Tigray-Tigrinya people

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Tigray-Tigrinya (ትግራይ - ትግርኛ)
Total population
9,339,400[citation needed]
Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia 5,726,500[1]
 Eritrea 3,430,000[2]
 Italy 54,000[citation needed]
 Sudan 43,000[citation needed]
 Germany 26,000[citation needed]
 Israel 20,000[3]
 United States 20,000[citation needed]
 Yemen 9,900[citation needed]
 Canada 9,300[citation needed]
Tigrinya · Amharic · Oromo · Arabic · Hebrew
predominantly Christianity (Ethiopian · Eritrean)
minority Sunni Islam · Judaism
Related ethnic groups
Agaw · Amhara · Tigre · Gurage · Harari · Oromo · Somali · Hadiya · Sidama
and other Ethiosemitic and Cushitic peoples.[4]

The Tigray-Tigrinya people (ትግራይ - ትግርኛ) are an ethnic group inhabiting the southern and central parts of Eritrea and the northern highlands of Ethiopia's Tigray Region. Prior to 1995, they lived in Ethiopia's former provinces of Tigray, Begemder (Gonder), and Wollo, with the regions within these provinces that they inhabited (e.g. Wolqayt, Tsegede, Tselemti, Raya, Humera) later incorporated into the modern Tigray Region. The Tigray people, eponymous with the name of their territory, make up approximately 96.6% of the inhabitants of the Tigray Region,[5] and comprise 6.1% of Ethiopia's total population, numbering a little over 5.7 million.[6] Group members in Eritrea are known by the name of their language, Tigrinya, and they constitute around 50% of the population,[7] at about 3.4 million people. They primarily live in a region of Eritrea known as the Kebessa, contained within the former awrajas of Hamasien, Seraye, and Akele Guzay, these later incorporated into Eritrea's present-day regions. The Tigray-Tigrinya speak Tigrinya, an Afro-Asiatic language belonging to the family's Semitic branch. Members from this ethnic group today form the dominant political force in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Tigray-Tigrinya are not to be confused with the Tigre people who speak Tigre language, a closely related Afro-Asiatic language.


All mother tongue speakers of Tigrinya in Eritrea are officially referred to as Bihér-Tigrinya (or simply, Tigrinya). Also, a few number of non indegeneous Muslim Tigrinya speakers, are as such known as the Jeberti. migrated to Eritrea after Emperor Yohhannes of Ethiopia expelled them for favoring the muslim Mahdists of Sudan.


Main article: Habesha people

Historically, the province of Tigray and central Eritrea was where Ethiopian and Eritrean civilization had its origins. The first kingdom to arise was that of D`mt in the 8th century BC. The Aksumite Kingdom, one of the powerful civilizations of the ancient world, was centered there from at least 400 BC to the 10th century AD. Spreading far beyond modern Eritrea and Tigray, it moulded the earliest culture of Eritrea and Ethiopia and left many historical treasures: towering finely carved stelae, the remains of extensive palaces, and the ancient places of worship still vibrant with culture and pageantry.

The Tigray-Tigrinya people are descendants of early Semitic-speaking peoples whose presence in the region spanning central Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, is postulated to have existed from at least 2000 BC, based on linguistic evidence (and known from the 9th century BC from inscriptions).[8] 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.[9]


The Tigrinya 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 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.[10]

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.


The Tigray-Tigrinya speak the Tigrinya language as a mother tongue. Also known as Tigray, it belongs to the Ethiopian Semitic sub-group of the Afro-Asiatic family.[11] 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.[12] 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.

