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Identification. The term "Amhara" is derived from amari, meaning "one who is pleasing, agreeable, beautiful, and gracious." Amhara culture is often identified with Abyssinian culture, which is regarded as the heir to the cultural blending of ancient Semitic and Cushitic (African) patterns; other heirs are the Tigre-speaking people of Eritrea, and the Tegreñña speakers of northern Ethiopia. The name "Ethiopia" is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning "people with sunburned faces" and has been revived to designate the present-day state, which also includes non-Abyssinians. The Amhara themselves often use the term "Amhara" synonymously with "Ethiopian Orthodox (Monophysite) Christian," although their own, more precise expression for this religion is "Towahedo" (Orthodox). In the past, books on Ethiopia have often referred to this religion as "Coptic," derived from the Greek term for Egyptian. Until Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930, the Coptic metropolitan of Alexandria, Egypt, had also been the head of this Ethiopian church and had appointed Ethiopian archbishops.

Location. Ethiopia is located in the northeastern part of Africa, roughly between 5° and 16° N and 33° and 43° E. It is mountainous, separated from the Red Sea by hot lowland deserts; a steep escarpment in the west borders the hot lowland in Sudan. The mountain-fortress type of landscape has frequently enabled the plateau people to retain their independence against would-be invaders. Begemder, Gojam, and Welo are Amharic speaking, as are parts of Shewa since Amhara expansion under emperor Menilek II in the 1880s.

Demography. According to the 1984 census, the population of Ethiopia was estimated as 42 million. Of these, 28 percent referred to themselves as "Amhara," and 32 percent stated that they spoke Amharic at home. Hence, about 14 million could be identified as Amhara, subject to qualification by the effects of Amharization during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the political strife against Amhara domination since then. Ethiopia is essentially a rural country. Apart from the capital, Addis Ababa, few towns have a permanent population in excess of 10,000: Gonder, the old caravan town on the way from the highlands to the Sudan; Harer, the coffee city; and Dire Dawa, the railroad junction to the coast. The many small towns are essentially marketplaces, serving the farming hinterland.

Linguistic Affiliation. There are three major linguistic families in Ethiopia: Cushitic, Semitic, and Nilo-Saharan. Cushitic and Semitic are two families of the Afro-Asian Phylum. Nilo-Sarahan languages of the Sudanic Phylum predominate along the northern and western escarpment. Cushitic includes Oromo (formerly called Galla), Sidamo, Somali, and Agau. Semitic languages, spoken mainly in the northern half of the country, are related to the Ge'ez language, which was spoken there from about the first half of the first millennium b.c. and had a writing system from which the present Amharic writing is derived. Ge'ez ceased to be spoken before the fourteenth century a.d., but it survives in the Orthodox liturgy to this day. It has been the language of religious and historical documents almost until the present, and linguists have referred to it as "Ethiopic." Amharic is related to Ge'ez but contains strong influences from Cushitic. It has been important since the fourteenth century a.d., when the earliest Amharic document, "Songs of the Kings," was written. Amharic, which is the predominant language on the plateau of northwest-central Ethiopia, is now the official national language of Ethiopia.

History and Cultural Relations

There is a paucity of reliable data about the prehistory of Ethiopia because archaeological excavation was long prohibited. Three procedures can be followed, however: interpretation of surface archaeological sites, tracing ancient trade routes, and linguistic analysis. Rock paintings resemble those of Libya; others depict cattle without humps, suggesting an early population of cattle breeders prior to the entry from Yemen of breeders of humped cattle (which are predominant today), via the Bab al-Mandab. The elaborate obelisks at Aksum, 27 to 30 meters tall, with false doors and windows (which have counterparts in ancient Yemen), appear to fall into the Semitic period of about 500 b.c. to a.d. 300.

Certain basic trade routesfor instance, the iron routehave scarcely changed in thousands of years. Salt must still be brought in from the coast of the Red Sea. Ivory, gold, and slaves were brought from the south to pay for imports. Wild coffee was brought from the south of Ethiopia to Yemen, perhaps to pay for humped sebu cattle. Mashella (guinea corn) may have originated on the western Ethiopian plateau and spread westward from there. Foreign trade was given great impetus when the camel was introduced to those Ethiopian regions too dry for donkeys, about a.d. 100. There is a record of hunting expeditions by the Ptolemean rulers of Egypt in Ethiopia. Ptolemy III (245-222 b.c.) placed at the port of Adulis (near present-day Mesewa) a Greek inscription recording that he captured elephants, and an inscribed block of stones with magical hieroglyphs. At the same port about a.d. 60, a Greek merchant named Periplus recorded the importation of iron and the production of spears for hunting elephants, and in a.d. 350 Aeizana, king of Aksum, defeated the Nubians and carried off iron and bronze from Meroë.

The Abyssinian tradition of the Solomonic dynasty, as told in the Ge'ez-language book Kebra Nagast (Honor of the Kings) refers to the rule of Menilek I, about 975-950 b.c. It relates that he was the son of Makeda, conceived from King Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem. Interrupted in a.d. 927 by sovereigns of a Zagwe line, the Solomonic line was restored in 1260 and claimed continuity until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Abyssinian churches are still built on the principle of Solomon's temple of Jerusalem, with a Holy of Holies section in the interior. Christianity came to Aksum in the fourth century a.d., when Greek-speaking Syrians converted the royal family. This strain of Christianity retained a number of Old Testament rules, some of which are observed to this day: the consumption of pork is forbidden; circumcision of boys takes place about a week after birth; upper-level priests consider Saturday a day of rest, second only to Sunday; weddings preferably take place on Sunday, so that the presumed deflowering, after nightfall, is considered to have taken place on the eve of Monday. Ecclesiastic rule over Abyssinia was administered early on by the archbishop of Alexandria, detached only after World War II. At the Council of Chalcedon in a.d. 451, the theological Monophysites of Alexandria, including the Abyssinians, had broken away from the European church; hence the designation "Coptic."

