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Ethiopic or Ge’ez Literature

          Ethiopia occupies a unique place among African countries south of the Sahara, having evolved her literary language, Ge’ez, in very early times. A vast body of literary works in Ge’ez grew up from the fifth century A.D onwards. Almost all of these works are religious in content. Religion lies at the very core of Ethiopian civilization and the Ethiopian Church has been not only the storehouse of the national culture but also its propagator, instrumental in shaping and molding Ethiopian literature and art. Ethiopian men of letters have, in almost all cases, also been men of the Church and many scholars consider that the most distinctive attainment of Ethiopian culture lies in the vast collection of manuscripts, compiled and preserved in the monasteries and churches, which embody the national literary tradition. Their subject matter and their style are strongly imbued with religious concepts.

         It is interesting to note that while many of the literary works extant in Ge’ez are based on translations from Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and in later times, Arabic originals, in every case the work in question has been not merely translated but, in Professor Ullendorff’s phrase, has been “conveyed into the spirit and ambiance of Christian Abyssinia”. In other words, these works have been submitted to such a process of adaptation and transformed that instead of being mere copies or hackneyed translations they stand as literary works of art in their own right.


The literary achievements of the Aksumite Period c. 5th- 7th centuries A.D:

         The major literary achievement of this period was the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Ge’ez. This great undertaking was the work of a group of learned Syrian monks known as the Nine Saints who came to Ethiopia in the fifth century to escape the Byzantine persecution of the Monophysites. The translation of the Old Testament was rendered from the Lucianic recension current in Antioch at that time. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of these comprise the Old Testament and 35 are found in the New Testament. A number of these Books are apocryphal or deuterocanonical, such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, and the Paralipomena of Baruch. Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Moses and Tobit. They are of intrinsic importance to scholars either because no other complete version of the text is extant in any language other than Ge’ez or because the Ge’ez version is authoritative.

        Perhaps the most important of these apocryphal works is the Book of Enoch, which has been preserved in Ge’ez alone. The name Enoch signifies “teaching” or “dedication” and Enoch is one of the great Biblical characters, the first-born son of Cain. The Book of Enoch was lost for centuries to Western scholars who knew it only because it is mentioned in the Epistle of St. Jude, until, in 1773, James Bruce brought three complete manuscripts to Europe. This great prophetic work can be summarized in five parts as follows:

1. The laws governing the heavenly bodies.
2. An account in the form of visions of the history of the world until the Last Judgement and the coming of the Messianic Kingdom with its center at the New Jerusalem.
3. The establishment of a temporary kingdom that heralds the approach of the Last Judgement.
4. A vision of Enoch and others and his journeys through earth and heaven.
5. This section contains the Similitude and describes the coming of the Messiah as the judge of all mankind.

Other early Ge’ez works of significance which have been mentioned in a previous chapter include the famous work known as Qerlos, the great collection of Christological writings which opens with the treatise by St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, known as Haimanot Rete’et, or De Recta Fide. This book is based on the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another work translated at this period was the Ascetic Rules of Pachomius, which established the rules governing monastic life in Ethiopia. It is interesting to note that the same period saw the translation of a secular work, the Physiologus, the well-known work of natural history, which was very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages.


The Solomonic Restoration:

         After the decline of the Aksumite Empire, towards the middle of the eighth century, Ethiopia entered a tenebrous period from which literary documents have not survived (or have yet been discovered). A great period of cultural renaissance followed upon the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty about 1270, however, and the fourteenth century was the beginning of what has been termed the “Golden Age” of Ethiopian Literature. Although Ge’ez was no longer a living language it retained its primordial role as an ecclesiastical and literary language, like Latin in the Western Church. In addition to works of a theological or dogmatical nature, we find the beginning of the great series of Royal Chronicles of Ethiopia with the reign of Amda-Seyone (1314-44). The chronicle of Amda-Seyone is an outstanding work. The vivid and compelling account of Amda-Seyone’s struggles against the Muslims was certainly the work of an eye-witness and denotes a new phase of Ge’ez literature. To the same period dates the earliest known Amharic text; a collection of solders songs celebrating the victories of Amda-Seyone. From this time onwards royal chronicles became a regular feature of the Ge’ez literary development in Christian Ethiopia.

