The Beja


The Beja are comprised of a number of tribal peoples inhabiting the region between the Nile on the west and the Red Sea on the east, from the borders of Eritrea along the south to the region near Luxor in Upper Egypt. Most of them speak Tu-Bedawiye, an Afro-Asian language belonging to the Hamitic/Kushitic family, as well as Arabic. The northernmost group, the ‘Ababda, speak Arabic, while the southern Bani ‘Amir include a Tigre-speak-ing section. They number over 2 million, with the largest numbers in Sudan.

Many of the Beja peoples now claim Arab genealogies connecting themselves with Arab tribes such as the Bani Hilal, the Awlad Kahil, the Juhaynah, and the Rabi‘a, while the ‘Ababdah claim to descend from Zubayr ibn al-‘Awwam, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Beja have been living along the Red Sea coast for millennia, though attempts to connect them with the Blemmyes noted in texts of the late Roman period have been questioned. At least some of the Beja were missionized from Coptic Egypt or by the Christian kingdom of Nubia. In the 10th century, the Arab Rabi‘a tribe came to dominate much of the Beja territory through intermarriage with the leadership of the Hadarib section of the Beja, taking advan-tage of the matrilineal system of succession of many Sudanese peoples. By the 14th cen-tury, most Beja had converted, and Islamiza-tion brought the change from matrilineal to patrilineal system of descent.

With the arrival of Arab tribes and through intermarriage, Arabic language and social customs mixed with Sudanic ones. Many of the Beja were pastoral nomads and, for example, the Bisharin sub-group, who live south of Aswan in Egypt, became famous for the high quality of their riding camels. Others settled and grew mil-let, sorghum, and other subsistence crops.

The Beja kept certain Sudanic practices such as matrilocality and taboos about milk, as well as living in tents made from mats rather than the woven goat-hair tents of the Arabs. In addition, the Beja still use large charms of made of stiffened straw shapes covered in bright cloth, and decorated with glass beads and ostrich feathers to protect newlyweds from harmful spirits. Until the early 20th century, many Beja men wore their hair in what was called the dirwa,what the British soldiers called “fuzzy-wuzzy” and from which African Americans in the 1960s took as the model for the “Afro” style.

The Sufi saint al-Shadhali is buried in ‘Ababdah territory, and many celebrate the Islamic festival ‘Id al-Adha at his tomb, where they leave as offerings the sacrificed animals’ ear to al-Shadhali. The ‘Ababdah also have yearly visitation to the tomb of ‘Abad, their ancestor near Edfu in Upper Egypt, where they also sacrifice animals.

The Beja were defeated and brought under Ottoman-Egyptian rule by Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Ottoman governor Muhammad ‘Ali, in 1820. Egyptian misrule in the Sudan provoked a general rebellion in 1881 led by an Arab Sufi shaykh from Don-gola named Muhammad Ahmad, who was proclaimed the Mahdi, meaning a special guide to reform society. The Beja, particu-larly the Hadanduwa, joined the ranks of the Mahdi’s army.

They were led by one of their leaders, ‘Uthman ibn Abi Bakr Diqna, who was successful in containing the Egyp-tians and later the British to the Red Sea port at Suakin. In 1884, Diqna’s men defeated an expedition at Trinkitat in an attempt to relieve Anglo-Egyptian forces besieged at Tokar. Later, strong British expeditions were able to inflict two defeats on Diqna’s forces, but in the end, they were not able to help relieve the ill-fated General Gordon, the governor-general of the Sudan, who was besieged by the Mahdi’s forces in Khartoum.

The British defeats of Diqna’s forces did little to their morale or the feroc-ity of their attacks, and Beja support for the Mahdi, and for his successor ‘Abdallah al-Ta‘ishi, continued after British forces took Tukar in 1891. Diqna remained loyal to the Mahdist cause, lost an arm in battle with the British in 1888, fought in the last Mahdist campaign in 1899, and was not captured and forced to surrender until 1900.

In the period between 1899 and 1956, Sudan was ruled as a condominium between Egypt and Great Britain, and during that time, the Beja were “pacified,” schools were built, and contacts with the outside increased due to the construction of a rail link to Port Sudan from Kasala and between Kasala and the Nile Valley.

Following Sudanese independence in 1956, relations with the central government have been strained on occasion. Beja formed the Beja Congress in 1957, and it has served as a focal point for Beja opposition to the government. It even became an armed resistance group several times. It joined the National Democratic Alliance in 1989 to oppose the government of ‘Umar al-Bashir, and in 2006, the Beja, under the name of the Eastern Front, signed a separate peace agreement with the government in Khartoum.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Barthrop, Michael. War on the Nile: Britain,Egypt, and the Sudan, 1882–1898. London: Blandford Press, 1984.

Collins, Robert O. A Modern History of Sudan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hillelson, S. “ ‘Ababda.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., CD-ROM

Holt, P. M. “Bedja.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2nd ed., CD-ROM.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2003.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.