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Tigray girls.jpg
Tigray girls
Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia4.80 million[1]
 Eritrea3,255,405[citation needed]
 Germanyc. 33,000[2][Note 1]
 Swedenc. 20,000[3]
 Norwayc. 13,500[4]
 United Kingdom32,400[5]
 Netherlandsc. 7,500[7]
 Italyc. 4,600[8]
 Denmarkc. 3,000[9]
Christian cross.svg Christianity (96%)
Star and Crescent.svg Islam (4%)
Related ethnic groups

The Tigrayans are an ethnolinguistic group indigenous to the highlands of Eritrea and the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.[13][14][15] They speak the Tigrinya language, a direct descendant of the Ge’ez language that was spoken in late antiquity.[16][17]

In Eritrea they make up about 55%[citation needed] of the population, i.e. above three million people (and additionally half a million in the diaspora), and in Ethiopia there are about 4.5 million Tigrayans, according to the 2007 census, most of them in the Tigray Region.[18][19][20] Over 90% of Tigrayans are Christians. The great majority are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Eritrean Orthodox Christian, but there are minorities of Muslims, Beta Israel, and since the 19th century, Protestants in Eritrea and Catholics mainly in Akele Guzay and Agame. Most Tigrayans are traditionally agriculturalists, practicing plough agriculture (cultivating teff, sorghum, millet, wheat, maize, etc.) and also keeping cattle, sheep and goats (but usually without stock-breeding), and in many areas bees[citation needed] Some Tigrayan groups have a strong local identity and used to have their own traditional, quite autonomous self-organization, sometimes dominated by egalitarian assemblies of elders, sometimes by leading families or local feudal dynasties.[21] In some areas the meritorious complex played a considerable role in achieving a social status, which led to the creation of local honorary titles and social institutions, and, historically, to an active involvement in the warfare of Christian Ethiopia; through this, even the sons of simple peasants could rise considerably in the state of hierarchy.[citation needed]

The daily life of Tigrayans are highly influenced by religious concepts. For example, the Christian Orthodox fasting periods are strictly observed, especially in Tigray; but also traditional local beliefs such as in spirits, are widespread. In Tigray the language of the church remains exclusively Ge’ez; in Eritrea also Tigrinya is used in the Orthodox Church context, but rather as an exception (different from Protestant churches, well-enrooted in Hamasen and urban Eritrea). Tigrayan society is marked by a strong ideal of communitarianism and, especially in the rural sphere, by egalitarian principles. This does not exclude an important role of gerontocratic rules and in some regions such as the wider Adwa area, formerly the prevalence of feudal lords, who, however, still had to respect the local land rights.[13]


Ancient blocks with Sabean inscriptions.

The first possible mention of the group dates from around 525 AD in Adulis, in which period manuscripts preserving the inscriptions of Cosmas Indicopleustes contain notes on his writings including the mention of a tribe called Tigretes.[22]


Mekelle palace of Emperor Yohannes IV (emperor of the whole Ethiopian Empire).
Gold coins from Axum era.

The majority of Tigrayans trace their origin to 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).[23] According to Ethiopian traditions, the Tigrayan nobility; i.e. that of the former Kingdom of Tigray, 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 dynasty 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.[22] A Portuguese Map in the 1660 shows Medri Bahri consisting of the three highland provinces of Eritrea and distinct from Ethiopia.[24] 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.[25] Bruce noted "They next passed the Mareb, which is the boundary between Tigre and the Baharnagash".[26] James Bruce in his book published in 1805 located Tigré (a region based arbitrarily by James Bruce on the Language of Tigrinya) between Red Sea and the Tekezé River and stated many large governments, such as Enderta and Antalow, and the great part of Baharhagash were part of Tigré region based on the language of Tigrinya.[27][28][29][dubious ]

Aksum was an important participant in international trade from the 1st century AD (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) until circa the later part of the 1st millennium when it succumbed to a long decline against pressures from the various Islamic powers leagued against it.

