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Abyssinia, extending from the sixth to the fifteenth degree of north latitude, and situated to the south of Nubia, is, by reason of its peculiar contour, unique among the countries of the African continent. It has been compared, indeed, to a vast fortress, towering above the plains of eastern Africa. It is, in fact, a huge, granitic, basaltic mass, forming a great mountainous oval, with its main ridge toward the east. A chain runs for over 650 miles from north to south; seen from the shores of the Red Sea, it looks like a vast wall, some 8,000 feet high near Kasen, opposite Massowah; over 10,300 at Mount Souwaira; 11,000 at the plateau of Angolala, and more than 10,000 in Shoa. The Abyssinian chain, however, is mountainous only on the eastern side. On the other, it consists of plateaux of varying altitudes, broken up by mountains shattered by volcanic forces, the summits of which are over 6,500 feet high in Tigré, and from 13,000 to 16,000 in Simien. A comparative depression, that of Lake Tana, hollows out the highlands to the southwest. The lake itself is at an elevation of some five thousand feet, and the neighboring plateaux, from that height to six thousand. The volcanic mass of Gojam, on the south, attains a height of more than 13,000 feet, while the peaks of Kaffa arise to an altitude of some 12,000 feet. The remarkable elevation of Abyssinia gives it a peculiar climate, and savants have classified its territory into three chief zones. That of the low valleys, or kollas, is a district having the Sudanese climate, great heat, and a heavy summer rainfall. The soil is sandy, dry, and stony; the crops, maize, sugar cane, and cotton. Various kinds of acacias and mimosas form the sole vegetations of these arid, unhealthy regions, whose rushing torrents of the rainy season are but stony beds during the dry. The rocks and caverns are the haunts of lions and leopards; the trees swarm with monkeys. The scattered inhabitants of these burning plains are small, withered, nervous, irritable, and quarrelsome, devoid of the dignity which marks those who live in the high lands. The middle zone, or Voina-dega, with an elevation of from 6,000 to 8,000 feet, is by far the largest part of Abyssinia, with an equable heat little greater than that of the Mediterranean. Thus Gondar (6,000 feet) has a mean annual temperature of 19° C. (66.2°F), with 16°C (60.8°F) as the minimum of the coldest month. This is a temperature slightly higher than that of Southern Spain, Italy, and Greece, but as, in Abyssinia, the summer is the rainy season, the heat is by no means so unbearable as the summer months of the South of Europe. The lands of this region form a series of vast plateaux, covered with rich pasturage, the grazing ground of great herds of sheep and cattle. The air is pure and dry, the temperature moderate, water plentiful and of good quality; vines, olives, lemons, and pomegranates thrive there. Nearly the whole population of Abyssinia lives in this region. Here, too, are the cities, which are seldom found elsewhere, as the natural divisions of the country are such as keep the inhabitants in a state of patriarchal feudalism. The climate is very healthy, and sickness very infrequent. The cold zone, or dega, at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet, is marked by a variable temperature, and by chilly nights. The British army at a height of 10,400 feet met with four degrees of frost on 28 March. On the heights are found the rhododendrons, mosses, and lichens of the Alps.


Few eastern or African nations exhibit such various aspects as the aborigines. Descendants of Cush are locally known as Agas, or "Freemen", and still form the basis of the Abyssinian nation. On the west, they have intermarried with the ancient Berbers, and with the blacks of the Soudan, who must not be confused with the Niger, Congo, and Zambesi tribes. On the east, Semitic peoples, Arabs and Himyarites, having crossed the Red Sea in the fourth century B.C., conquered the whole eastern coast of Africa, and settled chiefly in the province called, after them, Amhara. The invasion of the Galla tribes, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, spread through all this region, and especially towards the south. These invasions and mingling of races in all ages have resulted in such diversity of type that the neighboring Arab tribes never speak of the country but as Habech (from which the name Abyssinia is derived), which means "a crowd" or "heap of sweepings". Abyssinia answers to the Upper, or Eastern, Ethiopia of the ancients, and comprises four provinces: Tigré, Amhara, Goggiam, and Shoa, four small kingdoms entrusted to as many Ras, or Negus, whence the title, negus-se-néghest, i.e., "King of Kings", assumed by the emperor of Abyssinia. The whole empire contains some 4,000,000 inhabitants. According to the vague traditional legend of the "Glorious memories of the Empire", or Kébrè-néghest, the dynasty of the Ethiopian kings goes back to King Solomon and Makkeda, Queen of Sheba; and by it the worship of the true God and the Mosaic law were brought to Ethiopia. Whatever truth may be in the legend, it is certain that ancient Ethiopia was evangelized in Apostolic times by the eunuch of Queen Candace, baptized by Philip the deacon, but was not wholly converted to the faith until the year 341, when St. Frumentius (Keddous Faramanatos), who was tutor to the emperor's two young sons, won his pupils to Christianity. It was they who made both the capital and the empire Christian. Nor could St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, find one whom he thought better fitted to rule this infant Church, than its first apostle, Frumentius.


