The beauty of Agaw people in Eritrea as well as in Ethiopia is so remarkable that every time you spent searching about them, some great secrets are revealed. Of course, the horn of Africa has been a victim of foreign invaders and the history is full of distortions. Nevertheless, there are practices that have transcended all these challenges that enable the Agaws to tell their ancient history without ambiguity.
Based on the language they speak, the people of East Africa, especially Eritrea, has been referred to as “majority (more than 80%) Semitic.” Because of this, they have been considered as people who immigrated from the Arab Peninsula simply because of the language they are now speaking. To make their argument eminent, some western Anthropologists and Arab theologians and Pseudo-historians, they categorized Tigrigna and Tigrait languages in the Semitic Linguistic family group and then they applied it to the people. For a naive person or people with little information, such arguments might seem factual. However, it is simply a lie.
This carefully designed lie is then used to distort the history of the people. Many history books were produced, exclusively written by foreigners to serve their purpose. And this was done with a grand objective to colonize the people. Today, it is difficult to get an authenticated history that can tell the truth about the horn of Africa in general and Eritrea in particular.
Worse, the elites who grew up being educated by these foreigner’s prepared materials believed it without a doubt which later these elites themselves started to teach for the Eritreans using the same distorted books.
When ignorance is at its peak, it is hard to differentiate the truth from a lie. Hence, you believe what you are told even when it is about you. This is the current reality of Eritreans about the so-identified as “Semitic people”. Not only this, even those who are still speaking their Kushitic language have been brainwashed by religious theologians to believe they are also Semitic which became an integral part of the community only through integration with the ancient local people. Sadly, there is little or no information about the so-called, “native local people”. And the irony is they are the native people who are being lectured as such as if they are aliens to their own land.
But not everything is gone. Contrary to what was planned by the invaders, there are very few ancient people in Eritrea and Ethiopia who managed to preserve their original cultural and traditional identity. Among these Kushitic people are the Agaws of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The Agaws of the horn of Africa
As history recorded it, the Agaws of the horn of Africa has been subjected to persecution and discrimination for centuries. They became victims of local and alien warlords. They were forced to change their religion, speak another language, give their land. Not only this, they have been treated like slaves and discriminated against any social activities.
But luckily, very brave but few families have managed to keep some of the secret symbols of their ancestors – The Pharaohs.
The Blin People and their Prestigious Symbolic Ring – Telal – ተላል
As you can see in the picture below, it is an ancient archeological discovery of the Pharaoh’s painting which shows how they used to wear their costume. The young man has a ring in his ear which is shining. And the young woman has a ring but not as shining as that of the man. As ancient Egyptians were rich in Gold, most probably, the ring in the man’s is gold. In addition, the man and the woman are dressed well.,This could mean their wedding ceremony.
This painting is a perfect fit for what is in practice in today’s Eritrea among the Bilen speaking communities – specifically among the family of Tarqe Tribe.
As you can see below, it is a photo I am allowed to use by my good friend. As you can see in his (their) wedding photo, it is a seems a replica of the ancient practice. This is what I have been watching in the ears of the bridegroom in my home village. But, I never knew its real meaning except for some explanations about its meaning. Unfortunately, what I used to hear was more of a special practice for a selected group of family. Such tales never crossed my mind as they were more of discriminatory than a genuine culture. Such distorted meanings were creating some kind of social tensions among the Bilen speaking communities of Eritrea. Sometimes, the tensions were extended into the politics of pride and identity.
But now, all that I have been listening just got cleared from, my mind after seeing the ancient painting of the Egyptians. I know the Blien people of Eritrea belong to the Kushitic thereby related with the Egyptians in many cases. But, I had no such strong conviction that the Blin have still preserved their ancient practices. This is the moment where the whole secret of my people just came to be revealed.
As you can see in the figure above, the ring in the ear of the Bridegroom is one of the remarkable and well preserved traditional symbols which signifies a unique status of a newly married man. It is made from gold.
The bridegroom puts the ring in his one ear almost starting from one week before the wedding day and continues to wear it for the whole honeymoon period. Though these days it may vary depending on the area you live in and your work, normally the wedding and its honeymoon period among the Blin people lasts for about two to three months.
The bridegroom is considered as a king during these special days of his life and all his families give a respect like a king. And, the bride is like a queen.
Of course, my objective is not to discuss the culture of a wedding. My focus is on the ring.
