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Abyssinian people

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Abyssinian people
Total population
c. 30,188,259
Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia c. 26,224,543
 Eritrea c. 3,963,716
Predominantly: Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodoxy · Ethiopian Catholicism · P'ent'ay)[2] minority: Islam (Sunni) · Judaism
Related ethnic groups

Abyssinian people (Ge'ez: ሐበሻይት), also known as the Habesha or Abesha, are a population inhabiting the Horn of Africa.[3] They include a few linguistically, culturally and ancestrally related ethnic groups in the Ethiopian Highlands. Members' cultural, linguistic, and in certain cases, ancestral origins trace back to the Kingdom of Dʿmt and the Kingdom of Aksum.[4] Scholars have classified the Amhara and the Tigrayans as Abyssinians proper.[5] The Ge'ez speaking people, minimally affected by Sabaean influence, formed the ethnic and cultural stock for both the pre-Axumite and Axumite states.[6][7] Ge'ez, which is closely related to Tigrinya and Tigre, is also believed to be the ancestor of the diverse southern Ethiopian Semitic languages including Amharic.[8][9][10]


The Kingdom of Aksum erected stele for religious and funerary purposes.

The Abyssinians are believed to be descendants of the Axumites, who spoke the ancient Ge'ez language. Ge'ez is most closely related to Tigrinya and Tigre languages.[8][11] The Aksumites inhabited northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.[12] They already lived in this area by the early 1st millennium BC, and founded the Axumite empire, which succeeded the pre-Aksumite Kingdom of D'mt.[6] These people formed the basic ethnocultural stock of both the pre-Axumite and Axumite states.[6] Before the adoption of Christianity in fourth century the religion of the Axumites was a polytheistic religion derived from the Arabic religion which believed that many gods controlled the natural forces of the universe.[13][14]

By the medieval period, the Semitic languages would have spread southward as far as southern Shewa, eastward into the Hararghe highlands, and westward up to eastern Damot (eastern Wellega).[15] Linguistic analysis further indicates that the Ethiopian Semitic languages have retained a Cushitic substratum, which also belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family. The Ge'ez language, Tigre and Tigrinya spoken in the north were influenced by Beja, Agaw and Saho-Afar substrates, with Amharic and Gafat in the south also partially influenced by these substrates. The Amharic, Argobba, Harari and Gurage tongues spoken in central Ethiopia are characterized by an Eastern Sidamo or Highland East Cushitic substratum, as well as Oromo and Somali influences. Overall, the linguistic impact of the Cushitic languages is more marked toward the south.[16]

In Arabic, the elevated plateau on the east of the Nile, from which most of the waters of that river are derived, is called Habesh, and its people Habshi.[17] The modern term derives from the vocalized Ge'ez: ሐበሣ Ḥabaśā, first written with a script that did not mark vowels as ሐበሠ ḤBŚ or in "pseudo-Sabaic as ḤBŠTM".[18] The earliest known use of the term dates to the second or third century Sabaean inscription recounting the defeat of the nəgus ("king") GDRT of Aksum and ḤBŠT.[19] The term "Habashat" appears to refer to a group of peoples, rather than a specific ethnicity. A Sabaean inscription describes an alliance between Shamir Yuhahmid of the Himyarite Kingdom and King `DBH of Aksum in the first quarter of the third century. They had lived alongside the Sabaeans, who lived across the Red Sea from them for many centuries:

Shamir of dhū Raydān and Himyar had called in the help of the clans of Habashat for war against the kings of Saba; but Ilmuqah granted... the submission of Shamir of dhū Raydān and the clans of Habashat."[20]

The term "Habesha" was formerly thought by some scholars[18] to be of Arabic descent because the English name Abyssinia comes from the Arabic form. (Arabs used the word Ḥabaš, also the name of an Ottoman province, Habesh Eyalet, comprising parts of modern-day Eritrea).[21] South Arabian expert Eduard Glaser claimed that the hieroglyphic ḫbstjw, used in reference to "a foreign people from the incense-producing regions" (i.e. Punt, located in Eritrea and northeast Ethiopia) used by Queen Hatshepsut c. 1460 BC, was the first usage of the term or somehow connected.

Based on the inscriptions the Aksumites left behind, they did not regard themselves or their territory as Habesha. For them, Habeshas likely meant people who collected incense in South Arabia. Cosmas Indicopleustes, the Greek-speaking Egyptian traveler who visited the Kingdom of Aksum in 525, also made no reference to Habesha.[22][23] According to Dr. Eduard Glaser, an Austrian epigraphist and historian, "Habesha" was originally used to refer to a kingdom in southeastern Yemen located east of the Hadhramaut kingdom in what is now Al Mahrah Governorate. He believed the etymology of Habesha must have derived from the Mehri language, which means “gatherers” (as in gatherers of incense).[23][24] It was not until long after Aksumite kingdom had ended that Gulf Arab travelers and geographers began to describe the Horn region as Al-Habash. The first among these travelers were Al-Mas`udi and Al-Harrani.[25]

Al-Masudi, a tenth-century Gulf Arab traveler to the region, described Habesha country in his geographical work The Meadows of Gold. He wrote that "the chief town of the Habasha is called Kuʿbar, which is a large town and the residence of the Najashi (nagassi; king), whose empire extends to the coasts opposite the Yemen, and possesses such towns as Zayla, Dahlak and Nasi."[25] Al-Harrani, another Gulf Arab traveler, also asserted in 1295 CE that "one of the greatest and best-known towns is Kaʿbar, which is the royal town of the najashi . . . Zaylaʿ, a town on the coast of the Red Sea, is a very populous commercial center... . Opposite al-Yaman there is also a big town, which is the sea-port from which the Habasha crossed the sea to al-Yaman, and nearby is the island of ʿAql."[25]

By the end of the 8th century, most of the prominent Yemeni kingdoms ended and areas they once controlled were under foreign occupation. Yemen’s turbulence, coupled with its ecological volatility likely shifted the international trade of incense from South Arabia to the Horn region. With Habasha originally used to describe people who gathered incense, this term was also given to the region by early Gulf Arab merchants and travelers as a geographic expression that some of the inhabitants of the Horn adopted over time.[23]

When Portuguese missionaries arrived in the interior of what is present-day Ethiopia in the early 16th century CE, they took the altered word Abesha (without the letter “H” beginning) which is used by Amharic speakers and subsequently Latinized it to Abassia, Abassinos, ;Abessina and finally into Abyssinia. This Abyssinia term was widely used as a geographic expression for centuries, even though it was a term not used by the local inhabitants.[23][26]


Abyssinia depicted on map before 1884 Berlin Conference to divide Africa.

Abyssinian civilization has its roots in the pre-Aksumite culture.[27] An early kingdom to arise was that of D'mt in the 8th century BC. The Kingdom of Aksum, one of the powerful civilizations of the ancient world, was based there from about 150 BC to the mid of 12th century AD. Spreading far beyond the city of Aksum, it molded the one of the earliest cultures of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Architectural remains include finely carved stelae, extensive palaces, and ancient places of worship that are still being used.

Around the time that the Aksumite empire began to decline, the burgeoning religion of Islam made its first inroads in the Abyssinian highlands. During the first Hegira, the companions of prophet Muhammad were received in the Aksumite kingdom. The Sultanate of Showa, established around 896, was one of the oldest local Muslim states. It was centered in the former Shewa province in central Ethiopia. The polity was succeeded by the Sultanate of Ifat around 1285. Ifat was governed from its capital at Zeila in northern Somalia and was the easternmost district of the former Shewa Sultanate.[28]


Approximate realm of the ancient Kingdom of Dʿmt.

Throughout history, populations in the Horn of Africa had been interacting through migration, trade, warfare and intermarriage. Most people in the region spoke Afroasiatic languages, with the family's Cushitic and Semitic branches predominant.[29] As early as the 3rd millennium BCE, the pre-Aksumites had begun trading along the Red Sea. They mainly traded with Egypt. Earlier trade expeditions were taken by foot along the Nile Valley. The ancient Egyptians' main objective in the Red Sea trade was to acquire myrrh. This was a commodity that the Horn region, which the ancient Egyptians referred to as the Land of Punt, had in abundance.

The Kingdom of Aksum may have been founded as early as 300 BCE. Very little is known of the time period between the mid-1st millennium BCE to the beginning of Aksum's rise around the 1st century CE. It is thought to be a successor kingdom of Dʿmt, a kingdom in the early 1st millennium BC most likely centered at nearby Yeha.[30]

The Kingdom of Aksum was situated in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with its capital city in Northern Ethiopia. Axum remained its capital until the 7th century. The kingdom was favorably located near the Blue Nile basin and the Afar depression. The former is rich in gold and the latter in salt: both materials having a highly important use to the Aksumites. Aksum was accessible to the port of Adulis, Eritrea on the coast of the Red Sea. The kingdom traded with Egypt, India, Arabia and the Byzantine Empire. Aksum’s "fertile" and "well-watered" location produced enough food for its population. Wild animals included elephants and rhinoceros.[31]

From its capital, Aksum commanded the trade of ivory. It also dominated the trade route in the Red Sea leading to the Gulf of Aden. Its success depended on resourceful techniques, production of coins, steady migrations of Greco-Roman merchants, and ships landing at Adulis. In exchange for Aksum’s goods, traders bid many kinds of cloth, jewelry, metals and steel for weapons.