By the beginning of the 19th century Henry Salt (Egyptologist), who travelled in the interior of Abyssinia, divided the "Abyssinia" region, like James Bruce into three distinct and independent states.[30][31] These three great divisions(based arbitrarily on Language) are Tigré, Amhara, and the province of Shoa.[30] 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.[32] 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.[32] 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.[33][34] By the time Henry made his travel to Abyssinia the seat of the empire, Gondar, was ruled by Gugsa of Yejju, an Wollo commander who ruled from 1798 up to 1825 as enderase to the powerless emperors with Solomonic dynasty.[35][36]


The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana's conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë.

Tigrayans constitute approximately 6.1% of the population of Ethiopia and are largely small holding farmers inhabiting small communal villages. They are also mainly 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 Mekelle, Adwa, Axum, Adigrat, and Shire and in Eritrea are Asmara and Keren. Populations of Tigrayans are also found in other large Ethiopian cities such as the capital Addis Ababa and Gondar as well as abroad in the United States.

The Tigrayans are, despite a general impression of homogeneity, composed of numerous subgroups with their own socio-cultural traditions. Among these there are the Agame of eastern Tigray, mentioned in the Monumentum Adulitanum in the 3rd century; the autonomous Senadegle and Meretta of Akkele Guzay in Eritrea; the Hamasenay, agriculturalists in Hamasen and cattle herders in Humera; the egalitarian Wajjarat of south-eastern Tigray. Many others, sometimes numbering only a few thousands and scattered over several districts, could be listed. Usually they define themselves through common descent, but in some cases also as a political confederacy uniting different groups (such as the Shewatte Anseba on the north-western borders of the Eritrean highlands). Assimilation processes, which still continue, have led to the inclusion of other ethnic (sub-)groups. For example, Agaw settlers in Seraye, the Adkeme Malga became Tigrayans several centuries ago; some Bilin villages near Keren now also belong to the Tigrayans.[13]

Yohannis IV of Mekelle, emperor of the Ethiopian Empire (r. 1871–89).

The subgroups are composed of descent groups and lineages. Often these are called "Deqqi-...", sometimes also "Ad...", after a common ancestor, such as the Deqqi Tesfa of the western lowlands of Seraye or the Ad Deggiyat, a name for the Seazzega dynasty of the Mereb Melash. In addition, there are ancient, more vague group-designations above the level of subgroups, used by elders as identity-markers: Agaziyan (descendants of the Agazi) for the inhabitants of Agame and Akkele Guzay, and Sabawiyan for the people of Aksum and Yeha.[13]

The decline of the Tigrayan population in Ethiopia during Haile Selassie's reign – in particular in districts of the former Tigray province, which are given to the present-day Amhara Region, like Addi Arkay (woreda), Kobo (woreda) & Sanja (woreda) – is likely to have been as a result of Haile Selassie's suppression and systematic persecution against non-Amhara ethnic peoples of Ethiopia (in particular, his immense systematic persecution of Tigrayans). For example, on the 1958 famine of Tigray, Haile Selassie refused to send any significant basic emergency food aid to Tigray province despite having the resources to; as a consequence, over 100,000 people died of the famine.[37][38][39]

Later on, the Mengistu Haile Mariam-led brutal military dictatorship (Derg) also used the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia as government policy (by restricting food supplies) for counter-insurgency strategy (against Tigray People's Liberation Front guerrilla-soldiers), and for "social transformation" in non-insurgent areas (against people of Tigray province, Welo province and such).[40][41][42] Due to organized government policies that deliberately multiplied the effects of the famine, around 1.2 million people died in Ethiopia from this famine where majority of the death tolls were from Tigray province (and other parts of northern Ethiopia).[43][44][45]


Tigrayans are mostly Christians, with an Oriental Orthodox majority and a Catholic minority. Tigrayan Muslims are virtually all Sunni, though a minority of Ahbash followers also exists. There are also Tigrayan communities consisting of Jews, known as the Beta Israel. Majority of these peoples have now migrated to Israel.


Sun and crescent emblems on the Hawulti stele in Matara

Before the coming of Christianity, most Tigrayans followed a pagan religion with a number of deities, including the sun god Utu, and the moon god Almaqah. Some tribes however practiced Judaism. The most prominent polytheistic kingdoms were the Kingdoms of D’mt and early Aksum.


