The KEBRA NAGAST, or the Book of the Glory of the Kings [of Ethiopia], has been held in the highest esteem and honor throughout the length and breadth of ABYSSINIA for a thousand years at least, and even today it is believed by every educated man in that country to contain the true history of the origin of the Solomonic line of kings in Ethiopia, and is regarded as the final authority on the history of the conversion of the Ethiopians from the worship of the sun, moon, and stars to that of the Lord God of Israel.
In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, P. N. GODINHO published some traditions about King Solomon and his son MĔNYĔLĔK or MĔNYĔLÎK, derived from the KEBRA NAGAST, and further information on the subject was included by the Jesuit priest MANOEL ALMEIDA (1580-1646) in his Historia ger̄al de Ethiopia, which does not appear to have been published in its entirety. MANOEL ALMEIDA was sent out as a missionary to Ethiopia and had abundant means of learning about the KEBRA NAGAST at first hand, and his manuscript Historia is a valuable work. His brother, APOLLINAIRE, also went out to the country as a missionary, and was, with his two companions, stoned to death in TIGRÉ.
Still, fuller information about the contents of the KEBRA NAGAST was supplied by F. BALTHAZAR TELLEZ (1595-1675), the author of the. The sources of his work were the histories of MANOEL ALMEIDA, ALFONZO MENDEZ, JERONINO LOBO, and Father PAYS. The Historia of TELLEZ was well known to JOB LUDOLF, and he refers to it several times in his Historia Ethiopica, which was published at FRANKFORT in 1681, but it is pretty certain that he had no first-hand knowledge of the KEBRA NAGAST as a whole. Though he regarded much of its contents as fabulous, he was prepared to accept the statement of TELLEZ as to the great reputation and popularity which the book enjoyed in ABYSSINIA.
Little, apparently, was heard in Europe about the KEBRA NAGAST until the close of the eighteenth century when JAMES BRUCE of KINNAIRD (1730-1794), the famous African traveler, published an account of his travels in search of the sources of the NILE. When he was leaving GONDAR, RÂS MICHAEL, the all-powerful Wazîr of King TAKLA HAYMÂNÔT, gave him several most valuable Ethiopic manuscripts, and among them was a copy of the KEBRA NAGAST to which he attached great importance. During the years that BRUCE lived in ABYSSINIA he learned how highly this work was esteemed among all classes of ABYSSINIANS, and in the third edition of his Travels(vol. iii, pp. 411-416) there appeared a description of its contents, the first to be published in any European language.
Not content with this manuscript BRUCE brought away with him a copy of the KEBRA NAGAST which he had made for himself, and in due course, he gave both manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, where they are known as “Bruce 93” and “Bruce 87” respectively. The former, which is the “Liber Axumea” of BRUCE’S Travels, was described at great length by DILLMANN, who to his brief description of the latter added a transcript of its important colophon. Thanks to DILLMANN, who printed the headings of all the chapters of the Fĕtha Nagasti in the original Ethiopic, there was no longer any doubt about the exact nature and contents of the work, though there was nothing in it to show exactly when and by whom the work was compiled.
In 1870 (?) FRANCIS PRÆTORIUS published, with a Latin translation, the Ethiopic text of Chapters xix to xxxii of the KEBRA NAGAST edited from the manuscript at Berlin (Orient. 395), which LEPSIUS acquired from DOMINGO LORDA, and sent to the KÖNIGLICHE BIBLIOTHEK in 1843. To the Berlin text, he added the variant readings supplied from the MSS. Orient. 818 and 819 in the BRITISH MUSEUM by Professor W. WRIGHT of CAMBRIDGE. In 1877 WRIGHT published a full description of the MS. of the KEBRA NAGAST in the MAḲDALÂ Collection in the BRITISH MUSEUM. The work of Praetorius made known for the first time the exact form of the Ethiopian legend that makes the King of Ethiopia be a descendant of Solomon, King of Israel, by MÂKĔDÂ, the Queen of ’AZÊB, who is better known as the “Queen of SHEBA“.
