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Total population
7,000,000 [1]
Regions with significant populations
Tigrinya · Amharic · Arabic · Hebrew
Christianity (Ethiopian · Eritrean)
Sunni Islam · Judaism
Related ethnic groups
Agaw · Amhara · Tigre
and other Habesha people

Tigray-Tigrinya are an ethnic group who live in the southern, central and northern parts of Eritrea and the northern highlands of Ethiopia's Tigray province. A few also live in Ethiopia's former provinces of Begemder and Wollo, which are today mostly part of Amhara Region, though a few regions (e.g. Wolqayt) were incorporated instead into modern Tigray Region. Their language is called Tigrinya. They make up approximately 96.6% of the inhabitants of the Tigray Region[3], and are 6.2% of the population of Ethiopia as a whole, numbering about 4.5 million.[4] Tigrinya speakers are approximately 50% of the population in neighboring Eritrea[5] at about 2.25 million people.

Not to be confused with the Tigre people who speak Tigre, a closely related language, see Tigrinya language. Proto-Tigrayans were the main ethnicity of kingdom of Axum in the first millennium CE. Their language, a form of Ge'ez, remained the language of later Ethiopian imperial court as well as the Ethiopian Church.


There is no name generally agreed upon for the people who speak Tigrinya. All speakers of Tigrinya in Eritrea are officially referred to as Bihér-Tigrinya (or simply, Tigrinya). Some Muslims, however, are known as Jebertis, although they are not recognized as a separate ethnicity.


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 Tigray, it moulded the earliest culture of 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 c. BC from inscriptions).[6] 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.

Tigraway have long been subject to Amhara rule and the prominence of the Amharic language above theirs in the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, also called Abyssinia (from Habashat, an ancient group of Ethiopian clans). The Tigray-Tigrinya people share a common ancestry with them from the Ge'ez-speaking peoples of the Aksumite kingdom; as the Tigray-Tigrinya were previously undifferentiated as a specific group from Semitic speakers in the Kingdom of Aksum, their first mention didn't come until relatively late. The first possibly 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 include a mention of a tribe called Tigretes.[7]


The Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea share several cultural aspects there among the Tigrinya language with the Tigrawot of Ethiopia (also spelled Tegaru), although there are considerable differences in dialect as well as culture and many to most Biher-Tigrinyas view Tegaru as a completely different ethnic group from them.[citation needed] The Tigrinya people are one of Eritrea's nine ethnic groups and are referred to as Biher-Tigrinya roughly meaning "Tigrinya nation". Most of them live in rural areas in the highland administrative regions of 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 (unlike in Tigray where the rural make-up is dominated by large estates and homesteads owing to a feudal past). Most Biher-Tigrinya are christian and members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church with small minorities of Catholics and Protestants. There is however a considerable Muslim minority of Tigrinya speakers who are officially included in the definition of Biher-Tigrinya but who are largely referred to as (and refer to themselves as) "Jeberti", some even pushing for recognition as such, separate from the Biher-Tigrinya. The Jeberti are largely urban and involved in trade and artisan professions. The predominantly Biher-Tigrinya (and Jeberti) populated urban centers in Eritrea are the capital Asmara, Mendefera, Dekemhare, Adi Keyh, Adi Quala and Senafe, while there is a significant population of Biher-Tigrinya (and Jeberti) in other cities including Keren, and Massawa.


The name of the language is Tigrinya. Tigrinya is descended from an ancient Semitic language called Ge'ez. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches officially use the Ge'ez as a liturgical language today, as in the past. 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, spoken by the Tigre people, as well as many Beja people. Tigrinya and Tigre although close are not mutually intelligible, and while Tigrinya has traditionally been a written language which uses the same writing system called fidel (Ge'ez script) as Amharic, Tigre has not. 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 don't 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 and the "Tigray" are the third largest ethnic group, after the Oromo and Amhara. In Eritrea, Tigrinya is by far the most spoken language, and they represent about 50% of the population (and the Tigre around 30%).

Political Situation

The Eritrean people, thereamong the Tigrinya speakers mounted a revolt against the status of Eritrea as a province in 1962, which culminated in the defeat of the Derg (Ethiopia's government) in 1991 and independence by referendum in 1993. 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 advocated the secession of Tigray. By 1991, however, when the group defeated the Derg, its views had changed, and it became the helm of the EPRDF, created under its guidance (and dominated by the TPLF), the current dominant party.


