The Amhara (Amara) People of Ethiopia
Population: 17,400,000 (1994 census. Ethnologue)
Religion: Ethiopian Coptic Christianity (primary); also about 1% are Muslims
Registry of Peoples code: Amhara: 100293
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue): Amharic: amh
The Amhara (pronounced am-HAH-ruh) are mostly farmers who live in the north central highlands of Ethiopia. The Amhara display a mixed physiological heritage. They speak a Semitic language, and historical and linguistic factors, compared with their primary myths of origin, seem to indicate that their Semitic ancestors came from what is modern-day Yemen. Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia and of the previous Amhara Abyssinian Empire, is home for many Amhara but actually an enclave within the land of the Oromo peoples.
Many Amhara live in other countries as well, including neighboring nations Eritrea and Djibouti. Populations are found in major metropolitan areas of North America.
According to their traditions they trace their roots to Menelik I, the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Most scholars agree their traditions and legends are quite fanciful, though they seem to contain, as legends of origin commonly do, a core of historical information. Surely the people's own oral traditions have to be considered in reconstructing their history. There are extensive sources reporting on their traditions. They are so well-known as to be considered common knowledge.
These oral traditions seem to reflect a historical link to the Sabaean (Sabean or Sheban) people, referred to in several ancient sources. 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 400 BC their civilization became the Axum Empire, based on a mixture of the early Sabaean culture and the prior Cushitic culture. Axum ruled the region till in the 900s AD. Historian Basil Davidson includes this historical event in his Chronologue of African history: "Origins of Axumite culture in northeast Ethiopia by synthesis of local people and immigrants from southern Arabia."1
The ruins of the ancient city of Axum can still be seen in Tigray Province. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Amhara have been the dominant people group in Ethiopia history. The strength of their culture is shown in this influence though they number only about 17 million of the estimated 53 million population of modern Ethiopia (figures from the 1994 Ethiopian census: 17,400,000 mother-tongue speakers). Population figures vary by source. People Groups.org reports the population in Ethiopia is 20,000,000.
The Amhara appear to be descended from the same people group as the Tigray-Tigrinya people. Their Sabaean ancestors came to the highlands of what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia from the Arabian peninsula. These Semitic migrants gradually mixed with the Cushitic peoples there. Successive waves of migrations across the Red Sea straits and around the Horn have enriched the mix of cultural and genetic heritage in the historical period. The name is sometimes rendered Amara, from their name for themselves in the Amharic language.
Recent reconstruction of human prehistory from DNA studies indicates this narrow southern end of the Red Sea was the major point from which original humans moved from the African continent into Asia and on to the East and West. This area has continued to be the crossing point for migrations in both directions in recent millennia. (See the books by Stephen Oppenheimer and Spencer Wells on this reconstruction of human pre-history.)
The mix of Cushite and Semitic peoples were united over the centuries in the Amhara-Tigray empire, called Abyssinia. This word Abyssinia is a derivation from the name for a group of the Tigray people at that time, the Habash. The Amhara and Tigrinya-Tigray groups claim close ties with the Jews, having adopted many cultural values and religious beliefs from them.
The basic ancestry of the Amhara is Semitic, as is their language. But they became a unique people as they intermarried and absorbed some of the Cushitic peoples who preceded them in this area. There was a strong Oromo strain in the royal family and nobles. The Amhara features are similar to the southern Arabs, olive to brown skin, with fine features and dark circles around the eyes. Most sources say the name comes from the word amari, meaning "pleasing, agreeable, beautiful and gracious."
The national and ethnic identity of the Amhara has been strongly intertwined with a form of the Christian faith since about 350 CE, when Syrian (Nestorian) Christianity was introduced to the royal family by a young Syrian sailor. After the Royal Family accepted the new faith, they requested missionaries from Syria and later developed ties with the Egyptian Church, hence the inclusion of the term Coptic (Egyptian) in the name of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church since early times.
Amharic, the language of the Amhara, shows its Semitic origin both in its alphabet and words shared with Hebrew and Arabic. Amharic is descended from Ge'ez, a language extinct since the middle ages. Ge'ez developed from the original Sabaean language, changing through the influence of the non-Semitic languages of the earlier peoples. The Bible is still read in Ge'ez in the Coptic Church. A modern translation is available now in Amharic.
Amharic is the language of culture and education, spoken by millions of other Ethiopians and Eritreans as a second language. The fidel alphabet of Ge'ez, used to write Amharic and its sister languages Tigre and Tigrinya, is based on ancient Phoenician, adapted in the form of the Sabaean alphabet. Other languages, such as Oromo, have been written in this script but recently Latin characters have been used. Materials and road signs appear in both scripts.
