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The name of this region has been derived, through the Greek form, aithiopia, from the two words aitho, "I burn", and ops, "face". It would thus mean the coloured man's land — the land of the scorched faces. But a different origin is claimed for the name by many modern writers, some of whom say that the Greeks borrowed the word from the Egyptians, and that as early as the Twelfth Dynasty the Egyptians knew the land under the name Ksh, or Kshi. One form of this word, with the aleph prefix, Ekoshi (the Coptic eshoosh, eshôsh, ethosh) would thus be the real root-word. Others maintain that it is derived from the Arabic word atyab, the plural form of tib, which means "spices", "perfumes" (Glaser, "Die Abissinier in Arabien und Afrika", Munich, 1895), or from an Arabo-Sabean word, atyub, which has the same meaning. (Halévy in "Revue Sémitique", IV.)


It is not easy to determine to what part of the world the name Ethiopia properly applies in the course of history. The territory it covered, and even the use of the word to denote a territory, have varied in ages and at the hands of different writers. In the early pages of the Bible Ethiopia is used to designate the lands inhabited by the sons of Cush, and is therefore applied to all the scattered regions inhabited by that family. Such a use of the word is purely ethnographical. Elsewhere, however, in the Bible it is applied to a definite region of the globe without consideration of race, and is thus used geographically. It is in this sense that we find it mentioned in all Egyptian documents (Brugsch, Geographische Inschriften altägyptischer Denkmüler). It denoted the region of Africa south of Egypt, and its boundaries were by no means constant. Generally speaking, it comprised the countries known in our day as Nubia, Kordofan, Senaar, and Northern Abyssinia. It had one unvarying landmark, however; its northern boundary always began at Syene. We know from the writings of Pliny, Strabo, and Pomponious Mela that in the eyes of Greek geographers Ethiopia included not only all the territory south of Syene on the African continent, but embraced all that part of Asia below the same parallel of latitude. Hence it came to pass that there were two regions with but one name: Eastern Ethiopia, including all the races dwelling to the east of the Red Sea as far as India; Western Ethiopia stretching southward from Egypt and westward as far as the southern boundary of Mauritania. Of all the vast tracks of country to which the name Ethiopia was given at one or other period of history, there are two to which the name has more particularly attached itself: the one is modern Nubia and the Egyptian Sudan (the ancient Ethiopia of the Pharaohs); the other modern Abyssinia (the Ethiopia of our own day), the last of all these regions to preserve the ancient name.

Nubian ethiopia

In Egyptian inscriptions the name Ethiopia is applied to the region of the Upper Nile lying between the First Cataract and the sources of the Atbara and of the Blue Nile. Greek writers often call this region the kingdom of Napata, or of Meroë, after two cities that were successively the centre of its political life during the second period of its history. The name Island of Meroë, sometimes met with, is an allusion to the rivers that enclose it.


The races which peopled these regions differed considerably. In the valley of the Syene as far as the junction of the Arbara the population consisted for the most part of husbandmen of Egyptian extraction. In the plains of the Upper Nile, side by side with some negro tribes, were a people allied to the Himyarites, and who had migrated thither from southern Arabia, while others again showed that they owed their origin to the Egyptians and Berbers.


Of the history of this country we know only what has been handed down to us through the documents of Egypt and those erected by the inhabitants of the country itself in the vicinity of the Cataracts. It was the almost unanimous opinion of ancient historians that this was the cradle of the people occupying all the Nile Valley; and in proof thereof they pointed out the evident analogy of manners and religion between the kingdom of Meroë and Egypt proper. But today we know without a doubt that the Ethiopia known to the Greeks, far from the cradle of Egyptian civilization, owed to Egypt all the civilization she ever had. The chronological evidence of the monuments makes this quite clear. Whereas the most ancient monuments are to be found along the Delta, those in the neighbourhood of Meroë are comparatively modern. The antiquity attributed to Ethiopian civilization was disproved as soon as the hieroglyphics had been interpreted. What its beginnings were, we do not know.