The whole great Ethiopian empire did not, however, become Christian at that period; since, at the very gates of Gondar, the aboriginal tribes of the Komant are pagans today, as they have been for fourteen centuries. Moreover, even the converted provinces retain, despite their Christian faith and Christian morality, many traces of pagan and Judaic atavism. Even in the nineteenth century, idolatrous superstitions, fetishism, serpent-worship, and the cult of various jinns, Jewish practices, rest on the Sabbath, and the custom of vowing children to the keeping of certain religious observances till the age of puberty are still active almost everywhere. In the sixteenth century, King Ghelaodieos found them so deeply rooted in the national habits that he tried to justify these in the eyes of the Church as purely civil customs in no way contrary to the laws of Christianity. So long as Christian Abyssinia could remain in touch with the Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, it was preserved from the taint of Arianism, victorious almost everywhere else, as well as the errors of Macedonius and Nestorius. In the seventh century, however, the Caliph Omar, after his conquest of Egypt, came to an understanding with the Jacobite Patriarch Benjamin, whereby the Copts and the Abyssinians were forbidden all intercourse with the Roman Pontiff, but were promised toleration on that condition. Still, the Ethiopian Church, even after the ruin of the Alexandrian Church and of the Byzantine Empire in Egypt, resisted more or less successfully for nearly three centuries the heresies which infected all other churches of the East. Moreover, during the times of schism, and of Byzantine or Muslim persecution, it became the refuge of the proscribed Catholics. Many monuments of the tenth and eleventh centuries, due to the Egyptian refugees, bear witness to this fact by their Latin character, and it is also borne out by the manuscripts of Lalibéla.

Modern missions

Communication between Rome and Abyssinia became more difficult, and from the end of the eleventh to the beginning of the thirteenth century one could see no bond existing between Abyssinia and the centre of Catholicism. The Sovereign Pontiffs, nevertheless, have bestowed a constant solicitude on the Christians of Ethiopia. The first missionaries sent to their aid were the Dominicans, whose success, however, roused the fanaticism of the Monophysites against them, and caused their martyrdom. For more than a hundred years silence enfolded the ruins of this Church. At a later period, the fame of the Crusades having spread, pilgrim monks, on their return from Jerusalem, wakened once more, by what they told in the Ethiopian court, the wish to be reunited to the Church. The Acts of the Council of Florence tell of the embassy sent by the Emperor Zéra-Jacob with the object of obtaining this result (1452). The union was brought about; but on their home journey, the messengers, while passing through Egypt, were given up to the schismatic Copts, and to the Caliph, and put to death before they could bring the good news to their native land. More than a hundred years later, in 1557, the Jesuit Father Oviedo penetrated into Ethiopia. One of his successors, Father Paëz, succeeded in converting the Emperor Socinios himself. On 11 December, 1624, the Church of Abyssinia, abjuring the heresy of Eutyches and the schism of Dioscorus, was reunited to the true Church, a union which, unfortunately, proved to be only temporary. In 1632, the Negus Basilides mounted the throne. Addicted as he was to polygamy and to every vice, he showed himself the relentless enemy of Catholicism, and of its moral law. The Jesuits were handed over to the axe of the executioner, and Abyssinia remained closed to the missionaries until 1702. In that year, three Franciscans got as far as Gondar, the capital, where they converted several princes. The Negus wrote with his own hand to Clement XI, professing his submission to His Holiness. Once more the hope proved futile. A palace revolution overthrew the Negus, and heresy again assumed the reigns of power. From then until the middle of the nineteenth century, a silence as of death lay on the Church of Abyssinia. In 1846, the Holy See divided Ethiopia into two Apostolic vicariates: that of Abyssinia, trusted to the Lazarists, and that of Galla, given to the Capuchins. In the former, the labors and successes of M. de Jacobus awakened the jealousy of the schismatic clergy. An ex-Emir of Cairo, who had become Abouna of Ethiopia, and a man of low birth named Kassa, who had been anointed Negus under the name of Theodoros, joined forces to persecute the Catholics, drive out the missionaries, and put them to death. The Negus Johannes IV, who succeeded Theodoros, followed in his predecessor's footsteps. His reign of twenty years was a time of trouble and suffering for the Catholics of Abyssinia. At last, however, Menelik, the king of Shoa, who became Negus and was crowned in March, 1889, restored tranquility to the missions. Under his rule Catholic priests rest assured of justice and protection throughout the whole Empire of Abyssinia.

