The History of the Amhara People


The Amhara are a Semitic-speaking ethnic group or tribe traditionally inhabiting regions of Ethiopia’s Northwest Highlands, especially in the Amhara region. According to the 2007 national census, the Amhara numbered over 19000000 individuals, comprising more than 26% of Ethiopia’s population. They are mostly Orthodox Christian members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Amhara are also within the Ethiopian expatriate society or community, especially in North America. The Amhara speak Amharic. Amharic is an Afro-Asiatic language of the Semitic branch. The Amharic serves as the official language of Ethiopia. Some scholars or western sources have classified the Amhara and the Tigrayans as Abyssinians.

The History of the Amhara People (Social Stratification)

They have historically inhabited the central, western, and northern regions or parts of Ethiopia. The people are primarily agriculturalists, perhaps comprising or constituting the earliest farming group in Ethiopia. Other groups such as Gurages, Agews, Gafats, Hararis, and Argobbas chiefly use and produce domesticated grains native to their area, such as Nug and Teff.

Some suggest the Amhara’s origin to be present-day Yemen, the Aksum Empire, and shifted to Sayint, now known as Wollo, a place that people knew as the Amhara region in the past. The Amhara people are presently one of the two largest tribes or ethnic groups in the Ethiopian state, along with the Oromo.

In the modern sense, the region now called Amhara in the feudal period comprised several provinces with less or greater autonomy. They include Gojjam, Wollo, Gondar, Lasta, Shewa, Angot, Semien, and Fetegar. The traditional homeland of the Amhara people is the central highland plateau of Ethiopia. For more than two centuries, they have inhabited this area.

Christian Axumite presence in the Amhara area or region dates back to the 8th century, with the formation or establishment of the Istifanos monastery in Lake Haq. Several other monuments and sites show or indicate similar Axumite presence in the region, such as the Geta Lion statues. In the late 20th century (1998), archaeologists found pieces of pottery around tombs in Atatiya in southern Wollo in Habru to the SE of Hayq and the NE of Ancharo. The pottery’s symbols and decorations are reliable archaeological proof or evidence that Aksumite civilization had extended to southern Amhara beyond Angot.

The 1st specific mention of the Amhara people dates to the early 12th century in the middle of the Zagwe Dynasty, when records recorded the Amhara people being at war with the Werjih in 1129. Records say that the Werjih inhabited the eastern lowlands of Shewa as pastoralists. This shows or indicates that the Amhara people not only were existent as a distinct tribe or ethnic group but had already made a presence on the southern plateau since the 12th century, challenging a common suggestion or proposition that scholars like Takele Tadesse and Mesfin Woldemariam put forward suggesting that the Amhara people did not exist as a tribe.

Following the decline or end of ruling Zagwe Dynasty, the Solomonic Dynasty ruled the Ethiopian Kingdom for many years from 1270 AD onwards with the rise of Yekuni Amlak, whose political and support base hailed from Amhara and Shewa. From then up until the overthrowing or deposing of Haile Selassie in the 20th century (1974), the Amhara people ruled and established the Ethiopian Kingdom’s political core. The Amhara expanded its borders, international prestige, wealth and established several medieval noble sites and capitals such as Tegulet, Berhan, Debre, Barara, Gonder, and Magdala. The former three were in Shewa.

The people have contributed several rulers over the years, including Haile Selassie. Haile Selassie’s mum was maternal of Gurage heritage and paternal of Oromo descent. His father is both maternally and paternally Amhara. Through his paternal grandmother’s noble lineage, he could rise to the imperial throne.

There were more than one basic strata within the traditional Amharic community and other native Afro-Asiatic speaking peoples. According to Donald Levine, these comprised slaves, elite clans, low-ranking clans, and caste groups.

Scholars accept that there has been an endogamous, rigid, and occupationally closed social stratification among the Amhara people and other Afro-Asiatic speaking Ethiopian tribes.

The Religion of the Amhara People

The Amhara people’s main religion for many years has been Christianity, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church playing a significant role in the state’s culture. According to the 2007 census, more than 80% of the Amhara region population were Ethiopian Orthodox, over 17% were of Islam faith (Muslims), less than 1% were Protestant, and 0.5% were Ethiopian Jews Beta Israel. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains close links or connections with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Epiphany and Easter are the most significant or essential celebrations, marked with dancing, feasting, and services. There are also several feast days throughout the year, when people may only consume fish or vegetables.

