Amharas (Amharic: አማራ, Āmara; Ge'ez: ዐምሐራ, ʾÄməḥära) are a large Semitic-speaking ethnic group indigenous to Ethiopia, traditionally inhabiting parts of the northwest Highlands of Ethiopia, particularly in the Amhara Region. According to the 2007 national census, Amharas numbered 19,867,817 individuals, comprising 26.9% of Ethiopia's population, and they are mostly Orthodox Christian (members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and Muslim (Sunni). They are also found within the Ethiopian expatriate community, particularly in North America. They speak Amharic, an Afro-Asiatic language of the Semitic branch which serves as one of the five official languages of Ethiopia. As of 2018, Amharic has over 32 million native speakers and 25 million second language speakers.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodox) • Islam (Sunni) • Judaism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Tigrayans • Tigrinya • Tigre • Gurage • Harari • Silte • Zay • Agaw • Saho • Beja • Oromo • Argobba • Somali • Afar • other Ethiosemitic and Cushitic peoples|
The present name for the Amharic language and its speakers comes from the medieval province of Amhara. The latter enclave was located around Lake Tana at the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and included a slightly larger area than Ethiopia's present-day Amhara Region.
The further derivation of the name is debated. Folk etymology traces it to amari ("pleasing; beautiful; gracious") or mehare ("gracious"). Another folk etymology claims that it derives from Ge'ez ዐም (ʿam, "people") and ሐራ (h.ara, "free" or "soldier") although this has been dismissed by Donald Levine. Getachew Mekonnen Hasen traces it to an ethnic name related to the Himyarites of ancient Yemen.
The Amharas have historically inhabited the north, central and western parts of Ethiopia, and are mainly agriculturalists, perhaps constituting the earliest farming group in Ethiopia (along with other groups such as Agews, Gurages, Gafats, Argobbas, and Hararis) as they mainly produce and use domesticated grains native to their region such as Teff and Nug. Some suggest their origin to be modern-day Yemen (Sheba and Himyar), the Kingdom of Aksum and relocated to (Amhara) Sayint, now known as Wollo (named after an Oromo clan that migrated to the area in the 16-17th century), a place that was known as the Amhara region in the past. The Amhara are currently one of the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, along with the Oromo. They are sometimes referred to as "Abyssinians" by Western sources.
The province of "Amhara" was historically located in the modern province of Wollo (Bete Amhara), in the modern sense however the region now known as Amhara in the feudal era was composed of several provinces with greater or less autonomy, which included Gondar, Gojjam, Wollo, Lasta, Shewa, Semien, Angot, and Fetegar. The traditional homeland of the Amharas is the central highland plateau of Ethiopia. For over two thousand years they have inhabited this region. Walled by high mountains and cleaved by great gorges, the ancient realm of Abyssinia has been relatively isolated from the influences of the rest of the world.
Christian Axumite (Axum) presence in the Amhara region dates back to at least the 8th century, with the establishment of the Istifanos monastery in Lake Hayq. Several other sites and monuments indicate similar Axumite influences in the area such as the Geta Lion statues, located 10 km south of Kombolcha, which are believed to date back as far as the 3rd century or even further to pre-Axumite times. In 1998, pieces of pottery were found around tombs in Atatiya in Southern Wollo, in Habru to the south-east of Hayq, and to the north-east of Ancharo (Chiqa Beret). The decorations and symbols on the pottery are archaeological evidence that the Aksumite civilization had extended to Southern Amhara area beyond Angot. The first specific mention of the Amhara dates to the early 12th century in the middle of the Zagwe Dynasty, when the Amhara were recorded of being in conflict with the Werjih in 1129. The Werjih are assumed to have inhabited the eastern lowlands of Shewa as pastoralists.
