The Beja people are a Semitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting parts of northeastern Sudan and eastern Eritrea. The Beja people are a semi-nomadic and non-sedentary tribe, who are also referred to as the Bisharin, Bedouin, “Beja Nomads,” or “Bedouin Arabs of Sudan”. They mainly inhabit an area that is primarily located in Sudan and Egypt. Another segment of the Beja people (also spelled Bisharin) are found along the Red Sea coast of Sudan and southern Egypt. They are also present in eastern Sudan and Eritrea. The Beja are nomadic herders, and their society has traditionally been organized into independent kingdoms ruled by a king or sheikh.
The Beja people’s early history is mostly unknown due to lack of written sources before the 16th century AD. However, according to oral tradition, they are descendants of nomadic people who were living east and north of Lake Tana at least as far back as 100 BC. They appeared in Egypt in either 844 or 817 BC as mercenaries for Ramses II (1279–1213 BC).
A beja shield made of animal hide from the 20th century image via Wikipedia
The Beja were famous for their slave-raiding expeditions, which were conducted against the black tribes of the Sudan. As early as the 7th century, Arab writers describe the Beja as among the world’s best equestrians. The Beja’s history is closely tied with that of their neighbors on all sides, but mostly with those who share their language and their religion: the Cushitic-speaking Agaw and Saho tribes.
During the process of settling in the Nile Valley and northeastern Africa in general, these tribes supplanted or assimilated earlier populations such as the Kerma Culture that had lived in the region since at least 3000 BC. They are also known to be fierce warriors, fighting with swords and spears.
The Beja speak the Beja language and it belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. The Beja language is closely related to that of the Nubians and various other African tribes, and is a member of the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family.
Meanwhile, the Cushitic languages are a part of a larger family comprising both Semitic and non-Semitic branches, which includes Arabic, Amharic, Somali, Oromo and Tigre. The Beja people's language is from the Berber language family, but it is not written. The language sounds similar to Arabic, but it does have its own unique dialects.In addition to speaking Beja, many also speak Arabic as a second language.
The population of the Beja was estimated at 400,000 individuals in 1975 and is approximately 1.2 million individuals in 2010. Other studies, estimate their numbers to be at least 8,000,000 people across the different regions (Sudanese: 1.2 million; Egyptians: 1 million; Eritreans: 600,000; Ethiopians: 350,000). Many Sudanese historians believe that the ancient Nubians were part of the Beja people. In addition, there is a possibility that the Bisharin were mentioned in the Bible as the Rephaim tribe described as giants.
In addition to being semi-nomadic and non-sedentary, they also practice pastoralism by raising cattle, sheep and goats. Some Bejas practice agriculture in areas that have water resources like wells or lakes for irrigation. In present day Sudan, the Beja live near the Nile River and in several different states. They are located along both sides of the Nile River in northern Sudan, where their territory begins about seventy miles south of Egypt's border and ends at Khartoum.
Some historians note that Beja, based on their lineage, include the Barka, Hazzega, Bisharin, Hedareb, Hadendowa (or Hadendoa), the Amarar (or Amar'ar), Beni-Amer, Hallenga , Habab , Belin and Hamran, some of whom are partly Bedouin.
Based on location, the Bejas are divided into two main groups: The Eastern Beja are centered in the Red Sea Hills and have a total population of anywhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people. They speak an Eastern branch of the North-Eastern division of the Nilo-Saharan language family, which means their speech is most closely related to their neighbors' dialects like Hadendowa, Barabra, and Beni Hasan. It's estimated that about 80% of their language is derived from Berber languages—a group that includes ancient Egyptian—though it's also been heavily influenced by Arabic.
The Western Beja, on the other hand, live mostly in Sudan's Northern state and number just over 200,000 people. They speak a Western branch of the North-Eastern division of Nilo-Saharan that is most closely related to Tama and Cushitic languages like Oromo. Their spoken language is mostly derived from Cushitic languages but there is also a large amount of influence from Arabic.
Beja are predominantly Muslim, although their traditional beliefs still have a strong influence on their lives and customs. Although they have been referred to as nomads, most of them have now settled and adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle. A lot has changed since the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War. The Beja now have access to education and healthcare,and this has changed their nomadic lifestyle