Tigray Cultural Renaissance in the Midst of Ethiopian Crisis

This article was contributed by Professor Ghelawdewos Araia. It was originally published at africanidea.org on January 20, 2020

Tigray is the quintessential Ethiopian state where virtually all tangible and intangible cultural heritages of the Ethiopian nation-state had begun. Now, in the midst of socio-political crisis that has engulfed all Ethiopia, by a twist of historical irony, relative peace has reigned in Tigray and the abler and extraordinaire Tigrayans have begun in earnest recapturing and reviving traditional mores, customs, belief systems, as well as material cultures that were subdued and suppressed for a long time.

The revival of Tigrigna music, Tigray women hairdo, and the many paraphernalia that accompany those cultures began some twenty-five years ago, but the exploration of hidden and forgotten material and/or conceptual aspects of civilization have just begun enjoying justice in the last two years, thanks in large measure to the diligent efforts of Tigray TV and Dimtsi Woyane TV (DW), the two state media have brought the remotest and out of sight Tigrayan heritage to center stage. I will discuss evidences of cultural revival and exploration by Tigray mass media by providing examples of some footage later.

Before I delve into the new frontiers of the rich residue of Ethiopian civilization in Tigray, however, I like to make a footnote in regards to the incredible Tigrayan altruism and toleration in embracing and hosting other Ethiopians in spite of the horrific attacks and killings that the Tigrayans themselves have sustained in the last five years.

I always have maintained that Tigray is not only an integral part of Ethiopia but it is also its most crucial embodiment, and to my gratification, the present Tigray Government leadership, instead of demanding secession from the Ethiopian body politic, has on the contrary, came up with a viable strategy to preserve the Ethiopian constitution and the federal structure in cooperation and collaboration with the thirty-four other Ethiopian federalist forces that have now established one unified organization. This wonderful Tigrayan altruistic sentiment, tainted with tolerance, reminds me of a victim Amish people in the United States who forgave and embraced their own killer.

The narrative of “goodness” vs. evil was captured by the famous and late African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison in her Ingersoll Lecture Series entitled “Altruism and the Literary Imagination”, and this is how she presented it: “On an October morning in 2006, a young man backed his truck into the driveway of a one-room school house. He walked in the school and after ordering the boy students, the teacher, and a few other adults to leave, he lined up the girls, ages nine to thirteen, and shot them…What made this massacre especially notable was the fact that its landscape was an Amish community – notoriously peaceful and therefore the most unlikely venue for such violence…The Amish community forgave the killer, refused to seek justice, demand vengeance, or even judge him. They visited and comforted the killer’s widow and children (who are not Amish), just as they embraced the relatives of the slain.”1

The exemplar Amish narrative, in very similar fashion, was demonstrated by the enormous human capacity for goodness by the Tigrayan people, and this very mindset has now served them as vehicle, fulcrum, and priceless investment in maintaining peace and order, in engaging in development programs; and in restoring, exploring, and refurbishing the very features and dimensions of culture.

In many of my previous writings, and more specifically in my book entitled Cultures that We Must Preserve and Reject (Tigrigna and Amharic), one of the themes I have addressed was the unique Ethiopian rock-hewn churches nowhere else to be found in our planet earth; and I mentioned the many rock-cut monasteries and their locations in Tigray. Unfortunately, the rock-hewn churches in Tigray (126 of them) are not well-known compared to the eleven churches in Lalibela, but even the latter are not so familiar to people outside Ethiopia, compared to the Egyptian pyramids and temples because the Ethiopian Ministry of Tourism is in deep slumber. At any rate, of the 126 rock-hewn churches and monasteries of Tigray, 94 are fully functional and they offer Sunday sermons and services to the Christian worshippers; six of them are residential edifices to monks, and the rest 26 are dilapidated and don’t provide any service. The majority of these churches are found in Enderta (Ger’alta and Seharti), Kilte Awla’elo (Tsera’e, Wonberta, Atsbi Dera, Desa, and Tsa’eda Emba), Tembien (Tanqa-Meles, Tahtay TseTsera, La’elay TseTsera – Qola Tembien – and Dog’a Tembien; Agame (Ganta AfeShum, Haramat), Adwa (Emba Seneiti, Tsedeya), and Aksum (Enda Aba Libanos).2

At present extensive exposition of the Tigray rock churches has taken place due to Tigray TV and DW TV combined documentary films, as already mentioned above; some of the recent documentary filming of Churches and monasteries are discussed below:

1.    The Monastery of Kibtseya (etymology: from kebitseya (Tigrigna), meaning “I have given up on it”) is located in the District of Amba Alage, sub-district Fana in Southern Tigray, some 120 km to the south of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Regional State. The Church reflects unique 14th century architecture, and the monks in the monastery claim the church is 800 years old; additionally, they say that the oak tree in the monastery is 500 years old and serves as an open-air court whereby criminals convicted of murder are tied against the tree and are given a chance to repent. In this monastery, the monks cohabit with wild animals and predators such as leopards and they even pay visits to the newly born beasts.

