Some fact about the People of Tigray

The Tigray people


The Tigray people live in the northern highlands of Ethiopia´s Tigray regional state. The term Tigray is used in Ethiopia for both the people and their region. The Tigray people are one of more than 100 ethnic groups in Ethiopia.The term Tigrinya is used for the language they speak.


The Tigray (also referred to as Tigrean) people are descendants of early Semitic peoples who originally settled in the Horn of Africa about 1000 BC. It seems they are related to or descended from the Sabaean (Sheban) people. According to their traditions they trace their roots to Menelik I, the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon. It is thought that the Sabaean (Sheban) people began to settle on the west coast of the Red Sea, from their home in southern Arabia, about 1000 BC.

Menelik I was the first of the Solomonic line of rulers of Ethiopia that ended only with the deposing of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. By about 1500 BC their civilization became the Axum Empire, based on a mixture of the early Sabaean culture and the prior Cushitic culture. The ruins of the ancient city of Axum can still be seen in Tigray Region.

The Sabaeans are referred to in the Quran along with Christians and Jews as “People of the Book.” The Tigray people were associated with the Amhara in the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia, called in the Tigrinya language Etiopia, the source of the modern name of Ethiopia. The area where they live in the mountains was the center of the ancient Cushite empire of Axum. The name Abyssinia comes from an early name–Habashat–of an early group of the Sabaean settlers who became the Tigrean.


Like the rest of Ethiopia, the majority of the Tigray people are subsistence farmers. They are generally considered very beautiful people. Among Ethiopians, they are some of the most industrious and determined people. During the 1985 famine, when Ethiopia filled the American news and volunteers from Live Aid and Southern Baptist missionaries were feeding millions of people, it was a film about famine-stricken Tigray that raised international consciousness. Tigray received almost no aid. The military government was trying to break the will of the independent Tigray, so they kept aid workers out of the region.

For the Tigray people, the average life expectancy is around 46, compared to 76 in the U.S.A. The Tigray people have one doctor per 28,000 patients and one nurse per 8,393 patients. For every 1,000 live births among the Tigray people 123 children die in infancy compared to 9.1 in the U.S.A. A total of 203 will die during childhood. Among the Tigray people, only about 25% of adults can read.

Most of the people are in rural areas. They cultivate mostly cereal crops. The main food is a crepe-like bread made from tef (Tigrinya t´af or Amharic tyeff), an indigenous grain.


The name of the language is Tigrinya, which means “the language of the Tigray people.” Tigrinya is descended from an ancient Semitic language called Ge´ez. The Coptic Church officially uses the Bible in Ge´ez today, although even most priests do not understand it.

Political Situation:

The Tigray people started a movement called Tigray People Libration Front(TPLF) after the communist Derg overthrew the feudal monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The communist government punished Tigray by denying them aid during the worst drought in modern history. To make matters worse, the government planes bombed a caravan of people emigrating to Sudan to find food. They killed 2500 unarmed men, women and children.

The result was 17 years of bitter, determined struggle. The Tigray people–mostly young farmers–took on a Soviet-equipped army and won. The Tigray people now hold the reins of government in Ethiopia, and for the first time in over 50 years, development workers have access to Tigray.


The way of life evokes images of Bible times. Camels, donkeys, and sheep are everywhere. Fields are plowed using oxen. The Ethiopian 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 Tigray and the Amhara people. 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 Tigray people 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.


About 8-10% of the Tigraya people are Muslim, while about 90-92% are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic) faith. Sources estimate that about 1% of the Tigray people are Evangelical Christians.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded in the fourth century by Syrian monks. Historically, the Ethiopian church have had strong ties with the Egyptian Coptic church, the Egyptian Church appointing the archbishop for the Ethiopian Church. They gained independence from the Coptic church in the 1950´s.

Over 4 million of this people are Orthodox, with one priest for every 92 members–the highest concentration in Ethiopia. The remainder are Muslims. There are many Muslims in Tigray region, but they generally belong to other people groups. The Tigray people are reported to have fewer than 500 evangelical believers.

