Ethiopia (Abyssinia) has characteristics that are unique in Africa. Primarily Christian (Coptic) since the 4th century, although nearly surrounded by Moslem peoples (Moslems now account for a third of its own 22 million people); brought under European rule only when Italy conquered it in 1936 (and liberated by British forces 5 years later); preserving in 1961 an almost absolute monarchy; it is as proud of its distinctiveness as of its long history.
It has kept aloof thanks to the protection of its exceptionally steep mountains. The dominant Amhara in the mountain area north of Addis Ababa, and the related Tigre farther north, are mainly of Cushitic stock, but speak Semitic languages as a result of early influences from southern Arabia. When Islam came to dominate both sides of the Red Sea and the coastal plains of the Horn, the Christian Amhara held out against it; however, during the religious wars Galla tribes penetrated into the central mountains, and many of them are now Moslem. In 1875 Ethiopia repulsed an Egyptian invasion, in the 1890's an Italian one; but Italy took possession of Eritreaandmost of Somalia.
The Emperor Haile Selassie, who, as Ras Tafari, became regent in 1916 and ascended the throne in 1930, returned to rule again after the Italian occupation, and despite some discontent with his strong personal régime, he successfully crushed a rising in 1960, although it seemed that he might have to accelerate his plans for reform in some directions. Under his rule the independence of regional chieftains has been sharply reduced.
Only 9 per cent. of the land is arable, and only 30 per cent. even fit for pasture. Coffee, an ancient product of the area, now accounts for half the exports.
In 1950 the United Nations Assembly approved the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia. Of the million Eritreans, the western half are mainly Moslems, the eastern half Christians; they were divided about the federation too, but accepted it without resistance. The union gave Ethiopia a sea coast and two new ports, Massawa and Assab; but its chief outlet to the sea remains Djibuti, in French Somaliland. In 1960 the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (F) set up its office in Addis Ababa, which has become a less isolated place than its situation might suggest, with a network of air services.
Today, Ethiopia's main external problem is its relations with the Somalis (12).