2.    The Monastery of Aba Yohanni, located in Qola Tembien district, is supposedly established by Abuna Aron in the 6th century Common Era (CE) during the reign of King Gebremeskel. In this splendid rock-hewn church, one can see four hanging stone bells that are used for announcing liturgy procedures; and the unique cross that the monks call the “fish cross”, a different design from the Aksum processional cross is found in this monastery; the “fish cross” is also known in the rest of Ethiopia as Afro Ayigeba and it is for the most part associated with Lalibela churches. In nearby to Aba Yohanni, there are ten exquisite rock-hewn churches.

3.    The Mariam Denglat monastery church, located at the District of Sae’se’e in Tsaeda Emba (Kilte Awla’elo) could be reached by climbing forty-meter long ropes only, but according to the local historians or oral tradition, in lieu of the present ropes, there were ladders stuck on the parallel double holes dug unto the rocky mountain; the ladders are long gone but the engraved holes are still visible; now, it has been proposed that some Italian engineers would install iron ladders unto the rocks, but while the idea is good, in order to preserve the sacredness of Mariam Denglat and honor the religiosity of the monks, I suggest that Ethiopian engineers should take the task of fixing ladders to the rock mountain of the monastery.

4.    The monastery of Abuna Nazrawi, situated in the sub-district of Hawzen in Agame is 202 km to the north of Mekelle. This monastery too can be reached by climbing using ropes. It is very similar to Mariam Dinglat and the monastery of Abuna Aregawi Debre Damo. One of the obvious reasons for making it difficult to access these monasteries is the demand for solitude by the monks and the significance of aloofness and self-containment in prayers, as well as observance of other religious requirements in a serene environment.

5.    The monastery of Asira-Metira is found in Atsbi Womberta (Kilte-Awla’elo, sub-district Qal Amin, is believed to have been founded by Abuna Estifanos during the reign of King Gebremeskel in the early 6th century CE; the fact that many monasteries were established during Gebremeskel is not surprising because the king, the son of the legendary King Kaleb, commissioned the arts and the construction of churches along with his contemporaries Abuna Aregawi (one of the nine saints) and St. Yared, the founder of church hymn and father of Ethiopian music; apparently, it was Yared who first composed musical notations or more appropriately hymn notations for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Chruch (EOTC). Interestingly, as in Abba Yohanni, one can see metal round belles at Asira Metira as well; the monastery is cohabited by monks and nuns and some of the nuns have gone as far as Israel to study irrigation techniques and apple farming methods, and as a result this monastery now boasts a 5-6 hectare farm that accommodates close to one thousand apple trees; the monks and nuns of this monastery strongly believe in self sufficiency through hard work as per the precepts accorded to the Biblical Adam and they reject begging and dependency.

6.    The monastery of Gunda Gunde, found in Agame, Irob district, is surrounded by rugged mountains and rough terrain and is virtually impenetrable unless one belongs to that locality and would know the way and means to reach the sloppy hills of the monastery. In this kind of environment, travelers could easily lose sense of direction; that was what happened to the Ras Woldeselassie’s forces who came to pursue the Dejazmach Subagdis fighters in the early 19th century; they lost their way and they were forced to go back to Cheleqot where they came from; the brave DW journalists who ventured to document the Gunda Gunde monastery have also lost their way until ultimately they got assistance from the local people who cooperated in touring them around. I personally believe ecologies like the Gunda Gunde and vast deserts like the Sahara could have an impact on our entorhinal cortex, the area in the brain that is responsible for sense of direction; for pious Christian Ethiopians, however, the loss of direction around sacred places emanates from the divine power of the saints after whose name the monasteries are founded; oral tradition has it that Ahemd Gragn, who destroyed and burned hundreds of monasteries in the middle of the 16th century, could not do so to some churches because they were either “hidden” from his sight or his forces got lost in the wilderness of the monasteries. If one manages to reach the Gunda Gunde monastery, however, as the DW journalists finally did, s/he would enjoy not only the hospitality of the villagers near the monastery but also have an opportunity to grab the delicious orange fruits of Gunda Gunde.