Yekuno Amlak, a prince from Bete Amhara (lit: House of Amhara) claimed descent from Solomon, and established the Solomonic Dynasty in 1270 AD. Yekuno's rule was legitimatized by the Ethiopian Church, after he defeated the last ruler of the Zagwe dynasty at the Battle of Ansata. The Solomonic dynasty governed the Ethiopian Empire for many centuries from 1270 AD onwards up until the deposing of Haile Selassie in 1974. The Amhara continuously ruled and formed the political core of the Ethiopian Empire, establishing several medieval royal sites and capitals such as Tegulet, Debre Berhan, Barara (located on Mount Entoto, in modern-day Addis Ababa), Gonder, and Magdala.
In the early 15th century, the Emperors sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since Aksumite times. A letter from King Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives. In 1428, Emperor Yeshaq sent two emissaries to Alfonso V of Aragon, who sent return emissaries who failed to complete the return trip. The first continuous relationship with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Emperor Lebna Dengel, who had just inherited the throne from his father. This proved to be an important development, for when the Empire was subjected to the attacks of the Adal Sultanate and its leader Ahmad Graññ, Portugal assisted the Ethiopian emperor in the Ethiopian–Adal War by sending weapons and 400 men, who helped his son Gelawdewos defeat Ahmad and re-establish his rule.
Within traditional Amharic society and that of other local Afro-Asiatic-speaking populations, there were four basic strata. According to the Donald Levine, these consisted of high-ranking clans, low-ranking clans, caste groups (artisans), and slaves. Slaves were at the bottom of the hierarchy, and were primarily drawn from the pagan Nilotic Shanqella groups. Also known as the barya (meaning "slave" in Amharic), they were captured during slave raids in Ethiopia's southern hinterland. War captives were another source of slaves, but the perception, treatment and duties of these prisoners was markedly different. According to Levine, the widespread slavery in Greater Ethiopia formally ended in the 1930s, but former slaves, their offspring, and de facto slaves continued to hold similar positions in the social hierarchy.
The separate Amhara caste system of people ranked higher than slaves was based on the following concepts: (1) endogamy, (2) hierarchical status, (3) restraints on commensality, (4) pollution concepts, (5) traditional occupation, and (6) inherited caste membership. Scholars accept that there has been a rigid, endogamous and occupationally closed social stratification among the Amharas and other Afro-Asiatic-speaking Ethiopian ethnic groups. Some label it as an economically closed, endogamous class system with occupational minorities, whereas others such as David Todd assert that this system can be unequivocally labelled as caste-based.
The Amhara speak Amharic (also known as Amarigna or Amarinya) as their mother tongue. Its native speakers account for 29.3% of the Ethiopian population. It belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, and is the largest member of the Ethiopian Semitic group. As of 2018 it had more than 57 million speakers worldwide (32.345.260 native speakers plus 25.100.000 second language speakers), making it the most commonly-spoken language in Ethiopia in terms of first- and second-language speakers, and the second most spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Most of the Ethiopian Jewish communities in Ethiopia and Israel speak Amharic. Many followers of the Rastafari movement learn Amharic as a second language, as they consider it to be a sacred language.
Amharic is the working language of the federal authorities of the Ethiopian government, and one of the five official languages of Ethiopia. It was for some time also the sole language of primary school instruction, but has been replaced in many areas by regional languages such as Oromo and Tigrinya. Nevertheless, Amharic is still widely used as the working language of Amhara Region, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Gambela Region and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region. The Amharic language is transcribed using the Ethiopic or Ge'ez script (Fidäl), an abugida.
