In Search of Zera Yacob

My current book length project examines two remarkable philosophical texts from Ethiopia: the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛eqob the Hatäta Walda Heywat, and the question of their authorship. Are the works incredibly original philosophical texts from the 17th century, or are they one of the most elaborate literary forgeries of all time?


Scroll down for a summary of the project, information about the In Search of Zera Yacob conference 2021, and some links to further reading.

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.

The Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛eqob, was an autobiographical and philosophical meditation, telling the story of the freethinker Zär’a Ya‛eqob through his childhood, exile and philosophical musings in a mountain cave; the text elaborated a philosophical system of considerable depth and subtlety. The Hatäta Walda Heywat, a less theoretical work, was composed by a disciple and represents a transition from metaphysics to social ethics, applying the master’s insights to daily life.

The texts were discovered in 1852 by the Capuchin missionary Giusto d’Urbino, and sent to Paris via Khartoum and Cairo, where the manuscripts were catalogued by d’Abbadie (1859) and deposited in the Bibliothèque national de France. Within a decade, two critical editions and translations were produced by Turayev (1905) and Littman (1909, 1916), both of which celebrated the Hatäta as significant contributions to human thought. However, in 1916 and 1920, two articles by Conti Rossini severely undermined the belief that the texts were composed in the 17th century by an Ethiopian freethinker. Deploying a range of arguments, from eyewitness accounts to textual analysis, Conti Rossini alleged that rather than discovering the Hatäta manuscripts, d’Urbino had in fact composed it himself. This instigated a scholarly controversy that has raged for the intervening century, and which I hope to get to the bottom of with this project.​

In Search of Zera Yacob Conference at Worcester College, Oxford

In Search of Zera Yacob will be the first international and interdisciplinary conference on a fascinating and hitherto neglected topic: two remarkable philosophical texts from Ethiopia and the ongoing debate over their authorship. These two texts, the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the Ḥatäta Walda Heywat have been objects of suspicion and admiration since their discovery (or perhaps their forgery) in 1852 by the Capuchin monk Giusto d’Urbino, both for their intrinsic philosophical interest and apparent historical singularity in the Ethiopian and African context.

The central question this conference hopes to explore is whether the texts have a genuine 17th century Ethiopian authorship, or whether the supposed ‘discoverer’ of the texts, the 19th century Capuchin monk Giusto d’Urbino, was in fact their secret author. The conference works on the assumption that the text is interesting either way:

  • If the works IS authentic, there is plenty to do, both in terms of studying the philosophy and literary qualities of the work, but also in understanding what it means for the history of philosophy (that modern philosophy was born almost simultaneously in Ethiopia as in Europe, that it is oldest text in context of sub-Saharan African philosophy, explorations of questions of influence etc.), and in to thinking about why it was considered a fake for so long

  • If it IS NOT authentic, how are we to best understand it? Is it still interesting as a work of philosophy? If not, why not? If it is a fake, how does it relate to other historical and how does it fare as a literary creation?

The conference aims to bring together scholars from across philosophy, history and Ethiopian Semitic philology to discuss the question of the authorship of the text, the possibilities for resolving the authorship debate, and the place of the text in philosophical and literary history.

Invited Speakers

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

  • Dr Anaïs Wion, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

  • Prof. Wendy Belcher, Princeton University 

  • Dr Ralph Lee, SOAS

  • Prof. Justin E.H. Smith, University of Paris 7 - Denis Diderot

  • Dr Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie University

  • Mr Faisil Merawi, Addis Ababa University

  • Prof. John Marenbon, University of Cambridge

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

 © 2020 Jonathan Egid

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