This volume contains a complete English translation of the famous Ethiopian work, The “KEBRA NAGAST“, i.e. the “Glory of the Kings [of ETHIOPIA]”. This work has been held in peculiar honour in ABYSSINIA for several centuries, and throughout that country it has been, and still is, venerated by the people as containing the final proof of their descent from the Hebrew Patriarchs, and of the kinship of their kings of the Solomonic line with CHRIST, the Son of God.
The importance of the book, both for the kings and the people of ABYSSINIA, is clearly shown by the letter that King JOHN of ETHIOPIA wrote to the late Lord GRANVILLE in August, 1872. The king says: “There is a book called ‘Kivera Negust’ which contains the Law of the whole of ETHIOPIA, and the names of the SHÛMS [i.e. Chiefs], and Churches, and Provinces are in this book. I pray you 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.” (See infra, p. xxxv).
The first summary of the contents of the KEBRA NAGAST was published by BRUCE as far back as 1813, but little interest was roused by his somewhat bald précis. And, in spite of the labours of PRÆTORIUS, BEZOLD, and HUGUES LE ROUX, the contents of the work are still practically unknown to the general reader in England. It is hoped that the translation given in the following pages will be of use to those who have not the time or opportunity for perusing the Ethiopic original.
The KEBRA NAGAST is a great storehouse of legends and traditions, some historical and some of a purely folk-lore character, derived from the Old Testament and the later Rabbinic writings, and from Egyptian (both pagan and Christian), Arabian, and Ethiopian sources. Of the early history of the compilation and its maker, and of its subsequent editors we know nothing, but the principal groundwork of its earliest form was the traditions that were current in SYRIA, PALESTINE, ARABIA, and EGYPT during the first four centuries of the Christian era.
Weighing carefully all that has been written by DILLMANN, TRUMP, ZOTENBERG, WRIGHT, and BEZOLD, and taking into account the probabilities of the matter, it seems to me that we shall not be far wrong if we assign the composition of the earliest form of the KEBRA NAGAST to the sixth century A.D. Its compiler was probably a Coptic priest, for the books he used were writings that were accepted by the Coptic Church. Whether he lived in EGYPT, or in AKSÛM, or in some other part of ETHIOPIA matters little, but the colophons of the extant Ethiopic MSS. of the KEBRA NAGAST suggest that he wrote in Coptic.
In the succeeding centuries, probably as a result of the widespread conquests of MUḤAMMAD and his KHALÎFAHS, the Coptic text was in whole or part translated into Arabic, and during the process of translation many additions were made to it, chiefly from Arabic sources. Last of all this Arabic version was translated into Ethiopic, and proper names underwent curious transformations in the process. According to the colophons of the MSS. in the BRITISH MUSEUM, OXFORD, and PARIS, the Arabic translation was made from the Coptic in the 409th “year of mercy”, when GABRA MASḲAL, commonly known as LÂLÎBALÂ, was reigning over ETHIOPIA, i.e. between A.D. 1314 and 1344. And the same authorities say that the Ethiopic translation was made subsequently by one ISAAC, of whom nothing is known save that he was an enthusiastic Christian visionary and patriot. His knowledge of history and chronology was defective, and his comparative philology is unusually peculiar, even for the period in which he lived.
In the colophons ISAAC says: “I have toiled much for the glory of the kingdom of ETHIOPIA, and for the going forth (manifestation ?) of the heavenly ZION, and for the glory of the King of ETHIOPIA.” These words throw some light upon ISAAC’S motive in translating the book, and supply the reason for his devoted labour. He firmly believed: 1. That the lawful kings of ETHIOPIA were descended from SOLOMON, King of ISRAEL. 2. That the Tabernacle of the Law of God, i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, had been brought from JERUSALEM to ’AKSÛM by MENYELEK, SOLOMON’S firstborn son, according to the ETHIOPIANS. 3. That the God of ISRAEL had transferred His place of abode on earth from JERUSALEM to ’AKSÛM (AXUM), the ecclesiastical and political capital of ETHIOPIA.
The means employed by MENYELEK for obtaining possession of the Ark of the Covenant did not disturb ISAAC’S conscience in the least, nay he gloried in them, for manifestly MENYELEK was performing the Will of God in removing the tabernacle of ZION from JERUSALEM. God, according to ISAAC, was satisfied that the JEWS were unworthy to be custodians of the Ark wherein His Presence was, and the Ark wished to depart. ETHIOPIA had stretched out her hands to God (Psalm lxviii. 31), and He went to her, with the Ark, to preside over MENYELEK’S kingdom, which was established in accordance with the commands that He had given to MOSES and the prophets and priests of ISRAEL.
It will be remembered that the line of kings founded by SOLOMON continued to reign even after the ETHIOPIANS became Christians under the teaching of FRUMENTIUS and ADESIUS, the slaves of the merchant MEROPIUS, and that the line continued unbroken until the tenth century of our era. ISAAC knew that God then permitted the line to be broken, and allowed the ZÂGUÊ kings to reign over ETHIOPIA until the reign of YĔKÛNÔ ’AMLÂK, who restored the Solomonic line in 1270, and he makes no attempt to justify God’s action in this matter, or to explain it.
We learn, however, from the first section of the colophon, that he wondered why God had neglected to have the Arabic version of the KEBRA NAGAST translated into the “speech of ABYSSINIA” at an earlier date, and why ’ABU’L-’IZZ and ’ABU’L-FARAJ, who made the Arabic translation from the Coptic, did not make a rendering into Ethiopic also. In the explanation which he attempts to give, he reminds us that the Arabic translation appeared whilst the ZÂGUÊ kings were still reigning. As the KEBRA NAGAST was written to glorify the Solomonic line of kings, and its editors and translators regarded the ZÂGUÊ kings not only as non-ISRAELITES, but as “transgressors of the Law”, the appearance of a translation of it in the vernacular whilst the ZÂGUÊ were still on the throne would be followed by the torture and death of its producers, and the destruction of their work.
There is extant in Ethiopian literature a legend to the effect that when God made ADAM He placed in his body a “Pearl”, which He intended should pass from it into the bodies of a series of holy men, one after the other, until the appointed time when it should enter the body of ḤANNÂ, and form the substance of her daughter the VIRGIN MARY. Now this “Pearl” passed through the body of SOLOMON, an ancestor of CHRIST, and CHRIST and MENYELEK, the son of SOLOMON by the Queen of SHEBA, were sons of SOLOMON, and according to Ethiopian ideas they were akin to each other. But CHRIST was the Son of God, and, therefore, being the kinsman of CHRIST, MENYELEK was divine. And ISAAC the Ethiopian, holding this view, maintains in the KEBRA NAGAST that the kings of ETHIOPIA who were descended from MENYELEK were of divine origin, and that their words and deeds were those of gods.
Now the idea of the divine origin of kings in ETHIOPIA, the SÛDÂN, and EGYPT, is very old, and it appears to have been indigenous. According to a legend given in the WESTCAR PAPYRUS in BERLIN, three of the great kings of the Vth dynasty in EGYPT were the sons of the god RĀ by RUṬṬEṬ, the wife of RUṬṬEṬUSER, high priest of RĀ, and before the close of that dynasty every king called himself “son of RĀ“. Many a king of EGYPT states in his inscriptions that he reigned “in the egg”, i.e. before he was born, and we are to understand that the egg was deposited in his mother by the form of the Sun-god, who was his father.
Some of the sovereigns of the XVIIIth dynasty, certainly those who were the nominees of the priests of ȦMEN, were declared to be the actual children of ȦMEN, and to be of his substance. On the walls of the famous temple which the architect SENMUT built for Queen ḤATSHEPSUT in Western THEBES, there is a series of bas-reliefs in which the god ȦMEN is seen companying with the mother of that Queen, and ḤATSHEPSUT regarded herself as ȦMEN’S daughter. In the temple of Luxor there are bas-reliefs of a similar character, and the god ȦMEN is seen occupying the couch of the queen who became by him the mother of ȦMENḤETEP III. This king was so thoroughly convinced of his divine origin that he caused an effigy of himself to be sculptured on the walls of the temple of SÛLB in the Egyptian SÛDÂN, together with the figures of the great gods of EGYPT.
In fact he shared the worship of the people with the gods and goddesses of EGYPT. RAMESES THE GREAT was held to be the son of the god PTAḤ-TANEN, and in the inscription on a stele at ABU SIMBEL this god, in addressing the king, says: “I am thy father. Thou was begotten by the gods. All thy members are from the gods. I made myself assume the form of the RAM, the Lord of Tet-t, my seed stood in thy august mother”
A thousand years later a story arose in EGYPT to the effect that ALEXANDER THE GREAT was the son of the god ȦMEN of EGYPT, and ALEXANDER’S councillors promptly took advantage of it to forward the fortunes of their lord. If, they argued, ALEXANDER is the son of ȦMEN, he is the lawful king of EGYPT, and the EGYPTIANS must acknowledge him as their king. But it was necessary for their purpose that ȦMEN should acknowledge ALEXANDER as his son, and they therefore took him to the Oasis of SÎWAH in the Libyan Desert, and presented him to the god ȦMEN of LIBYA. The god admitted that ALEXANDER was his son, the priesthood of ȦMEN accepted the declaration of their god, the EGYPTIANS believed that the holy blood of ȦMEN flowed in ALEXANDER’S veins, and as a result he became the king of the South and the North, and Governor of the Domain of HORUS without striking a blow.