In August 1868, the great collection of Ethiopic manuscripts, which the British Army brought away from MAḲDALÂ after the defeat and suicide of King THEODORE, was brought to the BRITISH MUSEUM, and among them were two fine copies of the KEBRA NAGAST. Later these were numbered Oriental 818 and Oriental 819 respectively and were described very fully and carefully by Wright in his Catalogue of the Ethiopic MSS. in the British Museum, London, 1877, No. cccxci, p. 297, and in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Bd. xxiv, pp. 614-615. It was the fate of Oriental 819, a fine manuscript which was written in the reign of ’ÎYÂSÛ I, A.D. 1682-1706, to return to ABYSSINIA, and this came about in the following manner.
On 10 Aug., 1872, Prince KASA, who was subsequently crowned as King John IV, wrote to Earl GRANVILLE thus: “And now again I have another thing to explain to you: that there was a Picture called QURATA REZOO, which is a Picture of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST, and was found with many books at MAGDALA by the English. This Picture King THEODORE took from GONDAR to MAGDALA, and it is now in England; all around the Picture is gold, and the midst of it colored.”
“Again there is a book called KIVERA NEGUST (i.e. KEBRA NAGAST), which contains the Law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the SHUMS (i.e. Chiefs), Churches and Provinces are in this book. I pray you will find out who has got this book, and send it to me, for in my Country my people will not obey my orders without it”.
When a copy of this letter was sent to the BRITISH MUSEUM the Trustees decided to grant King JOHN’S request, and the manuscript was restored to him on 14 December 1872. King JOHN’S letter proves that very great importance was attached to the KEBRA NAGAST by the Ethiopian peoples, even in the second half of the nineteenth century. M. HUGUES LE ROUX, a French envoy from the President of the French Republic to MENYELEK II, King of Ethiopia, went to ADDIS ALEM where the king was staying, in order to see this manuscript and to obtain his permission to translate it into French. Having made his request to MENYELEK II personally the king made a reply, which M. LE ROUX translates thus:
“I am of the opinion that a people do not defend itself only with its weapons, but with its books. The one you speak of is the pride of this Kingdom. From me, the Emperor, to the poorest soldier who walks in the ways, all Ethiopians will be happy that this book is translated into the French language and brought to the knowledge of the friends we have in the world. So we will see clearly what links we unite with the people of God, what treasures have been entrusted to our guard, it will be better understood why the help of God has never failed us against the enemies who attacked us. “
The king then gave orders that the manuscript was to be fetched from ADDIS ABEBA, where the monks tried to keep it on the pretext of copying the text, and in less than a week it was placed in the hands of M. LE ROUX, who could hardly believe his eyes. Having described the manuscript and noted on the last folio the words, “This volume was returned to the King of Ethiopia by order of the Trustees of the BRITISH MUSEUM, Dec. 14th, 1872. J. WINTER JONES, Principal Librarian”.
M. LE ROUX says: “There was no longer any doubt: the book I held in my hands was this version of the story of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, whom Negus and Priests of Ethiopia consider the most authentic of all. those circulating in the European libraries and in the Abyssinian monasteries. This was the book that Theodoros had hidden under his pillow, the night he committed suicide, the one that the English soldiers had brought to London, that an ambassador gave to the Emperor John, that same Jean leafed in his tent, the morning of the day he fell under the scimitars of the Mahdists, the one that the monks had stolen”. With the help of a friend M. LE ROUX translated several of the Chapters of the KEBRA NAGAST, and in due course published his translation.
The catalogs of the Ethiopic MSS. in OXFORD, LONDON, and PARIS, which had been published by DILLMANN, WRIGHT, and ZOTENBERG, supplied a good deal of information about the contents of the KEBRA NAGAST in general, but scholars felt that it was impossible to judge the literary and historical value of the work by transcription and translations of the headings of the chapters only. In 1882 under the auspices of the Bavarian Government, DR. C. BEZOLD undertook to prepare an edition of the Ethiopic text edited from the best MSS., with a German translation, which the ROYAL BAVARIAN ACADEMY made arrangements to publish.
