The literature of Ethiopia was, and still is, written in the ancient Ethiopic language called Ge‘ez, which is supposed to have ceased to be a living language around the tenth or eleventh century, when it was superseded by “modern” Semitic languages. This literature is related to traditional Ethiopian culture, which was born and developed as a scion of Oriental Christianity, spread in Ethiopia from about the fourth century onward. It covers almost all aspects of social life, so its content is either strictly doctrinal and catechetical (possibly unconsciously preserving some rare vestiges of Gnostic literature) or else profane (historical, juridical, magical, etc.) but inspired by Christian principles. It began between the fourth and seventh centuries and was at first mainly a literature of translations.

Translated Literature

Translations undoubtedly began with the Bible and apocryphal and patristic works. Although other branches of Oriental Christianity (mainly Syriac) may have contributed to that activity, from the very beginning the bulk of the translation into Ethiopic apparently was done under the direct influence of the church of Egypt and its literature. In fact, the Ethiopian Christian church was an offspring of the Egyptian church, under whose official leadership it survived. Until the twentieth century, the head of the Ethiopian church was selected by the Coptic patriarch from Egyptian monks and sent to Ethiopia. Paleographic evidence clearly suggests that the Ethiopians must also have learned the art of writing their manuscripts on parchment from their Christian forebears in Egypt.

Certain translations include works no longer extant in the original Oriental literature. Therefore, they preserve texts otherwise unavailable or even, at times, different versions of texts known in other Christian literatures of the Orient.

Until about the seventh century, translations came mainly from Greek, since Greek prevailed in the church of Egypt. Although no conclusive evidence exists to confirm this, some translations may have been made from Coptic, seemingly between the seventh and the twelfth centuries. When became the dominant language in the Egyptian Coptic church around the twelfth century, translations were made from Arabic. Among the works translated from Greek, besides the Bible, are books such as Mashafa Henok (The Book of Enoch), Mashafa Kufalie (The Book of Jubilees), ‘Ergata Isayiyas (The Ascent of Isaiah), and Herma Nabiy (The Prophet Herma). Of these the first two are preserved in their entirety only in the Ethiopic version. All four books are reckoned as part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian church. Textual hints lead one to surmise that the translation from original texts—especially Enoch and the Jubilees—was performed in the presence of, if not upon, an Aramaic version and that some or all of the translators may have been religious men, possibly from the Monophysite church of Syria.

Most of another work of great relevance to the theological teaching of the Ethiopian church was also translated at this time. This is Qerelos (The Book of Cyril), a collection of homilies, mostly belonging to Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Since the first of these homilies, the “Prosphonetikos,” addressed to Emperor Theodosius II, was a work by Cyril, it has provided that collection with its Ethiopic title. Still another work of high inspiration for is Ser‘at wate’zaz za’abba Pakwmis (The Rule of Pachomius). As far as is known, translations from Greek include a few lives of saints, a pious genre of paramount importance to Ethiopian literature to this day.

It appears that when Greek ceased to be the language of the Egyptian church, countless translations were made from texts of Coptic literature. The translations from Arabic are the most numerous and include a revision of the books of the Bible. The lively activity that motivated such translations went on from the twelfth century to the eighteenth. The translations of that period include several notable works. Senodos (Synodicon), is a basic collection of canonical regulations, beginning with those of different church councils (save that of Chalcedon). A work of similar contents, Didesqelya (Didascalia), is the revered source of the internal regulations of the Ethiopian church. Both works might have found their way into Ethiopia in the twelfth or thirteenth century.

