The Amhara, who are the second largest tribe in Ethiopia, generally live in the central highlands of the country. They dominate Ethiopia's economy and politics. The Amhara Tribe is the politically and culturally dominant ethnic group of Ethiopia. They are located primarily in the central highland plateau of Ethiopia and comprise the major population element in the provinces of Begemder and Gojjam and in parts of Shoa and Wallo. The Amhara (pronounced am-HAH-ruh) are mostly farmers who live in the north central highlands of Ethiopia. The Amhara display a mixed physiological heritage. They speak a Semitic language, and historical and linguistic factors, compared with their primary myths of origin, seem to indicate that their Semitic ancestors came from what is modern-day Yemen. Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia and of the previous Amhara Abyssinian Empire, is home for many Amhara but actually an enclave within the land of the Oromo peoples.
According to their traditions they trace their roots to Menelik I, the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Most scholars agree their traditions and legends are quite fanciful, though they seem to contain, as legends of origin commonly do, a core of historical information. Surely the people own oral traditions have to be considered in reconstructing their history. There are extensive sources reporting on their traditions. They are so well-known as to be considered common knowledge.
These oral traditions seem to reflect a historical link to the Sabaean (Sabean or Sheban) people, referred to in several ancient sources. It is thought that the Sabaean (Sheban) people began to settle on the west coast of the Red Sea, from their home in southern Arabia, about 1000 BC. Menelik I was the first of the Solomonic line of rulers of Ethiopia that ended only with the deposing of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
By about 400 BC their civilization became the Axum Empire, based on a mixture of the early Sabaean culture and the prior Cushitic culture. Axum ruled the region till in the 900s AD. Historian Basil Davidson includes this historical event in his Chronologue of African history: "Origins of Axumite culture in northeast Ethiopia by synthesis of local people and immigrants from southern Arabia."1
The ruins of the ancient city of Axum can still be seen in Tigray Province. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Amhara have been the dominant people group in Ethiopia history. The strength of their culture is shown in this influence though they number only 15 million of the estimated 53 million population of modern Ethiopia.
The Amhara appear to be descended from the same people group as the Tigray-Tigrinya people. Their Sabaean ancestors came to the highlands of what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia from the Arabian Peninsula. These Semitic migrants gradually mixed with the Cushitic peoples there. Successive waves of migrations across the Red Sea straits and around the Horn have enriched the mix of cultural and genetic heritage in the historical period.
Recent reconstruction of human prehistory from DNA studies indicates this narrow southern end of the Red Sea was the major point from which original humans moved from the African continent into Asia and on to the East and West. This area has continued to be the crossing point for migrations in both directions in recent millennia. (See the books by Stephen Oppenheimer and Spencer Wells on this reconstruction of human pre-history.)
The mix of Cushite and Semitic peoples were united over the centuries in the Amhara-Tigray empire, called Abyssinia. This word Abyssinia is a derivation from the name for a group of the Tigray people at that time, the Habash. The Amhara and Tigrinya-Tigray groups claim close ties with the Jews, having adopted many cultural values and religious beliefs from them.
The basic ancestry of the Amhara is Semitic, as is their language. But they became a unique people as they intermarried and absorbed some of the Cushitic peoples who preceded them in this area. There was a strong Oromo strain in the royal family and nobles. The Amhara features are similar to the southern Arabs, olive to brown skin, with Caucasian features and dark circles around the eyes. Most soruces say the name comes from the word amari, meaning "pleasing, agreeable, beautiful and gracious."
The national and ethnic identity of the Amhara has been strongly intertwined with a form of the Christian faith since about 350 CE, when Syrian (Nestorian) Christianity was introduced to the royal family by a young Syrian sailor. After the Royal Family accepted the new faith, they requested missionaries from Syria and later developed ties with the Egyptian Church, hence the inclusion of the term Coptic (Egyptian) in the name of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church since early times.