In Search of Zera Yacob

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In Search of Zera Yacob Conference at Worcester College, Oxford

In Search of Zera Yacob will be the first international and interdisciplinary conference on two remarkable philosophical texts from early modern 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”. 

This conference aims 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. It aims to stimulate a productive discussion between scholars from philosophy, history, philology, and Ethiopian studies, and to serve as a prolegomenon to broaden the philosophical study of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. Contributors to the conference will explore the text’s philosophical arguments and their significance, the historical context of intellectual exchanges in Ethiopia, issues of translation and the forging of philosophical vocabularies, notions of authorship and authenticity in philosophical writing, the legacy of colonialism for Ethiopian studies, and the methodology of a truly global history of philosophy.

One of the guiding threads of the conference is the century-long controversy over the authorship of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the Ḥatäta Walda Heywat: do the texts have a genuine 17th century Ethiopian authorship, as asserted in the texts, or was the supposed ‘discoverer’ of the texts, the Capuchin monk Giusto d’Urbino, in fact their secret author? In addition to bringing new research to bear on the debate, we hope that the conference will provide an opportunity to analyse the history and politics of this controversy, from the first scholars who admired and enthusiastically catalogued and edited the texts in the early 20th century, to its rejection by Carlo Conti Rossini, an orientalist, and apologist for the fascist invasion of Ethiopia, and the reassertion of a 17th century authorship by Almeyahu Moges, Amsalu Alkilu and Claude Sumner in the 1970s. We hope also to explore the suggestions of scholars such as Binyam Mekkonen that the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, ‘authentic’ or not, can obscure other rich philosophical resources to be found elsewhere in Ethiopian literature. The conference will thus also provide an opportunity to interrogate the often fraught and often ideological underpinnings of these arguments, examining the role of colonial knowledge production in shaping the controversy, and the history of Ethiopian studies at large. Addressing this controversy with an eye to its troubled history is important if the Ḥatäta is to receive the attention it deserves.

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.

 

Invited Speakers

Dr Teshome Abera, Addis Ababa Science and Technology University

Prof. Peter Adamson, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich/King's College London

Prof. Wendy Belcher, Princeton University 

Mr Eyasu Berento, Kotebe Metropolitan University

Prof. Getatchew Haile, Curator Emeritus of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

Dr Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie University

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

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.

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