The native novelists and story-tellers, e.g. the PSEUDO CALLISTHENES, declared that when NECTANEBUS II, the last native king of EGYPT, fled from EGYPT he went to MACEDON, where he established himself as a magician. Here he became acquainted with Queen OLYMPIAS, who wished to find out from him if her husband, PHILIP, intended to put her away. An intimacy sprang up between NECTANEBUS and OLYMPIAS, and he appeared to the queen one night in the form of the god ȦMEN of LIBYA, arrayed in all the attributes of the god, and begot ALEXANDER THE GREAT. Tradition transferred the horns of ȦMEN to ALEXANDER, and ancient Arab writers call ALEXANDER “DHU’L-ḲARNÊN“, i.e. “provided with two horns”, a title that translates exactly one of the titles of ȦMEN, “Sepṭ ābui”
ISAAC, the editor and translator of the KEBRA NAGAST, and his fellow countrymen saw nothing strange in the fact that MÂKĔDÂ, the virgin queen of SÂBA, gave herself to SOLOMON, for she believed him to be of divine origin, and he was to her as a god. Moreover, he was the custodian of the “Heavenly ZION, the Tabernacle of the Law of God”, whence he obtained daily the renewal of his divinity, and power, and authority. The Tabernacle of the Law had much in common with the arks or divine tabernacles of the BABYLONIANS and EGYPTIANS, which formed the places of abode of figures of gods or their most characteristic emblems.
The ark of BEL, the great god of BABYLON, contained a figure of the god, and the king visited it ceremonially once a year, and sued with tears for forgiveness, and grasped the hand or hands of the sacred figure. The chamber in which the figure abode was believed to have been built by the gods. On high days and holy days the ark was carried by the priests in procession. In EGYPT the arks of the gods were kept in chambers specially constructed for the purpose, and the figures of the gods were seated on thrones inside them. These arks were placed upon sledges or in boats and were carried by the priests in procession on great days of festival or on solemn days.
We know from the inscriptions that the ark of ȦMEN was provided with doors that were kept bolted and sealed. On certain occasions the king had the right to break these seals and unbolt the doors, and look upon the face of the god. Thus, after his conquest of EGYPT, the Nubian king PIĀNKHI went to visit RĀ in his sanctuary near HELIOPOLIS. He was received by the KHERḤEB priest, who prayed that the fiends might have no power over him. Having arrayed himself in the sacred seṭeb garment, and been censed and asperged, PIĀNKHI ascended the steps leading to the ark of RĀ and stood there alone. He broke the seal, drew the bolts, threw open the doors and looked upon the face of RĀ. Having adored the Māṭet and Sektet Boats he drew together the doors and sealed them with his seal.
In this way PIĀNKHI was recognized by RĀ as the king of all EGYPT. It is not clear whether it was a figure of RĀ or the holy benben stone, the symbol of the god, which PIĀNKHI looked upon. Many of the sacred arks of EGYPT contained no figures of gods, but only objects symbolic of them; in the temples of Osiris the arks contained portions of the body of this god.
The Ark of the Law which MENYELEK covered and stole from the Temple of JERUSALEM was probably a copy of that made by MOSES, and to all intents and purposes it was a rectangular box, made of hard wood plated with gold, and measuring about four feet long, two feet six inches wide, and two feet six inches deep. It was provided with a cover upon which rested the Mercy seat and figures of the Cherubim. In the KEBRA NAGAST no mention is made of the Mercy seat and the Cherubim, but we read there that MOSES made a case in shape like the “belly of a ship”, and in this the Two Tables of the Law were placed. To the ETHIOPIANS this case symbolized the VIRGIN MARY; the case made by MOSES carried the Word in stone, and Mary carried the Word Incarnate.
It cannot be assumed that the Ark stolen by MENYELEK was carried in a sacred boat like an Egyptian shrine, even though the “belly of a ship” is mentioned in connection with it. In several chapters of the KEBRA NAGAST the “chariot of the Tabernacle of the Law” is mentioned, a fact which suggests that in later days at least the sacred box was provided with a carriage or sledge. History is silent as to the place where the Tabernacle of the Law was finally deposited, but Ethiopian tradition asserts that it survived all the troubles and disasters that fell upon the ABYSSINIANS in their wars with the Muslims, and that it was preserved at ’AKSÛM until comparatively recent times.
In the short introduction that follows I have given a sketch of the literary history of the KEBRA NAGAST, with references to the authorities on the subject, and I have made an abstract of its contents in narrative form which will, I hope, be useful. A full discussion of every portion of the work, with extracts giving the original texts of the authorities used and quoted by ISAAC the scribe, would fill another volume, and the cost of printing, paper, and binding is now so great that the idea of producing such a book has been abandoned.
A translation of the Arabic text describing how the Kingdom of DAVID was transferred from JERUSALEM to ETHIOPIA has been added, for this interesting document is practically unknown in England. The pictures of events described in the Old and New Testaments, given in this book, are taken from Ethiopic MSS. in the BRITISH MUSEUM; they show as nothing else can the religious beliefs and traditions of the ETHIOPIANS, and at the same time they serve as examples of the drawings and designs with which they illustrated their manuscripts. Nearly all of them depict Scriptural events described or referred to in the KEBRA NAGAST.