During the first Egyptian dynasties — i.e. for nearly thirteen centuries — its history is hidden behind a veil. It is only under the Sixth Dynasty that this country comes within the ken of history. At that time King Meryra, better known as Pepi I, marched as far south as the Second Cataract, but did not establish a permanent foothold. Ethiopia's real occupation by Egypt did not begin until the Twelfth Dynasty, when the Pharaohs, being once more in peaceful possession of the Nile Valley, began an era of conquest, and the country of the cataracts became their earliest prey. Amenemhat I and his son Usertsen I, having driven out the priests of Amun-Ra who ruled at Thebes, and having exiled them beyond Philæ, continued their march as far as Wadi-Halfa. Their successors, encouraged by these victories, carried on the work of conquest, and Usertsen III pushed as far as the Fourth Cataract and even beyond Napata, as far as the junction of the Atbara. At his death the frontiers of the Egyptian empire extended as far as Semneh, and Ethiopia was a tributary province of Egypt. The darkness which envelopes the Thirteenth Dynasty does not permit of our tracing the results of this conquest, but it would seem that the victories of the Egyptian monarchs were far from decisive, and that Ethiopia always retained enough liberty to aspire to independence. Up unto the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty this aspiration persisted, if, indeed, the country did not at times enjoy independence.

After the advent of the Eighteenth dynasty, and the overthrow of the shepherd kings, Egypt undertook a series of wars against her isolated neighbours. The tribes along the Upper Nile, though harassed by her troops, resisted stubbornly. In spite of the campaigns of Amenhotep I, son of Amosis, who advanced as far a Napata and Senaar — in spite of the violence of Thotmes I, his successor, who covered the country with devastation and ruin, it was not until the days of Thotmes II that Ethiopia seems to have become resigned to the loss of her liberty. The country was thereupon divided into nomes on the Egyptian system, and was placed under a viceroy whose power extended from the first Cataract to the Mountains of Abyssinia. The office, entrusted at first to high functionaries, soon became one of the most important in the State, and the custom arose at court of nominating to it the heir presumptive to the throne, with the title Prince of Cush. The glorious reigns of Ramses II, of the Nineteenth Dynasty, and of Ramses III, of the Twentieth Dynasty, served to consolidate this conquest for a time, but for a time only. Egypt, worn out, was weary of war, and even of victory, and the era of her campaigns ended with the Ramseid dynasty. Ethiopia, always alert to note the doings of her enemies, profited by this respite to recover her strength. She collected her forces, and soon, having won back her independence, an unexpected event left her mistress of her former conqueror.

The descendants of the royal priesthood of Amun-Ra, exiled from Thebes to Ethiopia by the Pharaohs of the Twenty-second dynasty, had infused a new life into the land of their exile. They had reorganized its political institutions and centralized them at Napata, which city, in the hands of its new lords, became a sort of Ethiopian Thebes modelled on the Thebes of Egypt. With the co-operation of the native peoples Napata was soon reckoned among the great political powers. While Ethiopia was developing and flourishing, Egypt, so disintegrated as to be a mere collection of feudal states, was being more and more weakened by incessant revolutions. Certain Egyptian princes having at this period appealed to the King of Napata for help, he crossed over into the Thebaid, and established order there; then, to the surprise of those who had appealed to him, he continued his way northward and went as far as Memphis, nor did he halt until he had subjugated the country and proclaimed the suzerainty of Ethiopia over the whole Nile Valley. Piankhy, to whom belongs the honour of this achievement, caused an account of it to be engraved at Jebel-Barkal, near Napata. After his reign, the throne passed to a native family, and during the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Dynasties Ethiopia had the glory of giving birth to the Pharaohs who ruled all the land from Abyssinia to the shores of the Mediterranean.

