Amhara people


Amhara / Amara

Amharas are a Habesha Ethiosemitic-speaking ethnic group traditionally inhabiting parts of the northwest Highlands of Ethiopia, particularly in the Amhara Region. According to the 2007 national census, Amharas numbered 19,867,817 individuals, comprising 26.9% of Ethiopia's population and they are mostly Orthodox Christians members of Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They are also found within the Ethiopian expatriate community, particularly in North America. They speak Amharic, an Afro-Asiatic language of the Semitic branch, a member of the Ethiosemitic group, which serves as the official language of Ethiopia.

Some Scholars have classified the Tigrayans and the Amhara as Abyssinians proper under an ultra-neo-conservative definition of Habesha identity postulated by a few Western scholars and Ethiopian ethno-nationalist political parties but not widely accepted by the general public or by most indigenous scholars of the region.


The term "Amhara" is derived from amari, meaning "one who is pleasing, agreeable, beautiful, and gracious." Amhara culture is often identified with Abyssinian culture, which is regarded as the heir to the cultural blending of ancient Semitic and Cushitic (African) patterns; other heirs are the Tigre-speaking people of Eritrea, and the Tegreñña speakers of northern Ethiopia. The name "Ethiopia" is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning "people with sunburned faces" and has been revived to designate the present-day state, which also includes non-Abyssinians. The Amhara themselves often use the term "Amhara" synonymously with "Ethiopian Orthodox (Monophysite) Christian," although their own, more precise expression for this religion is "Towahedo" (Orthodox). In the past, books on Ethiopia have often referred to this religion as "Coptic," derived from the Greek term for Egyptian. Until Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930, the Coptic metropolitan of Alexandria, Egypt, had also been the head of this Ethiopian church and had appointed Ethiopian archbishops.



Ethiopia is located in the northeastern part of Africa, roughly between 5° and 16° N and 33° and 43° E. It is mountainous, separated from the Red Sea by hot lowland deserts; a steep escarpment in the west borders the hot lowland in Sudan. The mountain-fortress type of landscape has frequently enabled the plateau people to retain their independence against would-be invaders. Begemder, Gojam, and Welo are Amharic speaking, as are parts of Shewa since Amhara expansion under emperor Menilek II in the 1880s.



According to the 1984 census, the population of Ethiopia was estimated as 42 million. Of these, 28 percent referred to themselves as "Amhara," and 32 percent stated that they spoke Amharic at home. Hence, about 14 million could be identified as Amhara, subject to qualification by the effects of Amharization during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the political strife against Amhara domination since then. Ethiopia is essentially a rural country. Apart from the capital, Addis Ababa, few towns have a permanent population in excess of 10,000: Gonder, the old caravan town on the way from the highlands to the Sudan; Harer, the coffee city; and Dire Dawa, the railroad junction to the coast. The many small towns are essentially marketplaces, serving the farming hinterland.


Linguistic Affiliation

There are three major linguistic families in Ethiopia: Cushitic, Semitic, and Nilo-Saharan. Cushitic and Semitic are two families of the Afro-Asian Phylum. Nilo-Sarahan languages of the Sudanic Phylum predominate along the northern and western escarpment. Cushitic includes Oromo (formerly called Galla), Sidamo, Somali, and Agau. Semitic languages, spoken mainly in the northern half of the country, are related to the Ge'ez language, which was spoken there from about the first half of the first millennium b.c. and had a writing system from which the present Amharic writing is derived. Ge'ez ceased to be spoken before the fourteenth century a.d., but it survives in the Orthodox liturgy to this day. It has been the language of religious and historical documents almost until the present, and linguists have referred to it as "Ethiopic." Amharic is related to Ge'ez but contains strong influences from Cushitic. It has been important since the fourteenth century a.d., when the earliest Amharic document, "Songs of the Kings," was written. Amharic, which is the predominant language on the plateau of northwest-central Ethiopia, is now the official national language of Ethiopia.


