Tigrinya people


Tigrinya / Tigrigna

The Tigrinya people, also known as Tigrigna, are an ethnic group indigenous to Eritrea. The Tigrinya people are the largest ethnic group in Eritrea, accounting for approximately 50 percent of the country's population. There also exist sizable Tigrinya communities in the diaspora. They speak the Tigrinya language.



It is believed that the first ancestors of the human race migrated to other parts of the world from this area. Bob Walter discovered the oldest evidence of stone tools near the coastal areas of Eritrea. The tools are believed to be 125,000 years old. There were already people living on the Red Sea coast and Eritrean highlands from the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic ages.

Tigrinya people map

Tigrinyas, Tigrayans and Tigre

In Eritrea the Tigrinya people are referred to as Biher-Tigrinya people or the "Kebessa" people, kebessa meaning Eritrean highlands. Both the Tigrinya and Tigre tribes in Eritrea are very close kin to the ethnic group Tigrayans in Tigray, Ethiopia. All the Tigrinyas, Tigre, and Tigrayans peoples were supposedly from the same group until the 8th century, and shared the Aksumite Kingdom before its demise.

These people grew apart in lexical, societal construction and dialect from around the 9th century. Tigrayans in Tigray abandoned the declining Kingdom of Aksum and the Tigrinya people built the kingdom of Medri Bahri in Eritrea by Bahre Negasi (also known as Bahre Negash; "king of the sea" in English), and the Agaw built the Zagwe Dynasty in Ethiopia by Morara Gebrekrstos of Hamassien.

The divergence between the two Tigrinya language speaking peoples have been recorded.

The Tigrinya people in Eritrea and the Tigrayan people in Ethiopia have been erroneously portrayed as the same people sharing common ancestors with the exclusion of Tigre people from the domain.

Tigrinya tribe in Eritrea (except for a few communities along the border) do not consider themselves the same people as the Tigrayan tribe in Tigray, Ethiopia. Some Tigrayans consider themselves to be the same as the Tigrinya people in Eritrea-sharing common ancestors.

There has been discord between these two narratives for centuries and it has been partially responsible in igniting several wars, most recently the Eritrean-Ethiopian (1998 – 2000) border war.



Tigrinya is the most widely spoken language in Eritrea, and the fourth most spoken language in Ethiopia after Amharic. The Eritrean version of the language is spelled as Tigrigna and pronounced differently implying the actual dialect adhered by Eritrean Tigrinya speakers. Similarly, the Ethiopian version of the language is spelled as Tigrinya and pronounced in line with the dialect adhered by Tigrinya speakers in Ethiopia.

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



The way of life evokes images of Bible times.  Camels, donkeys, and sheep are everywhere.  Fields are plowed using oxen.  The Coptic (Orthodox) Church is a large part of the culture.  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.

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 little rainfall--most of it falling during the summer months.  The countryside is sparsely covered with cactus and other dry climate foliage.  Being a highland farmer is very hard work.  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 the dried dung of farm animals for cooking, nothing is wasted.  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 Tigrinya have a rich heritage of music and dance, using drums and stringed instruments tuned to their 5-tone scale.  It is similar to Arabic or Indian music.  Arts and crafts and secular music are performed by mostly pariah artisan castes.  Sacred music and iconic art is performed by monastically trained men.



Most Tigrinya have historically been settled agriculturists, and they continue to be largely agricultural and rural, as does Eritrea as a whole. Typical Tigrinya settlements in rural areas usually take the form of small towns or villages with houses on rocky hillsides overlooking more fertile fields and valleys where crops are grown. The Orthodox Church usually is situated on the highest point in the village. Most of the Tigrinya population in Eritrea is rural, though many people inhabit towns and cities and participate in the urban, governmental, and other sectors. There are also a number of small to medium-size market and administrative towns in the Tigrinya regions, many of which have been experiencing marked growth since Eritrean independence in 1993. Traditional Tigrinya homes (hidmo) have stone walls covered with mud or clay and are painted white; roofs are supported by tree trunks, and rafters are covered by layers of branches, sand, and stones. More "modern" buildings made of rocks or concrete with corrugated iron roofs are constructed by those who can afford them. Surrounding the home is a stone enclosure. Villages are made up of varying numbers of extended families. In urban areas, such as the capital city, Asmara, where many Tigrinya live, housing tends to vary more and does not necessarily follow traditional patterns. People residing in urban areas maintain ties to their villages of origin.



Subsistence. The economy in Tigrinya areas is mainly agricultural, with small family-run farms where subsistence agriculture is practiced. The Tigrinya are settled agriculturists who grow a variety of grains, vegetables, and legumes and maintain domestic livestock such as cows, goats, and sheep as well as oxen for plowing. The staple diet consists of ingera, a flat spongy bread usually made from teff, a local grain, and various stews and sauces made with spices, butter, and vegetables, legumes, or meat. Conflicts since the 1960s have severely affected the highland economy in terms of the ability to carry out farming activities and environmental degradation. Droughts and climatic and environmental problems have contributed to a precarious situation, and food aid, mostly from European countries and distributed by the Eritrean government, has been necessary at times. Food is grown locally and purchased or traded, as are other goods and services. Other needed goods, such as clothing and housing materials, are minimal and can be obtained through gathering activities and small amounts of cash.