The spread of Islam to regions surrounding it produced relative isolation in Ethiopia from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. During this period, the Solomonic dynasty was restored in 1260 in the province of Shewa by King Yekuno Amlak, who extended his realm from Abyssinia to some Cuchitic-speaking lands south and east. Amharic developed out of this linguistic blend. From time to time, Europeans heard rumors of a Prester John, a Christian king on the other side of the Muslim world. Using a vast number of serfs on feudal church territories, Abuna (archbishop) Tekle Haymanot built churches and monasteries, often on easily defensible hilltops, such as Debra Líbanos monastery in Shewa, which is still the most important in Ethiopia.

With the Muslim conquest of Somali land in 1430, the ring around Abyssinia was complete, and recently Islamicized Oromo (Galla) seminomadic tribes from the south invaded through the Rift Valley, burning churches and monasteries. Some manuscripts and church paintings had to be hidden on islands on Lake Tana. When a second wave of invaders came, equipped with Turkish firearms, the Shewan king Lebna Dengel sent a young Armenian to Portugal to solicit aid. Before it could arrive, the Oromo leader Mohammed Grañ ("the lefthanded") attacked with the aid of Arabs from Yemen, Somalis, and Danakils and proceeded as far north as Aksum, which he razed, killing the king in battle in 1540. His children and the clergy took refuge on and north of Lake Tana. One year later, Som Christofo Da Gama landed at Mesewa with 450 Portuguese musketeers; the slain king's son, Galaudeos (Claudius), fought on until he died in battle. The tide turned, however, and in 1543 Mohammed Grañ fell in battle.

Shewa nevertheless remained settled by Oromo, who learned the agriculture of the region. The royal family had only a tent city in what became the town of Gonder. There the Portuguese built bridges and castles, and Jesuits began to convert the royal family to Roman Christianity. King Za Dengel was the first royal convert, but the Monophysite clergy organized a rebellion that led to his removal. His successor, King Susneos, had also been converted but was careful not to urge his people to convert; shortly before his death in 1632, he proclaimed religious liberty for all his subjects.

The new king, Fasilidas (1632-1667), expelled the Portuguese and restored the privileges of the Monophysite clergy. Heand later his son and grandsonemployed workmen trained by the Portuguese to build the castles that stand to this day. Special walled paths shielded the royal family from common sight, but the king, while sitting under a fig tree, judged cases brought before him. A stone-lined water pool was constructed under his balcony, and a mausoleum entombed his favorite horse. All these structures still exist. But the skills of stonemasonry later fell into disuse; warfare required mobility, which necessitated the formation of military tent cities. Portuguese viticulture was also lost (though the name of the middle elevation remains "Woyna Dega"), and the clergy had to import raisins to produce sacramental wine.

Gonder had been abandoned by the Solomonic line when a usurping commoner chieftain, Kassa, chose it as the location to have himself crowned King Theodore in 1855. He defeated the king of Shewa and held the dynastic heir, the boy Menilek II, hostage at his court. Theodore realized the urgency of uniting the many ethnic groups of the country into a nation, to prevent Ethiopia from losing its independence to European colonial powers. Thinking that all Europeans knew how to manufacture cannons, Theodore invited foreign technicians and, at first, even welcomed foreign missionaries. But when the latter proved unable to cast cannons for him and even criticized his often violent behavior, he jailed and chained British missionaries. This led to the Lord Napier expedition, which was welcomed and assisted by the population of Tigray Province. When the fort of Magdalla fell, Theodore committed suicide. A conservative Tigray chief, Yohannes, was crowned at Aksum.

In 1889 the Muslim mahdi took advantage of the disarray in Ethiopia; he razed Gonder and devastated the subprovince of Dembeya, causing a severe and prolonged famine. Meanwhile, the Shewan dynastic heir, Menilek II, had grown to manhood and realized that Ethiopia could no longer isolate itself if it were to retain independence. He proceeded, with patient persistence, to unify the country. As an Amhara from Shewa, he understood his Oromo neighbors and won their loyalty with land grants and military alliances. He negotiated a settlement with the Tigray. He equipped his forces with firearms from whatever source, some even from the Italians (in exchange for granting them territory in Eritrea).

His policies were so successful that he managed to defeat the Italian invasion at Adwa, in 1896, an event that placed Ethiopia on the international map diplomatically. Empress Taitu liked the hot mineral springs of a district in Shewa, even though it was in an Oromo region, and the emperor therefore agreed to build his capital there, naming it "Addis Ababa" (new flower). When expanding Addis Ababa threatened to exhaust the local fuel supply, Menilek ordered the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia, which grew rapidly during each three-month rainy season.

Menilek II died in 1913, and his daughter Zauditu became nominal head; a second cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, became regent and was crowned King of Kings Haile Selassie I in 1930. He made it possible for Ethiopia to join the League of Nations in 1923, by outlawing the slave trade. One of his first acts as emperor was to grant his subjects a written constitution. He allied himself by marriage to the Oromo king of Welo Province. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie appeared in Geneva to plead his case before the League, warning that his country would not be the last victim of aggression. The Italian occupation ended in 1941 with surrender to the British and return of the emperor. During succeeding decades, the emperor promoted an educated elite and sought assistance from the United States, rather than the British, in various fields. Beginning in about 1960, a young, educated generation of Ethiopians grew increasingly impatient with the slowness of development, especially in the political sphere. At the same time, the aging emperor, who was suffering memory loss, was losing his ability to maintain control. In 1974 he was deposed, and he died a year later. The revolutionary committees, claiming to follow a Marxist ideology, formed military dictatorships that deported villagers under conditions of great suffering and executed students and each other without legal trials. Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in May 1991 as Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel armies approached from the north. The country remains largely rural; traditional culture patterns and means of survival are the norm.


