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post Kebra Negast

March 20th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 23:59

Samuel Malher, a religious scholar from Strasbourg who has written the first unabridged French translation of the Kebra Negast, a sacred Ethiopian text. by Jennifer Brea

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The Kebra Negast, or the Glory of Kings, is considered sacred not only by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians, who comprise 65% of the country’s population, but many Jamaican Rastafarians who believe it predicts the last Ethiopian King was God incarnate. It documents the lineage of the Ethiopian monarchs, who are said to descend directly from Menelik, son of the Israelite King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen Makeda, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. It also tells the story of how the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Israel to Ethiopia, and how the Ethiopians became God’s new chosen people.

In the interview, Malher explains how he first became interested in Ethiopian Christianity in 1998, while studying theology at the University of Strasbourg.

One of his professors, an African, noted that African Christianity was often imported by Western missionaries, but questioned if that was true for all of Africa.

I realized that Ethiopia, where Christianity had already arrived by the third century, deviated a bit from the rule, Malher says.

Malher decided to go to Ethiopia to learn about the Queen of Sheba, the Ark, and a dynasty of emperors who ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century until 1974, all deriving legitimacy from their professed Solomonic lineage. He found an Ethiopia that was “deeply religious as it was proud of its history, always independent. A unique history still visible in its grand cities.”

Makeda, Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant
Makeda means “the beautiful” in Ethiopian. When she first heard about the wisdom of Solomon, she could not [wait to meet him]. She set out with her caravan, bringing along many precious stones, incense, things to bring to honor King Solomon, who already had a great reputation in the region. The meeting was to take place in the palace as soon as she arrived. But she also had time to see the country, the Gaza Strip, for example; different places are mentioned in the Kebra Negast, and one can find these places, it’s true.

This famous queen met King Solomon and gave him a descendant.

What is astonishing is that this queen did not stay afterwards with someone who could have been a consort, a husband or a life partner. She returned to her own people in the Kingdom of Sheba, whose location is very difficult to locate. It was probably smaller than present-day Ethiopia, and without a doubt was concentrated in, was limited to the high plateau of Abyssinia, north of Ethiopia.

The Political Origins of the Kebra Negast
Malher explains that the Kebra Negast was likely written sometime between 1200 and 1270, when two dynasties were vying for power in Ethiopia:

…it was a time when two dynasties were competing for power, one the dynasty of King Solomon, and the other the dynasty of Agrées. There were two peoples claiming power in Ethiopia. And so there is in the Kebra Negast the famous Isaac the poor who is of the Salomonic dynasty side and who would have compiled the Kebra Negast not only from biblical quotes but also from oral traditions, and he wrote them down undoubtedly first in Arabic, then in Coptic, before being able to translate and publish them openly in Ge’ez.

The Kebra Negast established the Solomonic dynasty’s divine origins, and thus their right to rule over Ethiopia:

It is a model [where] power is transmitted with a blessing, with the idea of selection, and that is very important. Many countries have had this tradition, up until the moment they arrived at the idea of democracy, and the idea of monarchy was, little by little, pushed aside.

And also to repel foreign invaders:

The Kebra Negast is really known in Ethiopia; it was emperors’ primary book for administrating their country but also for wocomparing themselves to other countries. By calling themselves descendants of King Solomon, by attaching themselves to noble origins, [Ethiopians] had something with which to confront those countries that perhaps wanted to invade Ethiopian territory.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chosen People
Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and the rule of its Kings were supported not only by their claims of Solomonic ancestry, but by their possession of what they believe is the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses in the Old Testament to house God’s Ten Commandments, and brought to Ethiopia by Queen Makeda and Solomon’s son, Menelik–without Solomon’s knowledge.

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The Kebra Negast is a collection of writings which describe the history of the patriarchs, and the queen, but also story of the Ark of the Covenant, which is currently sitting in a church in northern Ethiopia, and the prophecies surrounding the selection of the Israeli people [as the chosen people] which would then be transfered to the Ethiopians with the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.


The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Exodus and in the Book of Kings, where Moses was commanded to fashion a box from Acacia wood and cover it in gold. The two tablets on which the ten commandments were inscribed would be placed iside. This Ark also interested the Ethiopian people because it represented God’s presence among the people. Wherever the Ark was would be sanctified…It represents the presence of God and the selection of the people of Israel, because the Ark had a great power, it freed itself almost on its own from the will of the Israelites to accompany the Ethiopian people on their voyage.

