The roots of Tigrayan writing date back thousands of years, as the earliest written form of alphabet of this Semitic North African language has been found on stone slabs from the Axumite Era (100 BCE-650 AD). Early inscriptions describe the adventures of kings as they chased their enemies as far as Sudan and southern Egypt. The alphabet was later used by writers who wrote in Ge’ez. Many ancient Hebrew religious texts, such as the Book of Enoch, today only remain in a Ge’ez version.
Literacy came to the Tigray region in the third century, when the Syrian Christian Fromentius shipwrecked nearby and stayed in the area spreading Christianity. Many local young men learned to read through Bible study, and from there a long oral and written literary tradition developed.
As improving education continues to increase Tigray’s literacy rate, the region continues to produce literature, both for adults and children. Tigrayans now can read books in their native language written by Tigrayans, and more and more classic children’s books from other countries also are being translated into Tigrayan. Other authors, many from Ethiopia, have published books detailing Tigray’s history and culture. Since 2008, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital has offered a degree in Tigrigna Language, Literature and Folklore that includes the study of linguistic theories and concepts about the writing of the region.
Here is a short list of Tigrayan fiction, nonfiction, and poetry:
A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea: The Oral and the Written, 1890-1991, by Ghirmai Negash (2012)
This book is the published doctoral thesis of Ghirmai Negash, a professor of English and African Literature and associate director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University in the United States. His book traces the development of literature in Tigray, starting with first published written texts in the early 19th century, which were primarily translated Bible texts printed on Catholic and Protestant missionaries’ presses.
The book also looks at following works, including the earliest printed books that were written in Tigrayan and followed Christian religious themes. After 1941, when Italian rule ended in Tigray, local literature flourished. Dr. Negash examines significant works in the following decades and how they reflect Tigray’s unfolding history.
About the Author’s Journey from Ethiopia to Italy and the Impressions Made on Him by His Stay in that Country, in Tigrinya, by Fesseha Giyorgis (1895)
This account of Giyorgis’s travels from the Red Sea Coast to Italy, where he stayed for several years, provides an alternative viewpoint to the traditional narratives of European colonialism.
The Conscript: A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War, by G. Hailu (1950)
Written in Tigrinya in 1927 and later translated into English by Ghirmai Negash, The Conscript was the first Tigrayan novel. The book, which has been described as “fascinating,” deals with issues of identity, self-agency, war, and the traumatic effects of decolonization on the human psyche during the Eritrean involvement in the Libyan anticolonial war. The story follows an Eritrean man, who is recruited into the Italian army and is forced to fight to subjugate Libyans. It is noted for its vivid descriptions of the battlefield and its humanizing depiction of a man who grew up under colonization coming to terms with fighting a war to colonize another group of people.
Two Weeks in the Trenches: Reminiscences of Childhood and War in Eritrea, by Alemseged Tesfai (2002)
Written by one of Tigray’s premier historians, this book of short stories details eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Afabet, which historians say led to the end of the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea. A central theme in the stories is bravery in the face of danger.
Tarik Weledo Hizbi Eritrea by Mergeta Berhane Tesfamariam (2009)
Published posthumously, Tarik Weledo Hizbi Eritrea celebrates the correct history of Eritrean families. Before he died, Tesfamariam said he wrote the book to challenge what he felt were inaccurate accounts of colonialism that had become part of Eritrean history.
Tigrignan Poetry (http://tigrignapoems.com/)
Tigray has a rich tradition of poetic language, and this website captures in writing the idioms and traditional poems such as “Masse” and “Awlo,” which are often recited at weddings, public events, and special ceremonies. Poetry on this website is written in the Tigrigna alphabet, and readers are invited to submit feedback and their own poems.
A 77-page e-reader version, Derho Neqo: Tigrigna Poetry by Sebhat G., is available for purchase online.
Tebereh’s Shop by Beyene Halle (2003)
Halle, an Eritrean sculptor, painter, and novelist, is considered one of Africa’s greatest contemporary indigenous language writers. Tebereh’s Shop was published three years after the 1998-2000 border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia ended and is set among the ensuing political and economic adversity the war created. The novel is critical of African intellectuals’ role in nation building and imagines a new role for them in the region’s future.