At its peak, Aksum controlled territories as far as southern Egypt, east to the Gulf of Aden, south to the Omo River, and west to the Nubian Kingdom of Meroë. The South Arabian kingdom of the Himyarites and also a portion of western Saudi Arabia was also under the power of Aksum. Their descendants include the present-day ethnic groups known as the Amhara, Tigrayans and Gurage peoples.[citation needed]

Medieval and Early Modern period

After the fall of Aksum due to declining sea trade from fierce competition by Muslims and changing climate. The power base of the kingdom migrated south and shifted its capital to Kubar (near Agew). They moved southwards because, even though the Axumite Kingdom welcomed and protected the companions of Prophet Muhammad to Ethiopia, who came as refugees to escape the persecution of the ruling families of Mecca and earned the friendship and respect of the Prophet. Their friendship deteriorated when South-Arabians invaded the Dahlak islands through the port of Adulis and destroyed it, which was the economic backbone for the prosperous Aksumite Kingdom. Fearing of what recently occurred, Axum shifted its capital near Agew][clarification needed] After the Gragn wars in the 16th century the centre of the kingdom moved to around Lake Tana in the Amhara Region. Following Gragn invasions the southern part of the Empire was lost to Ethiopia and scattered Semitic-speaking people like the Gurage people were cut off from the rest of Abyssinia. Sometime in the Middle Ages, Amharic and Tigrinya began to evolve from, possibly Ge'ez, which eventually became extinct outside of religious liturgical use. Abyssinian warlords often competed with each other for dominance of the realm. The Amharas seemed to gain the upper hand with the accession of Yekuno Amlak of Ancient Bete Amhara in 1270, after defeating the Agaw lords of Lasta (in those days a non-Semitic-speaking region of Abyssinia)

Emperor Yohannes IV with his son and heir, Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes.

The Gondarian dynasty, which since the 16th century had become the centre of Royal pomp and ceremony of Abyssinia, finally lost its influence as a result of the emergence of powerful regional lords, following the murder of Iyasu I, also known as Iyasu the Great. The decline in the prestige of the dynasty led to the semi-anarchic era of Zemene Mesafint ("Era of the Princes"), in which rival warlords fought for power and the Yejju Oromo እንደራሴ enderases ("regents") had effective control. The emperors were considered to be figureheads. Until a young man named Kassa Haile Giorgis also known as Emperor Tewodros brought end to Zemene Mesafint by defeating all his rivals and took the throne in 1855. The Tigrayans made only a brief return to the throne in the person of Yohannes IV in 1872, whose death in 1889 resulted in the power base shifting back to the dominant Amharic-speaking elite. His successor Menelik II an Emperor of Amhara origin seized power. Under his leadership Ethiopia maintained its long-standing independence by decisively defeating a colonial invasion.

Some scholars consider the Amhara to have been Ethiopia's ruling elite for centuries, represented by the Solomonic line of Emperors ending in Haile Selassie I. Marcos Lemma and other scholars dispute the accuracy of such a statement, arguing that other ethnic groups have always been active in the country's politics. This confusion may largely stem from the mislabeling of all Amharic-speakers as "Amhara", and the fact that many people from other ethnic groups have adopted Amharic names. Another is the claim that most Ethiopians can trace their ancestry to multiple ethnic groups, including the last self-proclaimed emperor Haile Selassie I and his Empress Itege Menen Asfaw of Ambassel.[32]


Indigenous theory

Nigist (Queen) Makeda of Sheba

The Imperial family of Ethiopia (which is currently in exile) claims its origin directly from descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Ge'ez: ንግሥተ ሣብአ nigiśta Śabʿa), who is named Makeda (Ge'ez: ማክዳ) in the Ethiopian account. The Ethiopian narrative Kebra Negast ("Glory of Kings"), written in 1225 AD[33] contains an account of Makeda and her descendants. Solomon is said in this account to have seduced the Queen, and sired a son by her, who would eventually become Menelik I, the first Emperor of Ethiopia. The tradition that the biblical Queen of Sheba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem is repeated in a 1st-century account by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus. He identified Solomon’s visitor as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. There is no primary evidence, archaeological or textual, for the queen in Ethiopia. The impressive ruins at Aksum are a thousand years too late for a queen contemporary with Solomon, based on traditional dates for him of the 10th century BC.[34][dubious ]

