|Regions with significant populations|
|Beja, Sudanese Arabic, Tigre|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Ababda · Tigre · Tigrinya · Agaw · Amhara · Somali · Oromo|
The Beja people (Arabic: البجا) are an ethnic group inhabiting Sudan, as well as parts of Eritrea, Egypt, and the Sahara desert. They speak the Beja language as a mother tongue, which belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family.
The general area the Beja people inhabit is the land between the Nile River and the Red Sea in Sudan, Eritrea and eastern Egypt, called the Saharan Eastern Desert. Most of them live in the Sudanese states of Red Sea around Port Sudan, River Nile, Al Qadarif and Kassala, as well as in Northern Red Sea, Gash-Barka, and Anseba Regions in Eritrea, and southeastern Egypt. There are smaller populations of other Beja ethnic groups further north into Egypt's Eastern Desert. Some Beja groups are nomadic. The Kharga Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert is home to a large number of Qamhat Bisharin who were displaced by the Aswan High Dam. Jebel Uweinat is revered by the Qamhat.
The Beja have been named "Blemmyes" in Roman times, "Bugas" in Aksumite inscriptions in Ge'ez, and "Fuzzy Wuzzy" by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendowa, who fought the British, supporting the "Mahdi," a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.
The Beja speak Beja or To Bedawie, an Afro-Asiatic language usually classified as Cushitic, but sometimes seen as an independent branch. The French linguist Didier Morin (2001) has made an attempt to bridge the gap between Beja and another branch of Cushitic, namely Lowland East Cushitic languages and in particular Afar and Saho, the linguistic hypothesis being historically grounded on the fact that the three languages were once geographically contiguous. Most Beja speak the Beja language, however certain sub-clans do not, the Beni Amers for instance speak a variety of Tigre, while most of the Halengas speak a mix of Bedawiet and Arabic.
Even though the influence of Arabic cannot be denied, Beja speakers do consider that their language is today an endangered language. The very facts that the highest moral and cultural values of this society are in one way or the other linked to their expression in Beja, that Beja poetry is still highly praised, and that the claims over the Beja land are only valid when expressed in Beja, are very strong social factors in favour of its preservation. True enough Arabic is considered as the language of modernity, but it is also very low in the scale of Beja cultural values as it is a means of transgressing social prohibitions. Beja is still the prestigious language for most of its speakers because it conforms to the ethical values of the community.
The Bejas contain smaller clans, such as the Bisharin, Hedareb, Hadendowa (or Hadendoa), the Amarar (or Amar'ar), Beni-Amer, Hallenga and Hamran, some of them partly mixed with Bedouins in the east. The European colonial masters and the explorers became fascinated with the Bejas which they often described in eulogistic terms.
The Bejas attach a high importance to their hair. Their prominent crown of fuzzy hair (called tiffa in their language) has characterized the Beja for centuries. Bejas believe that they are the descendants of Sekhmet and her human consort. Some Egyptian Bejawi clans believe that they are descendants of Maahes Warrior Chiefs of High Priests of Amun at Thebes . Priest-Kings Pinedjem I, Psusennes I and Osorkon the Elder and their armies are believed to be the ancestors of Egypt's Western Desert Bejawi. Omdas Sheikh Qamhat Khawr al`allaqi was last remnant of one of Egypt's oldest surviving lineages. His death in 1936 was widely considered the death knell for the Qamhat Bisharin. Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch traced Qamhat Khawr kiji tribal clans through female lines to the 20th Dynasty Wehem Mesut. Egyptologist Zakaria Goneim traced their ancestress mother to an even earlier dynasty.
Bejawi worshiped Isis at Philae until the 6th century. After the temple was closed down officially in the 6th century A.D. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Beja converted to Christianity in the 6th century under the influence of the three Nubian Christian Kingdoms that flourished along the Nile for 600 years: Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia, as well as the Christian Kingdom of Aksum, under whose rule most lived from the 3rd to 8th centuries. Around the decline of the Aksumite kingdom, the Bejas founded five kingdoms in what is now northern Eritrea and east-northeastern Sudan. In the 10th century Islam spread and gained popularity among the Beja people, though some pre-Islamic beliefs continued until the 19th century. As of 2007, the majority of Beja are believed to be Muslim. Nevertheless, many Coptic Upper Egyptians of Saiddi and Beja stock are still Christians, especially in the regions of Kharga Oasis and Qena, Upper Egypt. There is a significant population of Sudanese Copts in Northern Sudan as well. Most Beja peoples are Sufi. Shariah law is always trumped by the ancient Beja tribal law, known as Salif, which is governed by a council of elders. Black magic is practiced against enemies, and sacred fire is used to ward off spirits causing sickness and accidents. Some qamhat bishari kiji clans worshiped a pantheon of deities including qebui, saa, meskhenet, sekhmet, nefertem, maahes, menhit and mut, well into the 19th century. Their attachment to Paganism is credited as a major factor in their eventual extermination during Ottoman times.
- Stanley Mayer Burstein, Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum, p. 167 (2008)
- Martine Vanhove, The Beja Language Today in Sudan: The State of the Art in Linguistics 2006.
- Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, by Dan Connell and Tom Killion, p.118, Scarecrow Press, 14 Oct 2010
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