Ethiopia: Who is Amhara? Interview with Jemal Ibrahim

April 24, 2012 | Seife Nebelbal Radio Program

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According to their traditions they mark out their roots to Menelik I* (the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon). It is believed that the Sabaean (Sheban) people began to settle on the west coast of the Red Sea, from their home in southern Arabia, about 1000 BC.

By about 1500 BC their civilization became the Axum Empire, based on an assortment of the Sabaean culture and the Cushitic culture.

Certain Semitic-speaking tribes, particularly the Agazyan, established the Kingdom of Aksum around two 2000 years ago, and this extended to include what is now:

• Eritrea
• Northern Ethiopia
• Portions of Yemen and
• Portions of Sudan

It is believed that the Amhara inherit their religion and tradition from Axum. The region now known as “Amhara” in the feudal period was comprised of several provinces with greater or less autonomy, covering:

• Begemder
• Gojjam
• Qwara and
• Lasta.

Amhara warlords repeatedly struggled for power of the realm with Tigrayan warlords. Though many branches of the Imperial dynasty were from the Amharic speaking area, a considerable amount was from Tigray.

The Amharas appeared to gain the upper hand with the accession of the so-called Gondar line of the Imperial dynasty in the starting of the 17th century.

Nevertheless, it soon failed into the semi-anarchic era of Zemene Mesafint (meaning “Era of the Princes”), in which adversary warlords fought for power and the Yejju Oromo had effective control.

The Tigrayans only made a short return to the throne in the person of Yohannes IV, whose death in 1889 allowed the capital to go back to the Amharic speaking province of Shewa.

Historians usually believe the Amhara to have been Ethiopia’s ruling elite for centuries, represented by the line of Emperors ending in Haile Selassie.

Many commentators, including Marcos Lemma, nevertheless, dispute the truth of such a statement, arguing that other ethnic groups have always been active in the country’s politics.

One likely source of confusion for this stems from the mislabeling of all Amharic-speakers as “Amhara”, and the fact that many people from other ethnic groups have Amharic names.

Another is the fact that most Ethiopians can trace their descent to multiple ethnic groups. In fact, the last Emperor, Haile Selassie I, often counted himself a member of the Gurage tribe on account of his ancestry, and his Empress, Itege Menen Asfaw of Ambassel, was in large part of Oromo ancestry.

The extended use of Amharic language results mostly from its being the language of the court, and was progressively adopted out of usefulness by many unrelated groups, who then became known as “Amhara” no matter what their ethnic origin.

Feel free to have your say on the debate associated with this topic and we’re glad to publish it in this blog.

* Menelik I was the first of the Solomonic line of rulers of Ethiopia that ended only with the overthrowing of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

–Ethiopia Tribe