The typical rural settlement is the hamlet, tis, called mender if several are linked on one large hill. The hamlet may consist of two to a dozen huts. Thus, the hamlet is often little more than an isolated or semi-isolated farmstead, and another hamlet may be close by if their plowed fields are near. Four factors appear to determine where a hamlet is likely to be situated: ecological considerations, such as water within a woman's walking distance, or available pasturage for the flock; kinship considerationspersons within a hamlet are nearly always related and form a family economic community; administrative considerations, such as inherited family ownership of land, tenancy of land belonging to a feudal lord of former times, or continuing agreement with the nearby church that had held the land as a fief up to 1975 and continues to receive part of the crop in exchange for its services; and ethnic considerations. A hamlet may be entirely inhabited by Falasha blacksmiths and pottery makers or Faqi tanners. Most of the Falasha have now left Ethiopia.

To avoid being flooded during the rainy season, settlements are typically built on or near hilltops. There is usually a valley in between, where brooks or irrigation canals form the border for planted fields. The hillsides, if not terrace farmed, serve as pasturage for all hamlets on the hill. Not only sheep and goats, but also cows, climb over fairly steep, bushy hillsides to feed. Carrying water and branches for fuel is still considered a woman's job, and she may have to climb for several hours from the nearest year-round water supply. The hamlet is usually patrilocal and patrilineal. When marriage occurs, usually early in life, a son may receive use of part of his father's rented (or owned) field and build his hut nearby. If no land is available owing to fragmentation, the son may reluctantly be compelled to establish himself at the bride's hamlet. When warfare has killed off the adult males in a hamlet, in-laws may also be able to move in. Some hamlets are fenced in by thorn bushes against night-roving hyenas and to corral cattle. Calves and the family mule may be taken into the living hut at night. There is usually at least one fierce reddish-brown dog in each hamlet.


Much Amhara ingenuity has long been invested in the direct exploitation of natural resources. An Amhara would rather spend as much time as necessary searching for suitably shaped hard or soft saplings for a walking cane than perform carpentry, which is traditionally largely limited to constructing the master bed (alga ), wooden saddles, and simple musical instruments. Soap is obtained by crushing the fruit of the endod (Pircunia abyssinica ) bush. Tannin for depilation of hides and curing is obtained from the yellow fruit of the embway bush. Butter is preserved and perfumed by boiling it with the leaves of the odes (myrtle) bush. In times of crop failure, edible oil is obtained by gathering and crushing wild-growing sunflower seeds (Carthamus tinctorus ). If necessary, leaves of the lola bush can be split by women to bake the festive bread dabbo. The honey of a small, tiny-stingered bee (Apis dorsata ) is gathered to produce alcoholic mead, tej, whereas the honey of the wild bee tazemma (Apis Africans miaia ) is gathered to treat colds and heart ailments. Fishing is mostly limited to the three-month rainy season, when rivers are full and the water is muddy from runoff so that the fish cannot see the fishers. Hunting elephants used to be a sport of young feudal nobles, but hunting for ivory took place largely in non-Amhara regions. Since rifles became available in Amhara farming regions, Ethiopian duikers and guinea fowl have nearly disappeared.

Subsistence farming provides the main economy for most rural Amhara. The traditional method required much land to lie fallow because no fertilization was applied. Cattle manure is formed into flat cakes, sun dried, and used as fuel for cooking. New land, if available, is cleared by the slash-and-burn method. A wooden scratch plow with a pointed iron tip, pulled by oxen, is the main farming tool. Insecurity of land tenure has long been a major factor in discouraging Amhara farmers from producing more than the amount required for subsistence. The sharecropping peasant (gabbar ) was little more than a serf who feared the (often absentee) feudal landlord or military quartering that would absorb any surplus. The revolutionary government (1975-1991) added additional fears by its villagization program, moving peasants at command to facilitate state control and deporting peasants to the south of Ethiopia, where many perished owing to poor government planning and support.

The preferred crop of the Amhara is tyeff (Eragrostis abyssinica; Poa abyssinica ), the small seeds of which are rich in iron. At lower or drier elevations, several sorghums (durras) are grown: mashella (Andropogon sorghum), often mixed with the costlier tyeff flower to bake the flapjack bread injera; zengada (Eleusina multiforme), grown as crop insurance; and dagussa (Eleusine coracana, or tocusso ), used as an ingredient in beer together with barley. Wheat (Triticum spp.), sendē, is grown in higher elevations and is considered a luxury. Barley (Hordeum spp.), gebs, is a year-round crop, used primarily for brewing talla, a mild beer, or to pop a parched grain, gebs qolo, a ready snack kept available for guests. Maize, bahēr mashella, is recognized as a foreign-introduced crop.

The most important vegetable oil derives from nug (Guizotia abyssinica ), the black Niger seed, and from talba (Linum usitatissimum ), flax seed. Cabbage (gomen ) is regarded as a poor food. Chick-peas are appreciated as a staple that is not expected to fail even in war and famine; they are consumed during the Lenten season, as are peas. Onions and garlic are grown as ingredients for wot, the spicy stew that also contains beans, may include chicken, and always features spicy red peppersunless ill heath prevents their consumption. Lentils substitute for meat during fasting periods. The raising of livestock is traditionally not directly related to available pasture, but to agriculture and the desire for prestige. Oxen are needed to pull the plow, but traditionally there was no breeding to obtain good milkers. Coffee may grow wild, but the beans are usually bought at a market and crushed and boiled in front of guests; saltbut not sugarmay be added.

Division of Labor. Although much needed, the castelike skilled occupations like blacksmithing, pottery making, and tanning are held in low esteem and, in rural regions, are usually associated with a socially excluded ethnic grouping. Moreover, ethnic workmanship is suspected of having been acquired by dealings with evil spirits that enable the artisans to turn themselves into hyenas at night to consume corpses, cause diseases by staring, and turn humans into donkeys to utilize their labor. Such false accusations can be very serious. On the other hand, the magic power accredited to these workers is believed to make their products strong, whereas those manufactured by an outsider who might have learned the trade would soon break. The trade of weaving is not afflicted by such suspicions, although it is sometimes associated with Muslims or migrants from the south.