People often arrange marriages, with men marrying in their early twenties or late teens. Customarily, girls got engaged or married as young as fourteen, but in the 20th century, the minimum age rose to 18, and the imperial government enforced that. After a church wedding, people frown on divorce. Each family hosts separate or different wedding feasts after the wedding.

Upon childbirth, a priest will visit the family to bless the child or the infant. The child and the mother remain in the house for more than a month after the birth for emotional and physical strength. The infant’s family will take the child to the church for baptism at 40 days for boys and 80 days for girls.

The Culture of the Amhara People (Art, Agriculture, Kinship and Cuisine)

Religious paintings typify the Amhara art. One of the notable characteristics or features of these is the large eyes of the subjects, who are mostly biblical figures. The Amhara art includes weaved items embellished with embroidery. Works in silver and gold exist in the form of religious emblems and filigree jewelry.

More than 85% of the Amhara people are rural and earn or make their living through farming, mostly in the Ethiopian highlands. Corn, millet, barley, wheat, sorghum, and teff, along with peppers, beans, chickpeas, and other vegetables, are the most important crops. A single crop annually is standard in the highlands, while more than one is possible in the lowlands. The Amhara raises animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle.

The Amhara culture acknowledges kinship, but unlike other tribes or ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa region, it has a lesser role. Household relationships are key, and the primary political, economic, and cultural functions are not based on kin relationships among the Amhara. The social associations or relationships in the Amhara way of life are predominantly based on individualistic relationships and hierarchical patterns.

Kin relatives and family are often involved in planning semanya, which has been the most common and allows divorce. Other forms of marriage include qurban, which people celebrate in church, forbid divorce, and mostly observed among the Orthodox priests.

The Amhara’s cuisine comprises several vegetable or meat side dishes and entrees; usually, a wat or thick soup served atop injera, a big sourdough flatbread made of teff flour. Kitfo being from Gurage, is one of the favorite foods in the Amhara. The Amhara do not eat pork or shellfish of any type or kind for religious purposes. It is a common cultural practice of the Amhara people to eat from the same dish in the middle or center of the table with a large group of people.


Notable Amhara People

Some of the remarkable Amhara people are Andualem Aragie, Aster Aweke, singer, Demerew Souraphiel, Baalu Girma, journalist and author, Baeda Maryam Bakaffa; both are Emperors of the Ethiopian Empire, Belay Zeleke, patriot, Abuna Basilios and Abuna Theophilos. Other Amhara people are Abune Petros, Afewerk Tekle, Amda Seyon, an Emperor, Mohammed Hussein, Asrat Woldeyes, surgeon, Aklilu, PM, Aba Gorgorios, priest, Dawit 1-3, all Ethiopian Empire Emperors.

Ejigayehu Shibabaw, Eleni Gebre-Medhin, Gebre Hanna, Gelila Bekele, model, Getatchew Haile, philologist, Getatchew Mekurya, Haddis Alemayehu, novelist, Haile Gerima, producer, Haile Gebrselassie, athlete, Heruy Wolde, foreign minister and Liya Kebede, a supermodel, were all notable Amhara people.

One notable position that the Amhara people held mostly is that of Emperor and Empress. Apart from the few Emperors that I have mentioned above, there were more.

They include Eskender, Fasilides, Gelawdewos, the famous Haile Selassie, Iyasu 1 and 2, Menas of Ethiopia, Menelik the 2nd, Menen Asfaw, Empress of Ethiopia, Na’od, Newaya Kristos, and Newaya Maryam. Sarsa Dengel, Susenyos the 1st, Tewodros the 2nd, Yaqob, Yeshaq the 1st, and Zara Yaqob were all Emperors of the Ethiopian Empire.

The famous artist called the Weeknd is also an Amhara (Ethiopian-Canadian R&B artist). The founder of the Solomonic Dynasty, Yekuno Amlak, is an Amhara. The Solomonic Dynasty was a Dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire that came into existence in the 13th century. Its members claim descent from King Solomon and Queen Sheba (Queen Makeda). The Amhara claim that the 1st Ethiopian Kingdom came to existence through Menelik the 1st (son of Queen Sheba and King Solomon).


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