peasants over grazing land.
Both of these estimates make Tigrinya speakers the largest single community and give a relatively equal balance between Muslim and Christian.