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The Tigrinya (Tigray-Tigrinya) People

Population:     6,000,000
Religion:         Christian (Primary); Islam (Secondary)

Registry of Peoples code
 Tigray-Tigrinya:  110050


Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)
 Tigrinya:  tir


The Tigrinya (ti-GRIN-yuh) or Tigray (ti-GRAH-ee) people live in the southern highlands of Eritrea and the northern highlands of Ethiopia´s Tigray province.  They also live in Ethiopia´s Gonder and Welo provinces.  There are about 2 million in Eritrea and about 4 million in Ethiopia.

The term Tigray is used in Ethiopia for both the people and their province.  Tigrinya is used in Eritrea for the same people, so-called from the language they speak.  Differences in terminology and spelling have led to a different political identity of this people group on each side of the border dividing the group.  Culturally they are one people group.  The terms Tigray, Tigrinya or Tigray-Tigrinya apply to the total people group, unless otherwise indicated.

The history of the two countries--Ethiopia and Eritrea--is closely linked, although beginning in the late 1800s, Eritrea was colonized by Italy.  Eritrea was an Italian colony until 1941, then the British controlled it until 1951.  Following the British occupation, the United Nations made it a federated autonomous territory with Ethiopia, until Ethiopia decided to annex it as a province in 1962.

The Tigray-Tigrinya (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 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 15 million of the estimated 53 million population of modern Ethiopia.

The Sabaeans are referred to in the Quran along with Christians and Jews as "People of the Book." The Tigray-Tigrinya 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--Habash--of an early group of the Sabaean settlers who became the Tigrinya.

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 government was trying to break the will of the independent Tigray, so they kept aid workers out of the region.

The name Tigray is the name used for this people group in Ethiopia.  The Ethiopian province where they live is named Tigray after them.  The people are called Tigrinya in Eritrea, so-called after the language they speak.

The Tigrinya of Eritrea are the same culturally and linguistically as the Tigray (sometimes spelled Tigrai) of Tigray (also sometimes spelled Tigrai) Province of Ethiopia.  The Tigrinya people are one of Eritrea´s nine diverse people groups, each with its own distinct customs and language.  In Ethiopia, they are one of more than 100 ethnic groups.

In Eritrea, there is another people called Tigre (ti-GREH).  The names of all three people come from the same source.  The Tigre of Eritrea are a mixture of small groups of peoples, primarily Muslim, who speak a language called Tigre, related to the Tigrinya spoken by the Tigray-Tigrinya.  The Tigre peoples were once related to the Tigrinya, but through influence from the Beja and the Arabs, they are Muslims and unassociated with the Tigrinya culturally today.

In the mid 1990s, the average life expectancy the Tigrinya people was reported to be around 46 (compared to 76 in the USA at that time).  While figures for today are not now available for the Tigrinya alone, current life expectancy for Ertirea as a nation is now 63 years.  The literacy rate in Eritrea has doubled in just 20 years, from 33% in 1991, to 67% in 2011.

Most of the people are in rural areas.  The only urban centers are Asmara in Eritrea and Maquelle in Tigray.  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.

Tigrinya is closely related to the Tigre language, spoken by numerous small people groups of diverse origins (jointly called the Tigre people), as well as many Beja people.  Tigrinya and Tigre are very close, though not mutually intelligible, and use the same fidel script as Amharic, more distantly related in the Ethiopian group of Semitic languages.  The fidel script was developed from the ancient Phoenician-Sabaean script, as was the Greek alphabet.

Political Situation:
The Tigrinya of Eritrea mounted a revolt against the Ethiopian annexation in 1962.  The Tigray of Tigray Province joined this movement after the communist Derg overthrew the feudal monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.  The communist government punished the Tigray by denying them aid during the worst drought in modern history.  To make matters worse, government planes bombed a caravan of people emigrating to Sudan to find food.  They killed 2500 unarmed men, women and children.

The result was six years of bitter, determined struggle.  The Tigray--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, evangelicals and development workers have access to Tigray.  A related independence movement now leads Eritrea, but they do not allow overt mission work.

Both countries were devastated by 30 years of recurring drought and civil war.  Eritrea gained independence in May of 1991 from the repressive Ethiopian Communist regime known as the Derg.  Ethiopians and Eritreans alike are benefiting from the overthrow of the Communist government.

The way of life evokes images of Bible times.  Camels, donkeys, and sheep are everywhere.  Fields are plowed using oxen.  The Coptic (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 Tigrinya and the Amhara.  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 Tigrinya 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 Tigrinya-speaking people are Muslim, called Jiberti.  They are not usually considered a separate ethnic group, but, of course, are clearly distinct as followers of Islam.  About 90-92% are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic or Tewahedo Church) faith.  Sources estimate that about 1% of the Tigrinya are Evangelical Christians.  The Protestant Evangelical Church is a visible presence among the Tigrinya in Eritrea.

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

Over 5 million of this people are Coptic Orthodox, with one priest for every 92 members--the highest concentration in Ethiopia.  The remainder are Muslims.  There are many Muslims in Tigray Province, but they generally belong to other people groups.  The Tigray are reported to have fewer than 500 evangelical believers.  There are more believers among the Tigrinya in Eritrea.

The faith of the Coptic Church is very intimately woven into the culture of the Tigrinya people and is central to their way of life.  Its confession of faith affirms key beliefs shared by the various branches of Christian faith.  Several unique practices are found in the Coptic Church.   Some other Christian churches express concerned about the a major icon in the church, the Ark of the Covenant.