The faith of the Orthodox Church is very intimately woven into the culture of the Tigray people and is central to their way of life. It is loosely defined as a Christian church, but a major icon in the church is the Ark of the Covenant. The people accept the Bible as true, but the Orthodox canon includes some books unique to their tradition. With 34% literacy and only 22% functional literacy, most can´t read the Bible.

Church services are conducted in Ge´ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. It is considered the holy church language, just as Latin once was in the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Latin, however, Ge´ez is taught to only a few educated scholars. Even the average priest only memorizes his part of the service.

Much has been added to Christianity. The Church grounds, like the Biblical temple, are filled with beggars and people selling religious paraphernalia such as candles and pictures of Mary and the Saints. Orthodox beliefs are law-oriented with emphasis on the rigid observance of worship rituals such as church attendance, fasting, prescribed prayers, and devotion to saints and angels. A child is never left alone until baptism and cleansing rituals are performed. Boys are baptized forty days after birth. Girls wait until eighty days.

Defrocked priests and deacons commonly function as diviners, who are the main healers. Spirit possession is common, affecting primarily women. Women are also the normal spirit mediums.


World Vision conducts development projects and Mekane Yesus (Lutheran) has some development projects and a school in Adwa. Kale Heywet (started by SIM) has sent four evangelists into the region since the first of the year.

Meserete Christos (originally Mennonite) is believed to have recently begun a work, and Mulu Wengel (an Ethiopian charismatic church) started its first church in 1995. The number of evangelical workers, both expatriate and Ethiopian, seems to be below fifty. According to some born-again Orthodox monks in Addis Ababa, there may be as many as 2,000 people involved in Tehadiso Mehabers (Renewal Associations) in Tigray.

Recently, the Bible has been translated into the Tigray people´s heart language, but low literacy and limited availability of Bibles prohibits many from being able to read the Holy Book for themselves.



Primary Language: Tigrinya
Ethnologue Code: tir (formerly TGN)
Alternate Names: Tigray, Tigre
Attitude towards mother tongue: Positive

Second Languages: Amharic, English
Linguistically related: Tigre, Amharic
Neighbor Languages: Tigre, Amharic, Saho, Afar
Adult Literacy: 24% (12% functional)
Literacy Attitude: Positive
Publications in MT: Numerous, religions and otherwise


Subsistence type: Pastoral
Occupations: Farmers, Herders, Woodwork


Health Care Quality: Poor
Health Care: Poorly Accessible
Life Expectancy Rate: The average life expectancy is around 46


Family Structures: Nuclear family, with close extended relations
Cultural Change Pace: Slow
Self Image: Prestigious
Art Forms: Metal filligree work, especially in designs of the cross; other iconic art; music and dance.
Attitude to Outsiders: somewhat receptive

Primary Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Religious Practices/Ceremonies: Procession of the Ark of the Covenant; Mass, Procession of the Ark and community activities at hilltop churches on religious holidays, such as Saints´ days.


Year Began: approx. 400 A.D.; Western contacts 1603, late 1800´s.
By whom: 400AD–Syrian; 1603–Portuguese Jesuit; 1800s–Roman Catholic and Protestant


The toll of the many years of struggle has caused many areas of need. Every facet of society is being rebuilt. Human needs were the first to be dealt with. Foreign aid has provided some relief, such as food aid and crop test sites. Crop farmers are still dealing with low production and are in need of seeds, fertilizers, implements, and reliable water sources.

The few orphanages and medical clinics are overcrowded, ill-equipped, and constantly in need of repairs. Villages throughout the religion are busy reconstructing homes, businesses, and schools that were destroyed during the war.

In the past, only 30% of children went to school. Now the number has increased to 98%, causing a tremendous demand for teachers, books, and school rooms. People are realizing their need for educators and technicians in all areas of the infrastructure.


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