It was apparently the thirteenth or fourteenth century that saw the translation of the Story of Alexander, a widely known narrative about Alexander the Great, which in Coptic literature possessed peculiarly Egyptian characteristics and in Ethiopic literature took on other features of its own. In the fourteenth century occurred the translation of some liturgical books, such as Mashafa genzat (Book for the Preparation of the Body of the Dead), a ritual for funerals; the widespread Mashafa sa‘atat (Book of the Hours), the horologion of the Western church; Gadla sama‘tat (Contendings of the Martyrs); Gadl (Meritorious Acts, i.e., of saintly persons; cf. Greek athlesis); Gadla hawaryat (Contendings of the Apostles, i.e., their apocryphal acts); Gebra hemamat (Acts of the Passion), a lectionary for Holy Week; Wuddase Maryam (Celebration of Mary), derived from the Copto- Theotokias from the Psalmodia, together with some lives, or contendings (gadl), of Egyptian saints.

Some of these works—as well as others, for example, the Filkesyus (Philoxenos), written by Philoxenos of Mabbug, regarding monastic life, and Laha Maryam (Bewailing of Mary) —were translated directly by, or with the aid of, a highly reputed Egyptian Coptic metropolitan named Abba Salama, who became the head of the Ethiopian church as Abuna Salama II, during the second half of the fourteenth century. He is known to have been in Ethiopia between 1348 and 1388, which was probably the year of his demise in that country, since were supposed to stay in Ethiopia until the end of their lives. His brisk literary activity must have resulted in stimulating a lively movement in Ethiopian literature within the church.

The fourteenth century is probably the time when the translation of Zena abaw qeddusan (Stories of the Holy Fathers) was made. This contains the renowned Apophthegmata Patrum, a work of great resonance in the thought of Ethiopian monks. It seems likely that between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, another Egyptian monk undertook the translation of a different liturgical work of paramount importance to the church: the Synaxarion. In the course of the following centuries, Ethiopians made their own contributions to it by adding commemorative lives of Ethiopian holy men, who in this way began to take their place beside the foreign saints. Another addition was made in the form of short poems in honor of the saints of the day.

Still another, similiar work, Ta’ammera Maryam (Miracles of Mary), translated in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, enjoyed an enormous diffusion in the Ethiopian church, on account of the topic to which it was devoted—namely, the Virgin Mary, whose cult has always been strong in the Ethiopian church, a trait it shared with the Egyptian church. (The materials of this work had been drawn from Oriental as well as Occidental sources.) Later additions included original miracles referring to the local milieu. The translation from an Arabic original, now lost, of an apocalyptic work in the same period entitled Ra’ya Sinoda (The Vision of Shenute) is the only known text available.

Attributed to the fifteenth century is the translation of another revered book of juridical relevance, Fetha nagast (The Code of the Kings). Until modern times, this work was considered the basic legal text of Ethiopian high courts of justice. It is a version of the thirteenth-century Majmu‘ al-Qawanin of al-As‘ad IBN AL-‘ASSAL, a nomocanon written for the Christians of Egypt.

In the sixteenth century the corpus of monastic works underwent a substantial enrichment through the translation of two renowned treatises of life. The first is entitled Aragawi manfasawi (The Spiritual Elder), the Ethiopic equivalent of Al- al-Ruhani, a work by Yuhanna ibn Siba‘. According to Ethiopian tradition, the Egyptian metropolitan Marqos I, who died in 1530, contributed to that translation, along with an Ethiopianized monk of foreign origin (perhaps Yemeni) named ‘Enbaqom. The second work was Mar Yishaq (Master Isaac), the reputed work of Isaac of Nineveh. Both of these works, together with Filkesyus, constitute a sort of a trilogy in the schools of the Ethiopian church under the collective title Masahefta manakosat (Books of the Monks).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, other theological works were translated into Ethiopic, including Haymanota abaw (The Faith of the Fathers), which reiterated Ibn Raja’s Arabic entitled I‘tiraf al-Aba’. This and Qerelos remained the most authoritative theological texts in the church. Other works deriving from Arabic are Tilmidh (The Pupil), Ethiopic Talmid, and Mashafa Hawi (Book of Hawi), the original Arabic title of which was just Al- hawi. Another book, Faws manfasawi (The Spiritual Medicament), was translated by order of Queen Sabla Wangel in the seventeenth century.

