Agaw people

Agaw / Agau / Agew

Agaw / Agew / Agau

The Agaw or Agew are a pan-ethnic identity native group living in central and northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. They speak the Agaw languages, which belong to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family, and are therefore linguistically closest related to peoples speaking other Cushitic languages. They are closely related, culturally and linguistically, with the neighboring Amhara and Tigre peoples.

The Agaw peoples in general were historically noted by travelers and outside observers to have practiced what some described as a “Hebraic religion”, though some practiced Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and many were Beta Israel Jews. A small minority have adopted Islam in the last few centuries. Thousands of Agaw Beta Israel converted to Christianity in the 19th and early 20th century (both voluntarily and forcibly), becoming the Falash Mura, though many are now returning to Judaism.

Ethnologists believe the Agaws have been living there for thousands of years, much longer than the Amharas and Tigres, and that they were the progenitors of what some anthropologists now call the Ethiopian "type."

The Agaw population today exceeds 240,000 people. (James S. Olson / Peoples of Africa, 1996)



Most Agaws are farmers who raise millet, coffee, and castor oil plants.



The Agaw are divided religiously between several Christian denominations and the Sunni Muslim faith.



The Agaw are perhaps first mentioned in the third-century Monumentum Adulitanum, an Aksumite inscription recorded by Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century. The inscription refers to a people called "Athagaus" (or Athagaous), perhaps from ʿAd Agaw, meaning "sons of Agaw." The Athagaous first turn up as one of the peoples conquered by the unknown king who inscribed the Monumentum Adulitanum. The Agaw are later mentioned in an inscription of the fourth century emperor Ezana of Axum and the sixth-century emperor Kaleb of Axum. Based on this evidence, a number of experts embrace a theory first stated by Edward Ullendorff and Carlo Conti Rossini that they are the original inhabitants of much of the northern Ethiopian Highlands, and were either forced out of their original settlements or assimilated by Semitic-speaking Tigrayans, Amharas and Tigrinyas. Cosmas Indicopleustes also noted in his Christian Topography that a major gold trade route passed through the region "Agau". The area referred to seems to be an area east of the Tekezé River and just south of the Semien Mountains, perhaps around Lake Tana.

They currently exist in a number of scattered enclaves, which include the Bilen in and around Keren, Eritrea; the Qemant people (including the now-relocated Beta Israel), who live around Gondar in the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region, west of the Tekezé River and north of Lake Tana; a number of Agaw live south of Lake Tana, around Dangila in the Agew Awi Zone of the Amhara Region; and another group live in and around Soqota in the former province of Wollo, now part of the Amhara Region, along with Lasta, Tembien, and Abergele.

The Cushitic speaking Agaw ruled during the Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia from about 900 to 1270. The name of the dynasty itself comes from the Ge'ez phrase Ze-Agaw (meaning "of the Agaw"), and refers to the Agaw people.



Bet Gabriel-Rufael church in Lalibela, one of several rock-hewn churches built by the medieval Zagwe dynasty

The Agaw speak Agaw languages. They are a part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Many also speak other languages such as Amharic, Tigrinya and/or Tigre.



Today, intermarriage between Agaw, Amhara, and Tigre people is common. Several Agaw subgroups still maintain distinct identities, however, in spite of the cultural assimilation occurring. Those groups include the Bilen (Bogos) in Eritrea, and the Kemnant, Kwara, and Beta Israels.

The largest of the Agaw subgroups is the Awi.