According to Donald Levine, the Afro-Asiatic language family likely arose either in the eastern Sahara or in southwestern Ethiopia. Early Afro-Asiatic populations speaking proto-Semitic, proto-Cushitic and proto-Omotic languages would have diverged by the fourth or fifth millennium BC. Shortly afterwards, the proto-Cushitic and proto-Omotic groups would have settled in the Ethiopian highlands, with the proto-Semitic speakers crossing the Sinai Peninsula into Asia Minor. A later return movement of peoples from South Arabia would have introduced the Semitic languages to Ethiopia. Based on archaeological evidence, the presence of Semitic speakers in the territory date to some time before 500 BC. Linguistic analysis suggests the presence of Semitic languages in Ethiopia as early as 2000 BC. Levine indicates that by the end of that millennium, the core inhabitants of Greater Ethiopia would have consisted of swarthy Caucasoid ("Afro-Mediterranean") agropastoralists speaking Afro-Asiatic languages of the Semitic, Cushitic and Omotic branches.
According to Robert Fay, the ancient Semitic speakers from Yemen were Himyarites and they settled in the Aksum area in northern Ethiopia. There, they intermarried with native speakers of Agaw and other Cushitic languages, and gradually spread southwards into the modern Amhara homeland. Their descendants, the early predecessors of the Amhara, spoke Ge'ez, the official language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. On the other hand, Ethiopian scholars specializing in Ethiopian Studies such as Messay Kebede and Daniel E. Alemu generally disagree with this theory arguing that the migration was one of reciprocal exchange, if it even occurred at all, and that the Amharas and other Ethiosemitic-speaking ethnic groups should not be characterized as foreign invaders.
"This is not to say that events associated with conquest, conflict and resistance did not occur. No doubt, they must have been frequent. But the crucial difference lies in the propensity to present them, not as the process by which an alien majority imposed its rule but as part of an ongoing struggle of native forces competing for supremacy in the region. The elimination of the alien ruler indigenize Ethiopian history in terms of local actors."
The predominant religion of the Amhara for centuries has been Christianity, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church playing a central role in the culture of the country. According to the 2007 census, 82.5% of the population of the Amhara Region were Ethiopian Orthodox; 17.2% were Muslim, and 0.2% were Protestant and 0.5 beta Israel . The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains close links with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Easter and Epiphany are the most important celebrations, marked with services, feasting and dancing. There are also many feast days throughout the year, when only vegetables or fish may be eaten.
Marriages are often arranged, with men marrying in their late teens or early twenties. Traditionally, girls were married as young as 14, but in the 20th century, the minimum age was raised to 18, and this was enforced by the Imperial government. After a church wedding, divorce is frowned upon. Each family hosts a separate wedding feast after the wedding.
Upon childbirth, a priest will visit the family to bless the infant. The mother and child remain in the house for 40 days after birth for physical and emotional strength. The infant will be taken to the church for baptism at 40 days (for boys) or 80 days (for girls).
Surviving Amharic literary works dates back to the 14th century, when songs and poems were composed. In the 17th century Amharic became the first African language to be translated into Latin when Ethiopian priest and lexicographer Abba Gorgoryos(1595–1658) in 1652 AD made a European voyage to Thuringia in Germany. Gorgoryos along with his colleague and friend Hiob Ludolf co-authored the earliest grammar book of the Amharic language, an Amharic-Latin dictionary and as well as contributing to Ludolf's book "A History of Ethiopia". Modern literature in Amharic hoewever started two centuries later than in Europe, with the Amharic fiction Novel Ləbb Wälläd Tarik, published in Rome in 1908, widely considered the first novel in Amharic, by Afäwarq Gäbrä Iyäsus. Since then countless of literature in Amharic has been published and many modern day writers in Amharic translate their work also in English for commercial considerations.
|Afäwarq Gäbrä Iyäsus
|Heruy Wolde Selassie
Amhara art is typified by religious paintings. One of the notable features of these is the large eyes of the subjects, who are usually biblical figures. It is usually oil on canvas or hide, some surviving from the Middle Ages. The Amhara art includes weaved products embellished with embroidery. Works in gold and silver exist in the form of filigree jewelry and religious emblems.