So far, works of purely religious content have been listed. Of those more profane, or, more precisely, -profane, several translations deserve mention. In the fourteenth century, the Zena ayhud (Story of the Jews), attributed in the Ethiopic translation to Yosef ben Goryon, was translated into Ethiopic from an Arabic original, possibly one from Egypt. Other nonreligious works rendered into Ethiopic include the universal history Mashafa tarik of the Egyptian Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid al-MAKIN, possibly translated in the second half of the thirteenth century, as well as Abu Shakir’s work appearing under the Ethopic title Mashaf buruk zadarasa Abu Saker (Blessed Book Composed by Abu Sakir), translated in the sixteenth century. Still more important was the translation of the chronicle of JOHN OF NIKIOU, relating to the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT, a translation executed by an Egyptian cleric named Qebryal (Ghubriyal) in the seventeenth century. The original of this unique work is lost, and the Ethiopic version is the only one that survives.

The bulk of Ethiopian literature, it appears, is drawn from Coptic sources. It is worthwhile to recall the fact that now and then the Ethiopic translations of foreign works either offer a version of their own, different from the one extant in other literatures, or append original Ethiopian contributions to the body of the translated work, thus producing new pieces of purely local literature, as in the case of the Rule of Pachomius.

Some of these translations were made outside Ethiopia, either in Egypt or in the Holy Land, by Copts or Ethiopian monks on pilgrimage. The rest must have been done in Ethiopia by foreign monks (mostly Copts), who may have had the assistance of Ethiopians in performing their work. Yet such translators were not confined to that task and now and then became authors in Ge‘ez, displaying outstanding skill and knowledge, like the already mentioned Metropolitan Salama or the monk ‘Enbaqom.

Original Literature

The overwhelming mass of Coptic literature passing into Ethiopia stimulated a vigorous movement of purely original Ethiopic literary production. It is difficult to fix the time of its beginning. The oldest surviving works seem to date no further back than the thirteenth or fourteenth century, a period when the activity of Egyptian in Ethiopia as translators and original writers in Ge‘ez was at a peak.

Original Ethiopian literature emulates the parent genres of the Coptic literature of Egypt. In character, it was theological (dogmatic and pastoral), didactic and monastic, as well as apocalyptic, eschatological, and hagiographic (gadl is the typical Ethiopic term for such narratives), mainly concentrating on Ethiopian “saints” and historical material (based on principles and telling about events in the life of the rulers of Ethiopian society, such as kings, high officials, and dignitaries of the church). Other topics included in this prolific literature were grammar, magic, and chronology.

The contents, as a rule, drew on the models offered by the literature of Egypt. Even so, the Ethiopic writers developed an impressive degree of originality. Noteworthy are the grammatical works, called sawasuw (ladder), derived from the Coptic works known as scalae (Arabic, sullam), which developed a peculiar art of their own and seem to have emerged in the course of the fifteenth century. No one knows why it is called ladder or, more precisely, why Bishop Yohannes of Samannud (Egypt) called it ecclesiastical ladder (Graf, 1947, p. 372). In this connection, it is worthwhile to mention an original and thriving method of commentary on the Scriptures and patristic texts, which developed in the traditional oral teaching in church schools, where the sawasuw was taught. The language was the living one, called Amharic, employed also as a teaching language. This art of commentaries is usually called andemta, or enumeration in succession, one after another, of the various interpretations.

All the literature so far taken into account was written in prose, but poetry was also widely cultivated. Although there is no direct evidence of Coptic poetry translated into Ethiopic (the rhymed liturgical texts constitute a special case), the Ethiopians eventually developed a flourishing poetic literature of original stock, some types of which are thought to have been inspired by Coptic models. Such is the poetic form called malke’ (effigy, image), a composition made of stanzas, each of them praising, with symbolic language, the physical parts as well as moral qualities of a saintly person (Christ, the Virgin Mary, etc.). Sometimes it dealt with sacred items. The earliest of these poetic compositions may be traced to the fifteenth century.

