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 9 o to 14 o 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.
RITES OF PASSAGE
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 equals—children among themselves; men together in informal situations, such as in beer houses; women enjoying coffee together; men and women in private—there 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 pepper—about ½ pound—but this would make it too hot for most people.)
- 1 eight-ounce package of cream cheese
- 16 flour tortillas
- Mix all the spices together in a heavy skillet. Heat over very low heat for 3 to 4 minutes to toast the spices.
- Unwrap the cream cheese and place it in a bowl. Stir the spices into the cream cheese.
- 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 (1892–1975), 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 ofganna, 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.
CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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 (1892–1975), 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.