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The Beja People of Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt

Population:      2,540,315 (1996)
Religion:       Islam
Registry of Peoples codes
       Beja (incl Beni-Amer) 101211
       Beja (incl Beni-Amer) 101211
       Beja (incl Beni-Amer) 101211
       Bisharin 101491
       Bisharin (incl Ababda in Egypt) 101491
       Bisharin (incl Ababda in Egypt) 101491
       Hadendoa 103626
       Registry of Language codes (Ethnologue)
       Tigrι (primary in Eritrea) [tig]
       Bedawiyet (Beja) (secondary in Eritrea) [bej]
       Sudanese Arabic (primary in Sudan) [apd]
       Bedawiyet (Beja) (Bisharin dialect) [bej]
       Bedawiyet (Beja) (Bisharin dialect, secondary for Ababda) [bej]
       Sudanese Arabic (primary for Ababda in Egypt) [apd]
       Bedawiyet (Beja) (Hadendoa dialect) [bej]



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  They are the indigenous people of this area, and we first know of them in historical references in the Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt.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.


Beni-Amer Beja speakers    107,000
Beni-Amer Tigre speakers     99,650
Total   206,650

Ababda-Bisharin Beja speakers  58,000
Ababda Arabic speakers          142,000
Total   200,000

Beja-Beni Amer      103,350
Beja-Hadendowa      82,310
Beja-Bisharin            41,155
Beja-Other (undifferentiated - likely Arabic speakers)
Beja Sudan Total  2,133,665

Total Beja estimate  2,540,315



Beja (To Bedawie) 288,465
Tigre   203,000
Arabic (Sudanese)    2,048,850
TOTAL 2,540,315

Beja Population
Background, Figures, Formulas and Projections

Beni-Amer 266,000 (Mack, 1984) includes Tigre Beja: estimate growth to 310,000
1/3 in Sudan   88,700
ISPD-Beni-Amer Ethiopia--107,000 Beja 2/3 in Eritrea 177,000

Ethnologue:  Earlier editions of theEthnologue identified three dialects:  Bisharin, Hadendowa, Hadareb, Amara, Ababda (the latter two were added in the Ethnologue's 2000 Edition 14).  Based on more recent field investigation, Amara and Ababda are no longer listed as dialects, but the name of a third dialect in the list is Beni-Ameris now listed as a Beja dialect.
Gamst (1984):  Five (three) dialects:  Bisharin, Hadendowa, Amarar, (Ababda, Halanga)
The Ababda now speak Arabic (The group called Ababda are in Egypt; the dialect identified as Ababda by Ethnologue is shown only in Eritrea. The relationship between these two is uncertain.)
Amarar language is called simply "Beja."  Many additional sub-tribes and clan names in all groups.  Beni-Amer have dozens of sub-tribe names, some speaking To Bedawie, some Tigre.
Halenga speak a Bedawie (Beja) dialect (Paul).


Notes on Hadareb/Hidarib Dialect:
Non-Nabtab Beni-Amer "are called Tigre or Hadareb" p. 144 (Mack, 1984).
Hadareb are called Bisharin (Seligman).
Hadareb is one of the Beja language dialects (Ethnologue, 1988, 2000).
Hidarib are Beni-Amer who speak To Bedawie (CSI).
"The Beja-speaking Hedareb nomads of the northwest and northeast are predominantly Muslim"  (Maxon, 1994).
Hadareb is a sub-group of Beni-Amer

Hadareb (Hidarib) may be the name of the Beni-Amer dialect.  (Eritrea Ministry of Education People-Language figures).  The two names are used interchangeably in the literature.

 Basis of Current Projections

Ethnologue 1988 Figures of Beja                 ISPD 1996
Total 990,000 100%         OBJ  est. Total 2,300,000 total Beja speakers
Eritrea Hadendoa    20,000 2%}       {Eritrea Beni-Amer}
Eritrea Others 19,000 2%}              4% {speaking "Beja"}
                                                          107,000 4.7%
Sudan Hadendoa 30,000 3%       Hadendoa  82,310  3.6%
Sudan Bisharin 15,000 1.5%            Bisharin  41,155  1.8%
Sudan "Beja"   906,000    91.5%         Egypt  58,000  2.5%
Sudan "Beja" 2,010,200

(Sudan Total   951,000  96%  Sudan Total  2,133,665 92.8%)

ISPD count 58,000 Bisharin speakers in Egypt (not counted in Ethnologue 88)
107,000 Beni-Amer Beja speakers in Eritrea.  Estimate from Mack
103,350 Beni-Amer Beja speakers in Sudan (1/3 of Beni Amer; virtually no Tigre speakers on Sudan side)

OBJ estimate 99,650  Beni-Amer Tigre speakers in Eritrea
Mack + growth estimate   310,000
Total Beni-Amer (Sudan and Eritrea)

Figures based on primary language or monolingual speakers.  It appears from area that the Bisharin might be more numerous, in which case we would say some undifferentiated as "Beja" are likely Bisharin speakers.



