The Beja people are an ethnic Cushitic people inhabiting Sudan, Egypt, and Eritrea. In recent history, they have lived primarily in the Eastern Desert. They number around 1,237,000 people. The majority of Beja people speak the Beja language as a mother tongue, which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. In Eritrea and southeastern Sudan, many members of the Beni Amer grouping speak Tigre. While many secondary sources identify the Ababda as an Arabic-speaking Beja tribe due to their cultural links with the Bishaari, this is a misconception: The Ababda do not consider themselves Beja, nor are they so considered by other Beja peoples.
300.000 Beja live in the extensive semi-desert plains between Kassala and the Red Sea around the borders of Eritrea and Sudan.
The Beja have been named "Blemmyes" in Roman times, Bəga in Aksumite inscriptions in Ge'ez, and "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendoa, who fought the British, supporting the "Mahdi," a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.
The Beja people are an ancient Cushitic people closely kin to the ancient Egyptians, who have lived in the desert between the Nile river and the Red Sea since at least 25000 BC. Various Beja groups have intermarried with Arab or southern (dark) Cushites over the centuries. All the dialects are mutually intelligible. Some speakers are bilingual in Arabic or Tigre (Ethnologue). There are perhaps 100,000 or more who are Beja socially and culturally, but who speak Tigre.
They are sometimes aloof, withdrawn, aggressive and warlike. The Beja have a uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair, first recorded in Egyptian rock paintings (circa B.C. 2000). Rudyard Kipling gave them the famous name "the Fuzzy Wuzzies." Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendowa, who fought the British, supporting the "Mahdi," a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.
In this war the Bisharin and Amarar section of the Beja sided with the British, while the Hadendowa gained fame for defeating the British in two battles. The Hadendowa are thought to be the only traditional warriors who were able to break a British army "square" armed with modern weapons. In World War II the Hadendowa allied themselves with the British against the Italians who were supported by the Beni-Amer and other Tigre-speaking people.
They lead a tribal pastoral life, with those in the northern territories raising camels, and the southerners raising cattle. In contemporary era, many have adopted a farming lifestyle and become migrant wage labour providers.
The Beja are said to be the descendants of Noah's grandson, Cush (son of Ham). They are a native African people who have occupied their current homelands for more than 4,000 years. During that time, they adopted their Islamic religion. The Beja in Sudan are divided into four tribes: the Hadendowa, the Amarar, the Ababda, and the Beni Amer. They inhabit over 110,000 square miles (284,800 square km) in eastern Sudan. Their native language is called Bedawiya, although many are also fluent in Arabic or Tigre.
The Beja are divided into clans. They are named after their ancestors, and the line of descent is traced through the males. Each clan has its own pastures and water sites that may be used by others with permission. Clans vary from one to twelve families. Disputes between clans are often settled by traditional Beja law; but most day-to-day affairs are managed by the heads of the families. The Beja are a hospitable people, always showing kindness to other clans; however, they are not necessarily friendly to foreigners.
The Beja prefer cross-cousin marriages. After a marriage contract has been made, a large gift of livestock, clothing, and other goods is given to the bride's family. The goal of young couples is to have many male children and to acquire a great number of female camels. Only the wealthiest Beja have more than one wife.
The Bejas are divided into clans. These lineages include the Bisharin, Hedareb, Hadendowa (or Hadendoa), the Amarar (or Amar'ar), Beni-Amer, Hallenga , Habab , Belin and Hamran, some of whom are partly mixed with Bedouins in the east.
Beja society was traditionally organized into independent kingdoms. According to Al-Yaqubi, there were six such Beja polities that existed between Aswan and Massawa during the 9th century. Among these were the Kingdom of Bazin, Kingdom of Belgin, Kingdom of Jarin, Kingdom of Nagash, Kingdom of Qita'a and Kingdom of Tankish.
The Beja people began to be converted to Islam around 1450 and following, largely because of movement of Arab Muslims into their area. The two major influences were from Yemen and from Egypt and Sudan. The latter, the Jaaliyyin (Gaaliin) Arabs from northern Arabia via Egypt, were the strongest influence.
The Beni-Amer gained their name and their Muslim identity from the Jaaliyyin. The Hadendowa have intermarried even more over a longer period with Jaaliyyin and southern Arabs like the Rebeyah, as have the Bisharin. They were not fully Muslim, however, until the nineteenth century, when they were influenced by the Sufi revival in Arabia and northeastern Africa.
Most Beja are not devout Muslims, but rather possess a "folk Islam," blending Islamic faith with their traditional beliefs. The prayers of most Beja are routine and are, to a great extent, not understood by them.
Many scholars believe the Beja to be derived from early Egyptians because of their language and physical features. They are the indigenous people of this area, and we first know of them in historical references in the Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. Over the centuries, they had contact and some influence from Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks.
A few Beja became Christians in the sixth century. The southern Beja were part of the Christian Kingdom of Axum centered in what is now southern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Although never completely conquered by a foreign power, the Beja in the 15th century were absorbed into Islam by marriages and trading contacts with nearby Arab tribes. In the seventeenth century they expanded farther south seeking better pastures and conquering other peoples along the way. By the 18th century,the Hadendowa Beja were the dominant people of eastern Sudan.
