Abyssinia (from the Arabic name Habesh, 'mixture,'given on account of the mixed population), is a highland state of Eastern Africa, jealous in defence of its independence, and lies between the flats at the south end of the Red Sea and the Blue Nile on the west, and extends from Nubia southward to the Galla country.
Divisions are Tigre in the north, Amhara in the centre, and Shoa in the south, besides outlying territories in the S. and SE. (Harar, q.v.). Abyssinia, with an area of 180,000 sq. m., mainly consists of a huge tableland with a mean elevation of 7000 feet. The declivity to the bordering tract on the Red Sea is abrupt; towards the Nile basin it is more gradual. The main mass has been cut into a number of island-like sections by the streams, which have worn their channels into ravines of vast depth-as much sometimes as 4000 feet. The principal are the head-streams of the Blue Nile, issuing from the great Lake Tzana, Tana, or Dembea, and the Atbara, also a tributary of the Nile; less important are the Mareb and the Hawash. Isolated mountains, with naked perpendicular sides, present the most singular forms. The Samen Mountains have summits rising to the height of 15,000 feet. The climate, notwithstanding its tropical position, is on the whole moderate and pleasant owing to its elevation, though in the river valleys and swamps the heat and moisture are suffocating and pestilential. As a whole, the country is exceedingly fruitful; and its productions are of the most varied nature, from the pines, heaths, and lichens of North Europe to the choicest tropical plants. Two, and in some places three, crops can be raised in one year.
The population numbers some four millions, and consists of various elements, the chief being the Abyssinians proper - a brown, well-formed people, belonging to the Semitic stock. The basis of the language is the ancient Ethiopic (see Ethiopia) or Ge'ez, a Semitic tongue which is now the sacred language. The modern dialect of Ainhara is the prevalent language of the country. There are Gallas and Somalis in the south and south-east. The Falashas are of Jewish origin, and still retain many of their racial peculiarities. The towns are small - Adis Ababa, capital of Shoa and of Abyssinia; Gondar, in Ainhara; Adowa, or Adua, in Tigre; Axum (q.v.), the old capital-not to speak of Harar (q.v.), lately annexed. Any foreign trade comes mainly through Massowah. The religion of the Abyssinians proper is a debased Christianity; but the Gallas and other alien tribes are mostly Mohammedan, and partly also pagan. Abyssinia is a part of what was anciently called Ethiopia; Ityopya is still the Abyssinian name of the country. The first king, according to the native tradition, was Menilehek or Menelek, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Christianity was introduced in the 4th century by Fru-mentius; the kingdom of Axum, named from the capital, was the nucleus of the state, and attained its greatest extent in the 6th century. From the commencement the church of Abyssinia has adhered to the mother-church of Egypt, and with her adopted the Monophysite doctrine; and the metropolitan bishop or abuna continues to be nominated by the Coptic Patriarch. The modern history of Abyssinia has been mainly struggles between the princes of various districts for supreme power. About 1850 an Amharic adventurer obtained dominion over successive provinces, and in 1855 had himself crowned, under the name of Theodore, as Negus of Abyssinia. His maltreatment of European political agents and missionaries led to the British expedition under Lord Napier, which stormed Magdala, Theodore's royal fortress, whereupon Theodore died by his own hand. Johannes, king of Tigre, was the next Negus, and on his death in 1889, Menelek of Shoa succeeded to the 'empire.'
Meanwhile Italy had occupied the flats on the coast, now the Italian dependency of Eritrea (with Massowah as headquarters). By a convention of 1889 Abyssinia became almost an Italian protectorate; but after the battle of Adowa (1896), disastrous to the Italians, Italy fully recognised Abyssinian independence.