Commercial Activities. Commercial activities in the Tigrinya region increased considerably with the advent of colonialism in the late 1890s. Urbanization increased along with commerce, services, food processing, building materials, mining, dairy farming, and other light industries. In the 1990s the Eritrean highlands experienced an increase in light industry, mining, and small and medium-size businesses and an expansion of the goods and services produced and sold, particularly in the towns. In rural areas many commercial activities continue to be small-scale, including sewa houses (a fermented beverage made and sold by women) and other small businesses.

Industrial Arts. The Tigrinya produce some craft goods, such as baskets, coffeepots and items for brewing traditional coffee, and other small items for local use, sale, and trade.

Trade. Trade in rural areas is typically small-scale, involving products such as household items, salt, sugar, animal products, grains, and craft goods. Trade involves goods from the lowlands and other regions of Eritrea as well as from parts of the Middle East. During the colonial period Eritrea exported some items, such as fruit and animal products, but much of that trade was interrupted by war.

Division of Labor. In households and communities labor involves agricultural work that is done mostly by adult men and domestic work (cooking, collecting water and firewood, and caring for children) that is done by women. Children are responsible for herding animals and assisting adults. In the highlands it is common for the members of a household, usually young men, to be employed in urban areas, especially during seasons when their labor is not needed at home. Households also participate in small-scale trade and the selling of products such as eggs and baskets; often these items are sold by women. With the intensification of war in the 1970s, large numbers of Tigrinya left the country, settling in nearby countries such as Sudan or in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Tigrinya living abroad continue to play a significant role in the Eritrean economy through remittances.

Land Tenure. There were several traditional varieties of land tenure in the highlands. In the diesa system land was held as the common property of a village, with access based on village residence. Land was allocated and reallocated periodically by the village for household and individual use, depending on people's needs. Variations of this system were found in the highlands before the 1950s, but it was not entirely "traditional" in all places. Instead, it sometimes was used by the Italian colonial government, especially in areas where the tsilemi system was operative. Tsilemi land tenure patterns entailed the "ownership" of land by an immediate family or kin group, with rights to the land established by inheritance but with no right of sale or alienation. Variants of the diesa system were implemented by the Ethiopian government under the "socialist" Dergue rule that began in the mid-1970s. The Dergue socialized land and put in place state ownership. Land reforms also were initiated by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the guerrilla movement that liberated Eritrea. By the 1980s and 1990s most highland villages had undergone land reform and had modified diesa systems. After independence in 1993 the new government gained control of all the land. Land remains in state hands, with permanent usufruct rights for any Eritrean citizen over the age of eighteen who wishes use the land productively but with no rights of sale or inheritance.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages take place outside the family lineage and link kin groups. Marriages historically took place when men were in their early twenties and women were in their middle to late teens. The age of marriage is increasing, as is the practice of family-arranged marriages. In practice, families still have a great deal of influence. Marriages follow the tradition of the Orthodox Church or, in the case of Catholics, Protestants, or Muslims, within those traditions. After the wedding a couple lives together for the obligatory honeymoon period of about one month, after which the bride returns to her parents' home. During this time the groom works and completes a new homestead, usually with or near his family. After about one year the couple move into the new home together.

Domestic Unit. Households usually are formed around one married couple. They consist of at least one adult man responsible for most of the farming work, although in urban areas he may be employed in a variety of service, professional, or administrative jobs, and one adult woman who is responsible for the management of almost all household and domestic activities, including food preparation, child care, and the collection of water and firewood; women sometimes help with farm work. Dependent children help their parents perform these tasks, usually along gender lines, and are responsible for herding animals.

Inheritance. Inheritance is mainly patrilineal. Some property is given to sons at marriage in the form of grain or agricultural equipment for the establishment of a separate household, and some passes at the death of the parents. Most items are divided between the sons, except for the house, which is inherited by the youngest son. Daughters' "inheritance" usually consists of a dowry, though they may also inherit jewelry or household items.

Socialization. Women and older children are the primary caretakers of children. Fathers also play a role in the socialization of children, as does the community as a whole and the church.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization revolves around land ownership and use, parental authority, kinship ties, and family and community hierarchies. In rural villages there is social differentiation between households despite the existence of some leveling mechanisms. In urban areas there is more variation in social status and organization.

In traditional highland politics political and class distinctions were closely tied to the territorial unit on which inheritance and land rights were based. This created a social distinction between those who qualified as members of the enda and had rights to land and newcomers or foreign residents who represented "second-class" citizens; being outside the enda, those people had no rights to inherit land and could live only as tenants. However, in many parts of Eritrea there have been considerable changes in traditional social organization, especially after Eritrean independence in 1993.

