Amhara

Amhara

As a group, the Amhara are a mixture of people who speak a common language, Amharic. They occupy the central high-lands of Ethiopia, west to the Sudanese boarder. Their state includes the regions of Wollo, Gojjam, Gonder, and north Shoa. Typically, people think of them-selves in terms of their regions, rather than as a distinct ethnic group.

While the majority of people are sedentary farmers, theAmharahavebeentherulingclassof Ethiopia over most of its long history, and have provided almost all of the imperial rulers. They have been seen as synonymous with the Ethiopian State. The people are Orthodox Christian and speak Amharic, a Semitic language related to Tigrinya and Tigre, though strongly influenced by Cushitic and Sidama lan-guages. They are a large group, numbering about 18 million, approximately 30 percent of Ethiopia’s population. They are closely related to the Tigray people, their main political rivals.

Amhara ancestors are believed to have come from southern Arabia and intermarried with the local Cushite inhabitants in the south Wollo area. From here, the Amharic language and culture spread, absorbing non-Amhara ethnic groups, and creating a mixed culture and lan-guage.

Amhara imperial tradition claims that the first Ethiopian kingdom was established by Menelik I, son of the Judean king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Thelineofkingsandemperors that followed remained unbroken for 2,000years.Menelikis also said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The Ark of the Covenant still figures prominently in Amharic religious beliefs.

The first important kingdom was the Kingdom of Axum from the first to the ninth century. Centered tothe northin Tigray, Axum controlled a large area with important trade connections with southern Arabia. Ge’ez, the language of Axum, is the foundation of the Amharic language and writing system. Orthodox Christianity was adopted by the Axumites in the fourth century and spread throughout the kingdom. The church remains at the core of Amhara culture, and Ge’ez is still the language of the church. As Axum declined in the ninth century, the center of power gradually shifted southward to the Amhara.

During the decline of Axum, Arab in-fluence pushed inland along trade routes, bringing Islam into the regions surrounding the highlands, isolating the Christian Church. The only outside contact was with the Orthodox or Coptic Church of Alexandria in Egypt. In the 16th century, the Christian kingdom was attacked in an Arab holy war against Christians led by Ahmad Gran. The Arab army massacred people, burned churches, and sent the imperial ruler into hiding. Only the high-est mountainous regions were uncon-quered. The invasion was brought to an end with the intervention of the Portu-guese, preserving Amhara rule and the Christian faith.

For the Amhara, the Orthodox Christian Church is the center of community and cultural life. Over the long centuries of isolation, the Orthodox Church developed its own distinctive form, noted for its Judaic elements. The many churches are a typical part of the landscape and appear in every village. A distinctive form of art-work has developed around the religion, and numerous religious feast days are observed throughout the year.

On holy days, the Tabot, replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, are carriedincolorfulproces-sions led by priests who wear elaborately designed robes. The processions are accompanied by music and dancing, evok-ingimagesfromthe OldTestament.Itis the possession of Tabot that gives sanctity to churches. Sites of pilgrimage include the many churches carved out of solid rock into hills and cliff faces. The most important are the medieval churches of Lalibela, purportedly built with the help of angels.

Almost 90 percent of Amhara are rural people, whose lives have changed little over time. They are sedentary farmers living in villages surrounded by cultivated fields. Amhara were among the earliest peoples in Africa to develop plows and harnessing for oxen to pull them. Grains such as millet, corn, and tef, a small local grain, are the dietary staples.

During the harvest, animals are used to thresh the grain. Most cultivation is subsistence. Amhara also raise cattle, goats, and sheep, with donkeys serving as draft animals. Coffee, indigenous to the highlands, is thecashcrop. Mentendthe fieldsand herd larger animals while children tend smaller animals and women take care of household tasks. Drought, famine, and political unrest have created hard times for the rural Amhara.

The 19th century brought expansion of Amhara political dominance as regions were brought under imperial control. From the north, foreign invasions from the Ottomans of Egypt and Mahdists of Sudan were fought off. French, British, and Italian colonial powers made inroads along the coastal regions. The Italians, having taken control of Eritrea, invaded Tigray, but were stopped by the Ethiopian armies of Menelik II at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, effectively ending the Italian colonial enterprise. The Amharic empire remained free of European colonization.

Under Haile Salassi, the last emperor in the early 20th century, a process of mod-ernization and assimilation began. Amhara culture was promoted and Amharic became the official language at the expense of non-Amharic cultures and languages. Regional ethnic groups in the country resented the push toward Amharization and sporadic unrest ensued. Salassi was overthrown in 1975 by the socialist, military Derg regime, ending 2,000 years of monarchy.

The Derg used harsh tactics to subdue unrest. Famine in the 1980s compounded the problems, and the economy deteriorated. Ethnic groups rose up in defiance of the govern-ment, in pursuit of self-determination and as a reaction to centuries of Amhara domi-nance. Leading the struggle was the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray region. After bitter fighting, the Derg government fell in 1991. The federal republic that followed created several ethnic states, one of them the Amhara State. Politi-cally, the federal republic is dominated by the Tigray, who control the current ruling political party. Having lost political control, the Amhara are now beginning to form political parties to promote their political interests.

Geri Shaw

Further Reading

Adhana, Adhana H., “Tigray—the Birth of a Nation within the Ethiopian Polity.” In Eth-nicity and the State in Eastern Africa, edited by M. A. Mohamed Salih and John Markakis. Uppsala: Nordiska Africainstitu-tet, 1998.

Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA).“Census 2007.” http://www.csa.gov.et

Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time. New York: Pal-grave, 2000.

Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians: A History. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

Stokes, Jamie. “Amhara.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Teka, Tigegne. “Amhara Ethnicity in the Mak-ing.” In Ethnicity and the State in Eastern Africa,editedbyM.A.MohamedSalih and John Markiles. Uppsala: Nordiska Afri-cainstitutet, 1998.

Ullendorff, Edward. The Ethiopians. London:Oxford University Press, 1965.