From natives to refugees, families leave their homeland in Tigray

Tigrayans of Ethiopia: History, Culture, and Present Day


Landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia
credit@ Wikivoyage

With a history that dates back to centuries, the Tigrayans residing in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are an ethnic group with a population of approximately 7 million (as of 2020). They are the fourth largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, following the Oromo, Amhara and Somali.

For the past two thousand years, the emperors who have ruled over Ethiopia have been either Amharas or from Tigray. According to the history of the country, Menilik (King Solomon’s son) was the founder of the Ethiopian empire. History states that the Ark of Covenant was captured by Menilik and his men from the Israelites, which was then brought to Aksum and what is known today as Tigray.


The Tigrayans speak Tigrinya, the official mother tongue of the region. Tigrinya is a language from the Ethiopian Semitic family of languages and related to Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic (language that originated among the Aramaeans of Syria). Tigrinya is also closely related to the official language of Ethiopia, Amharic. This means that most Tigrayans have no difficulty in communicating in Amharic too. Most of the letters which are employed while writing these languages are a derivation from the ancient Geez language. Tigrinya itself has various dialects which differ both grammatically and phonetically. No single dialect is considered to be the standard one.


A church in Tigray
credit@ The Guardian
A mosque in Tigray
credit@ Middle East Eye

Before the arrival of Christianity, the majority of the natives believed and followed pagan worship. The deities included Utu (the sun god) and Almaqah (the moon god). Judaism was also practiced by certain tribes within the group. D’mt and early Aksum were the most important polytheistic (belief of multiple deities) kingdoms.

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity was not introduced in Tigray by the arrival of colonialism or missionaries. The Mediterranean world included Aksum and Adowa, both towns in the Tigray region. It was here that Christianity arrived and grew around the same time as in Ireland. According to records, the Tigrayans began converting to Christianity a hundred years before such influence was seen in Europe. Today, the majority of the Christian natives are Oriental Orthodox, while a minority are Catholics. Religion and the Church are entwined into the natives’ daily lives. Many churches of the land were carved into the cliffs, while others were built from single blocks of stone. Every community within the Tigrayans has a church and a patron saint.

The Tigrayans were introduced to Islam when Prophet Muhammad and his followers took refuge in the Kingdom of Aksum. When many of these followers went back to the Arabian Peninsula, many stayed behind. Many of the natives were influenced by the Islamic practices and soon converted to Islam. The new converts were known as Jeberti. Almost all the Muslims in Tigraya are Sunni Muslims.

Traditional Clothes

Native women incorporating modernity with traditional clothes
credit@ Pinterest
Men in traditional attire while one embraces modern wear
credit@ allaboutETHIO

Regarding attire, there isn’t much difference between that of the region of Tigray and Ethiopia. White clothing is considered to be traditional and Christian, with as little adornment as possible.

For festive occasions and church, women choose to wear long dresses which extend to their ankles. Women in some central and northern areas make their clothes from a material called shemma. A cotton cloth around 90 cm wide, is made by weaving lengthy strips of cloth together. These strips are then stitched together. The clothes made from shemma are called habesha kemis. On certain occasions, shiny thread is woven or added to the fabric, producing an elegant effect. The bottom part of the dress may have patterns ornamented into it. To produce enough clothes for a single dress, it takes at least two or three weeks.

Women often wear a shawl, netela or a shash. The shash is tied at the neck. The shash is made of material called shama or kuta. Both Muslim and Christian women use this item of clothing. While the elders of the community wear the shash every day, younger women choose to wear the shash or shawl only during church. While in church, the shash is worn so that the shoulders are wrapped by the upper ends. This way of wearing the shawl produces a cross (meskelya). The shiny threads appear at the border. For sombre occasions like funerals, it is worn so that shiny threads are at the bottom (madegdeg). Accessories like necklaces and bracelets made of silver or gold adorn the arms and feet. In the present day, modern dress combined with traditional elements are made and worn by women in the cities.

The men’s pants are ankle length. The upper part of the pants (above the knee and hips) are loose and baggy, while from the knees to the ankle, it is tight. Shirts with long sleeves are worn. The shirts have a white collar and sometimes, a sweater is worn. Knee- high socks are worn. For ordinary men, the shirt extends to the knees, while for priests, it is below the knees. The men too wear shawls around their shoulders. In the present day, many natives have shed the traditional clothes to adopt western wear.


Women dressed for Ashenda, Tigray
credit@ Wikipedia
A display of beauty and culture, Tigray
credit@ Pinterest

The main festival of Tigray is that of Ashenda Mariam, a festival reserved for girls and younger women. The festival takes its name from the tall grass that the women use to adorn their gowns. Other names of the festival are Shadey, Solel, Mariya and Ashendye.

Ashenda is celebrated by Orthodox Christians and takes place anytime between August and September every year. The duration of Ashenda varies among the different localities. So it may last from a few days to even a whole month. The festival commemorates the Virgin Mary’s heavenly accession after her Dormition. The Christians also use the occasion to mark the end of a fasting period called filseta.