The people accept the Bible as true, but the Orthodox canon includes some books unique to their tradition, with a total of 81 books, and 35 New Testament books.  Guest workers within the Church have in past years reported that in practice the church discourages the faithful from reading the Bible on their own, similar to the medieval Roman Catholic practice in Europe.  It is uncertain what that situation is now.

However, the North American diocese of the Tigrinya Church provides an online facilty which encourages Bible study and other devotional practices. The Eritrean Church in North American has a link to an online Bible for modern readers.  But at the time of this writing, this link was empty.  Most of the latter site is in the Tigrinya language.

Church services are conducted in Ge´ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia and Eritrea.  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.

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.  A US Diocese discusses this practice.  According to this site, technically, baptism can occur at any time, but the church follows an Old Testament practice related to ritual purity concerns about post-partum hemorrhaging of the mother.  The website explains that the longer time for girls is symbolic, recalling the blame for the Fall on the female in their teaching.  In-country observers report that this practice also reflects a broader cultural perspective of the lesser value of girls comapared to boys.  An Ethiopian Coptic site also mentions these 40 and 80 day periods.

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.

In addition to the dominant Tewahedo Church (Coptic Orthodox) Church, foreign churches and missions have long had work in Ethiopia and Eritrea.  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.  SIM has well-established work among the Tigrinya in Eritrea.

Meserete Christos (originally Mennonite) is believed to have recently begun a work on the Ethiopia side, 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.

The Bible has been translated into the Tigrinya people´s heart language, but the level of functional literacy is not clear at this time.  In 1991 it was about half the reproted general literacy rate.  Functional literacy is the ability to learn new information or concepts through personal reading from a source.

There are many difficulties in reaching a people group that lives in two countries.  Eritrea´s government agencies are hesitant to make long-term agreements with expatriates.  Islamic involvement in the government has resulted in complications and restrictions on Christian activity.  The government´s interest is limited to foreign aid that will help build their society.

On the other hand, Ethiopia´s government is less restrictive, but the society has a marked distrust of foreigners.  While many young Orthodox people show a great interest in learning the Bible and other Christian beliefs, deeply-held cultural values cause the agony of being persecuted and shunned by family, church, and society if they pursue such interests.



Country:                       Ethiopia        Eritrea
Percent Christian:          90%             50%
Percent Evangelical:       25%              3%
Population (year):          52,569,000  3,677,000
Major Religion:              Ethiopian Coptic Church
Openness to Missionaries:   Resistant (Closed with exceptions)


PEOPLE GROUP DESCRIPTION (Background Questionnaire)

Total People (Year): 6,000,000 (1996)
Urban Percent: 20%

Location: Tigray province, Ethiopia, Southern area, Eritrea
Country: Ethiopia, Eritrea
Ecosystem type: Gallery forest, scrub forest, high savanna
Geological type: Mountain valley, slopes, mesa.

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: 67% (est about 33% functional) - 2011 (government reports 80% in 2013)
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 63 (Eritrea as a whole)

Family Structures: Nuclear family, with close extended relations
Cultural Change Pace: Slow
Acculturation to Nat´l Society: Ethiopia, near; Eritrea, far
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

Religion                                     Adherents             Active
1. Coptic Orthodox Church 90-92%
2. Islam 8-10%
3. Evangelical                                                          1%

Primary Religion: Ethiopian Coptic 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.


Strategy Status: Unreached
Reached Status: Engaged
Total Believers: 60,000
Year Began: approx. 400A.D.; Western contacts 1603, late 1800´s.
By whom: 400AD--Syrian; 1603--Portuguese Jesuit; 1800s--Roman Catholic and Protestant
Significant Events:

Translation Status: Unlikely need
Available Scripture: Bible
Available Form: Full Bible; New Testament; commentary materials; all in Tigrinya.
Use of Translation: Mostly by evangelical believers.
Hindrances to Scripture Use and Distribution: tradition; the Ge´ez Bible tradition has more books than the canon of any other branch of Christianity.

The toll of the many years of struggle has caused many areas of need.  Every facet of society is being rebuilt.  Recurring drought and resultant famine continues to plague the region.  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.  The number has increased in recent years to 95%, causing a tremendous demand for teachers, books, and school rooms.  Focus has risen on the need for educators and technicians in all areas of the infrastructure.


Related Profiles
[TXT] The Amhara
[TXT] The Beja

Related Articles
[TXT] Amhara-Tigrinya Names
[TXT] Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
[TXT] Genetics Out of Africa
[TXT] Origin of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre Languages
[TXT] Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
[TXT] Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya – Ethnicites, Languages and Politics

For More

On the Internet
Coptic Times for Baptism of Infants
Eritrean Life Expectancy 2009
Eritrean Formal Literacy 2013
Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church US Diocese
Ethiopia and Aksum
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – Wikipedia Ethiopian Coptic Times for Baptism Habesha people – Wikipedia History of the Tigrinya People
Rejects Kinship with Sabean people; but comments here by Professor Peter R Schmidt on pre-Aksumite cultural sources fit with our description here

Tigray-Tigrinya People
Tigray-Tigrinya - Turkcebilgi
Tigrinya -
Tigrinya Church of Eritrea and Ethiopia

Registry of Peoples codes
 Amhara:  100293
 Tigre:  110051
 Tigray-Tigrinya:  110050


Registry of Languages codes (Ethnologue)
 Amharic:  amh
 Tigre:  tig
 Tigrinya:  tir

Robert Lundquist and Orville Boyd Jenkins

January 1997
Revised 13 November 2011
Last edited 17 October 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1997, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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