Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

The Beja People the Indigenous people of Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt

The Beja people are an ancient Cushitic people closely kin to the ancient Egypt thus the living descendants of Kemet.

Yes the Beja are the nomads and the rulers of the desert since predynastic Egypt, in comparison the beduions in Sinai are Arab nomads that arrived recently into Egypt

Their language is Afroasciatic and their bloodline is less altered than COPTS in Egypt

The name Beja is applied to a grouping of Muslim peoples speaking dialects of a Cushitic language called Beja, and living in Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt. They are traditionally pastoral people whose territory covers some 110,000 square miles in the extreme northeast of Sudan.

Many scholars believe the Beja to be derived from early Egyptians because of their language and physical features. They are the indigenous people of this area, and we first know of them in historical references in the Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt. Over the centuries, they had contact and some influence from Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks.

A few Beja became Christians in the sixth century. The southern Beja were part of the Christian Kingdom of Axum centered in what is now southern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Although never completely conquered by a foreign power, the Beja in the 15th century were absorbed into Islam by marriages and trading contacts with nearby Arab tribes.

In the seventeenth century they expanded farther south seeking better pastures and conquering other peoples along the way. By the 18th century, the Hadendowa Beja were the dominant people of eastern Sudan.

There has never been an official census in Ethiopia/Eritrea, so figures are estimates from various field sources, notably published anthropologists. Uncertain data indicates there may be as many as 2,300,000 people total who speak the Beja language and identify themselves as Beja. The name Beja is form Arabic. The language name is Bedawiyet, also an Arabic name, related to the word Bedouin. A large number of the Beja speak Sudanese Arabic as a mother tongue.

Our figures estimate Beja speakers at about 107,000 in Eritrea, about 60,000 in Egypt and 2,134,000 in Sudan. It appears there are approximately 99,000 Beni-Amer speakers of Tigre. The total number of all Beja people in Eritrea speaking Beja or Tigre appears to be about 206,000. Some estimates are higher than 500,000.

All the Beja peoples, by our more conservative estimates, number 2,540,315.

The Beja people are an ancient Cushitic people closely kin to the ancient Egyptians, who have lived in the desert between the Nile river and the Red Sea since at least 25000 BC. Various Beja groups have intermarried with Arab or southern (dark) Cushites over the centuries. All the dialects are mutually intelligible. Some speakers are bilingual in Arabic or Tigre (Ethnologue). There are perhaps 100,000 or more who are Beja socially and culturally, but who speak Tigre.

They are sometimes aloof, withdrawn, aggressive and warlike. The Beja have a uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair, first recorded in Egyptian rock paintings (circa B.C. 2000). Rudyard Kipling gave them the famous name “the Fuzzy Wuzzies.” Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendowa, who fought the British, supporting the “Mahdi,” a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.

In this war the Bisharin and Amarar section of the Beja sided with the British, while the Hadendowa gained fame for defeating the British in two battles. The Hadendowa are thought to be the only traditional warriors who were able to break a British army “square” armed with modern weapons. In World War II the Hadendowa allied themselves with the British against the Italians who were supported by the Beni-Amer and other Tigre-speaking people.

Language: The Beja word for their language is To Bedawie (or To Bedawiat), and the people and language are also called Bedawiye, Bedawiuet (the Ethnologue name), Bedauye and Beni-Amer (with other variations). Subgroupings of the Beja people do not coincide directly with the dialects of the language. The major subgroups are: Ababda, Amarar, Bisharin, Hadendoa, Beni-Amer Beja, Beni-Amer Tigre and Babail Ukhra (“other tribes”). The Ethnologue mentions other ethnic divisions as Halenga and Arteiga.

Though the Ababda have come to speak Arabic, they retain their Beja customs and lifestyle. The Beni-Amer Tigre speakers (Sudan and Eritrea) are reported to be physically distinguished from the Semitic Tigre. The Beni-Amer are generally bilingual in both Beja (To Bedawie) and Tigre. Reports differ as to the number whose mother tongue is one or the other of these two languages. Many Beni-Amer also speak Arabic.

The name used in technical linguistics for To Bedawie is Beja. Dialects of the Beja language are called Hadendoa (Hadendowa, Hadendiwa), Hadareb (Hadaareb, Hidareb, Hidarib) and Bisharin (Bisarin, Bisariab). All these language forms are classified by the same Ethnologue Code bej, with dialect numbers.