Church constitution

Abyssinia is a province of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Church of Abyssinia is a daughter of the Egyptian Church, and there is nothing to show that the daughter ever really tried to withdraw herself from the maternal jurisdiction. Today the Abyssinians are governed as they were in the time of St. Athanasius, by a special delegate, who is practically the vicar of the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, and is locally known as Abouna, or Abou-Salama, "Father of Peace." He has the sole right, throughout Ethiopia and in perpetuity, of anointing the Negus "King of Kings"; of consecrating bishops, or ordaining priests and deacons, of blessing altar-stones, of superintending theological instruction, and of settling, as a last court of appeal, disputed or difficult questions of dogma, morals, and discipline. The law of Ethiopia demands that the Abouna shall always be a foreigner, an Egyptian, whom the Negus obtains, or rather buys, from the Khedive and the Coptic Patriarch of Cairo, the alleged successor to St. Mark in the See of Alexandria. Immediately after obtaining his episcopal consecration, and his primatial jurisdiction, the Abouna sets out for Ethiopia, with no hope of return; but lands and large revenues ensure him a comfortable existence there. The Itchagué, or Ethiopian Archbishop, is the second religious personage in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian primate is forbidden by the Patriarch of Alexandria to consecrate more than seven bishops, but there are a considerable number of secular and religious clergy, recruited with little discretion, and deplorably ignorant. The Ethiopian Church has, in addition to the priests and monks, an intermediate class, the Deftaras, or literati, who duty it is to preserve, interpret, and apply the written law, a vast collection of ordinances of the Lower Empire, modified and altered by the Copts in order to ensure the supremacy of the See of Alexandria over the whole of Ethiopia. The liturgical language is the Gheez, a mixture of Greek and Arabic.

Since the settlement of the Italians at Massowah and on the shores of the Red Sea, where they have founded the colony of Erythraea, Abyssinia has been divided into three missionary divisions. The vicariate of Abyssinia, entrusted to the Lazarists, and comprising Tigré, Amhara, and Gondar, contained, in 1904, 4,000 Catholics two churches, two chapels, six Lazarist priests, and four native secular priests, with more than sixty seminarians studying Gheez at Altiniena. The Prefecture of Erythraea, in the charge of the Capuchins, comprises the entire colony of that name, and contains 14,000 Catholics thirty-three churches, and fifty-one priests, nine of whom are Capuchins. The vicariate of the Gallas, in the kingdom of Shoa, and among several tribes independent of the Negus, contains 18,000 Catholics and twenty churches. It is administered by twenty Capuchins, French for the most part, and eight secular priests. There are in Abyssinia, 200,000 Mussulmans, with much influence in the country, and filling the most important positions at court; 100,000 Pagans, and 50,000 Jews. The only Protestants who have succeeded in gaining a foothold in Abyssinia during the nineteenth century are the missionaries of the Swedish National Society, who, however, may only labour in Erythraea, where they have two principal centers, at Mancullo, near Massowah, and at Geleb, as well as certain stations in Cunana land and in the province of Hamasen. Their statistics give them 380 church members. The Catholic apostolate in Abyssinia must always exercise a courageous discretion and an unfailing mildness. The missionaries will have to contend for many years against the Eutychian fanaticism of the monks, and the quarrelsome nature of the inhabitants. Moreover, the frequent political revolutions of the past give little hope of settled peace and continued security.

Political revolutions, wars

The Galla, or Oromo race in the south has been the terror of Abyssinia ever since the sixteenth century. The importation of European rifles, as well as the dissensions among the Galla tribes gave an opportunity (1870) to Menelik, King of Shoa, to undertaken the conquest of all the colonies of the Oromo nation as far as Lake Victoria-Nyanza and Uganda. This conquest was not achieved until more than thirty years after the time it was undertaken.

