Amhara - Orientation

Identification. The term "Amhara" is derived from amari, meaning "one who is pleasing, agreeable, beautiful, and gracious." Amhara culture is often identified with Abyssinian culture, which is regarded as the heir to the cultural blending of ancient Semitic and Cushitic (African) patterns; other heirs are the Tigre-speaking people of Eritrea, and the Tegreñña speakers of northern Ethiopia. The name "Ethiopia" is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning "people with sunburned faces" and has been revived to designate the present-day state, which also includes non-Abyssinians. The Amhara themselves often use the term "Amhara" synonymously with "Ethiopian Orthodox (Monophysite) Christian," although their own, more precise expression for this religion is "Towahedo" (Orthodox). In the past, books on Ethiopia have often referred to this religion as "Coptic," derived from the Greek term for Egyptian. Until Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930, the Coptic metropolitan of Alexandria, Egypt, had also been the head of this Ethiopian church and had appointed Ethiopian archbishops.

Location. Ethiopia is located in the northeastern part of Africa, roughly between 5° and 16° N and 33° and 43° E. It is mountainous, separated from the Red Sea by hot lowland deserts; a steep escarpment in the west borders the hot lowland in Sudan. The mountain-fortress type of landscape has frequently enabled the plateau people to retain their independence against would-be invaders. Begemder, Gojam, and Welo are Amharic speaking, as are parts of Shewa since Amhara expansion under emperor Menilek II in the 1880s.

Demography. According to the 1984 census, the population of Ethiopia was estimated as 42 million. Of these, 28 percent referred to themselves as "Amhara," and 32 percent stated that they spoke Amharic at home. Hence, about 14 million could be identified as Amhara, subject to qualification by the effects of Amharization during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the political strife against Amhara domination since then. Ethiopia is essentially a rural country. Apart from the capital, Addis Ababa, few towns have a permanent population in excess of 10,000: Gonder, the old caravan town on the way from the highlands to the Sudan; Harer, the coffee city; and Dire Dawa, the railroad junction to the coast. The many small towns are essentially marketplaces, serving the farming hinterland.

Linguistic Affiliation. There are three major linguistic families in Ethiopia: Cushitic, Semitic, and Nilo-Saharan. Cushitic and Semitic are two families of the Afro-Asian Phylum. Nilo-Sarahan languages of the Sudanic Phylum predominate along the northern and western escarpment. Cushitic includes Oromo (formerly called Galla), Sidamo, Somali, and Agau. Semitic languages, spoken mainly in the northern half of the country, are related to the Ge'ez language, which was spoken there from about the first half of the first millennium B . C . and had a writing system from which the present Amharic writing is derived. Ge'ez ceased to be spoken before the fourteenth century A . D ., but it survives in the Orthodox liturgy to this day. It has been the language of religious and historical documents almost until the present, and linguists have referred to it as "Ethiopic." Amharic is related to Ge'ez but contains strong influences from Cushitic. It has been important since the fourteenth century A . D ., when the earliest Amharic document, "Songs of the Kings," was written. Amharic, which is the predominant language on the plateau of northwest-central Ethiopia, is now the official national language of Ethiopia.

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