The Tigray of Ethiopia & Eritrea

Fri, Oct 23, 2015 @ 12:43 PM

Keepers of the Ark of the Convenant?

The Ark of the Convenant was venerated in the First Temple of Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon (circa 970-930). Then, it vanished!

Terraced Mountains Tigray Region of Ethiopia

For centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the Ark of the Convenant is housed in a chapel in the town of Aksum, located in the northern highlands of the Tigray state. 

The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum allegedly houses the original Ark of the Covenant.Chapel of the Tablet Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Photo Source:  Wikipedia - The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
in Axum allegedly houses the original Ark of the Covenant.

They claim it arrived about 3,000 years ago and has been closely guarded by anointed monks who are forbidden to ever set foot outside the chapel grounds.

The majority of the Tigray people are located in Tigray state in Ethiopia, although some reside in Eritrea.  The regions they occupy are, for the most part, a high plateau, separate from the Red Sea by an escarpment and a desert. 


Most of the Tigray people place a high value on their verbal skills.  Therefore, poetry, riddles, tales and puns are part of Tigray entertainment. In fact, they engage in the art of "poetic combat".  Many heroic figures in Tigray folklore are known for their skill and the clever ability they had to compose poetic couplets.

Tekle Haymanot, an Ethiopian Saint, (pictured below) is reputed to have verbally outwitted the devil!

Tekle Haymanot

The Tigray and the Amhara people were converted to Christianity hundreds of years before most of Europe. The arrival of Christianity in Tigrayan lands is dated to about the same time as Christianity arrived in Ireland.

The church is a very central feature of Tigray communities, most communities having a church with a patron saint. Most Tigray holidays are associated with the church calendar.

Tigray art is also associated with the church.  The church architecture alone is amazing with many churches cut into solid stone (as pictured below). Icon painting is also popular.

Ethiopian Church Cut into Rock Face

Abba Libanos, one of Lalibela's rock-cut churches

They have a lovely way of greeting each other.  As a sign of respect, a stranger may be greeted with "khamihaduru", which means "how are you, my honoured equal".  Pretty nice, in our opinion!

The Tigray don't consume much alcohol, certainly in the rural areas where the household beer that is brewed is low in alcohol content.  Honey wine is also brewed but is usually reserved for special occasions.

Most houses start out as "gujji", a practical, unassuming structure, with a thatched roof.  Later, a family may add masonry walls and a domed roof. If very successful, stone walls may be added around the yard.  As a matter of fact, guests often bring stones with them to be added to the walls.  A charming practice and a sign of respect.

Traditional clothing is white with very little embellishment. Men and women both wear a gabbi (a shawl like garment).

Food is often a problem.  There simply is rarely enough to go around.  Many households receive government subsidies to compensate for lack of available food. Bread is an important staple and is often eaten with a spicy stew.

Families and guests eat "messob" style (from a shared food basket), breaking off pieces of bread from the communal basket and dipping it into the stew which is placed in the centre of the basket.

Eating Messob Style from a shared basket or plate

Church music and praise songs are important to the Tigray.  Church deacons may sing and accompany the voices with drums and a marroca-like, shaken instrument called at "sistrum".

A game much like field hockey is played but in a cross-country manner! Some seriously sports-minded Tigray "grow" their own hockey sticks by training saplings into the desired curve. While like field hockey, the Tigray play across country - even through creeks and over fences! Now that's track and field combined with field hockey!

The Tigray are a fascinating people, with interesting customs and traditions. 

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Photo Sources: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Labeled for Reuse

Mustafa Salemwalla

Written by Mustafa Salemwalla

Mustafa hails from Tanzania and spent 30 years getting to know the magnificent continent of Africa. Hence his passion for African art, sculpture, fashion and empowerment of artisans.

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