But at the very time when the Ethiopian armies were advancing from the South to subdue the North, the victorious Assyrian armies of the King of Nineveh were already encamped on the borders of Phoenicia. Menaced by Sargon II in the days of Shabaka, Egypt was invaded for the first time by Sennacherib's army during the reign of Shabataka. Taharqa, his successor, was defeated by Earsarhaddon, and forced to retreat as far as Napata, pursued by the Ninevite hosts. The victory, however, was dearly bought by the Assyrians, and the Ethiopians, even in retreat, proved so dangerous that the pursuit was abandoned. Taharqa, encouraged by the fear he inspired in his enemies, tried to win back the Nile Valley. He assumed the offensive a few years after this, and soon entered Memphis almost without striking a blow. But the princes of the Delta, of whom Nechao was the most powerful, far from extending him a welcome, joined forces with the King of Ninevah. Asurbanipal, who had now succeeded his father Earsarhaddon, straightway attacked Taharqa, and the King of Ethiopia fell back once more toward the Cataracts. His son-in-law, Tanuat-Amen, once more victorious, went up as far as Memphis, where he defeated the delta princes, allies of the Assyrians, but a fresh expedition under Asurbanipal completely broke his power. Thereafter Tanuat-Amen remained in his Kingdom of Napata; and thus Ethiopian sway over Egypt was brought to a close.

Restricted to its natural limits, the Ethiopian kingdom did not cease to be a powerful State. Attacked by Psamettichus I and Psamettichus II, it was able to maintain its independence and break the ties which bound it to the northern kingdom. In the following century, Cambyses, conqueror of Egypt, attracted by the marvelous renown of the countries along the Upper Nile, set on foot an expedition against Ethiopia, but in spite of the numbers and prowess of his troops he was obliged to retreat. When Artaxerxes II, surnamed Ochus, invaded the Delta, Nectanebo II, King of Egypt, could find no safer refuge that Ethiopia, and in the days of the Ptolemies, one of its kings, Arq-Amen (the Ergamenes of Diodorus Siculus), was powerful enough to commemorate his exploits in the decorations of the temple at Philæ. Nevertheless these last rays of glory were to fade quickly. Abandoned to itself, removed from the civilizing influences of the north, the country fell back, step by step, into its primitive barbarism, and defeat is written upon the last page of its history. The last invasion of Ethiopia was by Roman legions; led by Petronious, they advanced as far as Napata, where a queen occupied the throne, and the city was destroyed. After this, darkness falls upon all these countries of the Upper Nile, and ancient Ethiopia disappears — to appear again transformed by a new civilization which begins with the history of modern Nubia.


The only civilization we know of in Ethiopia is that which was borrowed from Egypt. We find no record of really native institutions on any of the monuments that have come down to us, and the earliest records extant do not take us beyond the founding of the priestly dynasty of Thebes. At Napata Amun-Ra, King of the Gods, ruled supreme with Maut and Khonsu. The temple there was built on the model of the Karnak sanctuaries; the ceremonies performed there were those of the Theban cult. The priest-kings, above all, as formerly in their native land, were the heads of a purely sacerdotal polity. It was only later in history that the monarchy became elective in Ethiopia. The election took place at Napata, in the great temple, under the supervision of the priests of Amun-Ra, and in the presence of a number of special delegates chosen by the magistrates, the literati, the soldiers, and the officers of the palace. The members of the reigning family, "the royal brethren", were brought into the sanctuary and presented one after another to the statue of the god, who indicated his choice by a signal previously agreed upon. The choice of the priests could undertake nothing without the priests' consent, and was subject to them for life. Arq-Amen seems to have broken through this tutelage and secured complete independence for the throne.


The tongues in the land of Kush were as varied as the people who dwelt there, but Egyptian is the language of the Ethiopian inscriptions. On a few monuments dating from the last epoch of Ethiopian history we find a special idiom. It is written by means of hieroglyphics, of which the alphabetical values, however, have been modified. Hitherto undecipherable, this language has recently been held to be related to Egyptian, with a large admixture of foreign (doubtless Nubian) words. The development of the study of demotic, as well as more intimate knowledge of the speech of later times, will, perhaps, eventually bring a fuller knowledge of this idiom.