In 1846, Gregory XVI appointed as vicar apostolic to the Galla missions Father William Massaia, an Italian Capuchin, formerly tutor to King Humbert. The new prelate belonged to the Order of St. Francis, which was the only one that succeeded (1636-1752) in introducing Catholic priests into Abyssinia. The few apostles who braved the schismatics, however, were all martyred. The first Franciscan missionaries were beheaded at Suakin, and Blessed Agathange of Vendome and Cassianus of Nantes were ignominiously hanged (1638). More than a century later (1752), three other were stoned to death in a public square of Gondar. From this time, Abyssinia, as if barred from the rest of the world by a wall of iron, was an impenetrable region for the Church, and it was almost a century later that Mgr. Massaia landed at Massowah to undertake to reanimate the old faith of the Ethiopians. In the disguise of a merchant, under the constant espionage of the mercenaries of the Abouna-Salama and Theodoros, now welcomed by certain chiefs, again attacked by a frenzied crowd, often bound and condemned to death, he always contrived to escape. He left Abyssinia to go to France and England, where he conferred with Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. Having received from them important help in his work, he returned to his mission, in September, 1853. On his arrival, he compiled a Galla dictionary, translated the Bible, converted a prince of Lagamara, vaccinated a hundred people daily during smallpox epidemic, and once more fell into the hands of Theodoros, who put him in chains. Mocked and flouted by the populace, he was thrown into a hut open to the four winds of heaven. His patience, however, won the esteem of Theodoros, who released him. Having been summoned by Menelik, the young King of Shoa, he gained his affection and aroused in him an admiration of the Catholic religion. "You have saints," said the king to the bishop, "and that is a wonder which neither my priests nor my deptera [doctors] can accomplish." After a fruitful apostolic mission of thirty-five years among the Galla tribes, Mgr. Massaia was created a Cardinal by Leo XIII, and died in 1889, leaving 10,000 Christians in the country.

The British Counsel, Walter Plowden, a hardy adventurer, frequently gave the Negus Theodoros such timely assistance as led to his success in several wars. Plowden was assassinated, however, and his successor, Captain Charles Duncan Cameron, failed to establish a good understanding with the African emperor. Suspected of having had an understanding with the Musselmans of Egypt, who had just defeated Theodoros at Gédaril in the Sudan, he was imprisoned (July, 1863) with some German missionaries accused of having spoken ill of the Negus. After various promises to release the prisoners, Theodoros wound up by brutally consigning the British Consul and the members of his suite, together with some other Europeans, tied together in pairs, to the fortress of Magdala, which he had chosen as his capital. On hearing of this outrageous infringement of international law, the patience of the British gave way, and they declared war (July, 1867). Sir Robert Napier, who had already made a name by his victories in India, was placed in command of the troops assigned to this expedition. Colonel Merewether, whose activities in this campaign did much to win for him the rank of general, having previously reconnoitered the ground, suggested that the landing be made at Adulis in Annesley Bay. The British army comprised 16,000 combatants, an equal number of servants, forty-five elephants, and a great many pack mules. Napier, on landing in Abyssinia, (3 January, 1868), issued a proclamation to the Ethiopians to the effect that the sole object of the invasion was to deliver the captives, and that he had nothing but friendly feelings except for those who should seek to interfere with his progress. With this, the army boldly began its march through the steep defiles of the "great African citadel". After marching about fifty-three miles, the vanguard reached the plateau of Senafé, where they found a delightful climate, a temperature of 30° to 40°F, and a most fertile country. Word reached them that several Ras and governors of the provinces, discontented with the suspicious Theodoros, stood ready to replenish their commissary and to supply them with horses. Napier made this plateau his base of operations. He was obliged to cover his line of march by three entrenched camps, the first at Senafé, the second at Addizerat, the third at Antolo. At last, on 10 April, the troops reached the slopes of Silassia without having encountered a single hostile soldier, when suddenly a cannon was fired on the heights, and 6,000 Abyssinians hurled themselves down upon the 16,000 British. The Snider rifles, however, which the British used for the first time in this engagement, quickly brought the assailants to a halt, and disabled the greater number. By 13 April, the British were beneath the walls of Magdala, which surrendered after a two hours' siege. As soon as Theodoros saw the British soldiers entering the city, feeling himself abandoned by all, and conquered, he put a pistol to his mouth, and killed himself. The victorious army then released the prisoners, whom they had hardly hoped to find alive. On 17 April, Napier, henceforth Lord Napier of Magdala, ordered the inhabitants to evacuate the city, after which the walls were demolished and the public buildings given to the flames. It was necessary to hasten the return of the troops to the sea, as the rains had already made the passage difficult. The troops embarked as they arrived at the Red Sea, on descending from the heights of Senafé.