The Beni-Amer are a large group in Eritrea who include Beja-speaking and Tigre-speaking subgroups. All serfs in Beja society were called Tigre (the Beja word for “slave”) and the Tigre language is associated with serfdom, though the serfs were “themselves Beja of a very ancient stock” (Paul). The Tigre language is a Semitic language related to Amharic and Tigrinya.

Some authorities indicate the Beni-Amer, despite this diversity, have retained more of the ancient Beja identity than other Beja tribes, who have intermarried more with other people. This is analogous to the Somali people’s clans, many of whom speak non-Somali languages.

There are perhaps 100,000 Beni-Amer Beja who speak only Tigre. The Halenga are former Tigre speakers who now speak Beja. The Hadareb (Hidareb) are a Beni-Amer group but the name is used broadly for Beja speakers in general.

The Beni-Amer (Hadareb) are found in the northwest and northeast of the country, and are prominent in towns of Keren, Agordat and Tessenei. Beni-Amer have also been reported to extend into northern Ethiopia under other names.

The Hadendoa dialect is spoken by Beja in Eritrea and Sudan. The Bisharin dialect is spoken by Beja in Sudan and Egypt. The Hadendoa people and language are found from the Atbara River to the Red Sea, where they meet and mix with the Beni-Amer. About two-thirds of the Beni-Amer live in Eritrea, and one-third in Sudan.

The language spoken by the Beni-Amer is called simply Beja (To Bedawie). The term Hadareb is used variously to refer to a language form and a people group. Ethnologue information is based on language forms only. For instance, the Beni-Amer alone have over 40 sections.

Political Situation: The Beja have been independent, with fairly autonomous clans. For instance, the Beni-Amer alone have over 40 sections. They have not always had amicable relations between diverse Beja groups.

They resisted military conquest by Egyptian pharaohs. Occasionally certain sections of the Beja have paid tribute to Egyptian rulers. In recent centuries they have been ruled by a series of Islamic governments. In recent years, some of the more educated Beja have become active in the affairs of modern Sudan.

All Beja divisions are Muslims and Sudanese Beja support the government’s attempt to impose Islamic law on the Sudan. In 1996, however, they also suffered reprisals from the Khartoum government when they refused to be forced to serve in the Sudan army. Reports are that many have retreated into Eritrea for refuge.

Customs: Rites of passage are at birth, circumcision (of males), engagement, marriage, death and remembrance or a second funeral. The Beja are only partially dependent upon cash, with which they buy clothing, coffee, grain and oil. Fewer than 3 percent are town dwellers.

They still follow a nomadic lifestyle centered around herding. They raise a wide range of animals; cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. They are best known as camel traders, moving up and down the Red Sea area from Egypt to Eritrea. They also maintain food crops, usually farmed for them by West Africans engaged for this purpose. They also trade their crafts of straw mats and woolen rugs or charcoal and firewood for food in the markets.

Some Beja groups are more nomadic than others. The more nomadic do not have permanent homes and carry few possessions, but they live in hemispherical or rectangular tents made of straw mats laid over a wooden frame.

The more sedentary Beja build mud-walled houses with more furnishings. All members of a family, husband and wife and all children below age seven, sleep in on large bed also made of straw mats and woolen rugs, on a wooden frame. In a polygamous family the husband will sleep in the tent of each wife in turn. Unmarried men sleep in the open at the edge of camp.

The preferred marriage pattern is children of brothers (first cousins). Multiple wives are rare. The groom’s family pays the bride’s family a “bridewealth” (sadag) of livestock, clothing and other goods. The mother’s brother is an important figure.

Shariah law is followed, but interpreted by uneducated Kadis. Beja have no central tribal authority. Divisions and major sub-divisions consist of a group of patrilineally organized clans. Clans are divided into large lineages (bedana) and sublineages (hissa). Each bedana or a group of bedanas is led by a sheikh with authority based on consent of the group.

Girls help their mothers in and around the tent, cooking and collecting firewood and water. Men milk the cattle and camels, while boys and adult sons help their fathers herd the cattle and increase the herds.

The Beja people began to be converted to Islam around 1450 and following, largely because of movement of Arab Muslims into their area. The two major influences were from Yemen and from Egypt and Sudan. The latter, the Jaaliyyin (Gaaliin) Arabs from northern Arabia via Egypt, were the strongest influence.

