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Tigrayans (Tigrinyas)
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia 6,300,000[1]
 Eritrea 3,430,000[2]
 Israel 20,000[3]
predominantly Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodox · Eritrean Orthodox) ·
minority Islam (Sunni) · Judaism
Related ethnic groups
Agaw · Amhara · Beja · Beta Israel · Gurage · Harari · Oromo · Saho · Somali · Tigre · Tigrinyas[4]

Tigrayans also known as Biher-Tigrinyas are an ethnolinguistic who speak the Tigrinya language. They occupy most parts of the Eritrean highlands (hence the name Kebessa meaning 'highland' in the local language) and the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Most are followers of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.[5] They make up roughly 55% of Eritrea's population[6] numbering 3.4 million people, and 6.1% of Ethiopia's population[7] numbering a little over 6.3 million of which approximately 96.6% are native to the Tigray Region.[1][8]

Tigrayans and Tigrinyas (also known as Biher-Tigrinyas) speak Tigrinya, which belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.[9] They are not to be confused with the Tigre people who speak Tigre, a closely related Afro-Asiatic language.


The Tigrinyas in Eritrea are officially referred to as Bihére-Tigrinya (or simply, Tigrinya), while in Ethiopia, they are referred to as simply Tigray. Tigray-Tigrinyas of Muslim faith are commonly referred to as Jeberti. Historically, the people who live in the highlands found between Red Sea and Tekezé River were referred as Tigré people by foreign scholars who traveled in the region like James Bruce and Henry Salt (Egyptologist).[10][11][12]


Main article: Abyssinian people
Tigrayan leader Ras Mangasha.

The Tigrinyas are descendants of early Semitic-speaking peoples whose presence in the region dates back to at least 2000 BC, based on linguistic evidence (and known from the 9th century BC from inscriptions).[13] According to Ethiopian traditions, the Tigrayan nobility; i.e. that of the Tigray province of Ethiopia, trace their ancestry to the legendary king Menelik I, the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon as do the priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (Ge'ez ካህን kāhin). Menelik I would become the first king of the Solomonic line of rulers of Ethiopia that ended only with the deposing of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

The first possible mention of the group dates from around the 8th to 10th centuries, in which period manuscripts preserving the inscriptions of Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 6th century) contain notes on his writings including the mention of a tribe called Tigretes.[14]

Turks briefly occupied the highland parts of Baharnagash in 1559 and withdraw after they encountered resistance and pushed back by the Bahrnegash and highland forces. In 1578 they tried to expand into the highlands with the help of Bahr Negash Yisehaq who has switched alliances due to power struggle, and by 1589 once again they were apparently compelled to withdraw their forces to the coast. After that Ottomans abandoned their ambitions to establish themselves on the highlands and remained in the lowlands until they left the region by 1872.[15][16]

A Portuguese Map in the 1660 shows Medri Bahri consisting of the three highland provinces of Eritrea and distinct from Ethiopia.[17]

The Scottish traveler James Bruce reported in 1770 that Medri Bahri was a distinct political entity from Abyssinia, noting that the two territories were frequently in conflict. The Bahre-Nagassi ("Kings of the Sea") alternately fought with or against the Abyssinians and the neighbouring Muslim Adal Sultanate depending on the geopolitical circumstances. Medri Bahri was thus part of the Christian resistance against Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi of Adal's forces, but later joined the Adalite states and the Ottoman Empire front against Abyssinia in 1572. That 16th century also marked the arrival of the Ottomans, who began making inroads in the Red Sea area.[18]

Tigrinya leader Aman Andom from Eritrea, briefly served as de facto Head of State of Ethiopia.

James Bruce in his book published in 1805 reported Hadawi, the seat of Baharanagash, was part of the Tigré province of Abyssinia which was ruled by Ras Mikael Sehul at the time of his travel. The officer in Hadawi watches over the Naybe of Masawa (province of Turk's Habesh Eyalet), and starve him into obedience by intercepting his provisions, whenever the governor of Tigré and the officer in Hadawi find it necessary. Bruce also located Tigré between Red Sea and the river Tekezé and stated many large governments, such as Enderta and Antalow, and the great part of Baharhagash were part of Tigré province.[10][19][20]

By the beginning of the 19th century Henry Salt (Egyptologist), who travelled in the interior of Abyssinia, divided the nation into three distinct and independent states.[12][21] These three great divisions are Tigré, Amhara, and the province of Shoa.[12] Henry considers Tigré as the more powerful state of the three; a circumstance arising from the natural strength of the country, the warlike disposition of its inhabitants, and its vicinity to the sea coast; an advantage that has secured to it the monopoly of all the musquets imported into the country.[22] He divided the Tigré kingdom into several provinces as the centre where it was considered the seat of the state being referred as Tigré proper. Provinces of this kingdom includes Enderta, Agame, Wojjerat, Temben, Shiré and Baharanegash.[22] Hamasien, a district of Baharanegash, is the furthest north and narrowest part of Tigré, and Henry places Bejas or Bojas as the people who live north of Tigré state.[11][23] By the time Henry made his travel to Abyssinia the seat of the empire, Gondar, was ruled by the Yejju dynasty under Ras Gugsa who ruled from 1798 up to 1825 as Enderase to the powerless emperors with Solomonic dynasty.[24][25]

Ethiopian Tigrayans[edit]

A Tigray girl in Adigrat.

