1902 Encyclopedia > Africa > The Abyssinians

(Part 23)


(j) The Abyssinians

Not all the inhabitants of the country called Abyssinia are Abyssinians; nor are the real Abyssinians all of the same origin, being a mixed race, to the formation of which several distinct nations have contributed. The primitive stock is of Ethiopian origin, but, as their language clearly shows, was at an early period mixed with a tribe of the Himyarites from the opposite coast of Arabia, who, in their turn, were ethnologically much more closely connected with the Hebrews than with the Joctanides, or the Arabs properly speaking. In the age of the Egyptian Ptolemies, and after the destruction of Jerusalem Jews settled in Abyssinia in such numbers, that not only their religion spread among the inhabitants, but the Hebrew language became mixed with the Abyssinian as it then was. Hence surprising analogy between the principal Abyssinian languages, viz., the Gheez in Tigre, and the Amharic in Amhara, with the Hebrew. The uninterrupted intercourse with Arabia, and the immigration of several Arabic tribes, also contributed towards the apparently Semitic aspect of the present Abyssinian language. A large portion of Abyssinia having been occupied by Galla and other tribes, we shall here only dwell on the original Abyssinians. They inhabit a large tract, extending from the upper course of the Blue River, north as far as the Red Sea, and some isolated districts in the south and south-east. To the west of them are the Agau Abyssinians, a different tribe, whose idiom, however, is the common language of the lower classes in Tigre and Amhara also. Abyssinia was once a large and powerful kingdom, but the Galla having conquered the whole south of it, it gradually declined until the king or emperor became a mere shadow, in whose name several vassal princes exercise an unlimited power each in his own territory. Owing to their jealous and mutual fears, war seldom ceases among the inhabitants. The Christian religion was introduced into Abyssinia in the first centuries after Christ; but whatever its condition might have been in former times, it new presents a degraded mixture of Christian dogmas and rites, Jewish observances, and heathenish superstition. Yet of Judaism, which was once so powerful, but feeble traces are extant, while the Mohammedan religion is visibly on the increase. European missionaries have been, and still are very active among them, but their efforts have been crowned only with partial success. The Abyssinians, the Gallas being excluded from that denomination, are a fine strong race, of a copper hue, more or less dark, and altogether different from the Negroes, with whom, however, they have frequently been confounded, because they were called a black people. Their noses are nearly straight, their eyes beautifully clear, yet languishing, and their hair is black and scrip, but not woolly. They are on the whole a barbarous people, addicted to the grossest sensual pleasures and their priests, among whom marriage is customary, are little better than the common herd of the people. They live in huts, a large assemblage of which forms a so-called town; and although they possess some solid constructions of stone, such as churches and bridges, it appears that these were built by the Portuguese, the ruins at Axum and other places belonging to a much earlier period, when the country undoubtedly enjoyed a higher civilization than at present. Owing to the influence exercised upon them during the last thirty years by European missionaries and travellers, their conduct towards strangers is less rude than it used to be at the time of Bruce. It is a remarkable fact that, notwithstanding the low state of their religion, the Christians in Abyssinia are not allowed to keep slaves, although they may purchase them for the purpose of selling them again.

This extensive race comprehends by far the greater number of African nations, extending over the whole of Middle and South Africa, except its southernmost projection towards the Cape of Good Hope. A line drawn from the mouth of the Senegal in the west to Cape Jerdaffun in the east, forms its northern limits almost with geometrical accuracy, few Ethiopic tribes being found to the north of it. All the members of this race, however, are not Negroes. The latter are only one of its numerous offshoots; but between the receding forehead, the projecting cheek-bones, the thick lips of the Negro of Guinea, and the more straight configuration of the head of a Galla in Abyssinia, there are still many striking analogies; and modern philology having traced still greater analogies, denoting a common origin, among the only apparently disconnected languages of so many thousands of tribes, whose colour presents all the lines between the deepest black and the yellow brown, it is no longer doubtful that the Negro, the Galla, the Somali, and the Kaffre, all belong to the same ethnological stock.

Read the rest of this article:
Africa - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries