ALTERNATE NAMES: Tigre; Tigrai; Tigrinya

LOCATION: Tigray state (Ethiopia), Eritrea

POPULATION: 3.2 million in Ethiopia; 1.7 million in Eritrea

LANGUAGE: Tigrinya; Amharic

RELIGION: Christianity


The Tigray (Tigre, Tigrai, or Tigrinya) have a history that goes back thousands of years. According to Tigrean history, the Axumite empire, which later became the Ethiopian empire, was founded by Menelik (1889–1913), the son of King Solomon of Israel, and Queen Sheba (or Saba). According to this history, it was Menilik's men who captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and brought it to Axum (also spelled Aksum ) in what is now Tigray state in Ethiopia, where it remains to this day.

During the colonial era, Italy briefly ruled Tigrayan lands. With the expulsion of Italy in 1941, Eritrea was officially made a province of Ethiopia. A struggle for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia began in the 1960s and finally succeeded in 1991. Today roughly half the Tigrayans live in Ethiopia and the other half in Eritrea.


Today, Tigrayans number about 4.9 million and are concentrated in Tigray state (Ethiopia) and in Eritrea. The regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea where most Tigrayans live are high plateau, separated from the Red Sea by an escarpment (cliff-like ridge) and a desert. In good years, rainfall on the plateau is adequate for the plow agriculture engaged in by the majority of Tigray. However, when rainfall is low, the region is subject to disastrous droughts.


Tigrinya, the language spoken by the Tigray, is from the Semitic family of languages, and is related to Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. To the north of the Tigrinya speakers live people who speak the closely related language known as Tigre. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is so closely related to Tigrinya that most Tigray have little difficulty communicating in Amharic. Tigrinya, Amharic, and the ancient religious language Geez are written with the same alphabet. Many of the letters used in writing these languages are derived from ancient Greek.

Most Tigray names have specific meanings. Generally, people refer to one another by their first names. If one wished to distinguish between several people with that name, one would add the person's father's name. Abraha , for example, becomes Abraha Gebre Giyorgis , meaning, Abraha is the child of Gebre Giyorgis. If a further distinction must be made, the grandfather's name could be added, for example, Abraha-Gebre Giyorgis-Welede Mariyam. Men's and women's names follow the same rules, with the exception that new wives are often given new names by their mothers-in-law when they first go to live with the husband's family. This applies only to the first name; distinguishing names (father's, grandfather's, etc.) remain the same.

Some examples of Tigrinya names include:


Abraha the dawn
Atsbaha the sunset
Biserat trash
Gebre Giyorgis granted by Saint George
Gebre Yesus granted by Jesus
Gebre Selassie granted by the Holy Trinity
Gidey my share
Mitslal Muz shadow as sweet as the banana
Haile Mariyam the power of Mary
Welede Mariyam child of Mary
Zenabu spring rains


Most Tigray place a high value on verbal skills. Poetry, folktales, riddles, and puns are central to entertainment. A person who has returned from studying and can display skill at qene, the art of "poetic combat," is much sought after for public gatherings. One indicator of the value placed on verbal skills is that the heroic figures of folklore are often known for the cleverness of the poetic couplets they composed. This is also true of royal figures and saints. The Ethiopian saint Tekle Haymanot ("sower of the faith") is famous for having verbally outwitted the devil.

Another Ethiopian saint represents a different heroic quality. Gebre Memfis Qudus ("granted by the holy spirit") gained sainthood by showing extraordinary compassion. The future saint was a monk who wandered among the wild animals. During one of Ethiopia's droughts he came upon a bird that was dying of thirst. The monk was so moved by the bird's plight that a tear formed under his eye. He allowed the bird to drink the tear. This bird was actually the Holy Spirit. These two heroic figures express two virtues—cleverness and compassion—highly prized by the Tigray.


Many people think of Christianity in Africa as a European import that arrived with colonialism, but this is not the case with the Tigray (or with the Amhara). The empire centered in Axum and Adowa was part of the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. The arrival of Christianity in Tigrayan lands happened about the same time that it arrived in Ireland. The Tigrayans, in fact, had been converted to Christianity hundreds of years before most of Europe. Many Tigrayan churches were cut into cliffs or from single blocks of stone, as they were in Turkey and in parts of Greece, where Christianity had existed from its earliest years. The church is a central feature of communities and of each family's daily life. Each community has a church with a patron saint.


Most Tigray holidays are associated with the church calendar (Easter, Epiphany, etc.). The secular holidays include Ethiopian or Eritrean national holidays.


An infant is recognized as a member of the community in a naming ceremony held forty days after birth for boys, and eighty days after birth for girls. Should a baby die after the naming ceremony, a funeral is required; death in early infancy prior to the naming is not marked with a funeral.