After the much unavoidable delay, this work appeared in 1909 and is entitled Kebra Nagast. Die Herrlichkeit der Könige (Abhandlungen der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie, Band XXIII, Abth. 1, Munich, 1909 [Band LXXVII of the Denkschriften]). The text is prefaced by a learned introduction, which was greatly appreciated by Orientalists to whom the edition was specially addressed. The chief authority for the Ethiopic text in BEZOLD’S edition is the now famous manuscript which was sent as a gift to LOUIS PHILIPPE by SÂHLA (or SÂHLÛ) DĔNGĔL, King of Ethiopia, who died early in 1855. According to ZOTENBERG (Catalogue des manuscripts Éthiopiens, p. 6), this manuscript must belong to the thirteenth century; if this is so it is probably the oldest Ethiopic manuscript in existence.
Though there seems to be no really good reason for assigning this very early date to the manuscript, there can be no doubt as to its being the oldest known Codex of the KEBRA NAGAST, and therefore BEZOLD was fully justified in making its text the base of his edition of that work. I have collated the greater part of the BRITISH MUSEUM Codex, Oriental 818, with his printed text, and though the variants are numerous they are not of great importance, in fact, as is the case in several other Codices of the KEBRA NAGAST, they are due chiefly to the haste or carelessness or fatigue of the scribe. As BEZOLD’S text represents the KEBRA NAGAST in the form that the Ethiopian priests and scribes have considered authoritative, I have made the English translation which is printed in the following pages from it.
Unfortunately, none of the Codices of the KEBRA NAGAST gives us any definite information about the compiler of the work—for it certainly is a compilation—or the time when he wrote, or the circumstances under which it was compiled. DILLMANN, the first European scholar who had read the whole book in the original Ethiopic, contented himself with saying in 1848, “de vero compositionis tempore nihil liquet” (Catalogus, p. 72), but later he thought it might be as old as the fourteenth century. ZOTENBERG (Catalogue, p. 222) was inclined to think that “it was composed soon after the restoration of the so-called Solomonic line of kings”, that is to say, soon after the throne of ETHIOPIA was occupied by TASFÂ ’ÎYASÛS,or YĔKÛNÔ ’AMLÂK, who reigned from A.M. 6762-77, i.e. A.D. 1270-1285. A Colophon, (see pp. 228, 229)which is found in several of the Codices of the KEBRA NAGAST in OXFORD, LONDON, and PARIS, states that the Ethiopic text was translated from the Arabic version, which, in turn, was translated from the Coptic.
The Arabic translation was, it continues, made by ’ABU ’L-‛IZZ and ’ABU ’L-FARAJ, in the “year of mercy” 409, during the reign of GABRA MASḲAL (’AMDA SEYÔN I), i.e. between A.D. 1314 and 1344, when GEORGE was Patriarch of ALEXANDRIA. These statements are clear enough and definite enough, yet DILLMANN did not believe them but thought that the whole Colophon was the result of the imagination of some idle scribe (ab otioso quodam librario inventa). The statements about the Ethiopic version being made from the Coptic through the Arabic, he treated as obvious fictions (plane fictitia esse), and he condemned the phrasing of the Colophon because he considered its literary style inferior to that used in the narrative of the KEBRA NAGAST itself (dictio hujus subscriptionis pessima est, et ab oratione eleganti libri ipsius quam maxime differt).
ZOTENBERG (Catalogue, p. 223, col. 1) a very competent scholar, saw no reason for doubting the truth of the statements in the Colophon generally, but thought it possible that an Arab author might have supplied the fundamental facts of the narrative, and that the author or authors of the Ethiopic version stated that the original source of their work was a Coptic archetype in order to give it an authority and importance which it would not otherwise possess. On the other hand, WRIGHT merely regarded the KEBRA NAGAST as an “apocryphal work”, and judging from the list of kings at the end of the work in Oriental 818, fol. 46B, which ends with YĔKWĔNÔ ’AMLÂK, who died in 1344, concluded that it was a product of the fourteenth century (Catalogue, p. 301, col. 2).
A careful study of the KEBRA NAGAST, made whilst translating the work into English, has convinced me that the opening statements in the Colophon are substantially correct and that it is quite possible that in its original form the Arabic version of the book was translated from Coptic MSS. belonging to the Patriarchal Library at ALEXANDRIA, and copies of this Arabic translation, probably enlarged and greatly supplemented by the scribes in the various monasteries of EGYPT, would soon find their way into ETHIOPIA or ABYSSINIA, viâ the BLUE NILE. The principal theme of the KEBRA NAGAST, i.e. the descent of the Kings of Ethiopia from SOLOMON, King of Israel, and the “Queen of the South, or the “Queen of SHEBA“, was certainly well known in ETHIOPIA for centuries before the KEBRA NAGAST was compiled, but the general treatment of it in this work was undoubtedly greatly influenced by supplementary legends and additions, which in their simplest forms seem to me to have been derived from Coptic and even Syrian writers.
