10 Facts about the Agaw People of Ethiopia
- The Agaw/Agew/Agau are an ethnic group indigenous to East Africa, inhabiting both Ethiopia and Eritrea. Today, there are five main Agaw subgroups: Xamta, Awi, Qemant, Falasha, and Bilen (Eritrea). The Xamta reside in the Wag Hemra Zone (Sekota), Lasta, Tembein and Abergele. The Awi reside in Southwestern Gojjam. The Qemant reside in Western and Northern Gondar. The Falashas formerly lived in Northeastern Gondar; however, most have now migrated to Israel, and the Bilen primarily reside in Central Eritrea. It’s important to note that historically the Agaw have a lot more subgroups/clans within them.
- While there might be different origin stories for the different Agaw subgroups, a commonly known origin story comes from the Awi, the Agaw of Agawmidir and Metekkel, modern-day Benshangul-Gumuz, (formerly parts of the Gojam province). The Awi tradition states their ancestors came from seven brothers originally from Lasta/Wag area, currently in Wollo, and constituted what is known as the LaNeta Awiya or the ‘Seven House Agaw” (Sebat-Bet Agaw). The seven houses are named after the seven brothers: Banja, Ankasha, Kwakwra, Chara, Metekkel, Zigem, and Azena, and there are other minor groups like Tumha, Dangizh (Dangla), Bil (Belaya), and Gwagwsa who are said to be descendants of the original seven. All the names are now administrative districts or subdistricts in Ethiopia, such as Metekel.
- The Agaw people’s languages are part of the central Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. There are about five language clusters. The Qemant dialect is known as Qimantissa. The Xamta/Kamyr dialect is Xamtigna. The Falasha dialect was known as Kayla, Awi dialect is called Awngi/Awiya, and the Bilen dialect is Bilen. Scholars believe Awngi/Awiya has the closest ties of any dialects to the ancient Agaw language. While the number of Agaw speakers has significantly declined in Ethiopia, various linguistic scholars argue its influence on Ethiosemetic languages, particularly Amharic, Tigryina, is undeniable. Today, the majority of Agaw are bi-lingual, mostly speaking their language in addition to Amharic or Tigrinya,
- Most of the Agaw in Ethiopia are Orthodox Christians, with a minority being Protestant. The Qemant Agaw have close historical ties with the Beta Isreal and many scholars suggest that the Beta Isreal and Qemant were originally part of the common Agaw- speaking population and eventually emerged as distinct groups over time. Historically, the Qemant practiced a Pagan-Hebraic faith and had closer ties with the Christian State due to their submission to the former and were thus permitted to practice their religion and retain their land. However, in contrast, the Beta Israel, who were devout Jews and spoke Kayla, refused to convert and openly rebelled against the state for several centuries from their base in the rugged region of Semien (North-Eastern Gonder province). Because of this, they were stripped of their land rights and were made wanderers, from which the term “Falasha” derived from (Ge’ez for “landless”) and became attached to the Beta Israel as a whole. Gradually, the Beta Israel lost their linguistic identity and adopted either Amharic or Tigrigna but kept their ethnic and distinct identity until most emigrated to Israel in the 1970s.
5. The Agaw are known as the principal, original, seed-agropastoral inhabitants of the Horn of Africa. George P. Murdock, an American anthropologist, explained how the Agaw were historically perhaps one of the most culturally creative people on the continent. Murdock explains how the Agaw adopted crops from other places, which led to the production of new variations of sorghum, barley, and wheat. They also experimented with local plants, generating new cultigens like finger millet and teff. For this reason, central highland Ethiopia ranks as one of the world’s critical minor centers of the origination of cultivated plants along with China and India.
6. The Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia was established by the Agaw after the fall of the Aksumite Empire and ruled from Lalibela in the historical Lasta province. Through the establishment of the Zagwe dynasty, the Agaw not only maintained the essential traits of the political and religious traditions of Aksum, but they gave them new life and passed them on, almost intact, to later generations of Ethiopians (Tamrat, 1998).
7. The word “Aksum” is said to have derived from Agaw. In the Agaw language, it translates to “principal of water.” Some scholars propose the word derived from both Agaw and Ge’ez translating to “water-chief”; the first part of the word “Ah” means water in Agaw, and the second part, “Siyyum,” which translates to chief in Ge’ez. However, it’s important to note that other theories say Aksum only came from the Ge’ez language.
Lalibela, Ethiopia (UNESCO World Heritage Site). The churches in Lalibela date back to the reign of the Zagwe (Agaw) king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela.
8. The word Sokota formerly spelled Sokota/Sakota/Soqota, most likely originates from the Agaw word Sekut, which translates to “fortified village.” The Xamta Agaw reside in Sokota, Wag Humra Zone, a sub-region of northern Wollo in the modern Amhara region. Some refer to the Xamta as the original ancestors of the Agew. The Xamta ruled from Lasta and Bugna during the Zagwe dynasty. The Wag-Shum or Wag-Seyum was the hereditary ruler of the regions of Lasta and Wag since the 14th century and claimed to be a descendent of the Zagwe emperors.
9. Shadey is a religious festival celebrated in August, particularly in Wag. The festival marks the end of a two-week-long fast where the Orthodox Tewahado Church followers gather to honor the Virgin Mary. The name of the festival has different names throughout the country. In the Khimra subgroup/clan of the Agaw Shadey means “tall green grass.” During the traditional religious festival, girls wear tall green grass around their waists. Shadey is widely celebrated in Sekota and in Lasta, where it’s referred to as Ashendye. Shadey/Ashendye is an important religious festival to the Northern Agaw, celebrated in their historic lands from Lasta to Sokota.
10. Horses play a meaningful role in the Agaw society, more specifically among the Awi. In 1932, local people fighting during the Italian invasion established the Sebat Bet Agew (Seven house Agew) horse rider associations. Today the association has more than 40,000 horse riders. The association conducts an annual horse-riding parade and show in Injibara town in the Agew Awi Zone in January. The annual horse-riding festival is one of the largest horse riding festivals in the world. During the festival, horse riders colorfully decorate their horses, and town residents prepare cultural food and beverages.
Agew Awi horse riding festival
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