Amharic is related to other Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa, like the Gurage cluster and Harari. All these peoples are likely related to the original Semitic stream of settlers-conquerors that moved into the area about 3000 years ago.
The feudal monarchy of Haile Selassie was slowly bringing change when it was overthrown by the radical Communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974. This inaugurated eighteen years of economic stagnation and civil war which ended in 1991. The new government has continued trying to establish a multi-party democracy and a free-market economy.
At the present, however, the gross national product of the country is $120 per capita, and real income is less than that, making Ethiopia one of the poorest nations in the world. Economic development has been further hindered by extensive droughts in the 1990s and 2000s, plus effects of civil wars in Somalia, sending many Somali refugees into Ethiopia. Ethiopian resources have been further depleted by the military efforts of Ethiopia in attempting to form a peace buffer between the still-warring elements in Somalia, under a United Nations peace plan to end the Somalian civil war.
After a decline of Axum in about 900 AD, by 1300 it revived and thrived politically and religiously. The Ethiopian kingdom made contact with Aragon in Spain in 1424. The Empress Eleni formed an alliance with Portugal against Gragn, the Muslim ruler of Harar, who was supported by the Turks, defeating him in 1543. The Amhara were responsible for slowing and holding the expanding Muslims as Arab pressures and influences spread Islam to Cushite and Semitic people in the Horn of Africa. This resulted, however, in a fortress mentality for the Amhara and the Coptic Church the last 1000 years.
In the late 1800s Menelik II reconquered much of the old lands of the empire and basically set the boundaries of modern Ethiopia. Amhara have not been as prominent since the revolution led by the Tigray and Oromo people, but they remain involved because of their previous political expertise.
For the Amhara people, the average life expectancy is around 46, compared to 75 years in the USA. For the Amhara people, there is one doctor per 28,000 patients and one nurse per 8,393 patients. For every 1,000 live births among the Amhara, 135 children die in infancy; a total of 203 Amhara will die during childhood, only 9.1 in the USA. Among the Amhara people, only about 20% of adults can read.
Life in the Amhara farming society is hard. Many Amhara live in the harsh and stark mountains, easy to defend, but making it difficult to travel and gain provisions. The men in the fields, the women around the house and the children at home and watching the sheep — all work very hard. The fields are plowed with oxen, seeds are sown and harvested by hand, and the harvest is threshed by the feet of animals. In the home, the primary cooking fuel is the dried dung of the farm animals. Nothing is wasted.
The staple food of the Amhara is injera bo wot. Injera is made from a tiny indigenous grain called teff (tyeff in Amharic), which is endemic to Ethiopia. Wot is a peppersauce that can be made from beans or meat. The whole process of making these foods is difficult and time-consuming. Impure drinking water and deforestation are significant issues in Amhara life. These, plus other factors, cause most Amhara to live in yearly risk of famine. These famines ravaged the country in 1974 and 1984.
The children from the age of five or six spend their days watching the family animals, mainly sheep. Increasingly, children are able to attend public schools, though this is mainly for only half a day since the schools are very crowded. Only a little over 10 per cent of the population has access to an all-weather road.
Though their life is hard, the Amhara are proud people, proud of their ethnicity, their religion, their special place in the world. Their culture is strong, developed over many centuries, and it has withstood the incursions of outside governments and religions.
Despite their hard life, the Amhara are a friendly and hospitable people. During the 25 years I lived in Kenya, I travelled in Ethiopia many times, and visited different parts of the country and had coffee or meals with chiefs, military leaders, local villagers and many kinds of settings.
Settlements are typically built on or near hilltops, as protection against flooding. Farms are terraced on the hillsides to prevent erosion and hold water for crops. The "hamlet" is usually patrilineal, with sons building their homes in the father's location.
Girls normally marry at age 14, and the groom is three to five years older. Most marriages are negotiated by the two families, with a civil ceremony sealing the contract. A priest may be present. Divorce is allowed and must also be negotiated. There is also a "temporary marriage," by oral contract before witnesses. The woman is paid housekeeper's wages, and is not eligible for inheritance, but children of the marriage are legally recognized and qualify for inheritance. Priests may marry but not eligible for divorce or remarriage.
Children are breastfed for about two years. Children receive little discipline until about age five to seven, but thereafter are socialized with authoritarian discipline. Boys herd cows and sheep and girls assist their mothers in watching babies and gathering wood.
The focal point of Amhara culture is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). The EOC is an ancient indigenous Christian church which began in the 4th century AD. The EOC was heavily influenced by Syrian Christianity from its earliest times. The initial witness was brought by two shipwrecked boys from Syria. Later, nine monks came from Syria to teach the young church. They established monasteries and translated the Bible into Ge'ez, the ancient language in use at that time.