Land Tenure. Land tenure among traditional rural Amhara resembled that of medieval Europe more than that found elsewhere in Africa. Feudal institutions required the gabbar to perform labor (hudād ) for his lord and allocated land use in exchange for military service, gult. In a system resembling the European entail, inheritable land, rest, was subject to taxation (which could be passed on to the sharecroppers) and to expropriation in case of rebellion against the king. Over the centuries, endowed land was added to fief-holding church land, and debber ager. Royal household lands were classified as mād-bet, and melkenya land was granted to tax collectors. Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to change the feudal system early in his administration. He defeated feudal armies, but was stymied in abrogating feudalistic land tenure, especially in the Amhara region, by feudal lords such as Ras Kassa. The parliament that he had called into existence had no real power All remaining feudal land tenure was abrogated during the revolutionary dictatorship (1975-1991), but feudalistic attitudes practiced by rural officials, such as shum shir (frequently moving lower officials to other positions to maintain control), appear to have persisted.


The extended patrilocal, patrilineal, patriarchal family is particularly strong among holders of rest land tenure, but is found, in principle, even on the hamlet level of sharecroppers. There are several levels of kin, zemed, which also include those by affinity, amachenet. In view of the emphasis on seeking security in kinship relations, there are also several formal methods of establishing fictive kinship, zemed hone, provided the person to be adopted is attentam ("of good bones," i.e., not of Shanqalla slave ancestry). Full adoption provides a breast father (yetut abbat ) or a breast mother (yetut ennat ). The traditional public ceremony included coating the nipples with honey and simulating breast-feeding, even if the child was already in adolescence.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are three predominant types of marriage in Amhara tradition. Only a minoritythe priesthood, some older persons, and nobilityengage in eucharistic church marriage (qurban ). No divorce is possible. Widows and widowers may remarry, except for priests, who are instead expected to become monks.

Kin-negotiated civil marriage (semanya; lit., "eighty") is most common. (Violation of the oath of marriage used to be penalized by a fine of 80 Maria Theresa thalers.) No church ceremony is involved, but a priest may be present at the wedding to bless the couple. Divorce, which involves the division of property and determination of custody of children, can be negotiated. Temporary marriage (damoz ) obliges the husband to pay housekeeper's wages for a period stated in advance. This was felt to be an essential arrangement in an economy where restaurant and hotel services were not available. The term is a contraction of demewez, "blood and sweat" (compensation). The contract, although oral, was before witnesses and was therefore enforceable by court order. The wife had no right of inheritance, but if children were conceived during the contract period, they could make a claim for part of the father's property, should he die. Damoz rights were even recognized in modern law during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Socialization in the domestic unit begins with the naming of the baby (giving him or her the "world name"), a privilege that usually belongs to the mother. She may base it on her predominant emotion at the time (e.g., Desta [joy] or Almaz [diamond]), on a significant event occurring at the time, or on a special wish she may have for the personality or future of her baby (Seyum, "to be appointed to dignity").

Socialization. Breast-feeding may last two years, during which the nursling is never out of touch with the body of the mother or another woman. Until they are weaned, at about age 7, children are treated with permissiveness, in contrast to the authoritarian training that is to follow. The state of reason and incipient discipline begins gradually at about age 5 for girls and 7 for boys. The former assist their mothers in watching babies and fetching wood; boys take sheep and cows to pasture and, with slingshots, guard crops against birds and baboons. Both can be questioned in court to express preferences concerning guardianship in case of their parents' divorce. Neglect of duty is punished by immediate scolding and beating.

Formal education in the traditional rural church school rarely began before age 11 for boys. Hazing patterns to test courage are common among boys as they grow up, both physically and verbally. Girls are enculturated to appear shy, but may play house with boys prior to adolescence. Adolescence is the beginning of stricter obedience for both sexes, compensated by pride in being assigned greater responsibilities. Young men are addressed as ashker and do most of the plowing; by age 18 they may be addressed as gobez, signifying (strong, handsome) young warrior. On the Temqet (baptism of Jesus) festival, the young men encounter each other in teams to compete in the game of guks, a tournament fought on horseback with blunt, wooden lances, in which injuries are avoided by ducking or protecting oneself with leather shields. At Christmas, a hockeylike game called genna is played and celebrated by boasting (fukkara ). Female adolescents are addressed as qonjo (beautiful), no longer as leja-gered (servant maid), unless criticized. Singing loudly in groups while gathering firewood attracts groups of young men, away from parental supervision. Young men and women also meet following the guks and genna games, wearing new clothes and traditional makeup and hairstyles. Outdoor flirting reaches a peak on Easter (Fassika), at the end of the dry season.

Domestic Unit. The traditional age of a girl at first marriage may be as young as 14, to protect her virginity, and to enable the groom to tame her more easily. A groom three to five years older than the bride is preferred. To protect the bride against excessive violence, she is assigned two best men, who wait behind a curtain as the marriage is consummated; later, she may call on them in case of batter.

The term shemagelyē signifies an elder and connotes seriousness, wisdom, and command of human relations within the residential kin group or beyond. He may be 40 years of age and already a grandfather. There is no automatic equivalency for elder women, but they can take the qob of a nun and continue to live at home while working in the churchyard, baking bread and brewing beer for the priests. Only women past menopause, usually widows, are accepted as nuns by the Monophysite Aybssinian church. Younger women are not considered sufficiently serious to be able to deny their sex drives.

Inheritance. When death is approaching, elder kin of the dying person bring the confessor, and the last will concerning inheritance is pronounced. Fields are given to patrilineal descendants, cattle to ail offspring. Personal belongings, such as oxhide mats and a shamma (toga), may be given to the confessor, who administers last rites and assigns a burial place in the churchyard. Endowments to the church are handled by the qes gobez.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social organization is linked to land tenure of kinfolk, feudalistic traditions and the church, ethnic division of labor, gender, and age status. The peasant class is divided between landowning farmers, who, even though they have no formal political power, can thwart distant government power by their rural remoteness, poor roads, and weight of numbers, and the sharecroppers, who have no such power against local landlords. Fear of a person who engages in a skilled occupation, tebib (lit., "the knowing one," to whom supernatural secrets are revealed), enters into class stratification, especially for blacksmiths, pottery makers, and tanners. They are despised as members of a lower caste, but their products are needed, and therefore they are tolerated. Below them on the social scale are the descendants of slaves who used to be imported from the negroid Shanqalla of the Sudanese border, or the Nilotic Barya, so that both terms became synonymous with "slave."