About the age of twelve, children reach the "age of reason" and take on more responsibility, such as helping care for younger brothers and sisters and for herding farm animals. Also at about this age, children are baptized and enter the community of religion.

With adulthood comes new responsibilities. One of the signs of adulthood is citizenship; that is, attendance at village meetings after church on Sunday mornings. Other signs are marriage and becoming a deacon.

Death of a person requires a funeral. Funerals, with ceremonies in both the village and the church, normally take place before the sun sets on the day following death.


Tigrinya uses an elaborate system of greetings to indicate honor, the closeness of the relationship, and gender. There are ten personal pronouns people use to address one another. The choice of greeting is important in establishing and maintaining good relations. When meeting a stranger whom one judges may deserve some special respect, one might decide to address him with khamihaduru (How are you, my honored equal?). After learning that a stranger is due a great deal of respect, one might address him with khamihadirom (How are you, my honored superior?).

For rural Tigray, there is no dating in the Western sense. Expressions of romantic interest between two people are not indicated by the couple going out together. Instead, parents of both create an agreement for a union between the two households, and a marriage takes place. Parents generally take the interests of their child into account. If a person becomes divorced, he or she may date prior to entering into a second marriage.


There are still few Western-trained physicians and life expectancy is low in Tigrayan areas. Chronic, parasitic diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, are a problem in some regions. Many children die from communicable diseases such as measles and chicken pox. However, heart disease and lung cancer are rare, and people in their fifties are at the peak of their careers. By age seventy most people have retired from active farming.

A Tigray house provides shelter and contibutes to the occupant's reputation in the community. A young couple's first house is usually a gujji , a practical, unimpressive house that they build for themselves. A gujji is a hut with a thatched roof. If the couple is successful, their next house will more elaborate, with masonry walls and domed roofs supported by heavy wooden beams. A very powerful family may later add stone walls around the yard. Guests often bring stones with them as gifts of respect, to be added to the walls. One may view the walls as a concrete demonstration of one's friends' esteem.


Tigray women and men both bring property into a marriage. If there is a divorce, each takes out what she or he brought in. Both men and women may call for the divorce.

Women are responsible for food preparation and the care of small children. The husband is responsible for plowing, planting, and the care of animals. Older girls work beside their mothers, older boys beside their fathers.

Men may help around the house, and women may help in farming, especially in weeding and at the harvest. In the case of divorce or death of a spouse, the surviving spouse will hire the help he or she needs to keep the farm and household in operation.


Traditional Tigray clothing is white, which is regarded as Christian, with little adornment. For dressy occasions and church, women wear ankle-length dresses with long sleeves made of fine material. Men wear ankle-length pants that are tight from the knee to the ankle and baggy in the upper legs and hips. A fitted, long-sleeved shirt covers the upper body. The shirt extends to just above the knee for laymen and to just below the knee for priests and deacons. Both men and women wear a gabbi (shawl or toga) draped around the shoulders.

For many Tigrays, used clothing imported from Europe has replaced traditional clothing for day-to-day wear.

12 • FOOD

Probably the most important fact about food in Tigray is that there is not enough of it. Households must make up for food deficits with government subsidies.

In Tigray, bread is one of the main foods. Two of the more common varieties are a thin, pancake-like bread preferred by most people, and a dense, disk-shaped loaf of baked whole wheat bread. Pancakes are 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 centimeters) in diameter, and are made from many kinds of cereal grains (wheat, barley, etc.). A variety of tsebhi (spicy stews ) are eaten with the bread.

Families and guests normally eat from a messob (shared food basket), with each person breaking off pieces of bread from the side nearest them and dipping it into stew in the center of the basket.


Traditionally, boys learn to read Tigrinya, Ge'ez, and Amharic as Bible students. Today, some rural boys, and a few girls, attend public schools, with a percentage of them completing high school. Children living in town are much more likely to go to school than are their rural counterparts. In larger towns, such as Aduwa, Aksum, or Maqelli, public education is available through high school. There are universities in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and in Asmara in Eritrea.


There are two main categories of music: church music and praise songs. Deacons sing and accompany the song with drums and a sistrum (a rattle-like instrument) as part of the mass.

Praise singers form a kind of clan. Families of praise singers intermarry with other families of praise singers. Singers accompany themselves with a one-stringed instrument that is a little like a violin. Hosts often hire singers to entertain at parties, such as weddings. Guests give tips to the performers to sing, often humorously, about their friends.

Passages from the Book of Psalms are frequently brought into discussions of people's behavior. Many priests and deacons carry the psalms dawit (for King David) in a leather pouch.

Qene is an admired form of poetry known for its use of double meanings, beautiful language, and cleverness. A pair of lines should have a surface meaning and a deeper one. Qene is called "wax and gold," an analogy that refers to the process of casting gold objects in wax molds pressed into sand. In qene, the listener "hears the wax" and must use thought to find the gold inside. Tigray kings and princes are often remembered for their qene compositions.