It is well known that the Solomonic line of kings continued to rule over Ethiopia until that somewhat mythical woman ESTHER, or JUDITH as some call her, succeeded in dethroning DELNA’AD and placing on the throne MARÂ TAKLA HÂYMÂNÔT, the first of the eleven ZÂGUÊ kings, who dispossessed the Solomonic kings for three hundred and fifty-four years (A.D. 914-1268) and reigned at AKSÛM. Written accounts of the descent of the kings of Ethiopia from SOLOMON must have existed in Ethiopia before the close of the ninth century A.D. and these were, no doubt, drawn up in Ethiopic and in Arabic. During the persecution of the Christians in EGYPT and ETHIOPIA by the MUḤAMMADANSin the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, many churches and their libraries of manuscripts perished. We may, however, be sure that the Solomonic kings, who settled in the province of SHOA during the period of the ZÂGUÊ domination, managed to preserve chronological lists and other historical documents that contained the Annals of their predecessors.
The second part of the Colophon mentions ’ABU ’L-‛IZZ and ’ABU ’L-FARAJ as being concerned with translating the book into Arabic, and makes one ISAAC (?), who was apparently the Ethiopian translator, ask why they did not translate it into Ethiopic. In answer to this question, he says that the KEBRA NAGAST appeared during the period of the ZÂGUÊ rule when it is obvious that the publication of any work that supported the claims of the Solomonic kings would meet with a very unfavorable reception, and cause the death of its editors and translators. Therefore it is fairly certain that the KEBRA NAGAST existed in Arabic in some form during the three and a half centuries of the ZÂGUÊ rule, and that no attempt was made to multiple copies of it in Ethiopic until the restoration of the line of Solomonic kings in the days of YĔKÛNÔ ’AMLÂK (A.D. 1270-1285).
The Ethiopic work as we know it now is probably in much the same state as it was in the days of Gebre Meskel. (‛AMDA ṢĔYÔN) in the first half of the fourteenth century of our era. Of ISAAC we, unfortunately, know nothing, but there seem to be no good grounds for attributing the complete authorship of the KEBRA NAGAST to him. Yet he was evidently not merely a scribe or copyist, and when he speaks of the greatness of the toil which he undertook for the sake of the glory of the heavenly ZION, and ETHIOPIA and her king, he seems to suggest that he was the general redactor or editor who directed the work of his devoted companions YAMHARANA-’AB, ḤEZBA- KRESTÔS, ANDREW, PHILIP, and MAḤÂRÎ-’AB.
Now, however important the KEBRA NAGAST may have been considered by the Ethiopians in bygone centuries, and notwithstanding the almost superstitious awe with which the book is still regarded in ABYSSINIA, we are hardly justified in accepting it as a connected historical document. But it is undoubtedly a very fine work, and many sections of it merit careful consideration and study. For many of the statements in it, there are historical foundations, and the greater part of the narrative is based on legends and sayings and traditions, many of which are exceedingly ancient.
The legends and traditions are derived from many sources, and can be traced to the Old Testament and Chaldean TARGÛMS, to Syriac works like the “Book of the Bee”, to Coptic lives of saints, to ancient Ḳur’ânic stories and commentaries, to apocryphal books like the “Book of Adam and Eve“, the “Book of ENOCH“, “KÛFÂLÊ“, the “Instructions of ST. PETER to his disciple CLEMENT” ( i.e. the ḲALÊMĔNṬÔS), the Life of ḤANNÂ, the Mother of the Virgin Mary”, the “Book of the Pearl”, and the “Ascension of ISAIAH“, &c. Side by side with the extracts from these works we have long sections in which works attributed to GREGORY THAUMATURGUS, to TIMOTHEUS (?), Patriarch of Constantinople, and to CYRIL are quoted at great length.