Social control is traditionally maintained, and conflict situations are resolved, in accordance with the power hierarchy. Judges interpret laws subjectively and make no sharp distinction between civil and criminal procedures. In addition to written Abyssinian and church laws, there are unwritten codes, such as the payment of blood money to the kin of a murder victim. An aggrieved person could appeal to a higher authority by lying prostrate in his path and shouting "abyet" (hear me). Contracts did not have to be written, provided there were reliable witnesses. To obtain a loan or a job, a personal guarantor (was ) is necessary, and the was can also act as bondsman to keep an accused out of jail. The drama of litigation, to talk well in court, is much appreciated. Even children enact it with the proper body language of pointing a toga at the judge to emphasize the speech.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious belief of most Amhara is Monophysitethat is, Tewahedo (Orthodox) Christianity, to such an extent that the term "Amhara" is used synonymously with "Abyssinian Christian." Christian Amhara wear a blue neck cord (meteb ), to distinguish themselves from Muslims, In rural regions, the rules of the church have the de facto force of law, and many people are consecrated to church functions: priests, boy deacons and church students, chorister-scribes, monks, and nuns. Besides the ecclesiastical function of the qes (parish priest), the chorister-scribewho is not ordainedfulfills many services. He translates the liturgy from Ge'ez to Amharic, chants and sometimes composes devotional poetry (qēnē ), and writes amulets. The latter may be unofficial and discouraged by the priests, but ailing persons believe strongly in them and may use them to prevent disease. Prior to examinations, church students often chew and swallow a Datura weed called astenager (lit., "to stimulate talk") to enhance memory of biblical quotations and other details learned by rote and to aid correct pronunciation of the liturgy.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies often mark the annual cycle for the public, despite the sacredotal emphasis of the religion. The calendar of Abyssinia is Julian, but the year begins on 11 September, following ancient Egyptian usage, and is called amete mehrāt (year of grace). Thus, the Abyssinian year 1948 a.m. corresponds roughly with the Gregorian (Western) a.d. 1956. The new year begins with the month of Meskerem, which follows the rainy season and is named after the first religious holy day of the year, Mesqel-abeba, celebrating the Feast of the Cross. On the seventeenth day, huge poles are stacked up for the bonfire in the evening, with much public parading, dancing, and feasting. By contrast, Christmas (Ledet) has little social significance except for the genna game of the young men. Far more important is Epiphany (Temqet), on the eleventh day of Ter. Ceremonial parades escort the priests who carry the tabot, symbolic of the holy ark, on their heads, to a water pool. There are all-night services, public feasting, and prayers for plentiful rains.

This is the end of the genna season and the beginning of the guks tournaments fought on horseback by the young men. The long Lenten season is approaching, and clergy as well as the public look forward to the feasting at Easter (Fassika), on the seventeenth day of Miyazya. Children receive new clothes and collect gifts, chanting house to house. Even the voluntary fraternal association mehabber is said to have originated from the practice of private communion. Members take turns as hosts at monthly meetings, drinking barley beer together with the confessor-priest, who intones prayers. Members are expected to act as a mutual aid society, raising regular contributions, extending loans, even paying for the tazkar (formal memorial service) forty days after a member's death, if his family cannot afford it.

Arts. Verbal artssuch as bedanya fit (speaking well before a judge)are highly esteemed in general Amhara culture, but there is a pronounced class distinction between the speech of the rustic peasant, balager (hence belegē, unpolished, sometimes even vulgar), and chowa lij, upper-class speech. A further differentiation within the latter is the speech of those whose traditional education has included sewassow (Ge'ez: grammar; lit., "ladder," "uplifting"), which is fully mastered mainly by church scholars; the speeches of former emperor Haile Selassie, who had also mastered sewas-sow, impressed the average layperson as esoteric and hard to understand, and therefore all the more to be respected. In the arts of politeness, veiled mockery, puns with double meanings, such as semmena-worq (wax and gold), even partial knowledge of grammar is an advantage. The draping of the toga (shamma) is used at court and other occasions to emphasize spoken words, or to communicate even without speech. It is draped differently to express social status in deference to a person of high status, on different occasions, and even to express moods ranging from outgoing and expansive to calm sobriety, to sadness, reserve, pride, social distance, desperate pleading, religious devotion, and so on. Artistic expression in the fine arts had long been linked to the church, as in paintings, and sponsorship by feudal lords who could afford it, especially when giving feasts celebrated with a variety of musical instruments.

Medicine. The basic concepts and practices of Amhara medicine can be traced to ancient Egypt and the ancient Near East and can also be attributed to regional ecological links within Ethiopia. Often no sharp distinctions are made between bodily and spiritual ailments, but there are special occupations: the woggesha (surgeon-herbologist) is a pragmatist in practice; the debtera (scribe) invokes the spirit world. The latter is officially or unofficially linked to the church, but the zar cult is apart and may even be female dominated. Its spirit healing has a complex cosmology; it involves the social status of the patient and includes group therapy. The chief zar doctor is often a matriarch who entered the profession when she herself was possessed by a spirit; she has managed to control some powerful spirits that she can then employ in her battles to overcome the spirits that possess her patients. No cure is expected, only control through negotiation and appeasement of the offended spirit, in the hope of turning it into a weqabi (protective spirit).