The way of life evokes images of Bible times. Camels, donkeys, and sheep are everywhere. Fields are plowed using oxen. The Orthodox Church is a large part of the culture for the large majority. The church buildings are built 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. The Muslim minority of the Jeberti however did not traditionally belong to a landowning pesantry as in Eritrea or serfs and lords as in Tigray, but to a class of artisans (weavers, goldsmiths, traders etc.) whose lives were very close to that of their Christian counterparts but revolved and to a great extent still revolve around working their trade in the market and praying at the mosque.

Coffee is a very important ceremonial drink. The "coffee ceremony" is common to the Tigrinya 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; water is scarce. Using methods that are thousands of years old, 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 as well as cultivating the fields.

Each family—some with eight or more children—must provide all of its own food. The 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. Many times the nearest water source is more than a kilometer away from their house. In addition, they must search for fuel for the fire throughout the surrounding area.

The Biher-Tigrinya people of Eritrea (former Hamasien Republic) commonly practiced a form of communal land tenure known as diessa. Under this system the land of the village is reallocated among the villagers on a rotational basis every five to seven years. To qualify for a portion of the land, a male resident of the village would first have to marry and create a household separate from his parents. These members of the village, also known as Deqebats, were the only community members allowed a portion of the village’s arable land. The land of the village can not be sold or inherited, and it reverts back to the village upon death. Often village custom and law would allow single widows with children, orphans, and widowers a one-half share of the community’s land. The diessa land tenure system held all pasture land out for communal use.

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 0.5% Protestant and Catholic.[3] In Eritrea the Jeberti, some of whom do not consider themselves to be "Tigray-Tigrinya" are Muslim and account for about 10% of the Tigrinya people there. The remaining 90% are Christians, so divided: 73% of the Eritrean Orthodox faith, 12% Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic (whose mass is held in Ge'ez as opposed to Latin), and 5% 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. Nevertheless The Protestant Evangelical Church is a visible presence among the Tigrinya in Eritrea.[8]

The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches trace their roots back to the Axumite Church founded in the fourth 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 back 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 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 thereamong 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 thereamong 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, but this is not the case with the Tigray-Tigrinya (or with the Amhara people). The ancient empire of Axum centered in north Tigray and the central highlands of Eritrea had intimate connections with the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. Christianity arrived in the Eritrean and Tigrayan area in the fourth century, growing dynamically in the pre-existing Jewish/Animistic mixed environment. The Tigrayan-Tigrinyas thus converted to Christianity centuries before most of Europe, thereby establishing one of the oldest state churches in the world.

Many Tigrayan-Tigrinya churches were cut out of solid cliffs or from single blocks of stone, just as they were in Petra and as well in Turkey and in parts of Greece. More commonly, churches and monasteries were built high up in the mountains on flat tops known as ambas. Religion is a central feature of the communities and of each family's daily life. Each community has its own church and a designated patron saint.


Early in the history of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed's companions found sanctuary in the Kingdom of Axum. When some of the Prophet's companions returned to the Arabian Peninsula some of these refugees remained, while some Axumites converted to Islam. These people were called Jeberti (the elect of God). One of their oldest settlements is said to be Negash, in the Tigray Region. Most Tigrinya-speaking Muslims, or Jeberti, are today Eritreans, although many of these trace their origins to the neighbouring province of Tigray in the former Kingdom of Ethiopia. In the late 19th century, during the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia, who was a devoutly Christian Tigrayan, Muslim Tigrayans were forcibly expelled from their homes and found refuge in the nearby northern areas in what is now Eritrea, out of reach of royal Ethiopian authority.

Although they continued to live as a minority among a Christian majority of landowning peasants and were denied rights to own land on account of their religion, they were allowed to settle in the market towns and engage in trades which the landowning Christians either considered taboo or frowned upon, deeming farming the only honorable form of sustenance. The Jeberti thus excelled as Eritrea's earliest mercantile bourgeoisie and skilled artisans, engaging in trades such as metalworking, goldsmithing, tailoring, pottery-making as well as shopkeeping.

Notable Tigray-Tigrinya people

See also


  1. Tigray-Tigrinya: Joshua Project
  2. 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)
  3. 3.0 3.1 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.
  4. Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities (accessed 22 March 2006)
  5. "Eritrea". The World Factbook. United States Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  6. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), pp. 57
  7. Munro-Hay, Aksum, pp. 187
  8. Orville Jenkins, "Tigrinya People Profile". (Accessed July 27).

External links

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