In Bilen language, the ring is called “Telal- ተላል”. It is a very light golden ring prepared by goldsmith experts. Its weight may vary depending on, how much the bridegroom can afford to buy. In general, it is from 10 – 15 grams or 1/2 oz.
Comparing these two photos, it is not difficult to conclude that this practice has existed for thousands of years starting from ancient Egypt – the era of Pharaohs until today. I am not sure if Egyptians still wear that tradition. Like the ancient people of Egyp which are called the Kemant(please check the youtube link), the same people are still living in Ethiopia. And, the Blin people of Eritrea are direct descendants of these family. They have started to live in different areas because of migration after the fall of the Zagwe Dynasty. The Kemant of Ethiopia are still speaking their ancient language – Bilen but with a different accent from Bilen of Eritrea.
I am not sure if Kemant and other Agaws(likebQuara, Awli, etc.) of Ethiopia are wearing a ring during their wedding. On the Eritrean side – there are these ancient and indigenous people of the Bilen- who still practice it in different forms.
Among the Bilen speaking Agaws, not all of them wear the ring. I do not know why but those who put the ring in their ears are the direct descendants of Bet Tarqe(except Bet Debru of Edirba) – see the family tree. It is wonderfull to see the Descendants of Bet Tarque have preserved this ancient Hamatic and or Kushitic culture.
Though it is out of the scope of this article, it is believed that Bet Tarqe have also preserved the original form of Bilen language. But this claim has some controversies as there were other indigenous Bilen speaking communities who used to live in today’s Eritrea before Bet Tarqe settled in its current are. The Bilen language is believed to be the language of the Pharaohs.
Though these days the meaning of wearing the ring seems somehow adulterated, its actual practice says everything. There is no doubt that its true meaning is as pure as it serves its purpose today. It is a symbol that indicates the status of the bridegroom in his community. During the wedding days, the Blind people treat a bridegroom like a king. This kind of treatment is in practice among all the Blin communities. But, Bet Tarqe express it not only in practice but by providing him with a gold ring to be put in his ear during these special days.
Misconceptions about the Ring
There is some misconception among other families of Bilen speaking communities about this special ring. This could be because of the knowledge gap created after hundreds of years of migration and separation. The practice has existed for more than 5000 years. Though the Kushite people had their own civilization, the last one thousand years were really a challenge for their existence. They were exposed to different religion, culture, language. Not only this, but they were also victims of powerful invaders. This led them to leave their center and flee in all directions. Because of these, they might have abandoned some of their ancient cultures including their traditional wedding practice. Maybe those who managed to preserve it could have more power to claim ownership or as guardians of the ancient culture once the more victimized people started to join them after a prolonged separation.
The good thing is, history is a judge when there is the time of confusion. And, we know how this practice existed for centuries. And, all the Agaws are proud to agree on their common ancestral lineage. This makes an easy reconciliation for whatever misinterpretation exists.
As this practice is very ancient a strong identity traceability proofs, I hope everybody from the Agaw family of Eritrea will re-introduce this unique tradition and create the missing link with their ancestors.
I am sure the Kemant of Agaw people in Ethiopia are still keeping this tradition as they are the closest people to today’s Bilen speaking Agaws in Eritrea.
I am proud to learn that my mother’s family line has kept this tradition until today. My father’s line, though they are Agaws – descendants from Saqota, I can see they have lost their ancient culture. I don’t know what is the reason for not re-introducing it once they met with their brothers in Senhit. I will be glad if any from Adi-Beynu helps me to know why we did not start to wear that ring while we recovered all other cultures, including the Bilen language.
The majority of the Tigrait and Tigrigna speaking communities of Eritrea are direct descendants of the Agaws. For example – the Seraye and Hamasien people are majority Agaws. I am not sure if any Agaw descendants of highland Eritrea practice such cultures. For example – the Adkeme-Milga of Seraye is closely related with Bet-Tawqe. But, I do not think they have kept this practice with them.
As a liberal Democrat, I believe that the Cultural Renaissance is very important for human freedom and dignity. Human Being feels more secured when he knows himself very well. And to know yourself, culture plays a vital role. The ring is a strong evidence about many things that concerns the horn of Africa. Therefore, more work needs to be done to preserve this wonderful cultural heritage.
Many thanks to my dear friend and uncle Berhane Fisseha for giving me permission to use his wedding photo.