Many men consider the zar cult effeminate and consult its doctors by stealth only, at night. Husbands may resent the financial outlays if their wives are patients, but fear the wives' relapse into hysterical or catatonic states. Women, whose participation in the Abyssinian church is severely limited, find expression in the zar cult. The zar doctors at Gonder hold their annual convention on the twenty-third night of the month of Yekatit, just before the beginning of the Monophysite Christian Lent (Kudade; lit., "suffering"). There is much chanting, dancing, drumming, and consumption of various drinks at the love feasts of the zars. Poor patients who are unable to pay with money or commodities can work off their debts in labor service to the cultwaitressing, weaving baskets, fetching water and fuel, brewing barley beer, and so forth. They are generally analyzed by the zar doctor as being possessed by a low-status zar spirit.

By contrast, possession by an evil spirit (buda ) is considered more serious and less manageable than possession by a zar, and there is no cult. An effort is made to prevent it by wearing amulets and avoiding tebib persons, who are skilled in trades like blacksmithing and pottery making. Since these spirits are believed to strike beautiful or successful persons, such individualsespecially if they are childrenmust not be praised out loud. If a person sickens and wastes away, an exorcism by the church may be attempted, or a tanqway (divinersorcerer) may be consulted; however, the latter recourse is considered risky and shameful.

Death and Afterlife. When an elder is near death, other elders from his kin group bring the confessor and say to him, "Confess yourself." Then they ask him for his last willwhat to leave to his children and what for his soul (the church). The confessor gives last rites and, after death, assigns a burial place in the churchyard. The corpse is washed, wrapped in a shamma, carried to church for the mass, and buried, traditionally without a marker except for a circle of rocks. Women express grief with loud keening and wailing. This is repeated when kinfolk arrive to console. A memorial feast (tazkar) is held forty days after the death of a man or a woman, when the soul has the earliest opportunity to be freed from purgatory. Preparations for this feast begin at the time of the funeral: money is provided for the priest to recite the fetet, the prayer for absolution, and materials, food, and drink are accumulated. It is often the greatest single economic expenditure of an individual's lifetime and, hence, a major social event. For the feasting, a large, rectangular shelter (dass ) is erected, and even distant kin are expected to participate and consume as much talla and wot as available.


Hoben, Alan (1973). Land Tenure among the Amhara of Ethiopia: The Dynamics of Cognatic Descent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levine, Donald M. (1965). Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Messing, Simon D. (1985). Highland Plateau Amhara of Ethiopia. Edited by Lionel M. Bender. 3 vols. New Haven: HRAFlex Books, Human Relations Area Files.

Molvar, R. K. (1980). Tradition and Change in Ethiopia: Social and Cultural Life as Reflected in Amharic Fictional Literature ca. 1930-1974. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Young, Alan L. (1975). "Magic as a Quasi-Profession: The Organization of Magic and Magical Healing among Amhara." Ethnology 14:245-265.


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LOCATION: Ethiopia

POPULATION: About 14 million


RELIGION: Coptic Monophysite Christianity


Among the many ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the Amhara are the most populous, representing about one-fourth of the population. Their language, Amharic, is the official language of Ethiopia. From the time when modern Ethiopia was the realm of Abyssinia, the Amhara and the Tigray filled the ranks of the political elite of the country, except when the Italians controlled Ethiopia as a colony from 1936 to 1942. Until 1974, all Ethiopian emperors were either Amhara or Tigray. In the 1990s, Tigray dominate the Ethiopian government. Amhara remain a dominant social force, however.


The traditional homeland of the Amhara people is the central highland plateau of Ethiopia. For over two thousand years they have inhabited this region. Walled by high mountains and cleaved by great gorges, the ancient realm of Abyssinia has been relatively isolated from the influences of the rest of the world. The region is situated at altitudes ranging from roughly 7,000 to 14,000 feet (2,100 to 4,300 meters) and at 9o to 14o latitude north of the equator. The rich volcanic soil combines with a generous rainfall and cool, brisk climate to offer the Amhara a stable agricultural and pastoral existence. However, because the Amhara were an expansionist, militaristic people who ruled their country through a line of emperors, the Amhara people can now be found all over Ethiopia.


The language of the Amhara people is Amharic. It is a Semitic language somewhat related to Arabic and Hebrew. Its origins derive from a Sabean language spoken by merchants and traders who migrated into Ethiopia from the Yemen region of South Arabia about 3,000 years ago. This South Arabian population settled in the highlands of Ethiopia as farmers and traders, and they mixed with those inhabitants already present. These earlier residents are known as the Agau people. Borrowing occurred from the Agau language and Amharic emerged as it is spoken today.


Amhara culture has a wealth of folklore in the form of proverbs, legends, myths, and religious parables and anecdotes. This folklore often teaches moral lessons to children and reminds adults of proper conduct. It also provides explanations for phenomena that are otherwise unexplainable to the average Amhara peasant farmer, since scientific explanations are most often outside the realm of Amhara knowledge. One example of story that weaves explanation into a cultural institution and reinforces the institution is the "phenomenon" of menstruation. Since reproductive biology is outside the understanding of many Amhara, a folktale was developed to explain this monthly occurrence.

The Amhara culture is patriarchal and authoritarian, emphasizing the perceived superiority of the male over the female. Historically, the Amhara people had an imperialistic, militant, and expansionist government led by highly capable emperors directing armies with superior military strategies. Consequently, much of Amhara folklore idealizes the image of the Amhara warrior who vanquishes the enemy through the shedding of the enemies' blood. In the same way that a warrior sheds the blood of his enemy, according to Amhara folklore, so God has "cursed" woman, shedding her blood each month to remind her that she is the vanquished, the servant of her father and her husband. In return for her loyalty, she will be rewarded with healthy children, a large family, and a strong man to keep her family safe. There are also stories that teach that the enemy is not to be hated but is rather to be appreciated, because without an enemy, how is a warrior to prove his worth and establish his identity and status in his community and society?


The Amhara people are Coptic Monophysite Christians. The population was converted to Christianity in the fourth century ad and their form of the religion has changed very little since its beginnings in Ethiopia. Ancient Amhara culture had a writing system, and therefore, there is a wealth of texts that have preserved the ancient teachings of Christianity in a language that is not spoken by people today but remains the language of the church. This language is Geez. Since Geez is used only in the context of Amhara Christianity, its function is similar to that of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.