7.    The monastery of Abuna Yama’ata (one of the nine saints) documentary video that I watched was produced by other film making travelers and not Tigay TV or DW TV. Tourists and believers have to make their way up the rocky mountain literally hanging in the air; like Mariam Dinglat, there are holes dug unto the rock of the mountain side and sojourners have to step carefully unto the holes, climb up, and finally walk on the narrow street-like strip on the edge of the church; it is one of the most frightening rock-climbing mountain monastery in the whole of Ethiopia; I personally believe that one must have a unique climbing ability or the agility of a goat in order to successfully reach the top of Abuna Yama’ata.                

Cultural renaissance is also taking place in other frontiers, including the renewal and/or revival of traditional music and dance, as well as the promotion of development projects in agriculture and industry as we shall see below. Most of the events documented by DW or Tigray TV were produced during Ethiopian Christmas holiday of 2020 (EC 2012). 

Medebay Zana is found in the North-Western (Semien Mi’erabawi) zone of Tigray and is surrounded by the Central Zone to the East; La’elay Adiabo to the North; Asgade Tsimbla to the South-West; Tahtay Koraro to the North-West; and by the Tekeze River to the South. The event in Medebay Zana was dominated by musical entertainment and Tigrigna dance, accompanied by Chira Waţa (Ethiopian violin; also known as Masinqo in central Ethiopia) the Meleket (trumpet) playing group. There is no doubt that these Chira Waţa and Meleket performing artists have well–preserved the Tigray musical culture, but the dancers somehow distorted he Tigrigna dance by haphazardly moving around in circles. Tigrigna dance has two levels of choreography: the first one is known as Kuda, in which case the dancers move in a form of a ring by elegant back and forth steps of the feet, and in this regard the women were better than their counterpart men because they very well performed in a ballet-like formalized steps while at the same time maintain the tip of their toes in graceful steps; the men, by contrast, were unable to dance in the manner the women did, and worse they were throwing their elbows and shoulders downwards while moving, which is not a Tigrigna dance at all. The second level of Tigrigna dance (the climax) is known as Miwaal and dancers at this stage stop from moving around in circles and organize themselves in duets (in most cases, a man and a woman), facing each other while they move and shake their shoulders as if to challenge each other; it is in effect a friendly and/or romantic gesture expressed in dancing; moreover, the duets usually, but not always, celebrate their dance by turning around (facing opposite directions) and scratching each other’s back. All this beautiful melodramatic Tigrigna choreography is now at a great risk because the young generation seems to have lost the traditional values of Tigrigna dance.

The youth must learn dance from the relatively old people who still maintain the very essence and characteristics of Tigrigna dance, and should perform by example to the very young boys and girls (ages 7-12) who participated in the extravaganza of Medebay Zana..

The other two events that I found quite interesting are the Gumaye rich culture of Raya and the traditional smoke sauna produced by Tigray TV. Gumaye is an expression of love and admiration of beauty, including nature, both animate and inanimate; the songs or hymn of Gumaye are somewhat similar to the crying women chorus during mourning and funeral in mainland Tigray; it is also very much like opera duet expressing and/or exchanging ideas by the performers on stage; in the Raya case, the venue could be the plain field or the stage in an auditorium. So, the two men who performed for Tigray TV could either concurrently express themselves or opt for non-simultaneous performances, and their songs (the Gumaye) could either be the same in content (e.g. expressing love to women) or simply admiring the landscape as one of the Gumaye performer presented it to the Tigray TV female journalist who was holding an open umbrella over her head; the Gumaye singer, incidentally, was admiring the mountains surrounding the town of Mekoni of Raya Azebo.

The smoke sauna, which I like to label “organic sauna”, popularly known as Ṫish or ush, is practiced almost all over Ethiopia, but what makes the Tigray traditional sauna different is the Tigray hairdo which is known as Quno and which comes in different styles such as Difin and Gilbich, and for teenage girls and young women it is Ga’me, that the smoked and buttered women wear. The women are smeared with locally made butter known as Leꝅay on top of their entire head; then, they are totally covered with the Shamala (cape-like blanket) and they sit on a special wood burning smoke that comes from a round hole under the women in Ṫush; beneath the Shamala is just the skin; for effective cleansing the women are smoked naked.

Other important documentary made by Tigray TV is the Raya Horti (Horticulture) and the Desta Berhe Vegetable and Fruits Farm, which is an impressive and extensive 50-hecatare irrigation farm that produces 26 different kinds of vegetables, including cucumber, broccoli, okra, iceberg, eggplant, cauliflower, Zucchini, strawberries etc., not to mention pepper, tomatoes, and pepperoni.

There are now many modern irrigation farms especially in the Raya and Shire area, two zones of Tigray which are suitable for extensive agriculture; some of these farms are mega projects; others are small but viable for supplying produce and marketing, and of the latter type of farms, which has now become a model is that of Almaz Baltina that produces organically produced pepper and Shiro and this farm, named after the owner Almaz Tsehaye, is located in Shire Endaselassie and sends its produce to major cities in Ethiopia such as Mekelle and Addis Ababa. There is no doubt that Almaz, a strong and confident but descent women can be a real model not only for women but also for men who aspire to be successful entrepreneurs.