The same may be said of another type of poetry, similar in form and content to the malke’, which is used to praise holy persons; such poems are called salam (peace, equal to the greeting “hail”), taken from with which they begin. The salam also seems to date from the beginning of the fifteenth century. Another typical poetic genre is the qene, which is metaphorical and possesses a hidden meaning. This type of original composition may have been inspired by Coptic models. It has a high degree of elaborateness and is considered by Ethiopians the highest genre of poetry. All these compositional forms and styles seem to go back for their beginning to the fifteenth century, so it may be that grammar and poetry were introduced into Ethiopia at the same time, the schools being the place where they were studied and practiced.

In conclusion, a final case deserves mention. Sometimes original works of Ethiopian literature appear to have been translated into Arabic, seemingly for the use of the church of Egypt. A certain Arabic narrative ascribed to the sixteenth century deals with the widespread legend of the queen of Sheba. It is allegedly a translation of a portion of a famous work written in Ethiopia in the fourteenth century, bearing the title Kebra nagast (The Nobility of the Kings).

Also in the sixteenth century there was made a translation, or redrafting, from Ethiopic into Arabic of the life of one of the most important (politically and religiously) saints, Takla Haymanot. Again in the twentieth century, an Ethiopian monk whose name had been Arabicized to Yuhanna al-Mutawahhid al- Habashi published a new Arabic version of the miracles of the saint. The monk died in 1955 in Egypt, after living in the convent of DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ, where a copy of that publication is to be found. One wonders if he himself executed the translation.


Comprehensive Treatises

  • Cerulli, E. La letterature etiopica, 3rd ed. Florence and Milan, 1968. Colin, G. La Profession de foi christologique du Talmud: Mélanges linguistiques offerts à Maxime Rodinson, ed. Robin, 163. 161-163. Paris, 1985.
  • Doresse, J. Les Anciens monastères coptes de la Moyenne Egypte et leurs influences sur l’Ethiopie chrétienne médiévale: Documents pour servir à l’histoire des civilisations éthiopiennes 1. Paris, 1970.
  • Guidi, I. Storia della letteratura etiopica. Rome, 1932.
  • Harden, J. M. An Introduction to Ethiopic Literature. London, 1926.
  • Littmann, E. “Geschichte der äthiopischen Literatur.” In Geschichte der christlichen Literaturen des Orients, ed. C. Brockelmann, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1909.
  • Ricci, L. “Letterature dell’Etiopia.” In Storia delle letterature d’Oriente. Milan, 1969.
  • Rossini, C. Note per la storia letteraria abissina. Rome, 1900.