History and Cultural Relations

There is a paucity of reliable data about the prehistory of Ethiopia because archaeological excavation was long prohibited. Three procedures can be followed, however: interpretation of surface archaeological sites, tracing ancient trade routes, and linguistic analysis. Rock paintings resemble those of Libya; others depict cattle without humps, suggesting an early population of cattle breeders prior to the entry from Yemen of breeders of humped cattle (which are predominant today), via the Bab al-Mandab. The elaborate obelisks at Aksum, 27 to 30 meters tall, with false doors and windows (which have counterparts in ancient Yemen), appear to fall into the Semitic period of about 500 b.c. to a.d. 300.

Certain basic trade routes—for instance, the iron route—have scarcely changed in thousands of years. Salt must still be brought in from the coast of the Red Sea. Ivory, gold, and slaves were brought from the south to pay for imports. Wild coffee was brought from the south of Ethiopia to Yemen, perhaps to pay for humped sebu cattle. Mashella (guinea corn) may have originated on the western Ethiopian plateau and spread westward from there. Foreign trade was given great impetus when the camel was introduced to those Ethiopian regions too dry for donkeys, about a.d. 100. There is a record of hunting expeditions by the Ptolemean rulers of Egypt in Ethiopia. Ptolemy III (245-222 b.c.) placed at the port of Adulis (near present-day Mesewa) a Greek inscription recording that he captured elephants, and an inscribed block of stones with magical hieroglyphs. At the same port about a.d. 60, a Greek merchant named Periplus recorded the importation of iron and the production of spears for hunting elephants, and in a.d. 350 Aeizana, king of Aksum, defeated the Nubians and carried off iron and bronze from Meroë.

The Abyssinian tradition of the Solomonic dynasty, as told in the Ge'ez-language book Kebra Nagast (Honor of the Kings) refers to the rule of Menilek I, about 975-950 b.c. It relates that he was the son of Makeda, conceived from King Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem. Interrupted in a.d. 927 by sovereigns of a Zagwe line, the Solomonic line was restored in 1260 and claimed continuity until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Abyssinian churches are still built on the principle of Solomon's temple of Jerusalem, with a Holy of Holies section in the interior. Christianity came to Aksum in the fourth century a.d., when Greek-speaking Syrians converted the royal family. This strain of Christianity retained a number of Old Testament rules, some of which are observed to this day: the consumption of pork is forbidden; circumcision of boys takes place about a week after birth; upper-level priests consider Saturday a day of rest, second only to Sunday; weddings preferably take place on Sunday, so that the presumed deflowering, after nightfall, is considered to have taken place on the eve of Monday. Ecclesiastic rule over Abyssinia was administered early on by the archbishop of Alexandria, detached only after World War II. At the Council of Chalcedon in a.d. 451, the theological Monophysites of Alexandria, including the Abyssinians, had broken away from the European church; hence the designation "Coptic."

The spread of Islam to regions surrounding it produced relative isolation in Ethiopia from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. During this period, the Solomonic dynasty was restored in 1260 in the province of Shewa by King Yekuno Amlak, who extended his realm from Abyssinia to some Cuchitic-speaking lands south and east. Amharic developed out of this linguistic blend. From time to time, Europeans heard rumors of a Prester John, a Christian king on the other side of the Muslim world. Using a vast number of serfs on feudal church territories, Abuna (archbishop) Tekle Haymanot built churches and monasteries, often on easily defensible hilltops, such as Debra Líbanos monastery in Shewa, which is still the most important in Ethiopia.

With the Muslim conquest of Somali land in 1430, the ring around Abyssinia was complete, and recently Islamicized Oromo (Galla) seminomadic tribes from the south invaded through the Rift Valley, burning churches and monasteries. Some manuscripts and church paintings had to be hidden on islands on Lake Tana. When a second wave of invaders came, equipped with Turkish firearms, the Shewan king Lebna Dengel sent a young Armenian to Portugal to solicit aid. Before it could arrive, the Oromo leader Mohammed Grañ ("the lefthanded") attacked with the aid of Arabs from Yemen, Somalis, and Danakils and proceeded as far north as Aksum, which he razed, killing the king in battle in 1540. His children and the clergy took refuge on and north of Lake Tana. One year later, Som Christofo Da Gama landed at Mesewa with 450 Portuguese musketeers; the slain king's son, Galaudeos (Claudius), fought on until he died in battle. The tide turned, however, and in 1543 Mohammed Grañ fell in battle.