Until recently, most rural Tigray considered farming to be the most honorable work. Today's food shortages have made many rethink this idea. Trade and government employment are seen as providing better opportunities. Those who make their living as blacksmiths, weavers, potters, or musicians are looked upon with some disfavor and suspicion.


A sport that seems to be unique to the Tigray and Amhara is a kind of cross-country field hockey. Those who are serious about the game grow their own hockey sticks, by training saplings to grow with the proper curve. When the sapling reaches the right stage of growth, they cut the tree and shape it into a hockey stick. The game is played running across the countryside, over cattle-yard fences, and through creeks. Hockey is associated with Easter.

The game played most by the Tigray is Timkhats. Although some Tigray call the game "chess," it is very different from the Western game of chess. In the center of neighborhoods, men play Timkhats all year round, and boys play it while watching the herds. Timkhats is played on a grid usually scratched in the ground. Two players take turns placing markers on intersections of the grid in what might be thought of as a complicated tic-tac-toe game.

Soccer is very popular and people follow their teams passionately.


While film, television, and to a large extent, radio are more a part of life in town than in rural areas, storytelling and riddles are part of the popular culture in both.


Some of the most spectacular Tigray art is associated with the church. Tigray churches are famous for their architecture, with many cut into solid stone. The larger churches use design features of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

Icon painting—the creation of images of sacred people—is another art form associated with the church. Some deacons who have studied at debri (monasteries) return as icon painters. Icons are purchased by individuals to reinforce a relationship with a particular saint.


Probably the most important social problems in Tigrayan areas today are associated with Tigray's food deficit and un- and underemployment. The government's attempt to solve these problems has taken two forms, relief efforts and public works.

Alcoholism is not widespread among rural Tigray. The sewwa (beer) brewed by each household is very low in alcohol content. Mies (honey wine) is somewhat higher in alcohol content, but is reserved for special occasions, such as weddings or entertaining political figures.


Bauer, Dan. Household and Society in Ethiopia: An Economic and Social Analysis of Tigray Social Principles and Household Organization. East Lansing, Mich.: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1985.

McCann, James. From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: a Rural History 1900–1935. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.


World Travel Guide. Eritrea. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/er/gen.html .

World Travel Guide, Ethiopia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/et/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

Mariamawit Gebremeskel
It is very intresting even though i am 4m Tigray. That is my dad Gebremeskel Tesfai and my mom Azbia Ghidey.
Steve Wirth
Succint, well organized and well written introduction to Tigrinya culture.
hayelom asfaha
wow ! realy this is a very real brief of Tigray.It makes me go and enjoy my early childd hood times.You know white cloth is the cultural cloth of Tigray;but I never dressed it after leaving my province.so this brief really knocked my mind.Anyway,thank you for briefing this.
Greetings.What is the difference between Tigray and Tigrinya? You say that half of Erittrea is Tigray people,so what other ethnic groups comprise the other half and what are their percentages?What ethnic group did Haile Mariam Mengistu belong to and is Asmara,Harar in Eritrea?
This article ought to explain where the ancient events takes place without including the tigray name. non need to lie or misgude the people whom don't know history.
The name of tigray was the recient event during the warra adal war. the smal tribe so called tigre that expand to all tigrans today. Genreally,the name of tigray is not registerd in ancient history .the kemet,agaw are the owner of axum. both of triabs were the family of cush.eneeded!

The history of Axum no longer gambling, but the plces is displaced
temesgen nega
you wrote this 26 years ago.For that time it is enough as long as you can not
reach every information due to the defunct system of junta.Now,you can have a
lot of information about Tigray & its people.Up date it, please.And you can contact me through this mentioned email address.
This is by far a very detailed and well compiled piece I have come across on the web as far as the subject of Tigray culture.I was looking for something to recommend to my Ferenji girlfriend to read so we can better understand each other :) Introductio to Tigray 101 .haha
Gebremeskel Mirutse
I love all the information and it is clear, precise, interesting and helpful to understand history of my birth place. Keep it up!
1. It is interesting but include, What about injera,(Food) Kirar, Begena, Melekhet (Music) and I think population is now more than 10 million (Ti-gray and Eritrea)
2. death in early infancy prior to the naming is not marked with a funeral. ( Elaborate the cause )
We have to picked up our culture as our parents. We should play our roll. Conserve our traditional identities like Mahzel,agoza,qirchat, sefei, meokbaiti, menfit Hanza, Sigrefeo and ploughing materials like Newit, Areut, Erfi etc.thanks a lot!
Can you tell me what TIGRAY means?
I have researching about the meaning of ethnonyms in Africa for five years.
I'm very much obliged to you.
Sincerely your,
Ibro Tabak,a history and geography teacher

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