Kinship and marriage
The Amhara culture recognizes kinship, but unlike other ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa region, it has a relatively lesser role. Household relationships are primary, and the major economic, political and cultural functions are not based on kin relationships among the Amharas. Rather abilities of the individual matter. For example, states Donald Levine, the influence of clergy among the Amhara has been based on "ritual purity, doctrinal knowledge, ability to perform miracles and capacity to provide moral guidance".:120 The social relationships in the Amhara culture are predominantly based on hierarchical patterns and individualistic associations.:123
Family and kin relatives are often involved in arranging semanya (eighty bond marriage, also called kal kidan), which has been most common and allows divorce. Other forms of marriage include qurban, which is solemnized in church, where divorce is forbidden, and usually observed among the orthodox priests. Patrilineal descent is the norm. While the wife had no inheritance rights, in case a child was conceived during the temporary damoz marriage, the child could make a claim a part of the father's property.
Main articles: Ethiopian cuisine & Wat (food)
Amhara cuisine consists of various vegetable or spicy meat side dishes and entrées, usually a wat, or thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread made of teff flour in the shape of pancakes usually of about 30 to 45 cm in diameter. When eating traditional injera dishes in groups, it's normally it eaten from a mesob (shared food basket), with each person breaking off pieces of injera flatbread using only the right hand, from the side nearest them and dipping it into stew in the center of the basket. There is also a great variety of vegetarian stews such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, accompanied by injera and/or bread. Amharas adhering to any of the Abrahmic religions do not eat pork or shellfish of any kind for religious reasons. Amhara Orthodox Christians do not consume meat and dairy products (i.e. egg, butter, milk, and cheese) during specific fasting periods, and on every Wednesdays and Fridays except the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. On all other days meat and dairy products are allowed. A variety of vegan dishes are consumed during fasting periods.
Ethiopia is a big buna(coffee) exporter, but also has a very large domestic consumer base. During social gatherings Amharas drink Buna in a unique and traditional way known as a coffee ceremony. First the coffee is roasted, then ground and placed in a Jebena (coffee pot) with boiling water. When ready it is then served to people in little cups, up to three times per ceremony. The ceremony is typically performed by the woman of the household, or the female host and is considered an honor. Amhara women dress up for the occasion in a Habesha kemis, a traditionel dress. Other locally produced beverages are tella(beer) and tej(honey wine), which are served and drunk on major religious festivals, Saints Days and weddings.
A stew dish served with beef, lamb, chicken, eggs and variety of vegetables, on top of Injera flatbread.
A spicy raw beef dish seasoned with a variety of spices.
Grilled beef with tomato, onions and green peper. There are several variations of Tibs dishes.
Beans with variety of vegetables, feta cheese and bread, flavored with Berbere spice and olive oil.
Misir Wot is a Lentil stew, served with a variety of vegetables, there are several variations. This example is served potatoes, beets, apple, salad, paprika and rice atop of injera. A popular vegan dish.
Amhara coffee culture & hospitality. Young woman in traditional wear serving coffee.
Nature of Amhara ethnicity
Mackonen Michael (2008) noted that the Amhara identity is claimed to be composed of multiple ethnicities by some, whereas others "reject this concept and argue that Amhara exists as a distinctive ethnic group with a specific located boundary". He further noted that "although people from the Ethiopian highland areas think of themselves as Amharas, the Northern Shoans specifically call themselves Amhara. That is why the Oromo and Tigrian discourse associate the Northern Shoans as oppressive‐Amharas." According to Gideon P. E. Cohen, writing in 2000, there is some debate about "whether the Amhara can legitimately be regarded as an ethnic group, [...] given their distribution throughout Ethiopia, and the incorporative capacity of the group that has led to the inclusion of individuals from a wide range of ethnic or linguistic backgrounds". Similarly, Tezera Tazebew notes that "the early 1990s was marked by debates, both popular and scholarly, on the (non-)existence of Amhara as a distinct ethnic group", giving the debate between the academic Mesfin Woldemariam and president of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi in July 1991 as an example. In a 2017 article, historian Brian J. Yates notes that some "scholars and politicians have attempted to sketch out what an Amhara is, but there are considerable divergences on the nature of this identity. Some argue that it is a cultural identity; however, much of the scholarship indicates that it is solely a class-based identity, devoid of ethnicity".
