The Bilen(Belen, Beleni)


The Bilen or Bilin (alternate names include Balen, Belen, Beleni, and Bogo, among others) live in the Keren region of Eritrea and Tigray Province in Ethiopia. As of 2006, they numbered around 91,000 in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Around 60 percent of Christians speak Tigrinya, and 70 percent of Muslims speak Tigre´ and use either the Ethiopic or Latin scripts.

Tigrinya and Tigre´ languages belong to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic phylum of languages, and they are a division of the Agaw people. Agaw is the general name given to all speakers of Central Cushitic. Bilen identity arose during the early Christian era, and currently a Bilen nationalist Web site states that they are the oldest human population in the world.

Between 3500 and 1000 BCE, the Agaw established themselves in the Ethiopian Highlands. Small immigrant popula-tions of Semitic settlers from Yemen brought with them a number of cultural innovations, including wheat and barley cultivation, to add to the cultivation of teff and millet, as well as oxen and the plow. Agaw communities grew in population, and more of the mountains were cleared for cultivation.

Population exchange between the Ethiopian Highlands and Yemen continued introducing religious elements, including Judaism, into Ethiopia. Urban cultures grew with the improved agricultural practices that could support much larger numbers.

The great pre-Christian kingdom of Aksum in the first century CE and among the servants of the king of Aksum was a governor of the Agaw. Later, Christianity also found fertile ground in the same region and it spread among the Agaw. The Agaw King-dom of D’mt under the Zagwe´ dynasty revolted against Aksum control in the 970s, which eventually brought the down-fall of Aksum.

Following the collapse of the Zagwe´ kingdom around 1270, the Agwa with-drew into isolation and emerged again with the Islamic conquests of the 16th century. The Agaw joined the jihad armies as they moved inland, which by the 1530s had most of Ethiopia in Islamic control, and a Bilen identity seems to have emer-ged. However, thanks to Portuguese inter-vention on behalf of Christian Ethiopia, by the 1550s, most of the country was recovered and the notably rebellious, Islamic principality of Damot was forced to submit.

The Agaw people are both Christian and Muslim and the Bilen are around two- thirds Muslim today. The Christian one-third is mainly Roman Catholic—the religion of the Italian occupiers—rather than the Coptic Christianity of the Ethio-pians. There are small minorities of Copts and Protestants as well.The Agaw emerged again in the 19th century with the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, once again making the Red Sea an important commercial thoroughfare.

The British, French, and Italians all became interested in the once-remote area, and in the 1930s, the Italians employed Bilen troops in its invasion of Ethiopia. The British and Ethiopians forced the Italians out of Ethiopia in 1941, and in 1952, under United Nations order, Eritrea was added to Ethiopia. In 1962, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea and a number of separatist movements arose. Long, protracted war began, and in 1993, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia. The war had displaced as many as one-half of all Bilen who are scattered throughout Eritrea. Today, many are con-centrated around the cities of Keren and Asmara in the State of Eritrea.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

“Bilen Dynasty.” (accessed May 22, 2011).

“Languages of Eritrea.” (accessed June 20, 2011).

Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians: A His-tory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.