There has never been an official census in Ethiopia/Eritrea, so figures are estimates from various field sources, notably published anthropologists. Uncertain data indicates there may be as many as 2,300,000 people total who speak the Beja language and identify themselves as Beja. Our figures estimate Beja speakers at about 107,000 in Eritrea, about 60,000 in Egypt and 2,134,000 in Sudan. It appears there are approximately 99,000 Beni-Amer speakers of Tigre. The total number of all Beja people in Eritrea speaking Beja or Tigre appears to be about 206,000. Some estimates are higher than 500,000. All the Beja peoples, by our more conservative estimates, number 2,540,315.
The Beja word for their language is To Bedawie (or To Bedawiat), and the people and language are also called Bedawiye, Bedauye and Beni-Amer (with other variations). Subgroupings of the Beja people do not coincide directly with the dialects of the language. The major subgroups are: Ababda, Amarar, Bisharin, Hadendoa, Beni-Amer Beja, Beni-Amer Tigre and Babail Ukhra ("other tribes").
Though the Ababda have come to speak Arabic, they retain their Beja customs and lifestyle. The Beni-Amer Tigre speakers (Sudan and Eritrea) are reported to be physically distinguished from the Semitic Tigre. The Beni-Amer are generally bilingual in both Beja (To Bedawie) and Tigre. Reports differ as to the number whose mother tongue is one or the other of these two languages. Many Beni-Amer also speak Arabic.
The name used in technical linguistics for To Bedawie is Beja. Dialects of the Beja language are called Hadendoa (Hadendowa, Hadendiwa), Hadareb (Hadaareb, Hidareb, Hidarib) and Bisharin (Bisarin, Bisariab). All these language forms are classified by the same ROPAL Code BEI, with dialect numbers.
The Beni-Amer are a large group in Eritrea who include Beja-speaking and Tigre-speaking subgroups. All serfs in Beja society were called Tigre (the Beja word for "slave") and the Tigre language is associated with serfdom, though the serfs were "themselves Beja of a very ancient stock" (Paul).
Some authorities indicate the Beni-Amer, despite this diversity, have retained more of the ancient Beja identity than other Beja tribes, who have intermarried more with other people. This is analogous to the Somali people's clans, many of whom speak non-Somali languages.
There are perhaps 100,000 Beni-Amer Beja who speak only Tigre. The Halenga are former Tigre speakers who now speak Beja. The Hadareb (Hidareb) are a Beni-Amer group but the name is used broadly for Beja speakers in general.
The Beni-Amer (Hadareb) are found in the northwest and northeast of the country, and are prominent in towns of Keren, Agordat and Tessenei. Beni-Amer have also been reported to extend into northern Ethiopia under other names.
The Hadendoa dialect is spoken by Beja in Eritrea and Sudan. The Bisharin dialect is spoken by Beja in Sudan and Egypt. The Hadendoa people and language are found from the Atbara River to the Red Sea, where they meet and mix with the Beni-Amer. About two-thirds of the Beni-Amer live in Eritrea, and one-third in Sudan.
The language spoken by the Beni-Amer is called simply Beja (To Bedawie). The term Hadareb is used variously to refer to a language form and a people group. Ethnologue information is based on language forms only. For instance, the Beni-Amer alone have over 40 sections.
The Beja have been independent, with fairly autonomous clan. For instance, the Beni-Amer alone have over 40 sections. They have not always had amicable relations diverse Beja groups.
They resisted military conquest by Egyptian pharaohs. Occasionally certain sections of the Beja have paid tribute to Egyptian rulers. In recent centuries they have been ruled by a series of Islamic governments. In recent years, some of the more educated Beja have become active in the affairs of modern Sudan.
All Beja divisions are Muslims and Sudanese Beja support the government's attempt to impose Islamic law on the Sudan. In 1996, however, they also suffered reprisals from the Khartoum government when they refused to be forced to serve in the Sudan army. Reports are that many have retreated into Eritrea for refuge.
Rites of passage are at birth, circumcision (of males), engagement, marriage, death and remembrance or a second funeral. The Beja are only partially dependent upon cash, with which they buy clothing, coffee, grain and oil. Fewer than 3 percent are town dwellers.
They still follow a nomadic lifestyle centered around herding. They raise a wide range of animals; cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. They are best known as camel traders, moving up and down the Red Sea area from Egypt to Eritrea. They also maintain food crops, usually farmed for them by West Africans engaged for this purpose. They also trade their crafts of straw mats and wollen rugs or charcoal and firewood for food in the markets.
Some Beja groups are more nomadic than others. The more nomadic do not have permanent homes and carry few possessions, but they live in hemispherical or rectangular tents made of straw mats laid over a wooden frame.
The more sedentary Beja build mud-walled houses with more furnishings. All members of a family, husband and wife and all children below age seven, sleep in on large bed also made of straw mats and wollen rugs, on a wooden frame. In a polygamous family the husband will sleep in the tent of each wife in turn. Unmarried men sleep in the open at the edge of camp.
The preferred marriage pattern is children of brothers (first cousins). Multiple wives are rare. The groom's family pays the bride's family a "bridewealth" (sadag) of livestock, lothing and other goods. The mother's brother is an important figure.
Shariah law is followed, but interpreted by uneducated Kadis. Beja have no central tribal authority. Divisions and major sub-divisions consist of a group of patrilineally organized clans. Clans are divided into large lineages (bedana) and sublineages (hissa). Each bedana or a group of bedanas is led by a sheikh with authority based on consent of the group.
Girls help their mothers in and around the tent, cooking and collecting firewood and water. Men milk the cattle and camels, while boys and adult sons help their fathers herd the cattle and increase the herds.