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Amhara people

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Ethiopian Church · Sunni Islam · Judaism

Related ethnic groups

Tigrinya · Tigre
and other Habesha people

Amhara ( Amharic: አማራ, Ge'ez: አምሐራ) are an ethnic group (but see below) in the central highlands of Ethiopia. Numbering about 19.8 million people, they comprise 26 percent of the country's population, according to the 2007 national census. They speak Amharic, the working language of the federal authorities of Ethiopia, and traditionally dominated the country's political and economic life.


The derivation of the name "Amhara" is debated; according to some it comes from the word amari, meaning "pleasing, agreeable, beautiful and gracious" (also mehare, "gracious", containing the same m-h-r root as the verb to learn), while some Ethiopian historians such as Getachew Mekonnen Hasen say it is an ethnic name connected with Himyarites. Still others say that it derives from Ge'ez, meaning "free people" (i.e. from Ge'ez ዓም "ʿam" meaning "people," and ሓራ "h.ara" , meaning "free" or "soldier"), though others, such as Donald Levine, have dismissed this as a folk etymology. Ultimately, however, the name for the language and ethnic group came from the medieval province of Amhara, located in central Ethiopia in modern Amhara Region and the pre-1995 province of Wollo.


About 90 percent of the Amhara are rural and make their living through farming, mostly in the Ethiopian highlands. Prior to the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, absentee landlords maintained strict control over their sharecropping tenants, often allowing them to accumulate crippling debt. After 1974, the landlords were replaced by local government officials, who play a similar role.

Barley, corn, millet, wheat, sorghum, and teff, along with beans, peppers, chickpeas, and other vegetables, are the most important crops. In the highlands one crop per year is normal, while in the lowlands two are possible. Cattle, sheep, and goats are also raised.


The predominant religion of the Amhara for centuries has been Christianity, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church playing a central role in the culture of the country. According to the 1994 census, 81.5 percent of the population of the Amhara region (which is 91.2 percent Amhara) were Ethiopian Orthodox; 18.1 percent were Muslim, and 0.1 percent were Protestant (" P'ent'ay"). The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains close links with the Egyptian Coptic Church. Easter and Epiphany are the most important celebrations, marked with services, feasting and dancing. There are also many fast days throughout the year, when only vegetables or fish may be eaten.

Marriages are often arranged, with men marrying in their late teens or early twenties. Traditionally, girls were married as young as 14, but in the 20th century, the minimum age was raised to 18, and this was enforced by the Imperial government. Civil marriages are common, as well as churches. After a church wedding, divorce is frowned upon. Each family hosts a separate wedding feast after the wedding.

Upon childbirth, a priest will visit the family to bless the infant. The mother and child remain in the house for 40 days after birth for physical and emotional strength. an infant boy is baptized on the 40th day and eighty days for a girl, before going to the church for baptism.


Ethiopian art is typified by religious paintings. One of the most notable features of these is the large eyes of the subjects, who are usually biblical figures.


Certain Semitic-speaking tribes, notably the Habesha, built the Kingdom of Aksum around two millennia ago, and this expanded to contain what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, and at times, portions of Yemen and Sudan. The Amhara inherit their religion and monarchical tradition from Axum, as do Tigrayans.

The region now known as "Amhara" in the feudal era was composed of several provinces with greater or less autonomy, which included Gonder, Gojjam, Wollo and Shewa.

Some time in the late Middle Ages, the Amharic and Tigrinya languages began to be differentiated. Amhara warlords often competed for dominance of the realm with Tigrayan warlords. While many branches of the Imperial dynasty were from the Amharic speaking area, a substantial amount were from Tigray. The Amharas seemed to gain the upper hand with the accession of the so-called Gondar line of the Imperial dynasty in the beginning of the 17th century. However, it soon lapsed into the semi-anarchic era of Zemene Mesafint ("Era of the Princes"), in which rival warlords fought for power and the Yejju Oromo inderases (or regents) had effective control, while emperors were just as figureheads. The Tigrayans only made a brief return to the throne in the person of Yohannes IV, whose death in 1889 allowed the base to return to the Amharic speaking province of Shewa.

Historians generally consider 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, however, dispute the accuracy of such a statement, arguing that other ethnic groups have always been active in the country's politics. This is because there were several kings from different ethnic groups such as: Agew, Oromo, Tigray, and Wolyattaa.

One possible source of confusion for this stems from the mislabelling 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 ancestry to multiple ethnic groups. In fact, the last Emperor, Haile Selassie I, often saw 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 descent. The expanded use of Amharic language results mostly from its being the language of the court, and was gradually adopted out of usefulness by many unrelated groups, who then became known as "Amhara" no matter what their ethnic origin.

Validity of ethnic group status

Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, "Amhara" was only used (in the form amariñña) to refer to Amharic, the language, or the medieval province located in Wollo (modern Amhara Region). Still today, most people labeled by outsiders as "Amhara," refer to themselves simply as "Ethiopian," or to their province (e.g. Gojjamé from the province Gojjam). According to Ethiopian ethnographer Donald Levine, "Amharic-speaking Shewans consider themselves closer to non-Amharic-speaking Shewans than to Amharic-speakers from distant regions like Gonder." Amharic-speakers tend to be a "supra-ethnic group" composed of "fused stock." Takkele Taddese describes the Amhara as follows:

The Amhara can thus be said to exist in the sense of being a fused stock, a supra-ethnically conscious ethnic Ethiopian serving as the pot in which all the other ethnic groups are supposed to melt. The language, Amharic, serves as the centre of this melting process although it is difficult to conceive of a language without the existence of a corresponding distinct ethnic group speaking it as a mother tongue. The Amhara does not exist, however, in the sense of being a distinct ethnic group promoting its own interests and advancing the Herrenvolk philosophy and ideology as has been presented by the elite politicians. The basic principle of those who affirm the existence of the Amhara as a distinct ethnic group, therefore, is that the Amhara should be dislodged from the position of supremacy and each ethnic group should be freed from Amhara domination to have equal status with everybody else. This sense of Amhara existence can be viewed as a myth.

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