This prompt and lucky campaign of the English was to inspire the Italians twenty-eight years later to make a like bold attempt. Their ambition designs, however, roused the whole country against them, and the bloody battle of Adua (March, 1896), in which almost 20,000 were killed, put an end to their rash undertaking. In 1897, Mr. Rodd, first secretary of the British Ligation at Cairo, was entrusted with a mission to the Negus. A treaty was signed 14 May, and Menelik proclaimed the Mahdists enemies of his empire. He also asked for the adjustment of the frontiers between Harrar and Somaliland. Lastly, a Franco-Anglo-Italian agreement was concluded which guaranteed the independence of Ethiopia and assured to the three Powers bordering on the kingdom their respective rights and interests.

The Abyssinian Church

The chief distinction between the Abyssinian Church and the Catholic Church is the erroneous doctrine that there is but one nature in Christ, the divine nature and the human nature being in some manner unified by a species of fusion. It was in Mary's womb according to some, or at the baptism of Christ according to others, that the Holy Ghost effected this union. Then assuming that the two natures in Christ, human and divine, form but one, Mary is the mother of the divine as well as the human nature of her Son, and becomes by that very fact, almost equal to God the Father. To these, so to speak, original errors of the Monophysites, the Ethiopian Church added some of its own: e.g., the belief that the faith of the parents suffices to save their children that die unbaptized; the wholesale repudiation of all Ecumenical Councils held since the council of Ephesus, and the belief in traducianism as an explanation of the soul's origin. Moreover, they still retain in full force various practices of the primitive Church which have long since fallen into desuetude elsewhere: e.g., abstinence from the flesh and blood of animals that have been strangled; Baptism by immersion; the custom of administering Communion to little children under the species of wine; resting from work on the Sabbath, and the celebration of the Agape. It may be added that no church has kept to this very day a more visible imprint of the Jewish religion. Children of both sexes are circumcised by women two weeks after birth. They are then baptized, girls on the eightieth and boys on the fortieth day. As in Judaism, they distinguish by the term "Nazarenes" children dedicated by their parents to the observance of certain practices or prohibitions, such as drinking hydromel and shaving the head. The canon of Scripture admitted by the Ethiopians comprises, besides the books accepted by Catholics, certain apocryphal works, such as the "Book of Enoch", the "Ascension of Isaiah", etc. The oldest translation of the Bible into Ethiopian dates from the fourth century, having been made in Gheez. Pell, Platt, and Dillman have edited some of the manuscripts in London and Leipzig, but the majority remain untouched, in convents of Abyssinian monks. The present clergy are buried in a state of deplorable ignorance. Little is required of secular priests beyond the ability to read and to recite the Nicene creed, and a knowledge of the most necessary liturgical rites. The monks in their numerous convents receive an education somewhat more complete, and occasionally there are found among them men versed in sacred hermeneutics, who can recite by heart the entire Bible.


Piolet. Missions catholiques francaises au XIXe siecle (Paris, 1900), I, 1-44; Ludolf, historia Aitheopiae (Frankfurt, 1681); Arnaud d'Abbadie, Douze ans en Ethiope (1838-50) (Paris); Massaia, I miei trenta cinque anni nel l'ata Etiopia (Rome. Propaganda, 1895); Holland and Hozier, Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia (London, 1870); Tellez, historia de Ethiopia aita (Coimbra, 1660); Wansleb, Biographie de Pierre Heyling, missionnaire protestant en Abyssinie, 1635; Etudes historiques sur l'Ethiopie [Text of the imperial chronicles (incomplete) and translation with notes by Basset (Paris)].

About this page

APA citation. Piolet, J.B. (1907). Abyssinia. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Piolet, Jean-Baptiste. "Abyssinia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael Donahue. A.M.D.G.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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