The main aspect of the festival, however, are the girls and young women of the region. According to the Tigrayan culture, it is on this occasion that the girls (of suitable age) dress up and adorn themselves to showcase their beauty and dancing skills. The aim is to attract suitors and be married before the next sowing season. On occasion, the girls wear a dress called the tilfi. The tilfi is a cotton dress, the front of which is beautifully embroidered from top to the bottom. From the waist down, the dress is decorated with tall grass known as ashenda. Besides the elaborate dress, jewellery and special hairstyles are donned. The girls and women meet at a central place where they are divided into several smaller groups. The girls then entertain the community by going from house to house, singing and dancing. Drumming and socializing is also part of the culture. The songs sung for the festival range from those appreciating the Ashenda, love songs, Christian songs and songs appreciating beauty. It is customary for people to give girls gifts. This could range from money to food and drinks. The custom of the girls lasts for the whole day and for the whole festival.


Folk tales, poetry, puns and riddles are placed in high regard in the community. Legends of ancient heroes are narrated through poetry. The art of ‘poetic combat’ or qene is much sought after in the tribe. A monastery- educated individual is often employed by the community to display their poem composing abilities during public gatherings or festivities. They are also employed during weddings to entertain the guests. Their poetry will be filled with puns and riddles that may often ridicule any kind of undesirable qualities in a person.

Verbal skills and cleverness are also praised in the royal and saintly figures. Ethiopian folklore is filled with narratives of saints. According to one legend, Tekle Haymanot, the Ethiopian saint, defeated the devil with his verbal skills. Gebre Memfis Qudus was a monk who was elevated to sainthood due to his overwhelming compassion. The legend narrates how the monk wandered among wild animals. His compassion was displayed during one of Ethiopia’s droughts. Coming upon a bird dying of thirst, the monk wept and quenched the bird’s thirst with his tears. According to legend, the bird was the Holy Spirit.


Tihlo, a tradittional dish
credit@ Wikipedia

Food of the Tigrayans generally consists of local vegetables and meat cooked into an extremely spicy dish known as tsebhi. It is a thick stew served along with sourdough flatbread called injera. Another regional dish is tihlo. It is made with moistened roasted barley flour which is kneaded and then broken into smaller shapes. These are then served with the spicy meat sew. A wooden fork is used to dip the pieces into the stew. Mes (honey wine) is also served with the dish.

The Orthodox Christians and Muslims do not consume pork as it is against their religious beliefs. On Wednesdays and Fridays and during the fasting periods, meat and dairy products aren’t served or consumed. To compensate for such religious beliefs, vegan meat is readily available in the region. It is customary for the native families and guests to eat from a shared food basket (masob). No cutlery is used. The food is eaten with the right hand while the flatbread is used to scoop up the contents.

Society and Gender Roles

Men were the sole breadwinners and head of the family. Till recently, laws stated that men were the disciplinarians of children and the owners of their wives. It was only in 2000 that re-enacted laws granted women rights regarding children, property and divorce. Divorced women are not looked upon kindly in society. The marriageable age was also raised from 15 to 18 in 2003.

While girls weren’t allowed to attend school past their elementary education, the government now urges them to be educated and join the public workforce. Politics in Tigray is a more male-dominated field. Modern influences and local issues have brought many changes in the region. Financial drawbacks have influenced women to work outside their homes, with men sharing the household responsibilities.

Present Day War

Map showing Tigray, Ethiopia
credit@ BBC
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed
credit@ Republic World
Troops in Tigray
credit@ The Indian Express

Though Ethiopia is no stranger to war and its consequences, recent eruptions in Tigray have left the country and its natives struggling. A prolonged bloody conflict between government forces and troops caused countless civilian deaths and others to flee their native land erupted in November and continues to the present day. Like life’s often cruel ironies, the conflict came just a year after the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, was given the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving a border conflict spanning twenty years.

Since PM Abiy’s entry into office in 2018, ethnic groups in Tigray and the TPLF have resisted his attempts to unify the country through an increase in the central government’s power. In September, when the PM called off the elections due to the pandemic, the TPLF set up their own elections. PM Ahmed dismissed the elections and the results, with the government further threatening to cut funds to the TPLF, thus angering its leaders.

In November, PM Ahmed deployed troops to Tigray’s northern military base (at the borders of Eritrea and Sudan). According to him, the ruling part of the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had attacked the base. Days later in a televised broadcast, he announced that the facility had been bombed as a defence by the Ethiopian military. Soon after, Tigray and its neighbouring regions were caught up in the still raging war, causing civilians to pay with their lives and land. Thousands have fled to Sudan, where the refugee camps were forced to be reopened after twenty years. Those who stayed behind lost their homes. According to the UN, humanitarian services were able to access only around 30% of the affected parts. Many health facilities were looted and damaged. There are also reports of severe shortages of food, water and medicine.

Civilians are the most affected by the conflict: humanitarian services helping the natives s

The general election scheduled for June has already raised eyebrows. Speculations question whether the election would be a peaceful one, given the country’s political turmoil.

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