Country:                      Sudan            Eritrea              Egypt
Percent Christian:         19%              46.1%              14.2%
Percent Evangelical:       3.1%             1.47%              0.73%
Population (year):       29,116,000     3,677,000        60,470,000
Major Religion:            Islam               Islam                Islam



Total People:  2,540,315 (1996)
Urban Percent:  3%
Comments:  Population is somewhat uncertain because of poor statistics in the three countries.

Location:  Northeast Sudan along the Red Sea
Country:  Sudan
Ecosystem type:  Savanna
Geological type:  Riverine and Plains


Primary Language: To-Bedawie (unwritten)
Ethnologue Code:  BEI
Alternate Names:  Beni-Amer, Ababda, Hadendoa, Bisharin
Attitude towards mother tongue:  Indifferent
Monolingual:  Less than 50%
Second Languages:  Arabic, Tigre
Linguistically related:
Neighbor Languages:  Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic
Adult Literacy:
Literacy Attitude:  Indifferent
Active Program:
Publications in MT:  None

Subsistence type:  Pastoral
Occupations:  Herding livestock, some horticulture
Income Sources:  Sale of animals
Products/crafts:  Straw mats, woolen rugs
Trade Partners:  Cushites and Arabs

Health Care Quality:  Poor
Health Care:
Balanced Diet:  Good
Water Quality:  Poor to fair
Water:  Good supply
Electricity:  Non
Clothing:  Modern cloth


Child Mortality Rate:
Life Expectancy Rate:
Leading Cause of Death:

Family Structures:
Neighbor Relations:
Social Habits/Groupings:
Cultural Change Pace:  Slow
Acculturation to Nat'l Society:  Semi
Self Image:  Prestigious
Art Forms:

Local Language Broadcasting:
Attitude to Outsiders:
Attitude to Changes:

Primary Schools:
School Enrollment:
Eligible Enrolled:
Teacher to Pupil Ratio:
Language of Instructions for Early Primary School:  Arabic or Tigrinya
Language of Textbooks for Early Primary School:  Arabic or Tigrinya
Unmixed Schools:
Comments:  No school for most.  No educational or religious
publications in Tigre or To Bedawie.

Labor/Tasks of Youth:

Greatest Needs:


Religion          Adherents      Active
1.  Islam           2,540,000           ?

Primary Religion:  Islam


Also related:
[TXT] The Amhara
[TXT] Appreciating Differences
[TXT] Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
[TXT] Genetics Out of Africa
[TXT] How Ethnicities Develop and Change
[TXT] Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity
[TXT] The Oromo:  What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
[Review] Our Genetic Journey – Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
[TXT] Peoples and Languages
[TXT] Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
[TXT] The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues:  Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
[TXT] Shared Significant Experiences:  Culture and Experience
[TXT] The Somali Peoples
[TXT] The Somali Bantu
[TXT] Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya — Ethnicites, Languages and Politics
[TXT] Tigray-Tigrinya
[TXT] What is an Ethnic Group

For More about the Beja People:     
Beja Congress and the Civil War Negotiations – Global Security
Beja General History and Culture     Beja Identity – Abdel Salam Sidahmed
Beja People – Wikipedia
Beja Photos and Cultural Information
Fuzzy-Wuzzy – The Beja Warriors
The Plight of the Beja

In Print

Freeman-Grenville, G S P.  A Modern Atlas of African History.  London:  Rex Collings, 1976.

Fage, J D and R A Oliver, eds.   Papers in African Prehistory.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Gamst, Frederick C.  "Beja,"  Muslim Peoples.  No place:  Greenwood Press, 1984.

Gilbert, John.  Integrated Strategic Planning Database (ISPD).  Richmond, Virginia:  Global Research/Peoples Information Network, 1995, 1996.

Grimes, Barbara, ed.  Ethnologue:  Languages of the World., Edition 14, 16.  Dallas:  Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1988, 1996.

Johnstone, Patrick.  Operation World.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1993 etal.

Mack, Deborah Z.  "Beni Amer," Muslim Peoples.  No place:  Greenwood Press, 1984.

Maxon, Robert M.  "Eritrea," Encarta (electronic).  Richmond, Washington:  Microsoft/Funk and Wagnalls, 1994.

Paul, A.  A History of the Beja Tribes of the Sudan.  London:  Frank Cass and Co, Ltd, 1971.

Seligman, C G.  Races of Africa.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1978.

Seligman, C G and Brenda Z.  "Note on the History and Present Condition of the Beni-Amer (Southern Beja),"  Sudan Notes and Records, Vol. 13, Part 1 (1930), pp 83-97.

Sorman, Guiseppe, ed.  Africa North and East.  NY:  Greystone Press, 1969.

(No author.)  "The Use of Mother Tongue Education in Eritrea."  Asmara:  Ministry of Education, Fall 1995.

Prepared by Orville Boyd Jenkins
February 1996
Last Updated 20 September 2012
Last edited 9 November 2016

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1996, 2009, 2016 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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