A Brief Sketch of the Bejas of Eritrea

Written by: Aida Kidane

Part I:

Anthropologists would undoubtedly classify Eritrea under the Cam family tree,

including pre-Kushites who speak Nilotic languages.

Scholars attempt to make classification regarding Cam tribes:-

• Lower Kushites (Somalia)

• Upper Kushites (Agew)

• Beja or Northern Kushites.

On further studies, we come to understand that these are the people who live in the four parts of the country.
In this brief writing, we will try to trace the Beja in Eritrea, i.e, who they were and from where they came.

The history of the Beja, who are the ancestors of the Eritrean people, is becoming extinct in the sense that the present inhabitants of Eritrea do not acknowledge that their roots go a long time back to the Bejas. It is a mistaken common thought that the present Eritreans try to delegate their ancestorship to some other bygone peoples or tribes and the Bejas are presumed to be aliens.

Origin of the word 'Beja':

It would be highlighting to say something upon the word 'Beja' itself. The word has a special meaning in Ge'ez(old church language), Tigre and Tigrinya.

'Beja' as a word is a common sight in stellaes, and early manuscripts. Besides, the oral tradition time and again quotes the word 'Beja'. 'Beja' is frequently taken as a proper noun and pronoun. This is true in the case of Bega (Beja), Begay (cattle, mainly ox and also a well built person), Begayt (cattle, mainly cow), Begattay (of a Beja, for a male), Begatteyti (of a Beja, for a female) etc...

Bejas and their Blemmy ancestors:

Early Bejas were called Blemmy. This ancestral name, however, creates misunderstanding in that there are people who think that the Blemmy are an extension of the Beja tribe or family. History has it that five languages were being spoken in the land of Nubia, of which one was Beja (Blemmy). Although the Bejas area not Nubians, their initial place extended from the land of Nubia to Egypt.

The Blemmys ruled Meroe specially from 568-318 B.C. Later, the Blemmys enslaved Egyptians under Deokleziano . From fear of being ruled and enslaved by the Blemmys, the Egyptians peopled the lower part of Nubia with the Nabates or Nabatea. But this was not to help the Egyptians from defending Nubia because the Nabates, through time, lived together with the Bejas(Blemmy).

Even though they could not score a military success over the Romans, the Bejas ruled and taxed Egypt from 453-566 B.C., for about a century.

This, however, ceased with the coming of Justinianos, but even then many futile offenses were made.

In the modern map of the world, we can have a glimpse of the location of the early powers such as Egypt, Axum and Meroe. The prime civilized country, Egypt, had to pass through the Bejas to go to Axum and Meroe.

This historical and geographical grandeur did not have limits i.e, the Bejas also had Ambassadors in Rome.

This was written by Eusebios in his 4th chapter in the biography he wrote about Konstantino. Nubians also kept their dignity by being trustful to their Bejas.

The Bejas had a capital, Talmis, during the beginning of the 6th century B.C. in which they controlled land of the Sudan which was called the lower Ethiopia that had boundary with Egypt. Their capital, Talmis, did not stay long being a center, for after the decline of Meroe, a self-throned king of All Ethiopia, Silyakos, with the alliance of Bisanzios, defeated the Blemmy.

Aided by the Axumites' cavalry, and with 200,000 men under the leadership of Kiyriakos, the Nubian king, the Blemmys attacked the Egyptians in 735 B.C and defeated an Arabic power managing to reach in a lake called Birket al Habesh.

The Arabs did not feel easy with their defeat, so they mobilized an army and attacked. This counterattack was initiated after 868 B.C. with the intention of once and for last destroying the Blemmys. As a result, the Belewi, a name which the Arabs referred themselves, increased their influence in the Sudan and Eritrea.

Since the early settlers were the Hedareb and the Had An Duwa (meaning the tribe of Lords), the Belewi inhabited the areas by saying that they were direct descendants of Ismael, straight from Mecca.


The tribe of Khasa, a section of the Beja, which history confirms were among the prime settlers of Eritrea lived during the time of Greek and Rome. A century or two before the birth of Christ, this same tribe ruled the whole Sahel.