In the past, scholars including Hiob Ludolf and Carlo Conti Rossini postulated that the ancient communities that evolved into the modern Ethiopian state were formed by a migration across the Red Sea of Semitic-speaking South Arabians around 1000 BC, who intermarried with local non-Semitic-speaking peoples. Both the indigenous languages of Southern Arabia and the Amharic and Tigrinya languages of Ethiopia belong to the large family of South Semitic languages.

Scholars have determined that the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia was not derived from an Old South Arabian language such as Sabaean. There is evidence of a Semitic-speaking presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea as early as 2000 BC.[35] There is also evidence of ancient Southern Arabian communities in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea in certain localities, attested by some archaeological artifacts and ancient Sabaean inscriptions in the old South Arabian alphabet. However, Stuart Munro-Hay points to the existence of an older D'MT kingdom, prior to any Sabaean migration c. 4th or 5th century BC, as well as evidence that Sabaean immigrants had resided in Ethiopia for little more than a few decades at the time of the inscriptions.[36] Archeological evidence has revealed a region called Saba in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea; it is now referred to as "Ethiopian Saba" to avoid confusion.

Essentially no archaeological evidence supports the story of the Queen of Sheba. In the 21st century, scholars have largely discounted the longstanding presumption that Sabaean migrants had played a direct role in Ethiopian civilization.[37] Munro-May and related scholars believe that Sabaean influence was minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century. It may have represented a trading or military colony in a symbiotic or military alliance with D`MT.[36]

In the reign of King Ezana, c. early 4th century AD, the term "Ethiopia" is listed as one of the nine regions under his domain, translated in the Greek version of his inscription as Αἰθιοπία Aithiopía. This is the first known use of this term to describe specifically the region known today as Ethiopia (and not Kush or the entire African and Indian region outside of Egypt).[18] The 6th-century author Stephanus of Byzantium later used the term "Αβασηγοί" (i.e. Abasēnoi) to refer to:

an Arabian people living next to the Sabaeans together with the Ḥaḍramites. The region of the Abasēnoi produce[d] myrrh, incense and cotton and they cultivate[d] a plant which yields a purple dye (probably wars, i.e. Fleminga Grahamiana). It lies on a route which leads from Zabīd on the coastal plain to the Ḥimyarite capital Ẓafār.[18]

Abasēnoi was located by Hermann von Wissman as a region in the Jabal Hubaysh (perhaps related in etymology with the ḥbš Semitic root). Other place names in Yemen contain the ḥbš root, such as the Jabal Ḥabaši, whose residents are still called al-Aḥbuš (pl. of Ḥabaš).[38] The location of the Abasēnoi in Yemen may perhaps be explained by remnant Aksumite populations from the 520s conquest by King Kaleb. King Ezana's claims to Sahlen (Saba) and Dhu-Raydan (Himyar) during a time when such control was unlikely may indicate an Aksumite presence or coastal foothold.[39] Traditional scholarship has assumed that the Habashat were a tribe from modern-day Yemen that migrated to Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, the Sabaic inscriptions only use the term ḥbšt to the refer to the Kingdom of Aksum and its inhabitants, especially during the 3rd century, when the ḥbšt (Aksumites) were often at war with the Sabaeans and Himyraites.[38]

South Arabian/Sabaean origin theory

Ancient stone slabs with Sabaean inscriptions found at Yeha, Ethiopia.