The Beni-Amer gained their name and their Muslim identity from the Jaaliyyin. The Hadendowa have intermarried even more over a longer period with Jaaliyyin and southern Arabs like the Rebeyah, as have the Bisharin. They were not fully Muslim, however, until the nineteenth century, when they were influenced by the Sufi revival in Arabia and northeastern Africa.

Most Beja are not devout Muslims, but rather possess a “folk Islam,” blending Islamic faith with their traditional beliefs. The prayers of most Beja are routine and are, to a great extent, not understood by them.

In the fifth century AD the Beja people were involved in the center of Christian development as the gospel was brought to the kingdom of Axum by Syrian missionaries. The Beja were part of the Axumite kingdom led by Semitic Sabeans who had settled among them.

After the incursion of Arab peoples bringing Islam, the Beja gradually abandoned Christianity. In 1991, response to the gospel began anew among the Beja. A baptism in a shallow river yielded the first Beja convert in centuries.

The Beja language has no Bible translation. In recent years, two mission groups working with the Beja were expelled. In the late 1990s Bible translation was planned for both Tigre and Beja, but progress has not been reported. Reports indicate there are 30 or fewer Beja Christians. Agencies do not release details of workers among the Beja. The Beja are classified as one people group in all three countries with Unreached status.

The Beja are said to be the Medjay soldier class originating in Ta-Seti as the archers called into service during the 12th Dynastic Period. Their Beja name is said to derive from the municipality founded by Amenemhat I called Amenemhat-It-jawy or Itjawy or Bedjawi or Bejawi (another modern name for Beja). Amenemhat I created an army from his mother’s home town of Ta-Seti and the Beja are said to be those warriors-for-hire and their name is derived from the municipality Amenemhat I founded.

Historically, the Medjay date to before the 12th Dynasty and from the Old Kingdom fought against ancient Egypt on the side of Kush, then switched back and forth between ancient Egyptian and Nubian alliances ending during the Roman era in which they sided with the Romans against the rulers of Meroe. In the Roman era, they were known as the Blemmyes. Much later, Rudyard Kipling referred to them as “Fuzzy Wuzzies” because of their tiffa (afros) hair style.

The Beja themselves name themselves after whatever land they reside upon and presently span from Sudan and Egypt into Eritrea and Ethiopia and even Yemen. They are traditionally pastoral but some are nomadic. Their language is Ta Bedawi / Bedawiye and although Cushitic is considered the origin of the Semitic Ge’ez language and those that derived from Ge’ez such as Tigre, Tigrinya, and Amharic. The Beja may also be a link to the Kushite expansion into Mesopotamia as it was Henry Rawlinson who deciphered cuneiform using Ta Bedawi not a Semitic language. It was Rawlinson who said the language of the Kushites spanned from West Africa through Western Asia to India. Important to note that ancient Greeks often referred to Babylonians as Ethiopians. So the link between African Semitic and Western Asian Semitic most likely involves the Beja and their Kushitic language influences. This migration of the Beja may explain why there is correlation between Western Asian and Horn of Africa languages to Kush-Kemetic languages. The Beja have adopted Arabic as well because they are Islamic. The interesting aspect about their internal naming system, since they do not refer to themselves as Beja, is that in and of itself is very ancient Egyptian way of self-identifying. Ancient Egyptians identified by the land (nomes/villages) they were from and not by any specific ethnic name.

Considering that ancient Egypt consisted of many African ethnic groups much like modern-day African nations then there is some truth to nearly any African ethnic group with genetic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and geographical ties to Kemet but Beja have always been identified and linked with Kush and Kemet.

Vintage Beja photo. Man has a curling stick in his hair which are used by Beja as well as Afar ethnic groups and are used to create various twist and curl hairstyles. The Curling Stick is also an ancient Egyptian artifact.

Beja Kingdoms

During the Middle ages there were five Beja kingdoms that were established. These kingdoms stretched from the lowlands of Eritrea to Aswan in Egypt. The Beja kingdoms occupied much of the former territory of the Aksum empire.
These kingdoms were first noted by the famous Arab historian Al-Yaqubi during the 9th century A.D.
The names of the kingdoms were Naqis, Baqlin, Bazin, Jarin and Qat’a.
These kingdoms bordered each other and the powerful Nubian Alodia kingdom.
To the south of the Beja kingdoms was a Christian kingdom called Najashi.
Gold, precious stones and emeralds were found in many of the kingdoms. Al-Yaqubi noted that Muslim Arabs visited the kingdoms for trading purposes. He also noted that Arabs worked in the mines of the kingdoms.

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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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