Monographs and Articles on Special Topics

  • Cerulli, E. Il libro etiopico dei Miracoli di Maria e le sue fonti nelle letterature del Medio Evo latino. Rome, 1943.
  • . Etiopi in Palestina, 2 vols. Rome, 1943-1947.
  • . Scritti teologici etiopici dei secoli XVI-XVII, Vol. 1, Tre opuscoli Mikaeliti. Vatican City, 1958.
  • . Storia dei Quattro Concili. Rome, 1960.
  • Chojnacki, S. Major Themes in Ethiopian Painting. Wiesbaden, 1983.
  • Cowley, R. W. The Traditional Interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Cambridge, 1983. Devos, P. “Les Miracles de saint Ménas en éthiopien.” In Atti del Convegno Internazionale dei Studi Etiopici, pp. 335-43. Rome, 1960.
  • Donzel, E. van. EnbaqomAnqasa amin (La Porte de la Foi): Apologie éthiopienne du christianisme contre l’Islam à partir du Coran. Leiden, 1969.
  • Fusella, L. “Libro dei Giubilei-Libro di Enoc.” Apocrifi del l’Antico Testamento. Turin, 1981.
  • Getatchew Haile. The Different Collections of Nägs Hymns in Ethiopic Literature and Their Contributions. Oikonomia 19. Erlangen, 1983.
  • Imbakon Kalewold. Traditional Ethiopian Church Education, trans.
  • Mengestu Lemma, pp. 33-38. New York, 1970 (contains an appendix by translator on Ethiopian Classical Poetry).
  • Knibb, M. A., and E. Ullendorff. The Ethiopic Book of Enoch, 2 vols. Oxford, 1978.
  • Lantschoot, A. van. Abba Salama métropolite d’Ethiopie (1348-1388) et son rôle de traducteur. Atti del Convegno
  • Internazionale dei Studi Etiopici, pp. 397-401. Rome, 1960. Meinardus, O. F. A. “Ecclesiastic Aethiopica in Aegypto.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 3, ser. 1 (1965):23-35.
  • Metzger, B. M. The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations. Oxford, 1977.
  • Moreno, M. M. Struttura e terminologia del Sawasew. Rassegna di studi etiopici VIII-1949. Rome, 1950.
  • Murad Kamil. Das Josef Ben Gorion (Josippos): Geschichte der —Zena ayhud. New York, 1938.
  • . “Translations from Arabic in Ethiopic Literature.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte. Cairo, 1942.
  • . Al-Qini: Lawn min al-Shi‘r al Habashi. Majallat Kulliyyat al-Adab. Cairo, 1948.
  • Rodinson, M. “Notes sur le texte de Jean de Nikiou.” In IV Congresso Internazionale di Studi Etiopici, Vol. 2. Rome, 1974.
  • Sauget, S. M. “Un Exemple typique des relations culturelles entre l’-chrétien et l’éthiopien: Un Patericon récemment publié.” In IV Congresso Internazionale di Studi Etiopici, Vol. 1. Rome, 1974.
  • Schall, A. Zur äthiopischen Verskunst: Eine Studie uber die Metra des Qene auf Grund der Abhandlung “al-qene laun min as-si‘r al-habasi” von Dr. Murad Kamil. Wiesbaden, 1961.
  • Uhlig, S. Das äthiopische Henochbuch. Gütersloh, 1984. Ullendorff, E. Ethiopia and the Bible. London, 1968.
  • . “Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek: The Version Underlying Ethiopic Translations of the Bible and Intertestamental Literature.” In The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon, ed. G. Rensburg, R. Adler, M. Arfa, and N. H. Winter. New York, 1980.
  • Vergote, J. La Littérature copte et sa diffusion en Orient. Atti del Convegno Internazionale sul tema L’Oriente Cristiano nella storia della civiltà. Rome, 1964.
  • Weischer, B. M. “Der Dialog ‘Dass Christus Einer ist’ des Cyrill von Alexandrien,” pt. I, Oriens Christianus 51 (1967):130-85; pt. II, Oriens Christianus 52 (1968):92-137.
  • . “Die äthiopischen Psalmen und Qerlosfragmente in Erevan/Armenien.” Oriens Christianus 53 (1969):113-58.
  • . Qerellos I: Der Prosphonetikos ‘Über den rechten Glauben’ des Kyrillos von Alexandrien an Theodosius II, ed. J. Lukas. Afrikanische Forschungen 7. Glückstadt, 1973.
  • . Qerellos III: Der Dialog “Dass Christus Einer ist” des Kyrillos von Alexandrien. ed. E. Hammerschmidt. Äthiopistische Forschungen 2. Wiesbaden, 1977.
  • . Qerellos IV 1: Homilien und Briefe zum Konzil von Ephesos, ed. E. Hammerschmidt. Äthiopistische Forschungen 4. Wiesbaden, 1979.
  • . Qerellos IV 2: Traktate des Epiphanios von Zypern und des Proklos von Kyzikos, ed. E. Hammerschmidt. Athiopistische Forschungen 6. Wiesbaden, 1979.
  • . Qerellos IV 3: Traktate des Severianos von Gabala, Gregorios Thaumaturgos und Kyrillos von Alexandrien, ed. E. Hammerschmidt. Äthiopistische Forschungen 7. Wiesbaden, 1979.