Shewa nevertheless remained settled by Oromo, who learned the agriculture of the region. The royal family had only a tent city in what became the town of Gonder. There the Portuguese built bridges and castles, and Jesuits began to convert the royal family to Roman Christianity. King Za Dengel was the first royal convert, but the Monophysite clergy organized a rebellion that led to his removal. His successor, King Susneos, had also been converted but was careful not to urge his people to convert; shortly before his death in 1632, he proclaimed religious liberty for all his subjects.

The new king, Fasilidas (1632-1667), expelled the Portuguese and restored the privileges of the Monophysite clergy. He—and later his son and grandson—employed workmen trained by the Portuguese to build the castles that stand to this day. Special walled paths shielded the royal family from common sight, but the king, while sitting under a fig tree, judged cases brought before him. A stone-lined water pool was constructed under his balcony, and a mausoleum entombed his favorite horse. All these structures still exist. But the skills of stonemasonry later fell into disuse; warfare required mobility, which necessitated the formation of military tent cities. Portuguese viticulture was also lost (though the name of the middle elevation remains "Woyna Dega"), and the clergy had to import raisins to produce sacramental wine.

Gonder had been abandoned by the Solomonic line when a usurping commoner chieftain, Kassa, chose it as the location to have himself crowned King Theodore in 1855. He defeated the king of Shewa and held the dynastic heir, the boy Menilek II, hostage at his court. Theodore realized the urgency of uniting the many ethnic groups of the country into a nation, to prevent Ethiopia from losing its independence to European colonial powers. Thinking that all Europeans knew how to manufacture cannons, Theodore invited foreign technicians and, at first, even welcomed foreign missionaries. But when the latter proved unable to cast cannons for him and even criticized his often violent behavior, he jailed and chained British missionaries. This led to the Lord Napier expedition, which was welcomed and assisted by the population of Tigray Province. When the fort of Magdalla fell, Theodore committed suicide. A conservative Tigray chief, Yohannes, was crowned at Aksum.

In 1889 the Muslim mahdi took advantage of the disarray in Ethiopia; he razed Gonder and devastated the subprovince of Dembeya, causing a severe and prolonged famine. Meanwhile, the Shewan dynastic heir, Menilek II, had grown to manhood and realized that Ethiopia could no longer isolate itself if it were to retain independence. He proceeded, with patient persistence, to unify the country. As an Amhara from Shewa, he understood his Oromo neighbors and won their loyalty with land grants and military alliances. He negotiated a settlement with the Tigray. He equipped his forces with firearms from whatever source, some even from the Italians (in exchange for granting them territory in Eritrea).

His policies were so successful that he managed to defeat the Italian invasion at Adwa, in 1896, an event that placed Ethiopia on the international map diplomatically. Empress Taitu liked the hot mineral springs of a district in Shewa, even though it was in an Oromo region, and the emperor therefore agreed to build his capital there, naming it "Addis Ababa" (new flower). When expanding Addis Ababa threatened to exhaust the local fuel supply, Menilek ordered the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia, which grew rapidly during each three-month rainy season.

Menilek II died in 1913, and his daughter Zauditu became nominal head; a second cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, became regent and was crowned King of Kings Haile Selassie I in 1930. He made it possible for Ethiopia to join the League of Nations in 1923, by outlawing the slave trade. One of his first acts as emperor was to grant his subjects a written constitution. He allied himself by marriage to the Oromo king of Welo Province. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie appeared in Geneva to plead his case before the League, warning that his country would not be the last victim of aggression. The Italian occupation ended in 1941 with surrender to the British and return of the emperor. During succeeding decades, the emperor promoted an educated elite and sought assistance from the United States, rather than the British, in various fields. Beginning in about 1960, a young, educated generation of Ethiopians grew increasingly impatient with the slowness of development, especially in the political sphere. At the same time, the aging emperor, who was suffering memory loss, was losing his ability to maintain control. In 1974 he was deposed, and he died a year later. The revolutionary committees, claiming to follow a Marxist ideology, formed military dictatorships that deported villagers under conditions of great suffering and executed students and each other without legal trials. Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in May 1991 as Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel armies approached from the north. The country remains largely rural; traditional culture patterns and means of survival are the norm.