The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which claims to contain the Ark of the Covenant is located in Axum

Christianity has been the predominant religion of Tigrayans since antiquity, when the Aksumite king Ezana converted to Christianity in the late 3rd century and declared it the state religion. They have played a fundamental role in the development of the faith. With the expansion of Islam, the Tigrayans were pushed out from the coast and forced to remain in the highlands to avoid Islamization. Today, Orthodox Tewahedo dominates in most areas, overwhelmingly so in rural areas.


Islam was introduced to the area early on, when the Prophet Muhammad's companions found refuge in the Aksumite Kingdom. While some of Muhammad's companions returned to the Arabian peninsula, some stayed back as refugees and converted a number of people to Islam. These new converts were called Jeberti meaning “the elect of god”. Today, the Muslim community, is concentrated mainly in urban areas. Many Jeberti in Eritrea claim that they are a separate ethnic group from other Tigrayans in the area and consider their native languages to be both Arabic and Tigrinya, and are thus treated as a separate ethno-religious community.[46]


Tigrayans are sometimes described as “individualistic”, due to elements of competition, jealousy and local conflicts.[47] This, however, rather reflects a strong tendency to defend one's own community and local rights against—then widespread—interferences, be it from more powerful individuals or the state. Tigrayan communities are marked by numerous social institutions with a strong networking of character, where relations are based on mutual rights and bonds. Economic and other support is mediated by these institutions. In the urban context, the modern local government have taken over the functions of traditional associations. In most rural areas, however, traditional social organizations are fully in function. All members of such an extended family are linked by strong mutual obligations.[48] Villages are usually perceived as genealogical communities, consisting of several lineages.[13]

An Eritrean Tigrayan woman pouring traditionally brewed coffee from a jebena during a coffee ceremony

A remarkable heritage of Tigrayans are their customary laws. In Eritrea, several Tigrayan groups have elaborated them as written law books, which are still valid locally (subsidiary to state law). In Tigray, customary law is also still partially practiced to some degree even in political self-organization and penal cases. It is also of great importance for conflict resolution.[21]


Tigrayans speak Tigrinya language as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Ethiopian Semitic subgroup of the Afroasiatic family.[49]

Tigrinya is closely related to Amharic and Tigre, another Afroasiatic language spoken by the Tigre as well as many Beja. Tigrinya and Tigre although close are not mutually intelligible. Tigrinya has traditionally been written using the same Ge'ez alphabet (fidel) as Amharic, whereas 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 Tewahedo 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 Tigrayans constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in the country after the Oromo, Amhara and Somali, who also speak Afro-Asiatic languages.[50] 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.[51] No dialect appears to be accepted as a standard.

T'ihlo dish


Tigrayan food characteristically consists of vegetable and often very spicy meat dishes, usually in the form of tsebhi (Tigrinya: ፀብሒ), a thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread.[22] As the vast majority of Tigrayans belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (and the minority Muslims), pork is not consumed because of religious beliefs. Meat and dairy products are not consumed on Wednesdays and Fridays, and also during the 7 compulsory fasts. Because of this reason, many vegan meals are present. Eating around a shared food basket, mäsob (Tigrinya: መሶብ) is a custom in the Tigray region and is usually done so with families and guests. The food is eaten using no cutlery, using only the fingers (of the right hand) and sourdough flatbread to grab the contents on the bread.[52][53]

Regional dishes[edit]

T'ihlo (Tigrinya: ጥሕሎ, ṭïḥlo) is a dish originating from the historical Agame and Akkele Guzai provinces. The dish is unique to these parts of both countries, but is now slowly spreading throughout the entire region. T'ihlo is made using moistened roasted barley flour that is kneaded to a certain consistency. The dough is then broken into small ball shapes and is laid out around a bowl of spicy meat stew. A two-pronged wooden fork is used to spear the ball and dip it into the stew. The dish is usually served with mes, a type of honey wine.[54]

Notable People[edit]


  1. ^ Roughly half of the Eritrean diaspora


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