Solomon Gashaw asserts that "there is no intra-Amhara ethnic consciousness, except among northern settlers in southern Ethiopia". He notes that most Amharic-speaking people identify by their place of birth. He asks, "what is Amhara domination?", answering: "It is a linguistic and cultural domination by a multi-ethnic group who speak Amharic".
Writing in 1998, Tegegne Teka wrote that "the Amhara do not possess what people usually refer to as objective ethnic markers: common ancestry, territory, religion and shared experience except the language. The Amhara have no claims to a common ancestry. They do not share the same sentiments and they have no mutual interests based on shared understandings. It is, therefore, difficult to conclude that the Amhara belong to an ethnic group. But this does not mean that there is no Amhara identity".
According to ethnographer Donald Levine, writing in 2003 and citing Christopher Clapham, "Only in the last quarter of the 20th cent. has the term [Amhara] come to be a common ethnic appellation, comparable to the way in which Oromo has become generalized to cover peoples who long knew themselves primarily as Boorana (Boräna), Guğği, Mäč̣č̣a and the like. Even so, Amharic-speaking Šäwans still feel themselves closer to non-Amharic-speaking Šäwans than to Amharic-speakers from distant regions like Gondär and there are few members of the Šäwan nobility who do not have Oromo genealogical links". According to Takkele Taddese, Amharic-speakers tend to be a "supra-ethnic group" composed of "fused stock". Taddese describes the Amhara as follows:
The Amhara can thus be said to exist in the sense of being a fused stock, a supra-ethnically conscious ethnic Ethiopian serving as the pot in which all the other ethnic groups are supposed to melt. The language, Amharic, serves as the center of this melting process although it is difficult to conceive of a language without the existence of a corresponding distinct ethnic group speaking it as a mother tongue. The Amhara does not exist, however, in the sense of being a distinct ethnic group promoting its own interests and advancing the Herrenvolk philosophy and ideology as has been presented by the elite politicians. The basic principle of those who affirm the existence of the Amhara as a distinct ethnic group, therefore, is that the Amhara should be dislodged from the position of supremacy and each ethnic group should be freed from Amhara domination to have equal status with everybody else. This sense of Amhara existence can be viewed as a myth.
Siegfried Pausewang concluded in 2005 that "the term Amhara relates in contemporary Ethiopia to two different and distinct social groups. The ethnic group of the Amhara, mostly a peasant population, is different from a mixed group of urban people coming from different ethnic background, who have adopted Amharic as a common language and identify themselves as Ethiopians".
Amhara ethnic consciousness in the past
In the 17th century, Abyssinian traveler Abba Gorgoryos states the following in a letter to his German friend Hiob Ludolf:
As to my origins, do not imagine, my friend, that they are humble, for I am of the House of Amhara which is a respected tribe; from it come the heads of the Ethiopian people, the governors, the military commanders, the judges and the advisers of the King of Ethiopia who appoint and dismiss, command and rule in the name of the King, his governors, and grandees. "
The rise of Amhara ethnic consciousness and nationalism in the 21st century
Zola Moges notes the emergence of Amhara nationalism and ethnic consciousness with origins in the early 1990s but taking clearer shape with the establishment of the National Movement of Amhara in 2018. Moges writes that a "younger generation has adopted its 'Amharaness'; but most ordinary people are yet to fully embrace it, not least because of the lack of any effectively articulated ideological foundation or priorities and the absence of any 'tailor-made' solutions to the challenges facing them". Amanuel Tesfaye writes that: "While the older Amhara population still detest ethnic identification and ethnic forms of political organization, preferring pan-Ethiopian nationalism, the young have no problem pronouncing their Amhara identity, advocating for the protection and advancement of the rights and interests of their ethnic kin within the framework of the multi-nation state, and organizing politically along that particular ethnic identity".