The typical rural settlement is the hamlet, tis, called mender if several are linked on one large hill. The hamlet may consist of two to a dozen huts. Thus, the hamlet is often little more than an isolated or semi-isolated farmstead, and another hamlet may be close by if their plowed fields are near. Four factors appear to determine where a hamlet is likely to be situated: ecological considerations, such as water within a woman's walking distance, or available pasturage for the flock; kinship considerations—persons within a hamlet are nearly always related and form a family economic community; administrative considerations, such as inherited family ownership of land, tenancy of land belonging to a feudal lord of former times, or continuing agreement with the nearby church that had held the land as a fief up to 1975 and continues to receive part of the crop in exchange for its services; and ethnic considerations. A hamlet may be entirely inhabited by Falasha blacksmiths and pottery makers or Faqi tanners. Most of the Falasha have now left Ethiopia.

To avoid being flooded during the rainy season, settlements are typically built on or near hilltops. There is usually a valley in between, where brooks or irrigation canals form the border for planted fields. The hillsides, if not terrace farmed, serve as pasturage for all hamlets on the hill. Not only sheep and goats, but also cows, climb over fairly steep, bushy hillsides to feed. Carrying water and branches for fuel is still considered a woman's job, and she may have to climb for several hours from the nearest year-round water supply. The hamlet is usually patrilocal and patrilineal. When marriage occurs, usually early in life, a son may receive use of part of his father's rented (or owned) field and build his hut nearby. If no land is available owing to fragmentation, the son may reluctantly be compelled to establish himself at the bride's hamlet. When warfare has killed off the adult males in a hamlet, in-laws may also be able to move in. Some hamlets are fenced in by thorn bushes against night-roving hyenas and to corral cattle. Calves and the family mule may be taken into the living hut at night. There is usually at least one fierce reddish-brown dog in each hamlet.



Much Amhara ingenuity has long been invested in the direct exploitation of natural resources. An Amhara would rather spend as much time as necessary searching for suitably shaped hard or soft saplings for a walking cane than perform carpentry, which is traditionally largely limited to constructing the master bed (alga ), wooden saddles, and simple musical instruments. Soap is obtained by crushing the fruit of the endod (Pircunia abyssinica ) bush. Tannin for depilation of hides and curing is obtained from the yellow fruit of the embway bush. Butter is preserved and perfumed by boiling it with the leaves of the odes (myrtle) bush. In times of crop failure, edible oil is obtained by gathering and crushing wild-growing sunflower seeds (Carthamus tinctorus ). If necessary, leaves of the lola bush can be split by women to bake the festive bread dabbo. The honey of a small, tiny-stingered bee (Apis dorsata ) is gathered to produce alcoholic mead, tej, whereas the honey of the wild bee tazemma (Apis Africans miaia ) is gathered to treat colds and heart ailments. Fishing is mostly limited to the three-month rainy season, when rivers are full and the water is muddy from runoff so that the fish cannot see the fishers. Hunting elephants used to be a sport of young feudal nobles, but hunting for ivory took place largely in non-Amhara regions. Since rifles became available in Amhara farming regions, Ethiopian duikers and guinea fowl have nearly disappeared.

Subsistence farming provides the main economy for most rural Amhara. The traditional method required much land to lie fallow because no fertilization was applied. Cattle manure is formed into flat cakes, sun dried, and used as fuel for cooking. New land, if available, is cleared by the slash-and-burn method. A wooden scratch plow with a pointed iron tip, pulled by oxen, is the main farming tool. Insecurity of land tenure has long been a major factor in discouraging Amhara farmers from producing more than the amount required for subsistence. The sharecropping peasant (gabbar ) was little more than a serf who feared the (often absentee) feudal landlord or military quartering that would absorb any surplus. The revolutionary government (1975-1991) added additional fears by its villagization program, moving peasants at command to facilitate state control and deporting peasants to the south of Ethiopia, where many perished owing to poor government planning and support.