Abyssinian ethiopia


This region corresponds to a group of territories nowadays known as Abyssinia, extending from the Italian colony of Eritrea to the shores of the Greta Lakes. Yet the ancient empire of this name did not by any means occupy the whole of this area, the boundaries of which rather indicate its greatest extent at any period of its history. Among the countries that have been known under the name Ethiopia, this alone took the name for itself, and calls itself by that name to this day. It rejects the name Abyssinia which is constantly given it by Arab writers. Western writers have often employed both terms, Abyssinia and Ethiopia, indifferently, but in our own day a distinction seems to be growing up in their use. Its seems that with the name of Ethiopia we should connect that portion of the country's history the documents of which are supplied by the Gheez literature alone; with that of Abyssinia, what belongs to the modern period since the definitive appearance of Amharic among the written languages.


The modern Tigré. formerly the kingdom of Axum, would seem to have been the kernel of this State. It was founded by refugees who came to the African continent when the Arsacidæ were extending their sway in the Arabian peninsula, and the power of the Ptolemies was declining in Egypt. These refugees belonged to the Sabean tribes engaged in the gold and spice trade between Arabia and the Roman Empire; their dealings with civilized races had developed them, and, thanks to their more advanced stage of mental culture, they acquired a preponderating influence over the people among whom they had come to dwell. Still, the descendants of these immigrants form a minority of the Ethiopian people, which mainly composed of Cushite tribes, together with an aboriginal race called by the Ethiopians themselves Shangala.


From native sources we know nothing accurately of the political beginnings of the State. Its annals open with the rule of monsters in that land, and for many centuries Aruë, the serpent, is the only ruler mentioned. Many writers see in this but a personification of idolatry or barbarism, and the explanation seems probable. According to certain tales written in Gheez, the Ethiopians embraced the Jewish religion at the time of Solomon, and received a prince of that monarch's family to rule over it. The Queen of Shaba (Sheba), spoken of in the First Book of Kings, was an Ethiopian queen, according to the legend of Kebranagasht (the glory of the kings) and it was through her that Ethiopia received this double honour. But this tradition is of comparatively recent origin, and finds no confirmation in the most ancient native documents, nor in any foreign writings. History still waits for some foundation on which to base this appropriation of the scared text, as well as for proof to justify the variants with which Ethiopian chroniclers have embellished it.

The first thing we know with certainty of the history of Ethiopia is its conversion to Christianity. This work was accomplished in the early half of the fourth century by St. Frumentius, known in that country as Abba Salama. Rufinus of Aquileia has preserved the story for us in his history. According to him, a Christian of Tyre, named Merope, had gone on a journey to India with two children, Edesius and Frumentius, his nephews. On their return journey the ship that carried them was captured by pirates off the Ethiopian coast, and everyone on board was put to death except the two children. They were sent as captives to the king and were afterwards appointed tutors to his son, whom they converted to Christianity. Later they returned to their own country. But Frumentius had but one ambition: to be consecrated bishop by the Patriarch of Alexandria. This wish having been fulfilled, he returned to Axum, organized Christian worship, and, under the title of Abba Salama, became the first metropolitan of the Ethiopian church. Missionary monks coming later from neighbouring countries (in the sixth century) completed the work of his apostolate by establishing the monastic life. National traditions speak of these missionaries as the nine saints; they are the abbas Alé, Shema, Aragawi, Garima, Pantalewon, Liqanos, Afsi, Gougo, and Yemata. Henceforth Ethiopia takes its place among the Christian States of the East. One of its kings, Caleb, contemporary with the nine saints, and canonized as St. Elesban, is famous in oriental literature for an expedition he led against the Jewish kingdom of Yemen. The authority of the Ethiopian kings then extended over Tigré, Shoa, and Amhara, and the seat of government was the Kingdom of Axum.