Before the 20th century, the Sabean theory was the most common one explaining the origins of the Habesha. It was first suggested by Hiob Ludolf and revived by early 20th-century Italian scholar Conti Rossini. They said that at an early epoch, South Arabian tribes, including one called the Habashat, emigrated across the Red Sea from Yemen to Eritrea. According to this theory, Sabaeans brought with them South Arabian letters and language, which gradually evolved into the Ge'ez language and Ge'ez script. Linguists have revealed, however, that although its script developed from Epigraphic South Arabian (whose oldest inscriptions are found in Yemen, Ethiopia and Eritrea) used to write the Old South Arabian languages, Ge'ez is descended from a different branch of Semitic.[35]

The large corpus of South Arabian inscriptions does not mention any migration to the west coast of the Red Sea, nor of a tribe called "Habashat." All uses of the term date to the 3rd century AD and later, when they referred to the people of the Kingdom of Aksum.[40][41] In the 21st century, the Sabean theory has largely been abandoned.[42]

Ethiopia and Sudan are among the main areas linguists suggest were the Afro-Asiatic Urheimat. Recent linguistic studies as to the origin of the Ethiosemitic languages seem to support the DNA findings of immigration from the Arabian Peninsula, with a recent study using Bayesian computational phylogenetic techniques finding that "contemporary Ethiosemitic languages of Africa reflect a single introduction of early Ethiosemitic from southern Arabia approximately 2,800 years ago", and that this single introduction of Ethiosemitic subsequently underwent quick diversification within Ethiopia and Eritrea.[43]

There are many theories regarding the beginning of the Abyssinian civilisation. One theory, which is more widely accepted today, locates its origins in the Horn region, while acknowledging the influence of the Sabeans on the opposite side of the Red Sea.[44] At a later period, this culture was exposed to Judaic influence, of which the best-known examples are the Qemant and Ethiopian Jews (or Beta Israel) ethnic groups, but Judaic customs, terminology, and beliefs can be found amongst the dominant culture of the Amhara and Tigrinya.[45] Indian alphabets have been claimed as the example used to create the vowel system of the Ge'ez abugida.[46]


The Habesha developed an agricultural society, which most continue, including raising of camels, donkeys, and sheep. They plow using oxen. The Orthodox Church is an integral part of the culture. The church buildings are built on hills. Major celebrations during the year are held around the church, where people gather from villages all around to sing, play games, and observe the unique mass of the church. It includes a procession through the church grounds and environs.

Coffee is a very important ceremonial drink. The "coffee ceremony" is common to the Tigrayans and the Amharas. Beans are roasted on the spot, ground, and brewed, served thick and rich in tiny ceramic cups with no handles. This amount of coffee can be finished in one gulp if drunk cold; but, traditionally it is drunk very slowly as conversation takes place. When the beans are roasted to smoking, they are passed around the table, where the smoke becomes a blessing on the diners. The traditional food served at these meals consists of injera, a spongy flat bread, served with wat, a spicy meat sauce.

Houses in rural areas are built mostly from rock and dirt, the most available resources, with structure provided by timber poles. The houses blend in easily with the natural surroundings. Many times the nearest water source is more than a kilometer away from the house. In addition, people must search for fuel for their fires throughout the surrounding area.

The Habesha people have a rich heritage of music and dance, using drums and stringed instruments tuned to a pentatonic scale. Arts and crafts and secular music are performed mostly by artisans, who are regarded with suspicion. Sacred music is performed and icons are painted only by men trained in monasteries.

Language and literature

The Ge'ez script on a 15th-century Ethiopian Coptic prayer book.

Abyssinians speak languages belonging to the Ethiopian Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic family. Among these tongues is the classical Ge'ez language. The kingdom of Dʿmt wrote proto-Ge'ez in Epigraphic South Arabian as early as the 9th century BCE. Later, an independent script replaced it as early as the 5th century BCE.2

Ge'ez literature is considered to begin with the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as the civilization of Axum in the 4th century BCE during the reign of Ezana. While Ge'ez today is extinct and only used for liturgical purposes in the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, many related Ethiopian Semitic languages continue to be spoken such as Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, Harari, Gurage, Zay, Silte, and Argobba. Some of these languages, such as Harari and Tigre, are traditionally written in the Arabic script.

Historically, the Ethiopian Semitic languages were often known among certain linguists as the Abyssinian languages.[47] They are mainly spoken by the Amhara, the Tigrayans, the Tigre, the Gurage, the Argobba and the Harari people.[1][4] In antiquity Ge'ez-speaking people inhabited Axum empire; the ancient Semitic-speaking Gafat inhabited Eastern Damot (East Welega) and Western Shewa; the Galila clan of Aymallal (Sodo) inhabited Southwest Shewa; the Zay inhabited East Shewa; the Harla who are the ancestors of Harari lived in Somalia; and the other ancient Argobba and Harari inhabited Shewa, Ifat, and Adal.[15][48][49][50]


Throughout history, various European travelers such as Jeronimo Lobo, James Bruce and Mansfield Parkyns visited Abyssinia. Their written accounts about their experiences include observations and descriptions of the Abyssinian customs and manners.