Political situation[edit]

The Eritrean people, including the Tigrinya speakers, mounted a revolt against the status of Eritrea as a province in 1962, which culminated in the defeat of the Derg regime in 1991 and Eritrea's subsequent independence by referendum in 1993. Most Tigrinya-speaking Eritreans joined the independence struggle later on as they were initially loyal to the Ethiopian Crown due to their land-owning aristocratic privileges, being members of the Unionist Party, and the Ethiopian government's overall favoritism towards them as a result of the religious commonalities between them, as opposed to the nomadic Muslim lowlanders who started the independence movement. During the time of the Derg in the 1970s, various movements arose in Tigray and throughout Ethiopia against its persecution. One of these, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), formed in the mid 1970s, grew disgruntled with the Derg and was the driving force that deposed of it at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War. The leader of the TPLF, the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi and his Eritrean counterpart, the leader of the EPLF, President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki, were the two main proponents that conspired on the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia at the conclusion of the 17-year-long struggle. The TPLF became the helm of the EPRDF, as it was created under its guidance, and today, dominated by the TPLF. The TPLF under the guise as the EPRDF is currently the dominant political party in Ethiopia. The EPLF became the helm of the PFDJ in Eritrea and today is Eritrea's sole legal political party.


A rural way of life pervades, with the Orthodox Church as a central part of the culture for the large majority. The church buildings are constructed on hills. Major celebrations during the year are held around the church, where people gather from villages all around to sing, play games, and observe the unique mass of the church, which includes a procession through the church grounds and environs.

Coffee is a very important ceremonial drink. The "coffee ceremony" is common to the Tigrians and the Amhara. Beans are roasted on the spot, ground and served thick and rich in tiny ceramic cups with no handles. When the beans are roasted to smoking, they are passed around the table, where the smoke becomes a blessing on the diners.

The highlands receive most of their rainfall during the summer months, much of which goes into tributaries of the Nile, 85% of whose water comes from Ethiopia. The soil has been depleted by many centuries of cultivation, and water is scarce. Using thousand year old methods, farmers plow their fields with oxen, sow seeds and harvest by hand. The harvest is threshed by the feet of animals. In the home, women use wood or the dried dung of farm animals for cooking. Women often work from 12 to 16 hours daily doing domestic duties in addition to cultivating the fields.

Each family—some with eight or more children—must provide all of its own food. Typically, women perform all work necessary to prepare the meals from grinding the grain to roasting the coffee beans. Children carry water in clay pots or jerry cans on their backs. Marriages are monogamous and arranged by contract, involving a dowry given by the bride's family to the couple. The new couple spends some time in each family's household, before establishing their own home at a location of their choice. Inheritance follows both family lines. Inheritance is determined following a funeral commemoration a year after the death, which may consume most of the deceased's estate.

The country houses are built mostly from rock, dirt, and a few timber poles. The houses blend in easily with the natural surroundings. For many families, the nearest water source is more than a kilometer away from their house. In addition, they must search for fire fuel throughout the surrounding area.

The Tigray-Tigrinya have a rich heritage of music and dance, using drums and stringed instruments tuned to a pentatonic scale. Arts and crafts and secular music are performed by mostly pariah artisan castes. Sacred music and iconic art is performed by monastically trained men.


In Ethiopia, the Tigray Region is 95.6% Ethiopian Orthodox, 4% Muslim, and the remaining 0.4% are mostly Catholic and Protestant.[5] In Eritrea, the Jeberti are Muslim and account for about 35% of the Tigrinya people there. The remaining 99% are Christians, so divided: 45% of the Eritrean Orthodox faith, 10% Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic (whose mass is held in Ge'ez as opposed to Latin), and 9% belonging to various Protestant and other Christian denominations, the majority of which belong to the (Lutheran) Evangelical Church of Eritrea. These are the government registered (allowed) religions of Eritrea. Meanwhile there are those who profess faith to smaller Evangelical denominations whose rights to worship are currently suspended by the Eritrean government, such as the Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses as well as non Christian denominations such as the Bahá'í.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches trace their roots back to the Axumite Church founded in the 4th century by Syrian monks. Historically, the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches have had strong ties with the Egyptian Coptic church, where the Egyptian Church appointed the Abuna (archbishop) for the Ethiopian Church (which then incorporated Eritrea) until 1959. The Ethiopian Church gained independence from the Coptic church in 1948 and began anointing its own pope. The Eritrean Orthodox church split from the Ethiopian Orthodox in 1993 and reverted to having its pope in the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Egypt.

