The Kebra Nagast

 

The Kebra Nagast, or The Glory of the Kings, is a 14th-century account written in Ge’ez of the origins of the Solomonic line of the Emperors of Ethiopia. The text, in its existing form, is at least 700 years old and is considered by many Ethiopian Christians and Rastafari to be an inspired and reliable work.

It contains an account of how the Queen of Sheba/Queen Makeda of Ethiopia met King Solomon and about how the Ark of the Covenant came to Ethiopia with Menelik I. It also discusses the conversion of the Ethiopians from the worship of the sun, moon and stars to that of the “Lord God of Israel”. As the Ethiopianist Edward Ullendorff explained in the 1967 Schweich Lectures, “The Kebra Nagast is not merely a literary work, but it is the repository of Ethiopian national and religious feelings.”

The Kebra Nagast is divided into 117 chapters, and is clearly a composite work. The document is presented in the form of a debate by the 318 “orthodox fathers” of the First Council of Nicaea. These fathers pose the question, “Of what doth the Glory of Kings consist?” One Gregory answers with a speech (chapters 3-17), which ends with the statement that a copy of the Glory of God was made by Moses and kept in the Ark of the Covenant. After this, the Archbishop Domitius reads from a book he had found in the church of “Sophia” (possibly Hagia Sophia), which introduces the story of Makeda (better known as the Queen of Sheba), King Solomon, Menelik I, and how the Ark came to Ethiopia (chapters 19-94).

Although the author of the final redaction identified this Gregory with Gregory Thaumaturgus, who lived in the 3rd century before this Council, the time and the allusion to Gregory’s imprisonment for 15 years by the king of Armenia make Gregory the Illuminator a better fit.

Queen Makeda learns from Tamrin, a merchant based in her kingdom, about the wisdom of King Solomon, and travels to Jerusalem to visit him.

She is enthralled by his display of learning and knowledge, and declares “From this moment I will not worship the sun, but will worship the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel” (chapter 28). The night before she begins her journey home, Solomon tricks her into sleeping with him, and gives her a ring so that their child may identify himself to Solomon. Following her departure, Solomon has a dream in which the sun leaves Israel (chapter 30).

On the journey home, she gives birth to Menelik (chapter 32).

At the age of 22, Menelik travels to Jerusalem by way of Gaza, seeking Solomon’s blessing, and identifies himself to his father with the ring. Overjoyed by this reunion, Solomon tries to convince Menelik to stay and succeed him as king, but Menelik insists on returning to his mother in Ethiopia. King Solomon then settles for sending home with him a company formed from the first-born sons of the elders of his kingdom. This company of young men, upset over leaving Jerusalem, then smuggle the Ark from the Temple and out of Solomon’s kingdom (chapters 45-48) without Menelik’s knowledge. He had asked of Solomon only for a single tassel from the covering over the Ark, and Solomon had given him the entire cloth.

During the journey home, Menelik learns the Ark is with him, and Solomon discovers that it is gone from his kingdom. The king attempts to pursue Menelik, but through the Ark’s mysterious power, his son with his entire entourage is miraculously flown home to Ethiopia before Solomon can leave his kingdom. King Solomon then turns to solace from his wife, the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, and she seduces him into worshiping the idols of her land (Chapter 64).

After a question from the 318 bishops of the Council, Domitius continues with a paraphrase of Biblical history (chapters 66-83) then describe Menelik’s arrival at Axum, where he is feasted and Makeda abdicates the throne in his favour. Menelik then engages in a series of military campaigns with the Ark, and “no man conquered him, on the contrary, whosoever attacked him was conquered” (Chapter 94).

After praising the book Domitius has found, which has established not only Ethiopia’s possession of the true Ark of the Covenant, but that the Solomonic dynasty is descended from the first-born son of Solomon (Chapter 95). Gregory then delivers an extended speech with prophetic elements (chapters 95-112),

The Kebra Nagast concludes with a final prophecy that the power of Rome will be eclipsed by the power of Ethiopia, and describes how King Kaleb of Axum, will subdue the Jews living in Najran, and make his younger son Gabra Masqal his heir (chapter 117).

According to the colophon attached to most of the existing copies, the Kebra Nagast originally was written in Coptic, then translated into Arabic in the Year of Mercy 409 (dated to AD 1225) by a team of Ethiopian clerics during the office of Abuna Abba Giyorgis, and finally into Ge’ez at the command of the governor of Enderta Ya’ibika Igzi’. Based on the testimony of this colophon, “Conti Rossini, Littmann, and Cerulli, inter alios, have marked off the period 1314 to 1321-1322 for the composition of the book”.

Careful study of the text has revealed traces of Arabic, possibly pointing to an Arabic vorlage, but no clear evidence of a previous Coptic version. 

<p> Many scholars doubt that a Coptic version ever existed, and that the history of the text goes back no further than the Arabic vorlage.

 On the other hand, the numerous quotations in the text from the Bible were not translated from this hypothetical Arabic vorlage, but were copied from the Ethiopian translation of the Bible, either directly or from memory, and in their use and interpretation shows the influence of patristic sources such as Gregory of Nyssa. – Wikipedia

November 2014
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