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In Search of Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob


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1. Introduction

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.


See here for a summary of the authorship debate I wrote for the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History.

2. Conference

In April 2022 I organised In Search of Zera Yacob, the first international and interdisciplinary conference on two remarkable texts, along with Lea Cantor and 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.

3. Recorded Talks


0. Jonathan Egid, Lea Cantor, Justin Holder - Introductory Remarks

1. Ralph Lee - Reflections on Translating the Hatata into English


2. Peter Adamson -The Place of Ethiopian Philosophy in the History of Philosophy


3. Binyam Mekonnen - Critique and Emancipation in the Religious Sphere: the Däqiqä Ǝsṭifanos as a Foundation of Ethiopian Critical Theory


4. Mauricio Lapchik - The Mäqśäftä hassätat or Against the Libel of the Ethiopians – A 17th Century Catholic Response [and Request] to the Christological Position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church


5. Eyasu Berento - Zera Yacob and Wolde Hiwot - 17th C Ethiopia Freethinkers_ Exceptionality and Situated-ness of the ‘Hateta’ in the Ethiopian Intellectual Tradition


6. Neelam Srivastava - Italian Colonialism and Orientalism in Ethiopia


7. Anaïs Wion - The Place of the Hatata in African Philosophy since the 1960s


8. Fasil Merawi - Examining the Hatetas as a Foundation of Ethiopian Philosophy


9. Anke Graness - Of Forgeries and Misinterpretations

10. Justin E.H Smith - Assessing the Evidence for Zera Yacob's Authenticity from the Point of View of the History of Philosophy

11. John Marenbon - Does it Matter Who Wrote it? Zera Yacob, Forgery and Pseudonymity in the History of Philosophy

12. Henry Straughan & Michael O'Connor - Grace and Reason in the Hatata Zera Yacob

13. Teshome Abera - Zara Yacob's Hatata: Its Historical and Social Reality

14. Brooh Asmare - The Authenticity of the Hatata from the Perspective of the Cultural History of Ethiopia

4. 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.

5. Resources

Until recently it has been very difficult to learn more about the Ḥatäta owing to 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 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​



  • 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 is the best place to start learning this amazing language this online

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