Amhara Christianity is very unlike what Westerners recognize as Christianity. Ethiopian Christianity is loaded with Old Testament religion and folklore, as well as elements of a so-called "pagan" religion. Hence, we can say that Amhara religion consists of four separate but interwoven realms of religious belief. First, there is the dominant Monophysite Christian religion, which includes the Almighty God, the Devil, and the saints and angels in Heaven. Second, there are the zar and adbar protector spirits who exact tribute in return for physical and emotional security and who may punish or neglect believers for failure to recognize them through the practice of the appropriate rituals. Third is the belief in buda, a class of people who possess the evil eye and exert a deadly power over the descendants of God's "chosen children." The fourth category of beliefs includes the ghouls and devils that prowl the countryside, creating danger for unsuspecting people who cross their path. Although the Christian beliefs have been practiced since nearly the beginning of Christianity, the "pagan" elements probably go back much further.


Every Amhara person has a patron saint who is recognized on that saint's day. The celebration involves the host throwing a party for relatives and friends at his or her homestead, serving coffee and small treats, and having hours of conversation. There are also major saints' days that everyone celebrates. Saints Mary (Mariam), Michael (Mikaeyl), Gabriel (Gahbrieyl), and George (Giyorgis) are among those saints celebrated by all. On these days, chickens, sheep, or goats may be slaughtered for feasting. There are also more than two hundred days of the year in the Coptic Christian calendar that prescribe fasting, including Easter. Additionally, there are secular holidays such as Battle of Adwa Day, celebrating the victory over the Italians in 1896, and more recently Freedom Day, celebrating the driving out of the previous communist dictatorship in 1991.


Marriage and death mark two major rites of passage in Amhara society. Since female virginity is highly valued, girls are very often married young, normally shortly after the first menstruation, but sometimes even earlier. Marriage is an elaborate celebration involving gift-giving negotiations and reciprocities, feasting, date-planning, new house-building for the couple, and so on. The actual wedding is an all-day, all-night party involving feasting, drinking, and intense conversation. Marrying a woman who is not a virgin is considered dishonorable.

The ritual of death is a very quiet affair. Upon the passing of an aged person the body is washed, wrapped in new funerary clothing, and, within twenty-four hours of death, is carried in a woven straw mat to the church, where it is buried, accompanied by the prayers of the priest. The death of a person who is younger, by accident or disease, is a time of great shock and sadness and often involves much more community activity. For a period of time after the burial, relatives and friends will visit the house of the deceased and sit for a time in quietude. The host will serve coffee, bread, and small snacks to the visitors, who offer their prayers and condolences before departing.


The Amhara maintain considerable formality in their interpersonal relations. There are prescribed behaviors of deference to individuals of higher social status. A rich inventory of proverbs and parables teaches proper conduct for public behavior; children with parents and older relatives; women with their husbands; and men with older or more powerful men. But among status equalschildren among themselves; men together in informal situations, such as in beer houses; women enjoying coffee together; men and women in privatethere is informality and the free expression of feeling.


Amhara peasants lead a life that has not changed much in the past few thousand years. They continue to practice an ancient form of agriculture that involves ox-drawn plows, simple irrigation techniques or complete dependency on rainfall, and simple tools for harvesting crops of wheat, barley, hops, beans, and an Ethiopian grain called teff. In times past, the cool, temperate highland plateau was blessed with a fertile volcanic soil and ample rainfall to make possible three harvests per year. However, the drought and famine of the 1980s, which continue in parts of the highlands today, have affected regions of Amharaland. Because the new Ethiopian government, which took over in 1991, is unsympathetic to the Amhara people, the Amhara continue to suffer hardships from the climatic disaster, as well as from political discrimination.

In the city, the Amhara live among peoples from many other cultural groups in tightly clustered villages. Their houses are built of mud, with corrugated iron roofs. Some travelers have called Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia "the city of iron roofs." Families most often have either latrine-type toilets or no human waste disposal system at all. In most of these urban settlements, the only source of water is a public pipe.


Both peasant farmers and city residents value large families. Married couples seek to have many children. Parents who have seven living children are considered to be blessed by God. Children represent a source of economic support when they are grown. Many children in a family promise many grandchildren who are a joy to be with, and a promise of carrying on family traditions.

The day begins at dawn. The woman boils the water, roasts the coffee beans, and pounds them into the grounds that are brewed for the morning coffee. She prepares the breakfast, which is often the leftovers from dinner the night before. The children eat first and are sent on their errands that contribute to the tasks of the household. Then the husband eats his breakfast. In the city, the husband goes off to work, if he has work, while the wife remains at home caring for her children and the children of relatives and friends. Often women have their own jobs; many women own coffee or beer houses or work in hair salons. One commonly sees an unrelated child working in the house, taking care of a baby and doing simple household chores. This child may be an orphan or one who was abandoned in the streets of Addis Ababa because of extreme poverty.


The Amhara live at cold, high altitudes. Even the capital city of Addis Ababa lies at about 7,500 feet (2,300 meters). Therefore, Amhara clothing is designed to conserve body heat. The Amhara of the city today commonly wear Western-type clothing made in China, Singapore, and the Philippines. But many still prefer the native dress, which consists of jodhpur trousers and a long shirt, covered by a soft, sheet-sized cotton wrap called a gabi. This is worn by both men and women, but the style of these clothes varies according to the gender of the person. In the countryside, the Amhara do not wear shoes, but in the towns and the city shoes are generally worn to protect the feet against the debris of the streets.


The range of altitude in Ethiopia allows for a great variety of food crops to be grown. In the highlands the Amhara grow barley, wheat, hops, and a variety of beans. In the mid-range altitudes the farmer can grow millet and teff, another variety of wheat. The major export cash crop, coffee, is grown in this mid-range ecology. Coffee is an important part of Ethiopian cuisine but it is also produced for export. In the lowlands, the Amhara grow cayenne pepper, which is also central to the cuisine of Ethiopia. Cayenne pepper is mixed with any of a dozen other spices to make the traditional Ethiopian berbere sauce. Sugar cane is a major lowland crop.



