Beja - Encyclopedia

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BEJA (or BiJA), the name under which is comprised a widespread family of tribes, usually classed as Hamitic. They may, however, represent very early Semitic immigrants (see Hamitic Races). When first recorded the Beja occupied the whole region between the Nile and the Red Sea from the border of Upper Egypt to the foot of the Abyssinian plateau. They were known to the ancient Egyptians, upon whose monuments they are represented. They are the Blemmyes of Strabo (xvii. 53), and have also been identified with the Macrobii of Herodotus, "tallest and finest of men" (iii. 17). It has been suggested, though on insufficient grounds, that the Beja, rather than the Abyssinians, are the "Ethiopians" of Herodotus, the civilized people who built the city of Meroe and its pyramids. During the Roman period the Beja were much what they are to-day, nomadic and aggressive, and were constantly at war. In 216 A.H. (A.D. 832) the Moslem governor of Assuan made a treaty with the Beja chief, by which the latter undertook to guard the road to Aidhab and pay an annual tribute of one hundred camels. This is the earliest record of a government engagement with the northern section of the Beja, now the Ababda. Ibn Batuta, early in the 14th century, mentions a king of Beja, El Hadrabi, who received two-thirds of the revenue of Aidhab, the other third going to the king of Egypt. The Beja territory contained gold and emerald mines. The tribesmen were the usual escort for pilgrims to Mecca from Kus to Aidhab. According to Leo Africanus, at the close of the 14th or very early in the 15th century their rich town of Zibid (Aidhab?) on the Red Sea was destroyed. This seems to have broken up the tribal cohesion. Leo Africanus describes the Beja as "most base, miserable and living only on milk and camels' flesh." In the middle ages the Beja, partially at any rate, were Christians. The kingdom of Meroe was succeeded by that of "Aloa," the capital of which, Soba, was on the Blue Nile, about 13 m. above Khartum. The country was conquered by the Funj, a negroid people who subsequently became Mahommedan and compelled the Beja to adopt that religion. Until the invasion of the Egyptians, under Ismail, son of Mehemet Ali (1820), the Funj remained in possession.

All the Beja are now Mahommedans, but generally only so in name, though some of the tribes enthusiastically fought for Mandiism (1883-99). As a race the Beja are remarkable for physical beauty, with a colour more red than black, and of a distinctly Caucasic type of face. The chiefs are, as a rule, of much fairer complexion than the tribesmen. In spite of their claim to Arab origin, the tribes have preserved many negro customs in the matter of costume and scarring the body. Their hair-dressing is very characteristic. The hair, worn thick as a protection against the sun, is parted in a circle round the head on a level with the eyes, above which the hair, saturated with mutton fat or butter, is trained straight up like a mop, with separate tufts at sides and back. Most of the tribes are nomadic shepherds, driving their cattle from pasture to pasture; some few are occupied in agriculture.

They are polygynous, but, unlike the Arabs, great independence is granted their women. Among most of the Beja peoples the wife can return to her mother's tent whenever she likes, and after a birth of a child she can repudiate the husband, who must make a present to be re-accepted. Cases are said to have occurred where the woman has thus obtained all her husband's possessions. The whole social position of the Beja women points, indeed, to an earlier matriarchal system. Among some of the tribes the custom of the "fourth day free" is observed, by which the women are only considered married for so many days a week, forming what liaisons they please on the odd day. The chief Beja tribes are the Ababda, Bisharin, Hadendoa, Beni-Amer, Amarar, Shukuria, Hallenga and Hamran.

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