Ethnic Trigrinya woman from Asmara in Eritrea wearing traditional Tigray-Tigrinya dresswith cowrie embroidry carrying her baby on her back. The Tigray-Tigrinya (ትግራይ – ትግርኛ) or Biher-Tigrinya or the Kebessa people or simply Tigrays are culturally dominant and politically powerful agriculturalist and Semitic-speaking ethnic group of the larger Afro-Asiatic language inhabiting the southern and central parts of Eritrea and the northern highlands of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. The Eritrean Tigrinya constitutes the largest ethnic group in the Eritrea nation. The Tigray-Tigrinya shares common ancestral imperial heritage with the Amhara people of Ethiopia and the two together built the powerful ancient Kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia. Though, the seat of the ancient Aksumite Kingdom resided in Tigray territory, but the Tigray have not been as thoroughly studied as their culturally similar neighbors, the Amhara.
In Ethiopia, prior to 1995, Tigray-Tigrinya lived in the former provinces of Tigray, Begemder (Gonder), and Wollo, with the regions within these provinces that they inhabited (e.g. Wolqayt, Tsegede, Tselemti, Raya, Humera) later incorporated into the modern Tigray Region. The Tigray people, eponymous with the name of their territory, make up approximately 96.6% of the inhabitants of the Tigray Region, and comprise 6.1% of Ethiopia’s total population, numbering a little over 5.7 million.
In in Eritrea where they are the largest ethnic group, the Tigrays are simply known by the name of their language, as the Tigrinya. Officially and collectively they are also referred to as the Biher-Tigrinya, roughly meaning “Tigrinya nation”. Since they primarily lived in a region of Eritrea known as the Kebessa, which was within the former awrajas of Hamasien, Seraye, and Akele Guzay, and are now incorporated into Eritrea’s present-day regions, they are also called Kebessa people. Most of them live in rural areas in the highland administrative regions of Maekel (Central), Debub (Southern), the eastern fringes of Anseba and Gash Barka regions as well as the western fringes of Semenawi Keyih Bahri (Northern Red Sea). They are small holding farmers largely inhabiting small communal villages. The Tigrinya constitute around 50% of the Eritrean population, at about 3.4 million people.
It must be emphasized, however, that a significant number of Muslim Tigrinya speakers refuse to identify themselves as Tigrinya and consequently constitute a separate ethnic group known as the Jeberti. These Jeberti people trace their origins in early Muslim migrants from the Arabian Peninsula to Tigray; they make up about 5% of the Eritrean population.