This is proved by Plinium who died in 79 A.C. His Latin recount says " In a five day's walk from the sea, there live a people who reside in mountains by hunting elephants. These people are Asachae or khasa tribe who used to be called kushites (AEthiopes). These people used boats that had sailing mats which traveled to Arab countries."

As the Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini concluded from Plinium's studies, the land of Asachae extended until the sea. Rossini also reached into conclusion that it was not difficult to cross in to the Arab land from Aschae and the so called mountains are the present chains of Sahel. From Rossini's words "Oligarchy prevailed in the northern Sahel Rora as in the northern Habeshas. Khasa or Ahsak might have been their true name."

The Ahsak which Plinium refers to similarize with the Sukians and kush(Aethiopians) people who were in the army of Sisak.

Miraculously, the name Asachea still refers in Tigre to the people in Sahel and east Sudan.

A study made by Munzinger written in 1855-61 and distributed in 1890, called "Studi soll Africa Orientale" denotes the Tigre speakers in Barka and Sahel are Asacheans. He classifies khasa or Asacheans as the people who ruled the northern part of Eritrea in oligarchy and who later were ruled by other tribes. Since they had already accepted the Ge'ez language and were using it, it is called khasa or Asachea.

Beja and the Axumite Empire:

Among all the neighbors of Axum who attempted offenses against the great Habesha power (Axum) and who were so many times themselves defeated were the Bejas. This location included the southern and northern parts of Eritrea.

The now and then war and peace between the Axumites and the Bejas is recorded in the stele of Ezana. The stele manuscripted a lot of history regarding the Beja of which are their warming behaviors and their peaceful approaches.

A special record has been set in one of the monuments which depicted that the five or six kingdoms of the Beja battled with the Axumites and later shared a peaceful relationship. This same stele gives written account in its fourth line saying that the Beja people were steadfast on their stand and they were well cared by the Axumites.

Another tribe of people called kasu are linked with the Beja. Their existence was witnessed in a writing in Tsegazeab's monument in lower Barka. These people were initiated in to the Ge'ez culture and accepted Christianity, as the name Tsegazeab refers(Grace of the Lord).

The rule of Axumite kingdom extended from the southern part to the northern Eritrea which mainly was peopled by the Beja.

Bejas from 750-900 A. C. in Eritrea:

The above mentioned time frame witnessed the flow of the Bejas from the mountainous parts of the country to the north western and to their present location of highland and lowland.

Eritrea, being a Beja, was confirmed by Arab travelers like Yakubi and Mesudi. The then Beja-ruled Eritrea was wealthy of long-horned cattle and had a commercial line that extended up to Egypt.

Part II:

MAS'UDI and YAQ'UBI also recount that these people follow a matrilineal (matriarchal) line of ancestor ship.

Their women practiced infibulation or seaming of the genitals.

Moreover, as Greek writers used to refer, Red Sea settlers had the habit of removing their right testicles, which gave them the name Colobi or "Mutilated people". Besides, as is presently done in some southern tribes of the Sudan, the Bejas took off their front teeth to escape from the concept that they are similar to assess.

The Bejas also had war camels that could outrun horses. They were experienced in warfare and their sophistication in the art of combat was witnessed in their making of slings and poisonous spears that:-

• Was four-cubit long in body,

• Had an iron cusp measuring another three cubits,

• Is as wide as a sword and

• Had a sort of a ball at the end that kept it from falling(even the present ones are like it).

The Arabs who lived during that time called this Suba'iyyah, meaning seven cubits long. The tips of their spears were made of a root called Galgah which was poisoned by their women folks . The shields they used were decorated with ox skin. The Bejas, specially the Northerners, idolized an Egyptian god named Izide.

This above narration some how seems unrelated with what the Arab writers later wrote. They say that the Bejas who came later were Christians. Together with the idolaters, they defended Islam for a long time.

But Arabs like the Rabi'a tribe and others infiltrated their men who married Beja women and tended to change their ancestor ship. For instance, the tribe called Had andawa were initiated in to Islam by clans which came from Hadramut and so they shifted (changed) their name into Hidarmo or Hidareb (children of Hadramut).

