In Search of Zera Yacob

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Jonathan
Egid

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My doctoral research at King's College London focuses on two remarkable texts from Ethiopia, the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the Ḥatäta Walda Heywat. These texts have fascinated and puzzled alike on account of their philosophical depth, beauty and apparent historical singularity. They have been called the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’, and served to demonstrate, in the words of Claude Sumner, that “modern philosophy, in the sense of a personal rationalistic critical investigation, began in Ethiopia with Zera Yacob at the same time as in England and in France”. But they have also been denounced as forgeries, and for the last century have been the subject of a highly controversial scholarly - and political - debate. I wrote a piece summarising the debate over the authorship of these texts here for the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History.

Further study of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob might have profound repercussions for the history and historiography of philosophy in Africa and in a global orientation, for understanding processes of philosophical translation and connected intellectual histories, as well as the history of Ge’ez philology and literature.

Conference

In April 2022 I organised In Search of Zera Yacob, the first international and interdisciplinary conference on two remarkable texts, along with Philiminality Oxford​. The conference aimed to examine the ideas, language and history of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob by putting scholars from across the world, and across disciplinary boundaries, into dialogue, stimulating a productive discussion between scholars from philosophy, history, philology, and Ethiopian studies, and serving as a prolegomenon to the broader philosophical study of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob.

Links to the recordings of all conference talks will appear here soon! 

For now, many thanks to: Dr Teshome Abera (Addis Ababa Science and Technology University), Prof. Peter Adamson (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich/King's College London), Mr Brooh Asmare (Mekelle University), Mr Eyasu Berento (Kotebe Metropolitan University), Dr Anke Graness (University of Hildesheim), Mr Mauricio Lapchik Minski (Ben Gurion University of the Negev), Dr Ralph Lee (SOAS), Prof. John Marenbon (University of Cambridge), Prof. Binyam Mekonnen (Addis Ababa University), Dr Fasil Merawi, (Addis Ababa University) Prof. Justin E. H. Smith, (University of Paris 7 - Denis Diderot), Dr Anaïs Wion, (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Mr Henry Straughan & Mr Michael O'Connor (University of Oxford) for their wonderful contributions to the conference.

Edited Volume

Along with Lea Cantor (Oxford) and Dr. Fasil Merawi (Addis Ababa), I am editing a volume on Ethiopian philosophy for the series New Studies in the History and Historiography of Philosophy, to be published by de Gruyter in 2023.

Resources

Until recently it has been very difficult to learn more about the Ḥatäta owing the the dearth of accesible scholarly material, but the links below offer a way of getting acquainted with the topic. Of course feel free to get in touch with any questions too!

Primary texts 

  • This blog contains write ups of the Sumner translation into English, arranged chapter by chapter. I am unsure of its copyright status so refer you to it only provisionally!

  • A new translation by Dr Ralph Lee with Prof Wendy Belcher and Mr Mehari Worku is forthcoming in 2023

Authorship debate

  • For a summary of the authorship debate and its politics, In Search of Zera Yacob: Philosophy in Early Modern Ethiopia by Jonathan Egid (me)

  • By far the best statement of the forgery thesis is 'The History of a Genuine fake Philosophical Treatise'         (L’histoire d’un vrai faux traité philosophique) by Anaïs Wion. A quite remarkable set of articles.

  1. Introduction - Enquête sur une enquête. Now available in English translation.

  2. Part I - Le temps de la découverte. De l’entrée en collection à l’édition scientifique (1852-1904) / The time of discovery. From being part of a collection to becoming a scientific publication (1852-1904). Now available in English translation.

  3. Part II - Le temps de la démystification et la traversée du désert (de 1916 aux années 1950) / Time of demystification, time in the wilderness (from 1916 to the 1950s)​. Now available in English translation.

  4. A projected third installation will be published as part of the aforementioned volume

  • For the opposed view, see this 2017 article by the late, great Getatchew Haile, in which he reverses his earlier opinion that the text was a fake​

Commentary

Language

  • Of course, to really understand these texts, you will need to learn the language in which they are originally written! Hamza Zafer's Classical Ethiopic Blog if by far the best place to do this online

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