Traditional Habesha injera

Habesha cuisine characteristically consists of vegetable and often very spicy meat dishes, usually in the form of wat (also w'et or wot), a thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread,[51] which is about 50 centimeters (20 inches) in diameter and made out of fermented teff flour.[51] People of Ethiopia and Eritrea eat exclusively with their right hands, using pieces of injera to pick up bites of entrées and side dishes.[51]

Fit-fit, or fir-fir, is a common breakfast dish. It is made from shredded injera or kitcha stir-fried with spices or wat. Another popular breakfast food is fatira. The delicacy consists of a large fried pancake made with flour, often with a layer of egg, eaten with honey. Chechebsa (or kita firfir) resembles a pancake covered with berbere and niter kibbeh, or spices, and may be eaten with a spoon. A porridge, genfo is another common breakfast dish. It is usually served in a large bowl with a dug-out made in the middle of the genfo and filled with spiced niter kibbeh.

Wat begins with a large amount of chopped red onion, which is simmered or sauteed in a pot. Once the onions have softened, niter kebbeh (or, in the case of vegan dishes, vegetable oil) is added. Following this, berbere is added to make a spicy keiy wat or keyyih tsebhi. Turmeric is used instead of bebere for a milder alicha wat or both are omitted when making vegetable stews, atkilt wat. Meat such as beef (Amharic: ሥጋ,[52] səga), chicken (Amharic: ዶሮ,[53] doro) or Tigrinya: derho), fish (Amharic: ዓሣ,[54] asa), goat or lamb (Amharic: በግ,[55] beg or Tigrinya: beggi) is also added. Legumes such as split peas (Amharic: ክክ,[56] kək or Tigrinya: kikki) or lentils (Amharic: ምስር,[57] məsər or birsin); or vegetables such as potatoes (Amharic: ድንች,[58] Dənəch), carrots and chard (Amharic: ቆስጣ) are also used instead in vegan dishes.

Another distinctively Habesha dish[citation needed] is kitfo (frequently spelled ketfo). It consists of raw (or rare) beef mince marinated in mitmita (Ge'ez: ሚጥሚጣ mīṭmīṭā, a very spicy chili powder similar to the berbere) and niter kibbeh. Gored gored is very similar to kitfo, but uses cubed rather than ground beef.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes a number of fasting (tsom Ge'ez: ጾም, ṣōm) periods, including Wednesdays, Fridays, and the entire Lenten season; so Habesha cuisine contains many dishes that are vegan.[59]

Habesha women in traditional Habesha kemis performing a folklore dance.

The habesha kemis is the traditional attire of Habesha women.[60][61] The ankle length dress is usually worn by Ethiopian and Eritrean women at formal events. It is made of chiffon, and typically comes in white, grey or beige shades. Many women also wrap a shawl called a netela around the formal dress.

The netela or netsela is a handmade cloth many Ethiopian women use to cover their head and shoulders when they wear clothing made out of chiffon, especially when attending church. It is made up of two layers of fabric, unlike gabi, which is made out of four. Kuta is the male version.

An Ethiopian or Eritrean suit is the traditional formal wear of Habesha men.[62] It consists of a long sleeve, knee-length shirt, and matching pants. Most shirts are made with a Mandarin, band, or Nehru collar. The suit is made of chiffon, which is a sheer silk or rayon cloth. The netela shawl or a kuta is wrapped around the suit.



The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is believed to house the original Ark of the Covenant.

The Habesha empire centered in Axum and Adowa was part of the world in which Christianity grew. The arrival of Christianity in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea happened around the 4th century. The Aksumites, in fact, had been converted to Christianity hundreds of years before most of Europe. Many of their churches were cut into cliffs or from single blocks of stone, as they were in Turkey and in parts of Greece, where Christianity had existed from its earliest years. The church is a central feature of communities and of each family's daily life. Each community has a church with a patron saint.

Ethiopia has often been mentioned in the Bible. A well-known example of this is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as written in Acts (8: 27): "Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure." The passage continues by describing how Philip helped the Ethiopian understand one passage of Isaiah that the Ethiopian was reading. After the Ethiopian received an explanation of the passage, he requested that Philip baptize him, which Philip obliged. Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII (very similar to Kandake) was the Queen of Ethiopia from the year 42 to 52. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was founded in the 4th century by Syrian monks. Historically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church have had strong ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria appointing the archbishop for the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. They gained independence from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in the 1950s, although the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church has recently reforged the link.