Beja Kingdoms in Eritrea:

A lot has been said and written about the Bejas or their kingdoms but much is attributed to writers like IBN HAUCAL (877 A.D), YA'QUBI(earlier referred as YAKUBI in 900A.c) and MAS'UDI (referred as MESUDI in 947 A.C).

These travelers tell the story that the Bejas ruled an Eritrea that stretched out from the western border of the Kunama extending through the east i.e. Semhar.

During this time, Eritrea was divided under three Beja kingdoms and a fourth BAZEN (Kunama) kingdom.

A) The Baqhlin Kingdoms:

This is the first Beja kingdom which history confirms ruled in Eritrea. The Baqhlin monarch governed the Rora of Sahel, which was inhabited by the khasa. The present Baqhla, then Baqhlin, was its capital.

History tells that it was a fierce kingdom. It stretched out to Barka, which in a way bordered with the BAZEN domain. The kingdom had many cities. Its dominant tribe was called Zenafig, of which there is a Zenafigia kingdom.

B) The Giarin Kingdoms:

The Giarin bordered with BADI (read as lªï- lÃö), Barka and the Baqhlin kingdom. It had strong kingdoms. Besides, its frontier went up to a place called HAL ADDIGIAG which literally means Fowl (Hen) Market, Fowl Mountain or "a place where hens meet"(Amba Derho).

A characteristic which both inhabitants of Baqhlin and Giarin shared was the arc or bow shaped beard-shaving styles(a common sight in present day rural Eritrea). They also extracted their upper and lower front teeth not to look like asses.

C) The Catah Kingdoms:

This kingdom stretches out till Faicum. It was close to Badi (Massawa). Its inhabitants were war-like and fearless. The youngsters continually practiced in the art of warfare.

Their military capital was called DAR ASSAWA (Both Faicum and Dar Assawa are not presently known where they are located). But scholars and researchers speculate that the Beja empire reached out to Hamassien and exploited the mines of MEDR ZIYEN.

"It has already been shown that Mas'udi, in referring to the Omayyadian escape, gives the name Ma'adin meaning "mines" to Massawa. If this information were correct and is not a result of some confusion with landsfurther north, we would have a positive document that could demonstrate the exploitation of Eritrean gold mines by the Begia during their domination there.

What is even more likely is that rather than in northern Begia territory, gold mines in eastern Nubia were in operation during the later medieval period. The galleries and tunnels of Hamasen remind one of the painful descriptions Diodorus Siculus provides of the Nubia mines, which were later held by the Hedareb.

The fact that the dominating people were foreign must have aided them in their inhuman treatment of their subjects and in gathering slaves to carry out that hard work. However, maybe oral tradition themselves support the hypothesis.

Leaving aside some signs-because they are simply too vague-that the Balau, the authors of the work near Addi Cenaudi were sometimes in Maraguz, what is interesting is the insistence of the references to the gold possessed by the Rom and the Dina Fana.

Of the former there are the above-mentioned songs; while for the latter, the stories of the Hamasen affirm that gold was even used to build and plaster their homes." (Carlo Conti Rossini, "Storia d'Etiopia", Pages 278-279).

Eritrean legend narrates about these kingdoms in a different version. This seems to have been done to remind that Rom and Dina Fana were continually celebrated in oral histories and songs.

Long-lived Oligarchy Rule in Ancient Eritrea:

Oligarchy had been overwhelmingly in use for thousands of years as the political status and culture in parts of Eritrea like Barka, Senhayut (Senhit) and Sahel.

Stories from Sahel tell that the early society was divided into classes, i.e the higher and the lower classes. The first few were known for their inhuman actions. The latter, however, were great in number but weak. The weak ones are the present Tigre masses.

This sort of governance might have been prevalent in whole Eritrea but until recently it was common in the central, northwestern and northeastern part of the county.

So how was rule of the many by the few in Eritrea? Until recently, there was an economic and political system among:-

• The Asgede and the Tigre in Sahel,

• The Nebtab and the Tigre in Barka, and

• The Shimagle and Tigre in Senhayut (Senhit). The makeup is between the many Tigres and few others.

The above system of ruling denotes that few Bejas governed the many Tigre or Geez speakers. One of the historically known Beja monarchs were the Khasa.