In 2019, there was an attempted coup d'état in the regional capital Bahir Dar - this coup happened as a consequence of the formation of ethnic Amhara militias, a manifestation of rising Amhara nationalism.
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There was a clear distinction between 'red' and 'black' slaves, Hamitic and negroid respectively; the Shanqalla (negroids) were far cheaper as they were destined mostly for hard work around the house and in the field... While in the houses of the brokers, the [red] slaves were on the whole well treated.
- Levine, Donald N. (2014). Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. University of Chicago Press. pp. 56, 175. ISBN 978-0-226-22967-6.
Slavery was widespread in Greater Ethiopia until the 1930s, and today ex-slaves, children of former slaves, and de facto slaves in some regions occupy social positions much like their predecessors... members of any ethnic group were liable to be consigned to slavery by more powerful members of other tribes, if not their own tribe. ... Afar made slaves of Amhara ... Amhara and Tigreans, while not supposed to enslave fellow Christians, had slaves from many non-Christian groups.
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Amnon Orent (1979), "From the Hoe to the Plow", in Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Ethiopian Studies, Editor: Robert Hess, University of Illinois Press, OCLC 7277897, p. 188, Quote: "the Mano, who are potters and leather craftsmen and considered 'unclean' in the usual northern or Amhara understanding of caste distinction; and the Manjo, the traditional hunters and eaters of 'unclean' foods – hippopotamus, monkey and crocodile."
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Lewis, Herbert S. (2006). "Historical problems in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Wiley-Blackwell. 96 (2): 504–511. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1962.tb50145.x. S2CID 83677517., Quote (p. 509): "In virtually every Cushitic group there are endogamous castes based on occupational specialization (such caste groups are also found, to some extent, among the Ethiopian Semites).".
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The analysis of linguistic distributions suggests that the proto-Ethiopians of the third millennium B.C. spoke languages derived from a single stock, that is known as Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. This ancestral language probably originated in the eastern Sahara, before the desiccation of that region... the homeland of Afro-Asiatic may have been in southwest Ethiopia. Wherever the origins of Afro-Asiatic, it seems clear that peoples speaking proto-Cushitic and proto-Omotic separated as groups with distinct languages by the fifth or fourth millennium BC and began peopling the Ethiopian plateaus not long after. Proto-Semitic separated at about the same time or somewhat earlier and passed over into Asia Minor... it seems reasonable to follow I. M. Diakonoff in assuming that the Semitic-speakers moved from the Sahara across the Nile Delta over Sinai, so that the presence of Semitic-speaking populations in Ethiopia must be attributed to a return movement of Semitic-speakers into Africa from South Arabia... As a base line for reconstructing the history of Greater Ethiopia, then, we may consider it plausible that by the end of the third millenium B.C. its main inhabitants were dark-skinned Caucasoid or "Afro-Mediterranean" peoples practicing rudimentary forms of agriculture and animal husbandry and speaking three branches of Afro-Asiatic – Semitic, Cushitic and Omotic.
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The origins and early history of the Amhara remain the subject of some speculation. Archaeological evidence suggests that sometime before 500 B.C.E. a Semitic-speaking people, from whom the Amhara are descended, migrated from present-day Yemen to the area of northern Ethiopia that would become Aksum. These Himyarites, as they have come to be called, intermarried with indigenous speakers of Cushitic languages, such as Agaw, and gradually spread south into the present-day homeland of the Amhara. Their descendants spoke Ge'ez, and ancient Semitic tongue that is no longer spoken but remains the official language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Amhara people.|
- Lemma, Marcos (MD, PhD). "Who ruled Ethiopia? The myth of 'Amara domination'". Ethiomedia.com. Archived from the original on 28 March 2005. Retrieved 28 February 2005.
- People of Africa, Amhara Culture and History