Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Tigrinia, Habesha


Identification and Location. The Tigrinya are Eritrea's largest ethnic group, accounting for approximately 50 percent of the country's population. They live mainly in the Eritrean highlands (Kabessa) in the provinces of Hamasien, Akeleguzay, and Seraye. The highlands are the most populated region of Eritrea and are among that country's most fertile areas. The highland plateau forms the central part of Eritrea and connects it to the Ethiopian highlands. It ranges between 6,000 and 8,000 feet (1,829 and 2,439 meters) above sea level and is rocky and mountainous, with some fertile plains and valleys and a variety of grasses, trees, and vegetation. As a result of prolonged warfare, there has been serious deforestation in Eritrea; however, since Eritrean independence in 1993 there has been much replanting. The plateau has a temperate climate with an average rainfall of 15 to 20 inches (38 to 51 centimeters) a year. There are two main rainy seasons: the winter rains (mai kremti) between June and August or September and the shorter summer rains (mai hagai) in March and April.

Demography. Because of the more than thirty years of conflict in the region, there has not been a reliable recent census. The Eritrean population is variously estimated at 2.5 million to 4 million, with the higher number including Eritrean citizens who live outside the nations's borders. Among this population about 50 percent are Tigrinya, followed by Tigre, 31.4 percent; Saho, 5 percent; Afar, 5 percent; Hedareb, 2.5 percent; Bilen, 2 percent; Kunama, 2 percent; Nara, 1.5 percent; and Rashaida, 0.5 percent. Most Tigrinya live in the Eritrean highlands, but there are large numbers in towns and urban areas throughout the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tigrinya language is in the Semitic language family, along with Arabic and Hebrew. Tigrinya is most closely related to Tigre, which is spoken by the Tigre ethnic group of Eritrea. Tigrinya also is related to the ancient liturgical language Ge-ez, which is no longer spoken or written outside the Orthodox Church.

History and Cultural Relations

As the largest ethnic group, Tigrinya people and communities were affected by the war and the liberation movement fought by Eritrea against Ethiopia and were significant participants in that movement. Although there have been some historical continuities in Tigrinya culture, that culture has been affected by war and governmental transitions in terms of the economy, settlements, and people's livelihoods.

Living in the Horn of Africa, Eritrean ethnic groups have their origins in and have cultural affiliations with a mixture of local and external groups. Recent archaeological evidence points to the existence of pre-Axumite settlements in highland Eritrea, the region the Tigrinya inhabit. These early settlements are approximately 2,800 years old and support the notion of independent cultural development in the highlands. This idea is opposed to the theory that highland culture originated in other places, such as the Arabian peninsula or parts of highland Ethiopia. The settlement patterns and apparent lifestyles of these early sites appear closely related to modern Tigrinya settlement patterns. Despite this independent cultural development, there have been important cultural contact with and influence from other parts of the Red Sea region, including Sabean migrants from Arabia, the Turkish, and rulers from Ethiopia and the south, all of whom had influence and control in the Eritrean highlands. Tigrinya culture is documented in travelers' writings from 1200 to the 1500s, and Christianity in the region dates back to the fourth century. Although Tigrinya culture or its variants probably began to develop between the fourth and thirteenth centuries, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact period of origin. It is not a static culture and has undergone numerous changes.

Until the establishment of the Italian colonial administration, highland Eritrea was largely feudal and was dominated by the nobility and local kings whose power was based on historical claims, heredity, and the backing of the Orthodox (Coptic) Church. In the Tigrinya highlands there were three main social classes: the peasantry, the upper-level clergy, and the ruling elite. Historically, there were several key periods of mutual influence between the highlands and the predominantly Muslim lowlands, and Muslim activities often affected the highlands. There have always been important social, cultural, and economic interactions between the highland Tigrinya and the other regional ethnic groups and between the agricultural highlands and the pastoral lowlands in general.

Italian colonialism began in the late 1800s, first in the coastal areas of Eritrea. By the 1890s the Italians had penetrated into Tigrinya areas. During that period highland Eritrea experienced marked growth, industrialization, and urbanization that affected Tigrinya communities. After World War II Eritrea was under British military administration before being federated with Ethiopia in 1952. By the early 1960s the country had been fully annexed by Ethiopia, precipitating the beginning of the Eritrean armed struggle in 1961.