From the 7th century, because of the rise of Islam, Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia developed for centuries as a Christian island in a sea of Islam. The only outside contacts of any significance were with the Coptic Church of Egypt. The Patriarch of the EOC was appointed by the Coptic church in Egypt until 1959. These patriarchs, however, being outsiders and not knowing the language well, did not have considerable influence. The Ethiopians have shown their devotion by carving whole church buildings and monasteries out of solid rock in the mountains.
Because of its isolation, the EOC developed indigenously with its own particular beliefs and traditions. Amhara boys are baptized on the fortieth day after birth, and girls on the eightieth. This is their entrance into the Church which the Amhara believe is the means of salvation. The rest of their life, as their ancestors' was, will be defined by the Church. The EOC places extreme significance upon fasting. The faithful in the church will fast up to 250 days per year, and 180 days are obligatory for all good Christians. Fasting is a source of pride for the Church, distinguishing it from other churches and religions.
The Amhara are very proud of their culture and religion. There is a latent resentment of foreign ideas and ways of living. Innovations tend to be viewed with skepticism, especially those related to religion. The church bases much of its beliefs and practices on tradition. There is little awareness of other forms of historic Christianity in other countries. There is also limited awareness of variations due to the limited literacy and resources for printed materials. Most Amhara have no access to the Bible.
The first contact with western Christianity was in the 1500s when two successive emperors converted under a Jesuit teacher. Emperor Susneyos had to abdicate after the people resisted his efforts to force them to become Roman Catholics. His son immediately expelled the Jesuits in 1632. In the 1800s, ties with Europe led to Italian and British missionaries. During the 20th century Protestant missionaries from many countries have entered the country. But the Amhara have not been receptive to western Christianity until recent years.
At times over the centuries, the Amhara have been attacked by military forces led by Muslim leaders, carving out their own political territory and imposing Islam on the conquered. The Amhara have an important Christian heritage and have kept their faith in the face of great opposition at some periods in their history. Only a few Amhara are Muslim. Traditionally Muslims have been considered invaders and enemies, so Islam has not had much appeal to the Amhara.
The Amhara believe that to be Amhara is to be Christian. To the Amhara to be Christian is to be Orthodox. Evangelical Christian missionaries stress the need of a personal spiritual relationship with God. But the Amhara cannot understand why if they are already Christian they need a personal relationship with Christ. Rather they tend to resent any implication that they need anything more related to religion.
The Amhara have developed a fear and suspicion of anything that is foreign. This greatly limits access by outsiders, including missionaries of other Christian denominations. Despite this, in recent decades evangelical Christianity has become well-established in Ethiopia, including among the Amhara. In the 1970s, the Baptist Mission began working within the Ethiopian Coptic Church, leading Bible studies and training pastors. Opposition to this later grew within the church leadership.
Though the Bible is translated into Amharic, its distribution among the Amhara is minimal. Likewise a film of the life and ministry of Jesus, called Jesus, which is popular is much of Africa, is not widely distributed in Amharic. Though there are gospel radio broadcasts in Amharic, few people have radios and listener response is extremely low.
There are many areas of the remote mountains where people have little or no access to an Ethiopian Coptic Church. It has been demonstrated that physical access to an Orthodox Church is unavailable to over half the Amhara people. This is because most of the people live in areas where there are few roads, or even foot paths. Thus even the Orthodox Church is only a cultural artifact for many geographically-isolated Amhara.
About 10% of the Amhara people are Evangelical Christians. Investigations in 1996 indicated that it is uncertain whether the Gospel as understood by evangelical Christians is accessible to the people. A few Amhara are Muslim. Traditionally Muslims have been considered invaders and enemies, so Islam has not had much appeal to the Amhara.
1Davidson, Africa in History (Revised) (London: Phoenix Press, 1992), 387; also NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Related Topics on this Website:
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Genetics and Ethnicity (Italians, Etruscans and Greeks)
Genetics Out of Africa
Our Genetic Journey – a review of The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells
Mapping Human Origins – a review of Origins by Richard Leakey
Origin of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre Languages
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
Tigre, Tigrinya, Tigray – Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
Related on the Internet:
Amhara – The Africa Guide
Amharic Language and People – Ethnologue
Amharic Language and Writing System – Omniglot Encyclopedia
Africa's genetic secrets unlocked
Basil Davidson: Africa in History (edition by Simon and Schuster, 1995)
Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
Ethiopia and Aksum
Ethiopian Church History
Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church History
Gurage Language Habesha people – Wikipedia
Habesha Peoples — Answer.com
Stephen Oppenheimer: Out of Africa's Eden (US Title: The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa)
What the Ethiopian Orthodox have learned from the expansion of evangelicals
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Original profile written with Robert Lundquist January 1997
Rewritten 7-14 October 2008
Last edited 26 October 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1997, 2006, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.