Sat. May 25th, 2024

Agaw people

The Agaw or Agew (Ge’ez: አገው Agäw, modern Agew) are a Cushitic ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. Ethnically and culturally they are part of a wider population of Cushitic peoples, though they are most closely related to the Qemant people.

They speak the Agaw languages, which belong to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family, and have a high degree of mutual intelligibility between them. As the Agaw are a minority population in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, they face substantial pressures of assimilation, and the Agaw languages are now considered critically endangered.

The Agaw peoples in general were historically noted by travelers and outside observers to have practiced what some described as a “Hebraic religion”, similar to the Qemant, though some practiced Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and many were Beta Israel Jews. A small minority have adopted Islam in the last few centuries. Thousands of Agaw Beta Israel converted to Christianity in the 19th and early 20th century (both voluntarily and forcibly), becoming the Falash Mura, though many are now returning to Judaism.

The Agaw are perhaps first mentioned in the third-century Monumentum Adulitanum, an Aksumite inscription recorded by Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century. The inscription refers to a people called “Athagaus” (or Athagaous), perhaps from ʿAd Agaw, meaning “sons of Agaw”. The Athagaous first turn up as one of the peoples conquered by the unknown king who inscribed the Monumentum Adulitanum. The Agaw are later mentioned in an inscription of the fourth century emperor Ezana of Axum and the sixth-century emperor Kaleb of Axum. Based on this evidence, a number of experts embrace a theory first stated by Edward Ullendorff and Carlo Conti Rossini that they are the original inhabitants of much of the northern Ethiopian Highlands, and were either forced out of their original settlements or assimilated by Semitic-speaking TigrayansAmharas and Tigrinyas. Cosmas Indicopleustes also noted in his Christian Topography that a major gold trade route passed through the region “Agau”. The area referred to seems to be an area east of the Tekezé River and just south of the Semien Mountains, perhaps around Lake Tana.

They currently exist in a number of scattered enclaves, which include the Bilen in and around Keren, Eritrea; the Qemant people (including the now-relocated Beta Israel), who live around Gondar in the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region, west of the Tekezé River and north of Lake Tana; a number of Agaw live south of Lake Tana, around Dangila in the Agew Awi Zone of the Amhara Region; and another group live around Soqota in the former province of Wollo, now part of the Amhara Region, along its border with the Tigray Region.

The Cushitic speaking Agaw people ruled during the Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia from about 900 to 1270. The name of the dynasty itself comes from the Ge’ez phrase Ze-Agaw (meaning “of the Agaw”), and refers to the Agaw people.

The Agaw speak Agaw languages. They are a part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Many also speak other languages such as AmharicTigrinya and/or Tigre.


  • The Northern Agaw are known as Bilen, capital Keren
  • The Western Agaw are known as Qemant, capital Tekel Dengay
  • The Eastern Agaw are known as Xamta, capital Soqota
  • The Southern Agaw are known as Awi, capital Injibara

Notable Agaw people

Zagwe dynasty

The Zagwe dynasty (Ge’ez: ዛጔ ሥርወ መንግሥት) was an Agaw-led medieval kingdom that ruled the northern parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, after the historical name of the Lasta province.[1] Centered at Lalibela, it ruled large parts of the territory from approximately 900 to 1270, when the last Zagwe King Za-Ilmaknun was killed in battle by the forces of the Abyssinian King Yekuno Amlak. The name of the dynasty is thought to derive from the ancient Ge’ez phrase Ze-Agaw, meaning “opponent”, in reference to the Mara Tekle Haymanot, the founder of the dynasty. Zagwe’s best-known King was Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who is credited with having constructed the rock-hewn monolithic churches of Lalibela.

David Buxton has stated that the areas under the direct rule of the Zagwe kings apart from the centre of power in Lasta “probably embraced the highlands of modern EritreaTigrayWaag and Bete Amhara and thence westwards towards Lake Tana (Begemder).  Unlike the practice of later rulers of Ethiopia, Taddesse Tamrat argues that under the Zagwe dynasty the order of succession was that of brother succeeding brother as king, based on the Agaw laws of inheritance.

Around 960, Queen Gudit destroyed the remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum, causing a shift in its temporal power centre that later regrouped more to the south. For 40 years she ruled over what remained of the kingdom, eventually passing on the throne to her descendants. According to other Ethiopian traditional accounts, the last of her dynasty was overthrown by Mara Takla Haymanot in 1137. He married a daughter of the last king of Aksum, Dil Na’od. Since he married a daughter of Emperor Hizbe Nagn, who was a member of the Solomonic Dynasty, the Zagwes are technically part of the Solomonic lineage. Emperor Mara Tekla Haymanot’s marriage and off-spring thereof makes him the only Emperor without claimed ties to the Biblical King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba.

The Zagwe period is still shrouded in mystery; even the number of kings in this dynasty is disputed. Some sources (such as the Paris Chronicle, and manuscripts Bruce 88, 91, and 93) give the names of eleven kings who ruled for 354 years; others (among them the book Pedro Páez and Manuel de Almeida saw at Axum) list only five who ruled 143. Paul B. Henze reports the existence of at least one list containing 16 names.

According to Carlo Conti Rossini, the shorter mooted length of this dynasty is the more likely one. He argues that a letter received by the Patriarch of Alexandria John V shortly before 1150 from an unnamed Ethiopian monarch, in which the Patriarch is asked for a new abuna because the current office holder was too old, was from Mara Takla Haymanot, who wanted the abuna replaced because he would not endorse the new dynasty.

The mystery of the Zagwe dynasty is perhaps darkest around its replacement by the revived Solomonic dynasty under Yekuno Amlak. The name of the last Zagwe king is lost—the surviving chronicles and oral traditions give his name as Za-Ilmaknun, which is clearly a pseudonym (Taddesse Tamrat translates it as “The Unknown, the hidden one”), employed soon after his reign by the victorious Solomonic rulers in an act of damnatio memoriae. Taddesse Tamrat believes that this last ruler was actually Yetbarak. The end of the Zagwe came when Yekuno Amlak, who never personally claimed to be descendant of Dil Na’od or King Solomon, and acting under the guidance of either Saint Tekle Haymanot or Saint Iyasus Mo’a, pursued the last king of the Zagwe and killed him at the Battle of Ansata.

Unlike Aksum, the Zagwe were virtually unknown to the contemporary powers of the Mediterranean. The only regular relations seem to have been maintained with Egypt and Jerusalem. Although their presence is often claimed to have been of considerable antiquity, it is only in the 11th and 12th centuries when Ethiopians are firmly attested to have lived in Egypt. A rare testament for their presence during the reign of the Zagwe is a fragmentary manuscript written in Ge’ez that was recently discovered in the Monastery of Saint Anthony, dating to the mid-12th to mid-13th centuries.

The common notion that Saladin granted concessions to the Ethiopian church in Jerusalem after his conquest of the town in 1187 is based on a faked source from the 19th century. The earliest sources confirming an Ethiopian community in Jerusalem date to the second half of the 13th century. Yet it is still probable that Ethiopians had lived there before. In the late 12th century, King Lalibela’s knowledge of the town was sufficient enough to have inspired him during the expansion of his capital, adopting Jerusalem’s form, attributions and toponyms.

Source: Internet

By Chala Dandessa

I am Lecturer, Researcher and Freelancer. I am the founder and Editor at ETHIOPIANS TODAY website. If you have any comment use as email contact. Additionally you can contact us through the contact page of

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