Tigrinya ethnicity historically has been associated with highland Ethiopia, with the Tigrinya sharing a language with the Tigray of northern Ethiopia and a religious affiliation (Orthodox Christian) with much of Ethiopia. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the Tigrinya began to identify with Eritrean nationalism and less with highland Ethiopia and the majority of Tigrinya eventually rejected Ethiopian rule. In terms of culture and "ethnicity," there is still a relationship between the Tigrinya of Eritrea and the Tigray of Ethiopia.


Most Tigrinya have historically been settled agriculturists, and they continue to be largely agricultural and rural, as does Eritrea as a whole. Typical Tigrinya settlements in rural areas usually take the form of small towns or villages with houses on rocky hillsides overlooking more fertile fields and valleys where crops are grown. The Orthodox Church usually is situated on the highest point in the village. Most of the Tigrinya population in Eritrea is rural, though many people inhabit towns and cities and participate in the urban, governmental, and other sectors. There are also a number of small to medium-size market and administrative towns in the Tigrinya regions, many of which have been experiencing marked growth since Eritrean independence in 1993. Traditional Tigrinya homes (hidmo) have stone walls covered with mud or clay and are painted white; roofs are supported by tree trunks, and rafters are covered by layers of branches, sand, and stones. More "modern" buildings made of rocks or concrete with corrugated iron roofs are constructed by those who can afford them. Surrounding the home is a stone enclosure. Villages are made up of varying numbers of extended families. In urban areas, such as the capital city, Asmara, where many Tigrinya live, housing tends to vary more and does not necessarily follow traditional patterns. People residing in urban areas maintain ties to their villages of origin.


Subsistence. The economy in Tigrinya areas is mainly agricultural, with small family-run farms where subsistence agriculture is practiced. The Tigrinya are settled agriculturists who grow a variety of grains, vegetables, and legumes and maintain domestic livestock such as cows, goats, and sheep as well as oxen for plowing. The staple diet consists of ingera, a flat spongy bread usually made from teff, a local grain, and various stews and sauces made with spices, butter, and vegetables, legumes, or meat. Conflicts since the 1960s have severely affected the highland economy in terms of the ability to carry out farming activities and environmental degradation. Droughts and climatic and environmental problems have contributed to a precarious situation, and food aid, mostly from European countries and distributed by the Eritrean government, has been necessary at times. Food is grown locally and purchased or traded, as are other goods and services. Other needed goods, such as clothing and housing materials, are minimal and can be obtained through gathering activities and small amounts of cash.

Commercial Activities. Commercial activities in the Tigrinya region increased considerably with the advent of colonialism in the late 1890s. Urbanization increased along with commerce, services, food processing, building materials, mining, dairy farming, and other light industries. In the 1990s the Eritrean highlands experienced an increase in light industry, mining, and small and medium-size businesses and an expansion of the goods and services produced and sold, particularly in the towns. In rural areas many commercial activities continue to be small-scale, including sewa houses (a fermented beverage made and sold by women) and other small businesses.

Industrial Arts. The Tigrinya produce some craft goods, such as baskets, coffeepots and items for brewing traditional coffee, and other small items for local use, sale, and trade.

Trade. Trade in rural areas is typically small-scale, involving products such as household items, salt, sugar, animal products, grains, and craft goods. Trade involves goods from the lowlands and other regions of Eritrea as well as from parts of the Middle East. During the colonial period Eritrea exported some items, such as fruit and animal products, but much of that trade was interrupted by war.

Division of Labor. In households and communities labor involves agricultural work that is done mostly by adult men and domestic work (cooking, collecting water and firewood, and caring for children) that is done by women. Children are responsible for herding animals and assisting adults. In the highlands it is common for the members of a household, usually young men, to be employed in urban areas, especially during seasons when their labor is not needed at home. Households also participate in small-scale trade and the selling of products such as eggs and baskets; often these items are sold by women. With the intensification of war in the 1970s, large numbers of Tigrinya left the country, settling in nearby countries such as Sudan or in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Tigrinya living abroad continue to play a significant role in the Eritrean economy through remittances.