Over 6 million Tigrayans are Oriental Orthodox, with one priest for every 92 members—the highest concentration in Ethiopia. The remainder are Muslims. There are many Muslims in Tigray Province, but they generally belong to other ethnic groups than the Tigrayans. The Tigrayans are reported to have fewer than 500 Evangelicals, but there are more Evangelicals among the Tigrinya in Eritrea.

The faith of the church is very intimately woven into the culture of the Christian members of the Tigrinya people and is central to their way of life. In the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox and Catholic churches, Mary is considered a saint, and the Ark of the Covenant (tabot) features prominently in the Orthodox Church. Moreover, the Ge'ez bible preserves many texts considered apocryphal by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, such as 1 Enoch, which has only been preserved in Ge'ez.

Church services are conducted in Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia and Eritrea, just as Latin once was in the Roman Catholic Church, and continues to be the liturgical language.

The Eastern Catholic Church in Eritrea was established in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries who had come to help the Christian Abyssinians fight off a Turkish invasion. Centered in the former Akele Guzai province (the eastern part of the Eritrean highlands) the churches maintained most of the liturgy of the already existing Orthodox Church, including Ge'ez as the liturgical language, with minor differences there-among sharing communion with, and submitting to the authority of the Vatican Pope as opposed to the Pope in Axum.

Roman Catholicism arrived in Eritrea with the advent of Italian colonialism and almost coincided with the arrival of Swedish missionaries who brought Lutheran Christianity to Eritrea at the end of the 19th century. The relationship between these two religions was especially tense as the Roman Catholic Italians resisted and discouraged the spread of Protestantism in their colony and even lay prohibitions and numerous constraints on the activities of the Swedish missionaries. The Roman Catholic Church as an instrument of the colonial authority has held mass in Latin and Italian since its inception, incorporating local languages in its missionary work throughout Eritrea. It initially sought to cater to Italian citizens as well as foster an elite of Eritreans into becoming good Italian subjects. Today the church is a distinctly Eritrean church, although masses continue to be held in Italian and Latin along with local languages there-among Tigrinya and it also caters to the very small Italian and Italo-Eritrean community mainly in Asmara. The Lutheran Church of Eritrea and its Swedish and Eritrean missionaries were the ones who translated the Bible from the dead Ge'ez language only understood by higher clergymen, into the Tigrinya and other local languages and their main goal was to reach and "enlighten" as many people as possible in the world through education. They were instrumental in raising the literacy rate of their community.


Though Christianity in Africa was largely a European import that arrived with colonialism, this is not the case with the Tigrinya people. The ancient Kingdom of Axum that was centered in what is now northern Ethiopia (or Tigray) and Hamasien, Serae and Akeleguzay(Central Eritrea) had intimate connections with the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. Christianity arrived in the Horn of Africa in the 4th century, growing dynamically in the pre-existing Jewish/Waaq adherent environment. Many Tigrinya thus adopted Christianity centuries before most populations in Europe, thereby establishing one of the oldest state churches in the world.


Early in the history of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed's companions found sanctuary in the Kingdom of Axum at the behest of the Axumite King. While some of the Prophet's companions returned to the Arabian Peninsula, others settled permanently in the Horn. The descendants of these early Muslim migrants and those who converted to Islam during the period became known as Tigre. One of their oldest settlements is said to be Negash, in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia. The Sahaba Mosque in the Eritrean port city of Massawa is also believed to have been built during the 7th century.

Notable Tigray-Tigrinya people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  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. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities (accessed 22 March 2006)
  7. ^ "Eritrea". The World Factbook. United States Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved September 24, 2009. 
  8. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), pp. 57
  9. ^ Munro-Hay, Aksum, pp. 187
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ "Tigrinya". Ethnologue. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  12. ^ "Country Level". 2007 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia. CSA. 13 July 2010. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 

External links[edit]