         This period also saw the composition of the Kebre Negest or Glory of the Kings which is perhaps the most significant work of Ethiopian literature. It was composed by the Nebura’ed Yeshaq of Aksum and combines history, allegory, and symbolism in its re-creation of the story of Queen Sheba, King Solomon, and their son, Menelik I of Ethiopia. The great achievement of the author, Yeshaq, lies in the way he has gathered together and syncretized all the myriad strands of this great cycle of legends and stories which is woven into the very fabric of Ethiopian life.

         Other works of this period include the Matshafa Se’atat or Horologium, a very popular work attributed to Abba Giyorgis of Gascha. The Weddase Mariam or Praises of Mary is, as the name implies, a collection of hymns and laudations dedicated to Our Lady and ordered according to the days of the week. It is ascribed to Abba Salawa, who also engaged in a revision of the text of the Bible.

        A new genre of literature that appeared was devoted to the lives of the saints and martyrs. Well-known works of this nature are the Gadle Sama’etat or Acts of the Martyrs and the Gadle Hawaryat, or Acts of the Apostles. But the most important of these is the Senkessar or Synaxarium which has been translated by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church. This is a compilation of the lives of the saints arranged in order of their feast days throughout the year. In general, these works are devoted to the struggle and suffering endured by the saints and martyrs in defense of their faith. The torments inflicted upon them are described as well as their patience in affliction, their working of miracles, their martyrdom, and, after death, their receiving of the Crown of Glory. Medieval Ethiopian literature is particularly rich in hagiographies. The lives of well-known saints, such as Saint Anthony and Saint George enjoyed great popularity and the lives of such famous Ethiopian Saints as St. Tekla Haymanot and Gebra Menfes Kidus provide important source books for Ethiopian Studies. In many manuscripts, the whole volume is occupied with the life of a single saint and the miracles wrought by him both in his lifetime and after his death. Such manuscripts often contain beautiful illustrations.

        Two important original works appeared in the early fifteenth century. The first of these was the Fekkare Iyasus or the Explication of Jesus, an interesting work, messianic in tone and foretelling the coming of a king called Theodore (Tewodros) who would restore peace to suffering humanity. This prophecy became of considerable importance in Ethiopia until the middle of the nineteenth century when King Theodore II chose this throne name, apparently because of its associations with the prophecy. Another philosophical work was the Mystery of Heaven and Earth, setting forth the eternal struggle between good and evil.

       The reign of Emperor Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-1468) was notable for the development of great literary activity. Zar’a Ya’iqob himself was a zealous reformer and wrote several important works, such as the Matshafa Berhan, or Book of Light, and the Matshafa Milad, or Book of Nativity. The king sought to refute heresies that had taken root and to attack the corruption of religious practices. Other works that have been attributed to him include the hymn collection entitled the Arganona Maryam Dingle or Organ of the Virgin Mary and the Egziabeher Nagsa or God has Reigned. Numerous edifying homilies were produced during this period, the most famous of these is the collection entitled Retu’a Haimanot (True Orthodoxy) ascribed to St. John Chrysostom.

        The beginning of the sixteenth century saw many changes in Ethiopia. The Muslim invasions caused great destruction to the nation’s Christian heritage. Many churches and monasteries were destroyed together with their collections of manuscripts. However enough survived to preserve national traditions. An interesting literary figure of this period was a certain Embakom (Habakkuk) an Arab convert to Christianity who entered the celebrated monastery of Debra Libanos. He was the author of the Ankasa Amin or Gate of Faith and of several translations from Arabic. A series of important literary works was inspired at this period by the need for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to define her position vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic influence. The best known of these is the Confessio Claudii, or Confessions of the Emperor Claudius (1540-59), a spirited exposition of the Alexandrine Faith. Other works are Sawana Nafs or Refuge of the Soul, Fekkare Malakot, Exposition of the Godhead; and Haymanote Abaw, or Faith of the Fathers.

       No summary of Ethiopic literature would be complete without mention of the great work known as the Fetha Negest or Laws of the Kings. The Fetha Negest is indeed the repository of Ethiopian ecclesiastical and civil law and as such a literary work of fundamental national importance. Throughout its history, the Fetha Negest has been closely linked with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which still observes many of its precepts. The Fetha Negest was always faithfully conserved in the monasteries and important churches. There it was available for consultation; there also it was studied and taught by leading ecclesiastical scholars. Even in modern times, it has served as the basis or inspiration of much civil and penal law.

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