But from this time forward the history of this country is enveloped in darkness, and remains almost unknown to us until the thirteenth century. We have nothing to guide us but long, and for the most part, mutually conflicting lists of kings with the indication of a dynastic revolution, which perhaps explains the brevity of the chronicles. Perhaps, in the midst of these troubles, the historical documents of preceding ages were purposely destroyed; and this seems likely since the dynasty of the Zagues, which at that time usurped the throne of the pretended descendants of the son of Solomon, would feel constrained to destroy the prestige of the supplanted dynasty in order to establish itself. According to the abridged chronicle published by Bruce, the Falashas, a tribe professing Judaism, were the cause of this insurrection; but we have no other evidence in support of this assertion. The chronicles we have are silent about the matter; they merely tell us that at the close of the thirteenth century, in the reign of Yekuno Amlak, after a period of exile, the length of which we do not know, the Solomonian dynasty regained power through the aid of the monk Takla Hâymânot. After the restoration of the ancient national dynasty, the country, once more at peace within itself, had to concentrate its whole energy upon resisting the southward progress of Mohammedan conquest. For nearly three centuries Ethiopia had to wage wars without respite for liberty and faith, and it alone, of all the African kingdoms, was able to maintain both. The most famous of these wars was against the Emit of Harar, Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim, surnamed the Left-handed. It took place during the reigns of Kings Lebna Dengel (1508-40) and Galawdéwos (1540-59), and the exhausted country was only saved by the timely help of Portuguese armies. Delivered from its foes, it might have become a great power in the East, but it lacked a capable leader, and its people, deriving but little moral support from a corrupt religion, fell rapidly away until, after a long series of civil wars, Ethiopia became a land of anarchy.

Under Minas (1159-63), Sarsa Dengel (1563-97), and Ya'eqob Za Dengel (1597-1607), civil war was incessant. There was a brief respite under Susneos (1607-32), but war broke out afresh under Fasiladas (1632-67), and the clergy, moreover, increased the trouble by their theological disputes as to the two natures of Christ. These disputes, often, indeed, but a cloak for ambitious intrigues, were always occasions of revolution. Under the successors of Fasiladas the general disorder passed beyond all bounds. Of the seven kings that followed him but two died a natural death. There was a short period of peace under Bakafa (1721-30), and Yasu II (1730-55), Yoas (1755) and Yohannes were again victims of an ever-spreading revolution. The end of the eighteenth century left Ethiopia a feudal kingdom. The land and its government belonged to its Ras, or feudal chieftains. The unity of the nation had disappeared, and its kings reigned, but did not govern. The Ras became veritable Mayors of the Palace, and the monarchs were content to be rois fainéants. Side by side with these kings who have left in history only their names, the real masters of events, as the popular whim happened to favour them, were Ras Mikael, Ras Abeto of the Godjam, Ras Gabriel of the Samen, Ras Ali of Begameder, Ras Gabra of Masqal of Tigré, Ras Walda-Sellase of the Shoa, Ras Ali of Amhara, Ras Oubié of Tigré, and the like. But war among these chiefs was incessant; ever dissatisfied, jealous of each other's power, each one sought to be supreme, and it was only after a century of strife that peace was at length established. A son of the governor of Kowara, named Kasa, succeeded in bringing it about, to his own profit; and he made it permanent by causing himself to be named king under the name of Theodore (1855). With him the ancient Ethiopia took its place as one of the nations to be reckoned with in the international affairs of the West, and Abyssinia may be said to date its origin from his reign.


Previous to the conversion of the country to Christianity, the worship of the serpent was perhaps the religion of a portion of Ethiopia, i.e., of the aboriginal Cushite tribes. From inscriptions at Axum and Adulis it would seem that the Semites, on the other hand, had a religion similar to that of Chaldea and Syria. Among the gods mentioned we find Astar, Beher, and Medr — perhaps representing the triad of sky, sea, and land. As to the Jewish religion, and its introduction in the time of Solomon, we have only the assertion found in some recent documents, which, as we have already said, cannot be received as history. The origin of the Judaistic tribe called the Falashas, who nowadays occupy the country, is quite hidden from us, and there is no reason to regard them as representatives of a national religion which has disappeared. After the evangelization by St. Frumentius, and in spite of the resulting general conversion of the people, Paganism always retained some adherents in Ethiopia, and has its representatives there even to this day. Moreover at the time of the Mussulman wars Islam succeeded in securing a foothold here and there. Nevertheless Christianity has always been the really national religion, always practiced and defended by the rulers of the nation.