The preferred crop of the Amhara is tyeff (Eragrostis abyssinica; Poa abyssinica ), the small seeds of which are rich in iron. At lower or drier elevations, several sorghums (durras) are grown: mashella (Andropogon sorghum), often mixed with the costlier tyeff flower to bake the flapjack bread injera; zengada (Eleusina multiforme), grown as crop insurance; and dagussa (Eleusine coracana, or tocusso ), used as an ingredient in beer together with barley. Wheat (Triticum spp.), sendē, is grown in higher elevations and is considered a luxury. Barley (Hordeum spp.), gebs, is a year-round crop, used primarily for brewing talla, a mild beer, or to pop a parched grain, gebs qolo, a ready snack kept available for guests. Maize, bahēr mashella, is recognized as a foreign-introduced crop.

The most important vegetable oil derives from nug (Guizotia abyssinica ), the black Niger seed, and from talba (Linum usitatissimum ), flax seed. Cabbage (gomen ) is regarded as a poor food. Chick-peas are appreciated as a staple that is not expected to fail even in war and famine; they are consumed during the Lenten season, as are peas. Onions and garlic are grown as ingredients for wot, the spicy stew that also contains beans, may include chicken, and always features spicy red peppers—unless ill heath prevents their consumption. Lentils substitute for meat during fasting periods. The raising of livestock is traditionally not directly related to available pasture, but to agriculture and the desire for prestige. Oxen are needed to pull the plow, but traditionally there was no breeding to obtain good milkers. Coffee may grow wild, but the beans are usually bought at a market and crushed and boiled in front of guests; salt—but not sugar—may be added.


Division of Labor

Although much needed, the castelike skilled occupations like blacksmithing, pottery making, and tanning are held in low esteem and, in rural regions, are usually associated with a socially excluded ethnic grouping. Moreover, ethnic workmanship is suspected of having been acquired by dealings with evil spirits that enable the artisans to turn themselves into hyenas at night to consume corpses, cause diseases by staring, and turn humans into donkeys to utilize their labor. Such false accusations can be very serious. On the other hand, the magic power accredited to these workers is believed to make their products strong, whereas those manufactured by an outsider who might have learned the trade would soon break. The trade of weaving is not afflicted by such suspicions, although it is sometimes associated with Muslims or migrants from the south.


Land Tenure

Land tenure among traditional rural Amhara resembled that of medieval Europe more than that found elsewhere in Africa. Feudal institutions required the gabbar to perform labor (hudād ) for his lord and allocated land use in exchange for military service, gult. In a system resembling the European entail, inheritable land, rest, was subject to taxation (which could be passed on to the sharecroppers) and to expropriation in case of rebellion against the king. Over the centuries, endowed land was added to fief-holding church land, and debber ager. Royal household lands were classified as mād-bet, and melkenya land was granted to tax collectors. Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to change the feudal system early in his administration. He defeated feudal armies, but was stymied in abrogating feudalistic land tenure, especially in the Amhara region, by feudal lords such as Ras Kassa. The parliament that he had called into existence had no real power All remaining feudal land tenure was abrogated during the revolutionary dictatorship (1975-1991), but feudalistic attitudes practiced by rural officials, such as shum shir (frequently moving lower officials to other positions to maintain control), appear to have persisted.



The extended patrilocal, patrilineal, patriarchal family is particularly strong among holders of rest land tenure, but is found, in principle, even on the hamlet level of sharecroppers. There are several levels of kin, zemed, which also include those by affinity, amachenet. In view of the emphasis on seeking security in kinship relations, there are also several formal methods of establishing fictive kinship, zemed hone, provided the person to be adopted is attentam ("of good bones," i.e., not of Shanqalla slave ancestry). Full adoption provides a breast father (yetut abbat ) or a breast mother (yetut ennat ). The traditional public ceremony included coating the nipples with honey and simulating breast-feeding, even if the child was already in adolescence.