Land Tenure. There were several traditional varieties of land tenure in the highlands. In the diesa system land was held as the common property of a village, with access based on village residence. Land was allocated and reallocated periodically by the village for household and individual use, depending on people's needs. Variations of this system were found in the highlands before the 1950s, but it was not entirely "traditional" in all places. Instead, it sometimes was used by the Italian colonial government, especially in areas where the tsilemi system was operative. Tsilemi land tenure patterns entailed the "ownership" of land by an immediate family or kin group, with rights to the land established by inheritance but with no right of sale or alienation. Variants of the diesa system were implemented by the Ethiopian government under the "socialist" Dergue rule that began in the mid-1970s. The Dergue socialized land and put in place state ownership. Land reforms also were initiated by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the guerrilla movement that liberated Eritrea. By the 1980s and 1990s most highland villages had undergone land reform and had modified diesa systems. After independence in 1993 the new government gained control of all the land. Land remains in state hands, with permanent usufruct rights for any Eritrean citizen over the age of eighteen who wishes use the land productively but with no rights of sale or inheritance.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditional Tigrinya communities revolved around the enda, a large patrilineal kinship group whose members varied in number but could all claim common ancestry. Most Tigrinya have large families and maintain extensive family ties with both the father's and the mother's sides of the family.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages take place outside the family lineage and link kin groups. Marriages historically took place when men were in their early twenties and women were in their middle to late teens. The age of marriage is increasing, as is the practice of family-arranged marriages. In practice, families still have a great deal of influence. Marriages follow the tradition of the Orthodox Church or, in the case of Catholics, Protestants, or Muslims, within those traditions. After the wedding a couple lives together for the obligatory honeymoon period of about one month, after which the bride returns to her parents' home. During this time the groom works and completes a new homestead, usually with or near his family. After about one year the couple move into the new home together.

Domestic Unit. Households usually are formed around one married couple. They consist of at least one adult man responsible for most of the farming work, although in urban areas he may be employed in a variety of service, professional, or administrative jobs, and one adult woman who is responsible for the management of almost all household and domestic activities, including food preparation, child care, and the collection of water and firewood; women sometimes help with farm work. Dependent children help their parents perform these tasks, usually along gender lines, and are responsible for herding animals.

Inheritance. Inheritance is mainly patrilineal. Some property is given to sons at marriage in the form of grain or agricultural equipment for the establishment of a separate household, and some passes at the death of the parents. Most items are divided between the sons, except for the house, which is inherited by the youngest son. Daughters' "inheritance" usually consists of a dowry, though they may also inherit jewelry or household items.

Socialization. Women and older children are the primary caretakers of children. Fathers also play a role in the socialization of children, as does the community as a whole and the church.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization revolves around land ownership and use, parental authority, kinship ties, and family and community hierarchies. In rural villages there is social differentiation between households despite the existence of some leveling mechanisms. In urban areas there is more variation in social status and organization.

In traditional highland politics political and class distinctions were closely tied to the territorial unit on which inheritance and land rights were based. This created a social distinction between those who qualified as members of the enda and had rights to land and newcomers or foreign residents who represented "second-class" citizens; being outside the enda, those people had no rights to inherit land and could live only as tenants. However, in many parts of Eritrea there have been considerable changes in traditional social organization, especially after Eritrean independence in 1993.

Political Organization. Political organization in Tigrinya villages historically centered on the community, particularly among adult men. The Baito (gathering) is a system used for electing assemblies at the village, district, and provincial levels, although since 1997 it has been used only at the regional level. Historically, the Tigrinya were incorporated into various state systems, including colonial administrations, Ethiopian administrations, and independent rule. Before Italian colonization the Orthodox Church was the most powerful institution in the highlands, with substantial influence over social and economic systems and supported by a great deal of material resources, including large landholdings. There was a strong connection between local elites, politics, and religion. The postliberation government has limited religious power considerably, and the link between religion and politics has been weakened.