Ethiopian Tigrayans are from the province (or ethnic kilil) of Tigray in Ethiopia. They constitute approximately 6.1% of the population of Ethiopia and about 96% of the Northern region of Tigray. Like the Biher-Tigrinya of Eritrea, they are also largely small holding farmers largely inhabiting small communal villages. They are also largely Christian and members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (approximately 96%), with a small minority of Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

The predominantly Tigrayan populated urban centers in Ethiopia are found within the Tigray Region in towns including Mek'ele, Adwa, Axum, Adigrat and Shire. Large populations of Tigrayans are also found in other large Ethiopian cities such as the capital Addis Ababa and Gondar.

Eritrean Biher-Tigrinya[edit]

Tigrinya women performing a traditional dance.

The Biher-Tigrinya people, also known as the "kebessa" people are an ethnic group in Eritrea and are collectively referred to as the Biher-Tigrinya, roughly meaning "Tigrinya nation". Most of them live in rural areas in the highland administrative regions of Maekel (Central), Debub (Southern), the eastern fringes of Anseba and Gash Barka regions as well as the western fringes of Semenawi Keyih Bahri (Northern Red Sea). They are small holding farmers largely inhabiting small communal villages. Most Biher-Tigrinya are Christians and members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church with small minorities of Catholics and Protestants.

The Jeberti Tigrinya speakers migrated to Eritrea in the late 1890s and claim their origins in early Muslim migrants from the Arabian Peninsula to Tigray, Ethiopia. The term Jeberti in Eritrea applies to a Tigrinya speaker who professes the Islamic faith, and native of the land.[26]

The predominantly Biher-Tigrinya populated urban centers in Eritrea are the capital Asmara, as well as Mendefera, Dekemhare, Segeneiti, Adi Keyh, Adi Quala and Senafe. There is also a significant population of Biher-Tigrinya in other cities, including Keren and Massawa.

Language and culture[edit]

Tigrayan politician Meles Zenawi, the former Prime Minster of Ethiopia.

Tigrayans and Biher-Tigrinya speak the Tigrinya language as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Ethiopian Semitic subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic family.[27] Tigrinya is descended from an ancient Semitic language called Ge'ez, which the modern Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches officially use as a liturgical language. The Tigrinya language is the direct descendant of Ge'ez, unlike Amharic (thought to be descended from a specific dialect or cluster of dialects of Ge'ez) and other southern Ethiopian Semitic languages, though Tigre may share this distinction with Tigrinya (its status is uncertain).

Tigrinya is closely related to the Tigre language, another Afro-Asiatic language spoken by the Tigre people as well as many Beja. Tigrinya and Tigre although close are not mutually intelligible, and while Tigrinya has traditionally been written using the same Ge'ez script (fidel) as Amharic, Tigre has been transcribed mainly using the Arabic script. Attempts by the Eritrean government to have Tigre written using the Ge'ez script has met with some resistance from the predominantly Muslim Tigre people who associate Ge'ez with the Orthodox Church and would prefer the Arabic or the more neutral Latin alphabet. It has also met with the linguistic difficulty of the Ge'ez script being a syllabic system which does not distinguish long vowels from short ones. While this works well for writing Tigrinya or Amharic, which do not rely on vowel length in words, it does complicate writing Tigre, where vowel length sometimes distinguishes one word and its meaning from another. The Ge'ez script evolved from the Epigraphic South Arabian script, whose first inscriptions are from the 8th century BC in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen.

In Ethiopia, Tigrinya is the third most spoken language. The Tigray constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in the country after the Oromo, Amhara and Somali, who also speak Afro-Asiatic languages.[28] In Eritrea, Tigrinya is by far the most spoken language, where it is used by around 55% of the population. Tigre is used by around 30% of residents.

Tigrinya dialects differ phonetically, lexically, and grammatically.[29] No dialect appears to be accepted as a standard.