And today you find a reproduction of the Ark in each church and copies which represent the ten commandments. It’s a little like how the Host represents the Body of Christ.
Today, the Ark of the Covenant has become something of an object of curiosity among journalists and scientists, but at the same time it is protected by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which preserves it in the famous cathedral of Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

I think that it’s really a question of faith. When an Ethiopian priest response: “If you want to prove that the Ark isn’t there, then go ahead.” And the journalist inverts the question, asking, “Is the Ark is really there? Whether it is there, is for you to prove. Whether it is not there is for you to prove!”

Kebra Negast and the Bible
Like most non-canonical texts, the Kebra Negast was not included in the Bible and some translations were even destroyed by the Church.

It’s the story of the Apocryphas. The Church has always had a priority to keep a collection of texts which is called the Bible. There are many apocryphas which were in effect cast aside, which were already ignored by many followers and were not very correct in terms of what the Church wanted to say. There were writings concerning the life of Jesus, the life of a prophet, the life of a patriarch, that should the human side of these men and women, and the Church wanted first of all to pass on the message of God, of justice…There were certain reasons not to use these texts.

However, the Kebra Negast relies strongly on certain Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, according to Malher:

The later chapters of the Kebra Negast…talk a lot about Christ, of the New Testament of the Bible, but also a lot of the old…the Ethiopians took important versus from the Old Testament, such as those of the prophets Jeremiah, Zachariah or Hosea…which are not widely read…

The Kebra Negast blends together the stories of the major Israeli patriarchs into one, great patriarch and incorporates Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah which, “will come, build his house, and save his people.” Malher says these are words of forgiveness for all people, but that according to its own tradition, “Ethiopia is the chosen country, the favored country. For the other peoples, there is an idea of pardon, of reconciliation. I think that it is very important for the people of Africa, for people around the world to be able to read these promises, these prophecies.”

Malher also says that the Queen of Sheba’s story is told in the Koran, but there she is responsible for Solomon’s downfall, for tainting his behavior. The Bible on the other hand emphasizes the queen’s decision to submit to the God of King Solomon and bring the religion of the Israelites back to her own country.

On Rastafari Beliefs
Roots and Culture also asks Malher about Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, whom Rastafarians consider an incarnation of God. Malher disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the divine blessing described in the Kebra Negast extends to all of Ethiopia’s kings, not one in particular.

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The Kebra Negast stops after 117 chapters of praise and glory, it stops with Christ.These are prophets, kings, entities but nothing is mentioned about the last emperor, Haile Selassie.To put it simply, the blessing accorded to Ethiopia and the various kings, without having known the God of Israel before, they suddenly turn to him at the moment that Sheba and Solomon meet.
Nothing predisposed them to submit to this God.
They took the path that gave them this blessing. That’s what it says at the end of the Kebra Negast. It was Haile Selassie who relied on this relied on this text to legitimize his descendents, his ancestors; and so he has a legitimate power.

I met Rastas in Ethiopia, at Shahamenie. We talked, and we agreed on many things.
Sometimes it’s also a prejudice, divine election, I think that every person is blessed, every person can be chosen, Emperior Haile Selassie is not the only chosen one.
This blessing extends to all the Rasta; each is considered by the Almighty God, who looked upon Ethiopia.

Why Translations Are Important
The last French translation of the Kebra Negast was published in 1915, and included just ten chapters detailing only “the most romantic elements of the encounter with the Queen of Sheeba.” His translation from Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, is unabridged.

Malher says this translation is very important, particularly now that other forms of Christianity have taken root in Ethiopia.

Among the 65% [who are] Christians there are naturally also churches which are very recently arrived: the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and a Church from an American community, which implant themselves in Ethiopia. There are many concessions, different communities…

…Many religions develop or take an important place in the lives of the Ethiopian people. It’s important to be able to have a dialog.

As many religions have books, the Bible is translated into many language, Ethiopia is uniqu ein having the Kebra Negast, a millennial text which deserves to be known by foreigners, by those who visit Ethiopia, to dive into the culture a little bit and into Ethiopian literature. By translating the Kebra Negast into French we are already taking a great step in that respect…

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Photographs: Kebra Negast by Samuel Malher; the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia, which houses the Ark of the Covenant (Wikipedia); and Haile Selassie I, the last King of Kings of Ethiopia (Library of Congress)

source: globalvoicesonline

2 Comments »

  1. I am a South African young adult male and would like to know more about other african countiries historys and cultures and would like to read the Kebra Negast more,as it is amongst the book stores that i have came across is unknown or unheared of, and if any one can help please see my email above. My aim is to learn since it is said that knowladge is power.

    Comment by Sibongiseni — 9. October 2013 @ 21:32

  2. I would like to have a copy of the same book.

    Comment by kennedy phiri — 1. January 2014 @ 13:51

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