Social Control. Social control often operates at the local level. Generally settled within or between communities or families, conflicts include disputes over land, resources, and personal animosity. In some instances the church is a mediator or adjudicator in conflicts. On a broader level conflicts can be dealt with through regional court systems. By the 1980s the EPLF also played a role in social control in some villages. There are customary laws among the Tigrinya, in conjunction with state laws.

Conflict. Before the 1890s there was some ethnic warfare between the Tigrinya and other ethnic groups, particularly in the lowlands. With the advent of colonialism in the 1890s, conflict involving land tended to be intensified both within Tigrinya communities and between the Tigrinya and other groups because of colonial policies. In general, there does not tend to be extensive conflict between the Tigrinya and other ethnic groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Tigrinya are followers of the Orthodox (Coptic) Church, which dates to around the fourth century and is one of the oldest extant branches of Christianity. It represents the main indigenous religion among the Tigrinya. A small proportion (7 percent) of the Tigrinya are Muslims (Jeberti), who are often merchants and traders. There are also small numbers of Catholics and Protestants who were converted during the colonial period.

Religious Practitioners. In the Orthodox Church the priest (k'ashi) is the main religious practitioner. The Orthodox clergy are divided into two groups. Lay priests live in the villages and parishes on land belonging to the church and perform marriages and other services and ceremonies. Their role in the community gives them high social status. Monks living in monasteries maintain celibacy (Orthodox priests can marry) and have less daily interaction with their communities. Historically, monks were important socially and politically. They represented church authority and served other functions, such as passing judgment in legal matters concerning religious or family issues and bringing about reconciliation between individuals and groups. Among Muslims the local mufti is the main spiritual practitioner; other Christian denominations are governed by their own clergy.

Ceremonies. There are numerous ceremonies in the Orthodox Church, many of which revolve around saint's days and other religious and seasonal holidays, as well as functions such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Arts. The Coptic Church is known for artwork such as paintings and illuminated manuscripts. At a more local level the arts include traditional music and dance that is accompanied by instruments such as the Krar, a traditional guitar/harplike instrument, and drums. Many of the songs and dances have their origins in the church and are used during religious feasts and ceremonies as well as at weddings and other occasions. The Tigrinya also have traditional dress, decoration, artwork, crafts, poetry, and literature.

Death and Afterlife. The Orthodox Church shares beliefs about the afterlife with other branches of Christianity. There is a great deal of ceremony surrounding funerals. The funeral is held the day after a person's death. On the twelfth day the first memorial ceremony occurs (assur), followed by the second memorial service on the fortieth day (arba'a) and the third memorial after six months (menfeqh). The last memorial (amet) is held on the first anniversary of the death. One of these memorials is also chosen to be the "second funeral" (teshar), in which everyone who was part in the first funeral participates. Food and drink are served at all these ceremonies.

For other cultures in Eritrea, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Gebre-Medhin, Jordan (1988). Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.

Longrigg, Stephen (1945). A Short History of Eritrea. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Negash, Tekeste (1987). Italian Colonialism in Eritrea, 1882-1941: Policies, Praxis and Impact. Uppsala, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Pollera, Alberto (1935). Le Popolazioni Indigene dell'Eritrea (The Native Peoples of Eritrea). Bologna: L. Cappelli.

Sabby (Sabbe), Othman Saleh (1974). History of Eritrea. Beirut: Dar al-Masirah.

Tronvoll, Kjetil (1998). Mai Weini, a Village in Highland Eritrea: A Study of the People, Their Livelihood, and Land Tenure during Times of Turbulence. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tigrinya." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Tigrinya." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . (December 14, 2017).

"Tigrinya." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from


Tigrinya •Antakya •Britannia, lasagne •Katya • Vanya •Kenya, Mantegna, Sardegna, tenure •failure • Montagna •behaviour (US behavior), misbehaviour (US misbehavior), saviour (US savior) •seguidilla, tortilla •Monsignor •Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia •Tigrinya • De Falla • Vaisya •Lockyer • Bologna • sawyer • bowyer •alleluia, hallelujah •La Coruña •bunya, gunyah

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tigrinya." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Tigrinya." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 14, 2017).

"Tigrinya." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from