The Tigray (Tigre, Tigris, or Tigrinya) have a history that goes back thousands of years. According to Tigre an history, the empire, which later became the Ethiopian empire, was founded by Menelik (1889–1913), the son of King Solomon of Israel, and Queen Sheba (or Saba). According to this history, it was Menilik’s men who captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and brought it to Axum (also spelled Aksum ) in what is now Tigray state in Ethiopia, where it remains to this day
.During the colonial era, Italy briefly ruled Tigrinya lands. With the expulsion of Italy in 1941, Eritrea was officially made a province of Ethiopia. A struggle for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia began in the 1960s and finally succeeded in 1991. Today roughly half the Tigrayans live in Ethiopia and the other half in Eritrea.
Tigrinya, the language spoken by the Tigray, is from the Semitic family of languages, and is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. To the north of the Tigrinya speakers live people who speak the closely related language known as Tigre. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is so closely related to Tigrinya that most Tigray have little difficulty communicating in Amharic. Tigrinya, Amharic, and the ancient religious language Geez are written with the same alphabet. Many of the letters used in writing these languages are derived from ancient Greek.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Today, Tigrayans number about 4.9 million and are concentrated in Tigray state (Ethiopia) and inEritrea. The regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea where most Tigrayans live are high plateau, separated from the Red Sea by an escarpment (cliff-like ridge) and a desert.
RELIGION AND BELIEFS
Many people think of Christianity in Africa as a European import that arrived with colonialism, but this is not the case with the Tigray (or with the Amhara). The empire centered in Axum and Adowa was part of the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. The arrival of Christianity in Tigrinya lands happened about the same time that it arrived in Ireland. The Tigrayans, in fact, had been converted to Christianity hundreds of years before most of Europe. Many Tigrinya churches were cut into cliffs or from single blocks of stone, as they were in Turkey and in parts of Greece, where Christianity had existed from its earliest years. The church is a central feature of communities and of each family’s daily life. Each community has a church with a patron saint.
TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMES
An infant is recognized as a member of the community in a naming ceremony held forty days after birth for boys, and eighty days after birth for girls. Should a baby die after the naming ceremony, a funeral is required; death in early infancy prior to the naming is not marked with a funeral. About the age of twelve, children reach the “age of reason” and take on more responsibility, such as helping care for younger brothers and sisters and for herding farm animals. Also at about this age, children are baptized and enter the community of religion. With adulthood come new responsibilities. One of the signs of adulthood is citizenship; that is, attendance at village meetings after church on Sunday mornings. Other signs are marriage and becoming a deacon. Death of a person requires a funeral. Funerals, with ceremonies in both the village and the church, normally take place before the sun sets on the day following death.
Until recently, most rural Tigray considered farming to be the most honorable work. Today’s food shortages have made many rethink this idea. Trade and government employment are seen as providing better opportunities. Those who make their living as blacksmiths, weavers, potters, or musicians are looked upon with some disfavor and suspicion.
Traditional Tigray clothing is white, which is regarded as Christian, with little adornment. For dressy occasions and church, women wear ankle-length dresses with long sleeves made of fine material. Men wear ankle-length pants that are tight from the knee to the ankle and baggy in the upper legs and hips. A fitted, long-sleeved shirt covers the upper body. The shirt extends to just above the knee for laymen and to just below the knee for priests and deacons. Both men and women wear a gabbi (shawl or toga) draped around the shoulders. For many Tigrays, used clothing imported from Europe has replaced traditional clothing for day-to-day wear.
Probably the most important fact about food in Tigray is that there is not enough of it.Households must make up for food deficits with government subsidies. In Tigray, bread is one of the main foods. Two of the more common varieties are thin, pancake-like bread preferred by most people, and a dense, disk-shaped loaf of baked whole wheat bread. Pancakes are 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 centimeters) in diameter, and are made from many kinds of cereal grains (wheat, barley, etc.). A variety oftsebhi (spicy stews) are eaten with the bread. Families and guests normally eat from a messob (shared food basket), with each person breaking off pieces of bread from the side nearest them and dipping it into stew in the center of the basket.
MUSIC, SONGS, DANCES, POETRY
There are two main categories of music: church music and praise songs. Deacons sing and accompany the song with drums and a sistrum (a rattle-like instrument) as part of the mass. Praise singers form a kind of clan. Families of praise singers intermarry with other families of praise singers. Singers accompany themselves with a one-stringed instrument that is a little like a violin. Hosts often hire singers to entertain at parties, such as weddings. Guests give tips to the performers to sing, often humorously, about their friends. Passages from the Book of Psalms are frequently brought into discussions of people’s behavior. Many priests and deacons carry the psalms dawit (for King David) in a leather pouch.Qene is an admired form of poetry known for its use of double meanings, beautiful language, and cleverness. A pair of lines should have a surface meaning and a deeper one. Qene is called “wax and gold,” an analogy that refers to the process of casting gold objects in wax molds pressed into sand. In qene, the listener “hears the wax” and must use thought to find the gold inside. Tigray kings and princes are often remembered for their qene compositions.