Notable Tigrayans[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Central Statistical Agency (2008). "TABEL [sic] 5: POPULATION SIZE OF REGIONS BY NATIONS/NATIONALITIES (ETHNIC GROUP) AND PLACE OF RESIDENCE: 2007". Census 2007 (PDF). Addis Ababa: Central Statistical Agency. p. 66. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Tigrinya-speaking Jews component 15% from Beta Israel; Anbessa Tefera (2007). "Language". Jewish Communities in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries - Ethiopia. Ben-Zvi Institute. p.73 (Hebrew)
  4. ^ Joireman, Sandra F. (1997). Institutional Change in the Horn of Africa: The Allocation of Property Rights and Implications for Development. Universal-Publishers. p. 1. ISBN 1581120001. 
  5. ^ Tesfagiorgis G., Mussie (2011). Eritrea. Greenwood Publisihing Group. p. 337. ISBN 978-1-59884-231-9. 
  6. ^ "The World Factbook". www.cia.gov. Retrieved 28 April 2016. 
  7. ^ "The World Factbook". www.cia.gov. Retrieved 28 April 2016. 
  8. ^ Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities (accessed 22 March 2006)
  9. ^ Irene Thompson (February 7, 2016). "Tigrigna". aboutworldlanguages.com. Retrieved 7 June 2016. 
  10. ^ a b James Bruce Travels through part of Africa, Syria, Egypt .... Published in 1805 pp. 229 & 230 Google Books
  11. ^ a b Henry Salt A Voyage to Abyssinia. Published in 1816 pp. 381 Google Books
  12. ^ a b c Charles Knight The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Difussion of Useful Knowledge. Published in 1833 pp. 53 Google Books
  13. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), pp. 57
  14. ^ Munro-Hay, Aksum, pp. 187
  15. ^ Jonathan Miran Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa. Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 38-39 & 91 Google Books
  16. ^ Jonathan Miran Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa. Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 38-39 & 91 Google Books
  17. ^ https://books.google.com/books?id=NGiDTqf5YYAC&pg=PA36
  18. ^ Okbazghi Yohannes. A Pawn in World Politics: Eritrea. 
  19. ^ James Bruce Travels through part of Africa, Syria, Egypt .... Published in 1805 pp. 171 Google Books
  20. ^ James Bruce Travels through part of Africa, Syria, Egypt .... Published in 1805 pp. 128 Google Books
  21. ^ Henry Salt A Voyage to Abyssinia. M. Carey (1816)
  22. ^ a b Henry Salt A Voyage to Abyssinia. Published in 1816 pp. 378-382 Google Books
  23. ^ Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: Bassantin - Bloemaart, Volume 4. Published in 1835 pp. 170 Google Books
  24. ^ Pearce, The Life and Adventures of Nathaniel Pearce, edited by J.J. Halls (London, 1831), vol. 1 p. 70
  25. ^ Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1994, second edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2001), p. 12; Henze, Layers of Time (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 122.
  26. ^ Kifleyesus, Abbebe (January 2009). "Jeberti Women Traders' Innumeracy: Its Impact on Commercial Activity in Eritrea". L'Homme: revue française d'anthropologie (189): 59. Retrieved 27 February 2015. 
  27. ^ "Tigrinya". Ethnologue. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  28. ^ "Country Level". 2007 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia. CSA. 13 July 2010. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  29. ^ Leslau, Wolf (1941) Documents Tigrigna (Éthiopien Septentrional): Grammaire et Textes. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck.
  30. ^ Herbert Weld Blundell, The Royal chronicle of Abyssinia, 1769-1840, (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), pp. 384-390
  31. ^ Cited in Tellez, The Travels of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, 1710 (LaVergue: Kessinger, 2010), pp. 89f.
  32. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Jenkins, Dr. Orville Boyd. "Tigrinya People Profile". orvillejenkins.com. Retrieved 2016-08-17. 
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Pueblo Tigray". www.ikuska.com. Retrieved 2016-08-17. 
  34. ^ "St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Los Angeles". www.ethiopianorthodoxchurch.org. Retrieved 2016-08-17. 
  35. ^ "Music". www.st-gebriel.org. Retrieved 2016-08-17. 
  36. ^ E. Bernard, A.J. Drewes, and R. Schneider, Recueil des inscriptions de l'Éthiopie des périodes pré-axoumite et axoumite. Tome I: Les inscriptions. Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 1991, p. 247.
  37. ^ http://www.dacb.org/stories/ethiopia/kaleb2.html
  38. ^ http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/periplus.asp
  39. ^ https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/KingdomOfAksum_StudentsWorksheets.pdf
  40. ^ http://worldcoincatalog.com/AC/C/Aksum/300-310CE-Aphilas/300-310CE-Aphilas.htm
  41. ^ http://www.dacb.org/stories/ethiopia/_ezana.html
  42. ^ http://sussle.org/t/MHDYS
  43. ^ https://books.google.com/books?id=YTGRcVLMg6MC&pg=PA157&lpg=PA157&dq=Ouazebas+axum&source=bl&ots=qd0ji6e1Es&sig=jRzAKemdzj_pFW4v-dVhBWckEi4&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwim4dPpi7LNAhXGDBoKHYBoCTs4ChDoAQgqMAI#v=onepage&q=Ouazebas%20axum&f=false
  44. ^ a b Siegbert Uhlig (ed.) (2016). Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: D-Ha, Volume 2. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 211. ISBN 3447052384. 
  45. ^ S. C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), p. 91.
  46. ^ A letter to Antoine d'Abbadie, dated 8 January 1869, mentions a coin of this ruler. Sven Rubenson, Acta Aethiopica, vol 3: Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, 1869-1879 (Addis Ababa: University Press, 2000), p. 3
  47. ^ See the article on Ellä Säham by Gianfranco Fiaccadori in the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 2, Wiesbaden 2016

External links[edit]