The line then passes to the Zenafeg who ruled with barbarous treatment, Baqhlin in Sahel as their capital. In the highlands of Eritrea, the Zenafig are known by the name Dina Fana. It is told that they smoothed and plastered over their residences with gold.

Later, a strong Beja tribe, the Had andawa or Hidareb transcended their ancestors and even went as far as prevailing over the Zenafig. These people were known as Rom or Romay in Eritrean legend.

They were recognized for their wealth and splendor. Everything that has to do with beauty and wealth in Tigre and Tigrinya is given to the Rom as their possession in history.

The rule of oligarchy next goes to the Balaw (currently pronounced as Belew). Then Nebtab, Shimagle and the last Beja monarch, the Asgede follow respectively. From the above three people, the last two i.e. the Shimagle and the Asgede are exclusively Saho and Habesha. In general, oligarchy was the rule of the day in early Eritrea.

When a few military strong group comes forth a winner, it can rule and tax the people by controlling their every day means of survival like water and other modes of life. Soon afterward, the harsh rule follows.

Rom Arumi Arwam Romi:

The four names give the impression of coast-side inhabitants in Egyptian, as we have Sebdera, Seb Zara (people of the river), and Seb Derat.

As part of the Beja, the ROM are thought to have ruled a large part of Eritrea.

"Regarding the end of the Rom people, it is said that they grew arrogant and hurled their staffs up against the skies. To punish them their God turned their scalps blood red so birds (eagles) preyed on them and tried to eat their brains.

The Rom tried to hide from them and dug deep pits into which they sunk and disappeared from the world. In other versions, the Rom obtained from God the right to disappear " as a blessing".

They were grieved by their decline, which they saw as an imminent consequence of their own bellicose power and wealth, and their women were only able to give birth to male children, while their cows only gave birth to female offspring so that their sons could not find wives nor could their calves find bulls.

They built tombs as big as huts and entered them with their animals and all their property and were lost.

(Carlo Conti Rossini, 'Storia d'Etiopia', pages 362-363)

During the 17th century, a strong Arumi kingdom prevailed to the north of Atbara. It was led by a woman called Negusta El Rum. She was captured in a battle with Bahregas Gebremariam from Tse'azega who transferred her to king Susnyos.

The king, however, pardoned her after presenting here with precious gifts. This gives a striking resemblance with the inscription in the stele of Ezana regarding the Five Beja Kingdoms.

The word Romay is associated among other memories and recollections in Tigre and Tigrigna with:-

• Slim and slender persons,

• Long spears and,

• Overlong rifles

The word Rom also keeps on popping in traditional praises and eulogies. Even names such as graves of Rom, waters of Arumi etc... might still exist. Scholars like Alberto Pollera and Conti Rossini, however, differ in their treatment of the subject.

Pollera thinks that the Zenafeg (a dominant Beja tribe) are Rom where as Rossini says "the Rom are a branch of the Hedareb who were annihilated in a war between the Kunama and the Hedareb". Even the Portuguese consider the Rom still as existing Eritreans.


A lot has been said in various languages regarding the Beja by different writers. I have attempted to forward the reliable contents of authors who are of direct relevance to the reader.

Hence, the reader will find much that is to be said and told. The authors and their books are:-

Alberto Pollera
Le popolzione indigene dell'Eritrea.
Licino cappilli - editore.
Bologna - 1935.
pp. 30-31. 37-40. 196-197. 226-227
Storia generale dell'Africa.
La prestoria
Volume I

Roland Oliver, Antoni Atmore
L'Africa sub Sahariana.
Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese.
pp. 5-16

Roland Oliver John D. Fage
Breve storia dell'Africa.

Giulio Einaudi Editore - 1974. pp.17
Stidi sul'Africa Orientale.

Tip. Delle LL.MM, il Re e la Regina
Traduz, dal Tedesco
per cura del
Corpo di Stato Maggiore
ROMA, 1890. Pp. 222-223

• Book: Mereni's People, origins of Geshinashim
• Author: Abba Isaak Ghebreyesus
• Translator: Daniel Tesfay


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