Although converted to Christianity by missionaries of the Catholic Church, Ethiopia today professes Monophysitism. But subject to the influence of Egypt, it has adopted in the course of time the theory of the Egyptian Church regarding the human nature of Christ. Our lack of information about the country prior to the thirteenth century hinders us from following the history of its separation from Rome, or even fixing the date of that event. Like the Egyptians, the Ethiopian Church anathematizes Eutyches as a heretic, yet remains Monophysite, and rejects the Catholic teaching as to the two natures. United in their statement of belief, the Ethiopian theologians have divided into two great schools in its explanation. On the one hand, the Walda-Qeb ("Sons of Unction", as they are nowadays called), hold that the most radical unification (tawahedo) exists between the two natures, such being the absorption of the human by the Divine nature that the former may be said to be merely a fantasm. The unification is the work of the Unction of the Son Himself according to the general teaching of Walda-Qeb. Some among them, however, known as the Qeb'at (Unction), teach that it is the work of the Father. Others again, the Sega-ledj or Walda-sega (Sons of Grace), hold that the unification takes place in such a way that the nature of Christ becomes a special nature (bahrey), and this is attributed to the Father, as in the teachings of the Qe'bat. But, as the mere fact of the unction does not effect a radical unification (for this schools rejects absorption), the unification is made perfect, according to them, by what they call the adoptive birth of Christ — the ultimate result of the unction of the Father. In effect, they recognize in the incarnation three kinds of birth: the first, the Word begotten of the Father; the second, Christ, begotten of Mary; the third, the Son of Mary, begotten the Son of God the Father by adoption, or by his elevation to the Divine dignity — the work of the Father anointing his Son with the Holy Spirit, whence the name Sons of Grace. However, while rejecting absorption, this latter school refuses to admit the distinction of the two natures. Both schools, moreover, assert that the unification takes place without any blending, with change, without confusion. It is contradiction itself set up as a dogma.

The difficulties following from this teaching in regard to the reality of the Redemption, the Monophysite Church calls mysteries; her theologians confess themselves unable to explain them, and simply dismiss them with the word Ba faqadu; it is so, they say, "by the will of God". In sympathy with the Church of Constantinople, as soon as it was separated from Rome, the Ethiopian Church in the course of time adopted the Byzantine teaching as to the procession of the Holy Ghost; but this question never was as popular as the Incarnation, and in reference to it the contradictions to be found in the texts of native theologians are even more numerous than those touching on the question of the two natures. Adrift from the Catholic Church on the dogma of the humanity of Christ and the procession of the Holy Spirit, the Ethiopian Church professes all the other articles of faith professed by the Roman Church. We find there seven sacraments, the cultus of the Blessed Virgin and of the saints; prayers for the dead are held in high honour and fasts without number occur during the liturgical year.