Political Organization. Political organization in Tigrinya villages historically centered on the community, particularly among adult men. The Baito (gathering) is a system used for electing assemblies at the village, district, and provincial levels, although since 1997 it has been used only at the regional level. Historically, the Tigrinya were incorporated into various state systems, including colonial administrations, Ethiopian administrations, and independent rule. Before Italian colonization the Orthodox Church was the most powerful institution in the highlands, with substantial influence over social and economic systems and supported by a great deal of material resources, including large landholdings. There was a strong connection between local elites, politics, and religion. The postliberation government has limited religious power considerably, and the link between religion and politics has been weakened.

Social Control. Social control often operates at the local level. Generally settled within or between communities or families, conflicts include disputes over land, resources, and personal animosity. In some instances the church is a mediator or adjudicator in conflicts. On a broader level conflicts can be dealt with through regional court systems. By the 1980s the EPLF also played a role in social control in some villages. There are customary laws among the Tigrinya, in conjunction with state laws.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Tigrinya are followers of the Orthodox (Coptic) Church, which dates to around the fourth century and is one of the oldest extant branches of Christianity. It represents the main indigenous religion among the Tigrinya. A small proportion (7 percent) of the Tigrinya are Muslims (Jeberti), who are often merchants and traders. There are also small numbers of Catholics and Protestants who were converted during the colonial period.

Religious Practitioners. In the Orthodox Church the priest (k'ashi) is the main religious practitioner. The Orthodox clergy are divided into two groups. Lay priests live in the villages and parishes on land belonging to the church and perform marriages and other services and ceremonies. Their role in the community gives them high social status. Monks living in monasteries maintain celibacy (Orthodox priests can marry) and have less daily interaction with their communities. Historically, monks were important socially and politically. They represented church authority and served other functions, such as passing judgment in legal matters concerning religious or family issues and bringing about reconciliation between individuals and groups. Among Muslims the local mufti is the main spiritual practitioner; other Christian denominations are governed by their own clergy.

Ceremonies. There are numerous ceremonies in the Orthodox Church, many of which revolve around saint's days and other religious and seasonal holidays, as well as functions such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Arts. The Coptic Church is known for artwork such as paintings and illuminated manuscripts. At a more local level the arts include traditional music and dance that is accompanied by instruments such as the Krar, a traditional guitar/harplike instrument, and drums. Many of the songs and dances have their origins in the church and are used during religious feasts and ceremonies as well as at weddings and other occasions. The Tigrinya also have traditional dress, decoration, artwork, crafts, poetry, and literature.

Death and Afterlife. The Orthodox Church shares beliefs about the afterlife with other branches of Christianity. There is a great deal of ceremony surrounding funerals. The funeral is held the day after a person's death. On the twelfth day the first memorial ceremony occurs (assur), followed by the second memorial service on the fortieth day (arba'a) and the third memorial after six months (menfeqh). The last memorial (amet) is held on the first anniversary of the death. One of these memorials is also chosen to be the "second funeral" (teshar), in which everyone who was part in the first funeral participates. Food and drink are served at all these ceremonies.

For other cultures in Eritrea, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Settlements and kingdoms

Ona. The oldest settled pastoral and agricultural community lived in Ona (the villages and towns around Asmara) around 800 BC. It was the oldest known indigenous culture in the Horn Africa. Archaeologist Peter Schmidt compared the Asmara settlement to Athens and Rome. The language known as Geez was believed to be spoken in the region around 1000 BC.

D'mt Kingdom. D'mt (Daamat) was believed to be home to a settled community in Southern Eritrean and Northern Ethiopia from around 8th century BC to 4th century BC. There is little archaeological evidence of the D'mt Kingdom.

Metera. Metera was a major city in the Dʿmt and Aksumite kingdoms. Since Eritrean independence, the National Museum of Eritrea has petitioned the Ethiopian government to return artifacts removed from the site, though their efforts have been rebuffed. Hawulti, a pre-Aksumite or early Aksumite era obelisk, is situated here.

Qohaito. Rock art near Qohaito appears to indicate habitation in the area since the fifth millennium BC, while the town is known to have survived until the sixth century. Mount Emba Soira, Eritrea's highest mountain, and a small successor village lies near the site. Qohaito is often identified as the town Koloe described in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greco-Roman document dated to the end of the first century, which thrived as a stop on the trade route between Adulis and Aksum. It is thought that crops were interspersed with buildings in the town. Old edifices included the pre-Christian Temple of Mariam Wakino and the Sahira Dam, which might also be pre-Aksumite. The ruins at Qohaito were first located in 1868, though they were erroneously identified as a "Greek depot" at the time. A related site outside of Senafe, Matara, lies about 15 kilometres to the south and was excavated in the 1960s.

Medri Bahri Kingdom. After the decline of Aksum, the Eritrean highlands were under the domain of Kingdom of Medri Bahri, ruled by Bahri Negus. The area was then known as Ma'ikele Bahri ("between the seas/rivers", i.e. the land between the Red Sea and the Mereb river). Like Kingdom of Axum, Medri Bahri was also an Christian kingdom.