ABYSSINIA

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ABYSSINIA; an extensive kingdom of Africa, bounded on the east by the Red sea, on the north by Sennaar, on the west and south partly by Sennaar and Kordofan, and partly by vast and barbarous regions, of which the names have scarcely reached us. Pinkerton makes Abyssinia 770 miles in length, and 550 in breadth. The number of inhabitants is from 4 to 5 millions, the greater part of whom are of Arabian extraction, mixed with Jews, Turks and Negroes. The ancients called this country, and some of the parts adjacent, in a peculiar sense, Ethiopia. They also gave the same name, indefinitely, to the interior of Africa, and even to a great part of Asia. The Ethiopian kingdoms, of which the ancients had any distinct knowledge, were two. The first, and the only one known to the earliest writers, is Meroe, or the Peninsula, which they supposed to be an island, formed by the successive union of the Nile with the Astaboras and the Astapus, (Blue River and Tacazze.) The chief city of Meroe was placed by them on the Nile, in lat. 16° 26'; and Bruce saw near Chendi, in Sennaar, immense ruins, which probably belonged to this ancient capital. The other kingdom was not known until the Greeks, under the successors of Alexander, had extended their navigation along the eastern coast of Africa. It was that of the Axumitse, situated upon the Red sea, and occupying part of the Abyssinian province of Tigre. The capital, Axum, still remains, though in a state of decay. Its port, Adulis, was the channel by which the finest ivory then known was exported, and a commercial intercourse maintained with the coasts both of the Red sea and the Indian ocean.The Abyssinians boast that their country was the Sheba of Scripture, and that it was converted to Judaism several centuries before the Christian era. It is much more certain, that, prior to the middle of the fourth century, the nation was converted to Christianity, which it has ever since professed. This is, however, more tinctured with Judaism than among other nations. Boys and girls are circumcised; the Mosaic laws in regard to clean and unclean meats are respected; the seventh day is their Sabbath, and their altars have the form of the ark of the covenant. In their dogmas they follow the Monophysitic doctrine. (See Monophysites.) In the church service they use the Bible, with the apocryphal books, in the Tigre or Gheez language, which is their language of literature. Baptism and the eucharist are administered according to the ritual of the Greek church, of which they have all the festivals and fasts. Itis, however, peculiar to the Abyssinians, that persons of rank receive larger pieces of bread at the Lord's supper, and that no one is admitted to it before his 25th year, because they pretend that no one is accountable for sin before that age, and that all who die prior to it are sure of salvation. They consider the bodies of the dead as unclean, and hasten their interment. Their small, round, conical churches stand on hills, near running water, surrounded by cedars, and are full of pictures. During the service every body is obliged to stand, as in the Greek churches. The shoes are left at the door, and passing horsemen must dismount. The service, like that of the Greek church, consists in reading parts of the Bible and praying. The clergy, who are very ignorant, generally marry, and are distinguished by a cross, which they offer to passengers to be kissed. The head of the Abyssinian church is called Abuna, (our father,) and is generally taken from the Coptic priests, as the Abyssinians and the Copts keep up a communication with each other in Cairo. Under the abuna are the kamosats, or the chief priests of the secular clergy, the learned theologi ans and monks. The latter pretend to be of the order of St. Augustine, and are divided into two classes. The members of one, living unmarried, reside in wealthy convents; those of the others, with their wives and children, five around the churches, supported by agriculture. Both sorts, as well as the numerous nuns, travel about the country, trade in the markets, and do not appear scrupulously observant of their vow of chastity. The Abyssinian clergy have neither a particular dress nor peculiar privileges. A. is now divided into three separate states, Tigre, Amhara, and Efat. The negus, or nagush, as the king of all A. was called before its division, lives at Gondar, in Amhara, enjoying only a nominal sovereignty, and watched by the chief of that state. The pope has several times attempted to gain over A. An opportunity of reducing the Abyssinians to the Roman church was offered by their war with the Turks, in which the regent Helena sought assistance for David II., the minor negus, from the Portuguese, in 1516. In 1520, a Portuguese fleet, with soldiers and priests, arrived in A., and after the Turks and Gallas (a warlike, mountain people, in the south and west of A.) had been repulsed, by the assistance of the Portuguese, towards the end of the 16th century, the zealous Catholics obtained a footing, of which the pope knew how to take advantage. He sent Jesuits to convert the inhabitants to the Roman Catholic religion, and w Portuguese colony supported their enterprise. In the beginning of the 17th century, the Roman Catholic ritual was introduced; the Jesuit Alphonso Mendez was elected patriarch of A., in 1626, the celebration of the 7th day as the Sabbath abolished, and the whole religious system accommodated to the Catholic model. But this favorable turn of affairs was of short duration. The negus Basilidas began his administration in 1632, by yielding to the wishes of the majority of the people, who were opposed to the Roman Catholic faith. He banished the monks with the patriarch, and ordered the Jesuits who remained to be hanged. Almost all the Catholic missionaries have since suffered death, and all the attempts of the Roman propaganda to establish the Catholic faith in A., until the end of the last century, have proved fruitless.In the western part of this country, an independent government of Jews has long existed. They call themselves Falashas, that is, exiles; the state is called Falasjan. They have their own government, which is allowed by the negus, on consideration of their paying a certain tribute. Bruce found there a Jewish king, Gideon, and a queen, Judith.The customs of the Abyssinians are described by Bruce and Salt as exceedingly savage. They eat the raw and still quivering flesh of cattle, whose roaring is to be heard at their feasts. A perpetual state of civil war seems the main cause of their peculiar brutality and barbarism. Dead bodies are seen lying in the streets, and serve as food to dogs and hysenas. Marriage is there a very slight connexion, formed and dissolved at pleasure ; conjugal fidelity is but little regarded. The rulers are unlimited despots in ecclesiastical and civil affairs, disposing of the lives of their subjects at pleasure.A. is full of high ranges of mountains, in which the Nile takes its rise. The climate, on the whole, is fine, and the soil exceedingly fertile. The vegetable and animal kingdoms are very rich, and afford many species peculiar to this country. One of the most important natural productions of 4,. is salt, covering a great plain, which occupies part of the tract between Amphila and Massuah. The plain of salt is about four d ays' j ourney across. For about half a mile the salt is soft, but afterwards becomes hard, like snow which has been uartially thawed, and consolidated. It is perfectly pure : it is cut with an adze, and carried off by caravans. The country is rich in gold, iron, grain and fruits. Commerce is in the hands of the Jews, Armenians and Turks.