The Bible, translated into Gheez, with a collection of decisions of the Councils, called the Synodos, make up the ground-work of all moral and dogmatic teaching. The work of translating the Bible began in Ethiopia about the end of the fifth century, according to some authorities (Guidi, G. Rossini), or, in the opinion of others, (Méchineau), in the fourth century at the very beginning of the evangelization. Notwithstanding the native claims, their Old Testament is not a translation from the Hebrew, neither is its Arabic origin any more capable of demonstration; Old and New Testaments alike are derived from the Greek. The work was done by many translators, no doubt, and the unity of the version seems to have been brought about only by deliberate effort. At the same time as the Solomonian restoration in the thirteenth century, the whole Bible was revised under the care of the Metropolitan Abba Salama (who is often confounded with St. Frumentius), and the text followed for the Old Testament was the Arabic of Rabbi Saadias Gaon of Fayûm. There was perhaps a second revision in the seventeenth century at the time of the Portuguese missions to the country; it has recently been noticed (Littman, Geschicte der Äthiopischen Literatur). But, just as the great number of translators employed caused the Bible text to be unusual, so also the revision of it was not uniform and official, and consequently the number of variant readings became multiplied. Its canon, too, is practically unsettled and fluctuating. A host of apocryphal or falsely ascribed writings are placed on the same level as the inspired books, among the most esteemed of which we may mention the Book of Henoch, the Kufale, or Little Genesis, the Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth, the Combat of Adam and Eve, the Ascension of Isaias. The Hâymanotâ Abaw (Faith of the Fathers), the "Mashafa Mestir" (Book of the Mystery), the "Mashafa Hawi" (Book of the Compilations), "Qérlos" (Cyrillius), "Zênâ hâymânot" (Tradition of the Faith) are among the principal works dealing with matters moral and dogmatic. But, besides the fact that many of the quotations from the Fathers in these works have been modified, many of the canons of the "Synodos" are, to say the least, not historical.


In the general effect of its liturgical rules the Ethiopian Church is allied to the Coptic Rite. Numerous modifications, and especially additions, have, in the course of time, been introduced into its ritual; but the basic text remains that of Egypt, from which, in many places, it differs only in the language. Its calendar and the distribution of festivals are regulated as in the Coptic Church, though the Ethiopians do not follow the era of the martyrs. The year has 365 days, with a leap year every four years, as in the Julian calendar. Its ordinary year begins on 29 August of the Julian calendar, which corresponds to 11 September of the Gregorian calendar. After a leap year the new year begins on the 30th of August (or 12 September). The year has twelve months of thirty days each, and an added month of six days or of five days — according as the year is a leap year or not. The era followed is seven years behind ours, during the last four months of our year, and eight years during the remaining months. The calendar for each year is arranged in an ecclesiastical synod held in the springtime. It is at this gathering that the dates of the principal movable feasts are settled, as well as the period for the fasts to be observed during the course of the year. The greater feasts of the Ethiopian church are Christmas, the Baptism of Christ, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Transfiguration. A great number of feasts are scattered throughout the year, either on fixed or movable dates, and their number together with the two days every week (Saturday and Sunday) on which work is forbidden reduces by almost one-third the working days of the year. Fasts are observed every Wednesday and Friday, and five times annually during certain periods preceding the great festivals; the fast of Advent, is kept during forty days; of Ninevah, three days; of Lent, fifty-five days; of the Apostles, fifteen days; the fast of the Assumption, fifteen days. Most of the saints honoured in Ethiopia are to be found in the Roman Martyrology. Among the native saints (about forty in all) only a few are recognized by the Catholic Church — St. Frumentius, St. Elesban, the Nine Saints, and St. Taklu Hâymânot. But, deprived of religious instruction, the Ethiopian people mingle with their Christianity many practices which are often opposed to the teaching of the Gospel; some of these seem to have a Jewish origin, such, for instance, as the keeping of the Sabbath, the distinction of animals as clean and unclean, and the custom of marrying a widow to the nearest relative of her deceased husband.

Ecclesiastical hierarchy

The Ethiopian Hierarchy is subject to the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. This dependence on the Coptic Church is regulated by one of the Arabic canons found in the Coptic edition of the Council of Nicea. A delegate from this patriarch, chosen from among the Egyptian bishops, and called the Abouna, governs the Church. All-powerful in matters spiritual, his influence is nevertheless very limited in other directions, owing to the fact that he is a stranger. The administrative authority is vested in the Etchagué, who also has jurisdiction over the regular clergy. This functionary is always chosen from among the monks and is a native. Legislation concerning the clergy is always regulated by a special code, of which the fundamental principles are contained in the Fetha nagasht. Only the regular clergy observe celibacy, and the facility with which orders are conferred makes the number of priests very large.