Berbere (bah-REE-bah-RAY) is a spicy seasoning.


  • 1 teaspoon each of any or all of following ground spices: cumin, coriander, ginger, cardamom, fenugreek seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, savory, basil, dry mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, salt
  • ¼teaspoon allspice
  • ¼teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 Tablespoon paprika
  • 1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper. (Note: The berbere made in Ethiopia includes a much larger quantity of cayenne pepperabout ½ poundbut this would make it too hot for most people.)
  • 1 eight-ounce package of cream cheese
  • 16 flour tortillas


  1. Mix all the spices together in a heavy skillet. Heat over very low heat for 3 to 4 minutes to toast the spices.
  2. Unwrap the cream cheese and place it in a bowl. Stir the spices into the cream cheese.
  3. Tear off a bite-sized piece of tortilla, and use it to pinch off a bit of the spicy cream cheese.

Although Amhara cuisine is known to be very spicy, many vegetable dishes are not hot and spicy and are favored by people with sensitive stomachs. The rate of coffee consumption is one of the highest in the world, although tea is also a very popular beverage. The Christian Amhara do not eat pork since it is forbidden by their religion.


Traditionally, formal education was under the authority of the Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church. However, in modern times, encouraged by the last emperor, Haile Selassie I (18921975), secular (nonreligious) education has become dominant in urban areas, and is also available in the countryside. Additionally, Western-sponsored institutions provide an education that allows students to enter the Addis Ababa University. This university provides good training in political science, economics, history, and anthropology. Today, many students may also attend universities in Europe and America, where they conduct postgraduate studies.


Some 3,000 years ago, Semitic-speaking people (very likely including Jews) from South Arabia crossed the straits of Bab-el-Mendab into the highlands of Ethiopia. Discovery of the fertile soils there brought an influx of farmers, traders, and merchants. These people had developed agricultural skills including terracing and irrigation. They practiced sophisticated techniques of construction that included stone-masonry. They were also skilled in weaving and making incense. Their writing system was based on 256 characters. They established a large-scale political system that enabled them to build a centralized empire. The earliest and most notable example of this was the city-state of Axum where, in the mid-fourth century, the emperor Ezana converted his people to Christianity.


In the countryside, work roles and specific tasks are segregated according to age and sex. Children collect cow dung from the fields, throw it into a hole, mix it with water, and make cow pie batter which is then shaped into round, flat pies and dried to use as fuel for the hearthfires. Women carry water to their homesteads using large, round, narrow-necked clay jugs that can weigh over 100 pounds (45 kilograms). They also grind grain, make bread, prepare meals, and make beer and liquor. Men plow fields, cut grain, litigate in court, and serve in the local militia. Both men and women look forward to the weekly market day when goods are bartered, bought, and sold, and social activity is enjoyed. In the towns and city, numerous small businesses flourish, selling everything imaginable. Beggars are a very common sight in the city, and include ex-soldiers from the losing side of the recent civil war; mothers carrying their infant children; old men and women with no means of support; and children whose families have been lost in the war, from disease, or who have simply abandoned them because of extreme poverty.


Soccer, known as "football," is a passion among most Ethiopians. Running is also a very popular sport, as well as a mode of physical conditioning. Amhara and other Ethiopians are prime marathon runners because the high altitude prepares them well for competition in other countries. There is also the traditional sport of ganna, which is similar to hockey. The whipping contest carried out on the holiday of Buhe is a test of Amhara endurance and toughness. In this contest, two teams come together on a "battlefield" and whip each other until one team flees or is so badly beaten that the elders proclaim the other team the victors. This is considered a true test of masculinity and warrior abilities, traits that are emphasized in Amhara culture.


In the countryside, children make their own toys such as dolls, animals, weapons, and cars out of mud, sticks, rocks, rags, tin cans, and the like. Male youths engage in competitive sports. Adults drink in the drinking houses, sing, dance, gossip, and patronize the minstrels who travel from village to village singing of the news and gossip. The city of Addis Ababa offers much more entertainment in the form of movie houses, electronic game parlors, drinking houses and night clubs, television videos (a booming business), and organized sports.


Amhara painting is a dominant art form in Ethiopia. It is usually oil on canvas or hide, and it normally involves religious themes. Ethiopian paintings from the Middle Ages are known by art historians from Europe and America as distinct treasures of human civilization. The Amhara are also weavers of beautiful patterns embellished with embroidery. They are fine gold- and silversmiths and produce delicate works of filigree jewelry and religious emblems.


Haile Selassie I (18921975), Emperor of Ethiopia, was the last in the line of Amhara kings who together ruled Ethiopia for almost two thousand years, with only a few interruptions. The bloody and so-called "communist" revolution of 1973 ended the Amhara reign. The revolution combined with drought and famine to throw much of Amhara society into chaos. A government overthrow in 1991 ended both the brutal dictatorship and the thirty-year civil war, but it also left large segments of the Amhara people dispossessed of their land, split from their families, and more impoverished than ever before. Many thousands of Amhara migrated to towns and to the city of Addis Ababa to find enough food to stay alive. Because people from many other cultural groups were also migrating to the city, Addis Ababa became overpopulated. In the 1960s, Addis Ababa was a lovely city supporting a population of about 600,000; by the early 1990s, the population had swelled to almost five million people.

Amhara men, farmers without city- adapted skills, could only look for day labor or resorted to begging in the streets. Women could cook or sell beer and soft drinks in little mud huts or kiosks. Diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, intestinal bacterial infections, internal and external parasites, leprosy, elephantiasis, schistosomiasis, roundworms, and tapeworms are all widespread. Efforts to solve these problems have not made any significant impact in one of the poorest nations in the world.


Abebe, Daniel. Ethiopia in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.

Fradin, D. Ethiopia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.

Gerster, Georg. Churches in Stone: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. New York: Phaidon, 1970.


Internet Africa Ltd. Ethiopia. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Ethiopia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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