This leather painting depicts Ethiopian Orthodox priests playing sistra and a drum

A number of unique beliefs and practices distinguish Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity from other Christian groups; for example, the Ark of the Covenant is very important. Every Ethiopian church has a replica of the Ark. Also, the Ethiopian Church has a larger biblical canon than other churches.

Church services are conducted in Ge´ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ge´ez is no longer a living language, its use now confined to liturgical contexts, occupying a similar place in Eritrean and Ethiopian church life to Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.

Other Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox practices include such things as fasting, prescribed prayers, and devotion to saints and angels. A child is never left alone until baptism and cleansing rituals are performed. Boys are baptized forty days after birth, whereas girls are baptized eighty days after birth.

Defrocked priests and deacons commonly function as diviners, who are the main healers. Spirit possession is common, affecting primarily women. Women are also the normal spirit mediums. A debtera is an itinerant lay priest figure trained by the Church as a scribe, cantor, and often as a folk healer, who may also function in roles comparable to a deacon or exorcist. Folklore and legends ascribe the role of magician to the debtera as well.

A number of Ethiopian Christians adhere to various forms of Pentecostalism or Anabaptism, collectively known as P'ent'ay.

Similarities to Judaism and Islam

The Ethiopian church places a heavier emphasis on Old Testament teachings than one might find in the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches, and its followers adhere to certain practices that one finds in Orthodox or Conservative Judaism.[63] Ethiopian Christians, like some other Eastern Christians, traditionally follow dietary rules that are similar to Jewish Kashrut, specifically with regard to how an animal is slaughtered. Similarly, pork is prohibited, though unlike Kashrut, Ethiopian cuisine does mix dairy products with meat- which in turn makes it even closer to Islamic dietary laws (see Halal). Women are prohibited from entering the church during their menses; they are also expected to cover their hair with a large scarf (or shash) while in church in keeping with 1 Corinthians 11. As with Orthodox synagogues, men and women are seated separately in the Ethiopian church, with men on the left and women on the right (when facing the altar). However, women covering their heads and separation of the sexes in the Church building officially is common to many Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christians and not unique to Judaism. Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers remove their shoes when entering a church, in accordance with Exodus 3:5 (in which Moses, while viewing the burning bush, is commanded to remove his shoes while standing on holy ground). Furthermore, both the Sabbath (Saturday), and the Lord's Day (Sunday) are observed as holy, although more emphasis, because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is laid upon the Holy Sunday.


A mosque in Bahir Dar.

Islam in Ethiopia dates to 615. During that year, a group of Muslims were counseled by Muhammad to escape persecution in Mecca and migrate to Abyssinia, which was ruled by, in Muhammad's estimation, a pious Christian king (al-najashi). Muhammad's followers crossed the Red Sea and sought refuge in the Kingdom of Aksum, possibly settling at Negash, a place in present-day Tigray Region. Moreover, Islamic tradition states that Bilal, one of the foremost companions of Muhammad, was from Ethiopia, as were many non-Arab Companions of Muhammad - in fact, Ethiopians were the single largest non-Arab ethnic group who were Muhammad's companions. Among these was Umm Ayman who cared for Muhammad during his infancy, a woman that he referred to as "mother".[citation needed] Ethiopia was thus the earliest home outside of Arabia for the dispersal of the Islamic world faith. Ethiopia is almost evenly split between Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims.

Most of Ethiopia and Eritrea's Muslims are Sunni Muslims and much as in the rest of the Muslim world, the beliefs and practices of the Muslims of Ethiopia and Eritrea are basically the same: embodied in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. There are also Sufi orders present in Ethiopia. According to the 1994 census of Ethiopia (with similar numbers for the 1984 census), about half of its population is adherent of Islam and members of the Muslim community can be found throughout the country. Islam in Ethiopia is the predominant religion in the regions of Wollo, Somali, Afar, Berta, Gurage, and the section of Oromia east of the Great Rift Valley, as well as in Jimma. Islam in Eritrea is the predominant religion of all the ethnic groups except for the Tigrayan people, the Bilen people, and the Kunama people.[citation needed]

The most important Islamic religious practices, such as the daily ritual prayers (ṣalāt) and fasting (Arabic: صومṣawm, Ethiopic ጾም, ṣom - used by local Christians as well) during the holy month of Ramadan, are observed both in urban centers as well as in rural areas, among both settled peoples and nomads. Numerous Ethiopian Muslims perform the pilgrimage to Mecca every year.


