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Afar nomad
Afar man in traditional nomad attire.
Total population
over 1,500,000
Regions with significant populations
Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia



Allah-green.png Islam

Related ethnic groups


The Afar (Afar alphabet Qafár, Feera ዐፋር ʿāfār, Arabic: عفار‎, Amh. translit. āfār, also spelled አፋር) are an ethnic group in the Horn of Africa who reside principally in the Danakil Desert in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in Eritrea and Djibouti. They number 1,276,374 people in Ethiopia (or 1.73% of the total population), of whom 108,488 are urban inhabitants, according to the census 2007.[1]

They are sometimes called Danakil, a name used specifically to refer to northern Afars, while southern Afars can be called Adel (also transliterated as Adal), similar to the former Adal Sultanate.


The Afar make up over a third of the population of Djibouti, and are one of the nine recognized ethnic divisions (kililoch) of Ethiopia. The Afar language, which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, is spoken by ethnic Afars in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in eastern Eritrea and Djibouti. However, since the Afar are traditionally nomadic herders, they may be found further afield.

The Afar Danakil are the sister culture of the ancient Ta-Seti people. Whereas the Ta-Seti culture were amongst the founding branches of the eastern Bejaw or Beja People; the Ta-Antyu (Puntite) Utjenet Culture were progenitors of the Afari and Tigre cultures. The Land of Punt was of pivotal importance to the development of Egypt's pre-dynastic civilization and played a significant role throughout dynastic Egyptian history. The Utjenet and Ta-Seti cultures formed a single territory until Egypt's Second Intermediate Period when opposing cultures of Omo ethnic clans from further south and west pushed into central Sudan, separating the two branches of the Ta-Antyw. The Northern most branch would become the Ta-Seti whilst the Southernmost populations would become the Afar.

Lifestyle and culture

Although some Afar have migrated to cities and adopted an urban lifestyle, the majority have remained nomadic pastoralists, raising goats, sheep, and cattle in the desert. During the dry season, most move to and camp on the banks of the Awash River. Camels comprise the most common means of transportation as the Afar nomads move from watering hole to watering hole. With the arrival of the rainy season in November, most relocate to higher ground in order to avoid flooding and mosquitoes.

An Afar tent house is known as an ari and is made of sticks covered with mats; beds of mats raised on sticks are used. The burra or camp consists of two or more ari, and is the responsibility of the women. The Afar supplement their diet of milk and meat by selling salt that they dig from the desert along with milk and animal hides at markets in Senbete and Bati.

Traditionally, the society is ruled by sultanates made up of several villages headed by a dardar.

Afar are organized into clan families, and into classes -- asaimara ('reds') who are the dominant class politically, and the adoimara ('whites') who are a working class.

Circumcision is practiced for both boys and girls. A boy is judged for his bravery upon bearing the pain of circumcision, and is then allowed to marry the girl of his choice, though preferably someone from his own ethnic group.

The Afar have a strong relationship with their environment and its wildlife, sharing land and resources with animals and doing them no harm. It is this tendency that is largely responsible for the preservation of the critically endangered African wild ass (Equus africanus), which has become extinct in more vulnerable environments.

The Afar culture features unique items of clothing. These include:

  • When married, women traditionally wear a black headscarf called a shash or mushal.
  • For men and women, the main article of clothing is the sanafil, a waistcloth. Women's are dyed brown (although today many women adopt multi-coloured sanafil) while men's are undyed.

Women wear a waist cloth up to their knees and wear a necklace. Married women wear a black head scarf which covers only the hair, women remain bare breasted. Men w`ear a waist cloth as well and wear a shawl wrapped around the torso. Mens hair is usually fuzzy while women braid their hair and bead it. Its not uncommon for men to carry a stave, to prod livestock and for balance. Men also carry guns and a small stool. Afar huts are similar to the Somali Aqal, A domed framework of branches is covered with woven grass mats, and is made to be easily dismantled. About 20 huts around a livestock pen and a meeting place makes a village. The Afar depend on their Goats, Cattle and Camels for food. They give milk, blood, meat and hides. Men trade a portion of dairy products for sorghum to supplement their diet. A porridge of sorghum boiled with milk is eaten in the morning while a heavier variant with water, or pancakes is eaten in the day with a goat stew. Some Cattle and goats are slaughtered in the dry season when they cant produce any milk.


The Afar began to convert to Islam in the 10th century after contact with Arab merchants from the Arabian Peninsula.


The earliest surviving written mention of the Afar is from the 13th century Arab writer ibn Sa'id, who reported that they lived in the area around the port of Suakin, as far south as Mandeb, near Zeila.[2] They are mentioned intermittently in Ethiopian records, first as helping Emperor Amda Seyon in a campaign beyond the Awash River, then over a century later when they assisted Emperor Baeda Maryam when he campaigned against their neighbors the Dobe'a.[3] By the late 17th century the Aussa Sultanate had emerged, which became the first amongst equals of the Afar rulers. Other important Afar sultanates include one based at Tadjura and another based at Raheita.

The Afar Liberation Front was founded in 1975 after an unsuccessful rebellion led by the Afar sultan, Alimirah Hanfadhe. The Derg established the Autonomous Region of Assab (now called Aseb and located in Eritrea), although low level insurrection continued until the early 1990s. In Djibouti, a similar movement simmered throughout the 1980s, eventually culminating in the Afar Insurgency in 1991.

See also

External links


  1. "Census 2007", first draft, Table 5.
  2. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian Borderlands (Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press, 1997), p. 60
  3. Pankhurst, Borderlands, pp. 61-67, 106f.