Language and literature

Although the races inhabiting Ethiopia have very different origins, only the Semitic family of tongues is represented among them. This is one of the results of the conquest made in olden days by immigrants from the African Continent. Two dialects were spoken by these tribes, the Gheez, which is akin to Sabean, and a speech which is more akin to Mineran, the tongue which later developed into Amharic. In the course of time, Gheez ceased to be a spoken language, but it gave rise to two vernacular dialects, Tigré and Tigraï, which have supplanted it. No longer in popular use, Gheez has always remained the language of the Church and of literature. Amharic did not become a literary language till much later. As for the other two, even in our own day they have hardly begun to be written. The beginnings of Gheez literature are connected with the evangelization of the country. The earliest document we possess is the translation of the Bible, which dates from the fifth, or perhaps the fourth century. Christian in its origins, Gheez literature has remained so in its productions, most of which are apocryphal, hagiographical compositions, or theological works. History and poetry have only a secondary place in it, and these are the only subjects in which we find any original effort; almost everything else is translation from the Greek, Coptic, or Arabic. Most of its manuscripts have come down to us without date or author's name, and it is no easy task to follow the history of letters in this country. As far as we know at present, the fifteenth seems to have been the great literary century of Ethiopia. To the reign of Zar'a Ya'qob (1434-68) belong the principle compositions of which the history is known. The wars against Adal and against Ahmed Ibn Ibraham, in the sixteenth century, arrested this literary movement. The decline began after the civil wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and the coming of Amharic as a literary language completed it. The earliest writings in Amharic date from the fourteenth century, and about the time of the Portuguese mission it was beginning to supplant Gheez. The Jesuits made use of it to reach the people more surely, and henceforward Gheez tends to become almost exclusively a liturgical language. At the present day it is nothing else, Amharic having altogether taken its place in other departments, and it may be that at no distant date Amharic may supplant Gheez even as the language of the Church.

Job Ludolf, a German, in the seventeenth century, was the first to organize the study of Ethiopian subjects. To him we owe the first grammar and the first dictionary of the Gheez language. After a period of neglect these studies were taken up once more in the second half of the nineteenth century by Professor Dillman, of Berlin, and besides incomparable works on the grammar and lexicography, we are indebted to him for the publication of many texts. Thanks to the extension of philological, historical, and patristic studies, the study of this language has spread in our own times to a greater and greater degree. Works of the first importance have been published on the literature by Professors Basset, Bezold, Guidi, Littman, and Prætorius, as also by Charles, Esteves-Pereira, Perruchon, and Touraiso. The Amharic, too, has inspired a number of studies, whether of its grammar, of its lexicography, or of its texts; the works of Massaja, Isenberg, d'Abbadic, Prætorius, Guidi, Mondon-Kidailhet, and Afework have served to definitively place it within the domain of Oriental studies.


MASPâRO, Histoire ancienne des peuples de l'Orient classique (Paris, 1895-99); BUDGE, A History of Egypt (London, 1902); AMHERST OF HACKNEY, A Sketch of Egyptian History (London, 1906); BASSET, Etudes sur l'histoire d'Ethiope (Paris, 1882); ROSSINI, Note per la storia litteria abissina in Rend. della R. A. dei Lincei (Rome, 1899), VIII; LITTMAN, Geschichte der Äthiopischen Litteratur in Geschichte der christlichen Litteraturen des Orients (Leipzig, 1907); BECCARI, Notizia e saggi di opere inediti riguardanti la storia di Ethiopia (Rome, 1903--); BRUCE, A Journey to the Sources of the Nile (London, 1790); GLASER, Die Abessinier in Arabien und Afrika (Munich, 1895); MASSAIA, I miei trenta cinque anni nell' alta Etiopia (Rome 1895); LUDOLF, Historia Æthiopica (Frankfort, 1681); Id., Ad historiam æthiopicam commentarius (Frankfort, 1691).

About this page

APA citation. Chaine, M. (1909). Ethiopia. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Chaine, Marius. "Ethiopia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by M. Donahue.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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