Judaism in Ethiopia is believed to date from very ancient times. Precisely what its early history was, however, remains obscure. The now dominant Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims it originated from the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon back in the 10th century BCE. This visit is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (I Kings 10:1), Sheba was a kingdom that stretched from Ethiopia to the south of the Yemen. Yemen is very close to Ethiopia across the Red Sea, and it has been recorded that modern Ethiopia has been heavily influenced by the ancient Sabean kingdom. Moreover, the details of the queen's visit, including the alleged theft of the Holy Ark as well as Solomon getting her pregnant with a child who established the "Solomonic" lineage in Ethiopia, as given in Christian Ethiopian tradition, were written in the Kebra Nagast the Ethiopian chronicle of its early history. The oldest known existing copies of the book date from as far back as the 13th century. Jewish Ethiopians are mentioned in both the Torah Old Testament as well as the Christian New Testament. It is clear that the Jewish presence in Ethiopia dates back at least 2500 years.

The Jewish Pre-settlement Theory essentially states that starting around the 8th century BCE until about the 5th century BCE, there was an influx of Jewish settlers both from Egypt & Sudan in the north, and southern Arabia in the east.[citation needed] Whether these settlers arrived in great numbers is yet a matter of debate. What is certain, however, is that these settlers must have preceded the arrival of Christianity. Evidence for their presence exists not only in historical books, but also in material artifacts depicting ancient Jewish ceremonies. For instance the temple at Yeha (in Tigray region), which is said to have been erected in the 8th century BCE, is believed to be an architectural copy of other Jewish temples found in Israel and Egypt during the pre-Babylonian era (before 606 BCE).[citation needed] Another example is found on the monastery islands of Lake Tana (northern Gojjam), where several archaic stone altars, fashioned in the manner of Jewish sacrificial altars of pre-8th century BCE Israel, have been found not only preserved in good condition but also containing blood residue.[citation needed] The manner of the blood placed on the stone altars was found to be typical of a culture that strongly adhered to Mosaic Law.[citation needed]

The chief Semitic languages of Ethiopia also suggest an antiquity of Judaism in Ethiopia. "There still remains the curious circumstance that a number of Abyssinian words connected with religion -- Hell, idol, Easter, purification, alms -- are of Hebrew origin. These words must have been derived directly from a Jewish source, for the Abyssinian Church knows the scriptures only in a Ge'ez version made from the Septuagint"[64]

Beta Israel traditions claim that the Ethiopian Jews are descended from the lineage of Moses himself, some of whose children and relatives are said to have separated from the other Children of Israel after the Exodus and gone southwards, or, alternatively or together with this, that they are descended from the tribe of Dan, which fled southwards down the Arabian coastal lands from Judaea at the time of the breakup of the Kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms in the 10th century BCE. (precipitated by the oppressive demands of Rehoboam, King Solomon's heir), or at the time of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. Certainly there was trade as early as the time of King Solomon down along the Red Sea to the Yemen and even as far as India, according to the Bible, and there would, therefore, have been Jewish settlements at various points along the trade routes. There is definite archaeological evidence of Jewish settlements and of their cultural influence on both sides of the Red Sea well at least 2,500 years ago, both along the Arabian coast and in the Yemen, on the eastern side, and along the southern Egyptian and Sudanese coastal regions.

Notable Abyssinians

See also


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  •  This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website
  • Pankhurst, Dr. Richard. "History of Northern Ethiopia - and the Establishment of the Italian Colony or Eritrea". Civic Webs Virtual Library. Archived from the original on March 23, 2005. Retrieved March 25, 2005.
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Further reading

  • Eduard Glaser, Die Abessinier in Arabien und Afrika. München 1895, S. 8 f.
  • Wilhelm Max Müller, Asien und Europa nach altägyptischen Denkmälern. Leipzig 1893, S. 116.
  • Wolbert Smidt, Selbstbezeichnung von Təgrəñña-Sprechern (Habäša, Tägaru, Təgrəñña); in: Bogdan Burtea / Josef Tropper / Helen Younansardaroud, Studia Semitica et Semitohamitica [Festschrift für Rainer Voigt], Münster 2005, S. 385 ff., 391 f.
  • Hatem Elliesie, Der zweite Band der Encyclopaedia Aethiopica im Vergleich; in: Orientalistische Literaturzeitung, Band 102, Heft 4-5, Berlin 2007, S. 397 ff. (398-401).
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