One industry initiated by Diaspora Ethiopians and which is still under construction is the Raya Alamata Paper Industry which is situated on 1500 hectares and is prospected to hire 1000 workers; this is a major industry with initial 140 investors and it could be one of the biggest paper (in pieces and in bundles) producing industry in Ethiopia that could potentially supply paper to firms, whole sellers, and retail industries to all Ethiopia and neighboring African countries.

One final thing I want to mention, which apparently is more relevant to me personally as an educator, is the Geez language course offering initiated by Aksum University, which is a wonderful achievement. Geez, which is now confined to the EOTC, was once the language of the elite and grassroots populations during the heyday of the Aksumite Empire and civilization. But the most important thing associated with Geez is the fact that the original and authentic civilization of ancient and late antiquity of Ethiopia in this language. Ultimately, thus, mastering Geez would enable Ethiopian scholars, intellectuals, and researchers to penetrate into the greatness of ancient and medieval Ethiopia that have yet to be explored and written. If Ethiopians achieve their goals in rediscovering and revitalizing Geez language, then the real renaissance for all Ethiopia will become a reality of admirable success. That will be the day!

The Tigray renaissance is indeed promising, but all the rosy scenarios I documented in this text should be understood in the context of the many social and political (mainly administrative) problems that have directly affected the likelihood of the people of Tigray and that are not resolved yet. It should also be known that the renaissance phenomenon in Tigray has occurred by default, following the so-called reform/change a couple of years ago in Ethjiopia; we all know that Tigray was almost forgotten in the 27-year EPRDF rule and the people of Tigray have yet to come to terms with problems associated to cadre ill governance that frustrated and angered so many Tigrayans.

By way of concluding, I like to underscore that the Tigray renaissance would be incomplete without Ethiopian nation-wide renewal, and full-fledged florescence should come for the entire Ethiopia if indeed the country is going to be not only economically viable but also competent in the global political economy in general and international trade in particular. The Tigray renaissance should set an exemplar model for the rest of Ethiopia, but Ethiopia’s development agenda has now encountered a major hurdle coming from counter-revolutionary forces affiliated to the new regime that has embraced neo-liberalism at the risk of abandoning or stalling major foundational economies such as infrastructure (e.g. the Awash-Hara Gebeya-Kombelcha-Mekelle railroad; intriguingly, “Mekelle” is now omitted from the lexicon of all state media that broadcast on the this railroad), power (the Ethiopian Light and Power Authority – ELPA – is next to Telecom to be sold or privatized), and delaying the construction and completion of other projects necessary for the advancement of industry and agriculture (e.g. the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – GERD – ).

A new email exchange that IDEA has obtained with respect to GERD is contrary to what Gedu Andargachew boasted as an Ethiopian success following the Washington DC meeting of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt in which also the World Bank and the United States were represented. The new information actually reveals that there were secret dealings in which Ethiopia will cede 75% of the Nile waters to Egypt and Sudan, and effectively honoring what Egypt had been arguing all along as its “historic right”, i.e. reaffirming its colonial treaty rights. We wish the information IDEA got is false; otherwise, the systematic arrest of GERD could infuriate Ethiopians who made enormous contributions toward its construction and could instigate uproar of the people and ultimately lead to a mass rebellion.                           

The Ethiopian crisis is seemingly inexorable unless the counter-revolutionary forces are defeated, both at party and government levels, in the forthcoming election, but in the event the “reformists” prevail but the Ethiopian crisis continues, the Ethiopian defense forces, if still intact, should intervene and save Ethiopia from further destruction; and as Addis Fortune aptly puts it, “Does it require the army to intervene if and when constitutional provisions are violated and trampled by the political class? Or any other group for that matter! Leaders of the Ethiopian Defense Forces would do historical justice in not only safeguarding the constitutional order but also in their determination to not submit to unconstitutional demands that come from the political establishment.”3   


1.    Toni Morrison, Goodness and the Literary Imagination, University of Virginia Press, 2019, p. 13

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, Cultures that We Must Preserve and Reject መንከባከብና ማስወገድ ያለብን ባህሎች፣ ክንዕቅቦምን ክንነፅጎምን ዘለና ባህልታት 2005/2008 editions

3.     Addis Fortune Editorial: The Ethiopian Army at a Conceptual Crossroads, December 28, 2019

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Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD is an Adjunct Associate Professor of African Studies at the City University of New York and Professor of International studies at CCSU.

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