Ethiopian literature

Ethiopian literature dates from Ancient Ethiopian literature (around 300 AD) up until modern Ethiopian Literature. Ancient Ethiopian literature starts with Axumite texts written in the Geʽez language using the Geʽez script, indigenous to both Ethiopia & Eritrea.

Axumite Literature (330-900)Edit

There is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Ethiopia since 2000 B.C.[1]

Ge'ez literature begins with Christianity being declared the state religion around 340 A.D. by King Ezana.[2] However, Christianity has existed since 100 A.D. in Ethiopia.

The oldest known example of the old Ge'ez script is found on the Hawulti obelisk in Matara, Eritrea. The oldest surviving Ge'ez manuscript is thought to be the 5th or 6th century Garima Gospels.

Almost all texts from this early "Aksumite" period are religious (Christian) in nature, translated from Greek. Up till the 4th century, Aksumite royal inscriptions are commonly in both Greek and Ge'ez; but from 350, the Aksumite kings increasingly employed only Ge-ez; and it is likely that the translation of the Bible was embarked on soon after, and was complete by the end of the 5th century. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these Books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, and Tobit. The Book of Enoch in particular is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language.

Also to this early period dates Qerlos, a collection of Christological writings beginning with the treatise of Saint Cyril (known as Hamanot Rete’et or De Recta Fide). These works are the theological foundation of the Ethiopic Church. Another important religious document is Ser'ata Paknemis, a translation of the monastic Rules of Pachomius. Non-religious works translated in this period include Physiologus, a work of natural history also very popular in Europe.

Post-Axumite Literature (1200–1672)Edit


After the decline of the Aksumites, a lengthy gap follows; no works have survived that can be dated to the years of the 8th through 12th centuries. Only with the rise of the Solomonic dynasty around 1270 can we find evidence of authors committing their works to writings. Some writers consider the period beginning from the 14th century an actual "Golden Age" of Ge'ez literature—although by this time Ge'ez was no longer a living language. While there is ample evidence that it had been replaced by the Amharic language in the south and by the Tigrigna and Tigre languages in the north, Ge'ez remained in use as the official written language until the 19th century, its status comparable to that of Medieval Latin in Europe.

The early 15th century Fekkare Iyasus "The Explication of Jesus" contains a prophecy of a king called Tewodros, which rose to importance in 19th century Ethiopia as Tewodros II chose this throne name.

Literature flourished especially during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob. Written by the Emperor himself were Mats'hafe Berhan ("The Book of Light") and Mats'hafe Milad ("The Book of Nativity"). Numerous homilies were written in this period, notably Retu’a Haimanot ("True Orthodoxy") ascribed to John Chrysostom. Also of monumental importance was the appearance of the Ge'ez translation of the Fetha Negest ("Laws of the Kings"), thought to have been around 1450, and ascribed to one Petros Abda Sayd — that was later to function as the supreme Law for Ethiopia, until it was replaced by a modern Constitution in 1931.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Islamic invasions put an end to the flourishing of Ethiopian literature. A letter of Abba 'Enbaqom (or "Habakkuk") to Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, entitled Anqasa Amin ("Gate of the Faith"), giving his reasons for abandoning Islam, although probably first written in Arabic and later rewritten in an expanded Ge'ez version around 1532, is considered one of the classics of later Ge'ez literature.

During this period, Ethiopian writers begin to address differences between the Ethiopian and the Roman Catholic Church in such works as the Confession of Emperor Gelawdewos, Sawana Nafs ("Refuge of the Soul"), Fekkare Malakot("Exposition of the Godhead") and Haymanote Abaw ("Faith of the Fathers"). Around the year 1600, a number of works were translated from Arabic into Ge'ez for the first time, including the Chronicle of John of Nikiu and the Universal History of Jirjis ibn al'Amid Abi'l-Wasir (also known as al-Makin).

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman is a biography written by Galawdewos in 1672 (translated to English by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner). The biography won the 2017 Paul Hair Prize, African Studies Association.[citation needed]


Most of Ethiopia's Islamic Literature is center in the eastern lowland with Harar being the most important.

Early Modern literature (16th Century – 18th Century)Edit

It is during this period that Amharic started to emerge as a written language. One of the most important people of this era is Ethiopian priest and lexicographer, Abba Gorgoryos (1595–1658).[3] Gorgoryos along with his colleague and friend Hiob Ludolf co-authored the earliest grammar book of the Amharic language and also an Amharic-Latin dictionary. Amharic became the first African language to be translated into Latin.[4] Gorgoryos's other accomplishments include developing a Ge'ez lexicon, co-authoring encyclopedias for both Amharic and Ge'ez as well as contributing to Ludolf's book "A History of Ethiopia".

Another important figure in this era is the Ethiopian monk Abba Bahrey. Bahrey was both a historian and an Ethnographer who is best known for his 1593 work "The History of the Galla" (Ge'ez: ዜናሁ ፡ ለጋላ, zēnāhū lagāllā). Written in Ge'ez, it told of the history of the Oromo and their 16th-century migration into what is now central and western Ethiopia.[5] This work was significant because it is the only documentation of the Oromo people in the 16th century. Bahrey also authored "The History of King Sarsa Dengel" which chronicles the reign of emperor Sarsa Dengel.[6]

Modern (19th Century – Present)Edit

Perhaps the most famous contributors to this century of literature is author Haddis Alemayehu. His tragic novel, Love to the Grave (ፍቅር እስከ መቃብር; Fəqər əskä Mäqabər), is perhaps the most renowned book in modern Ethiopian literature, considered a modern masterpiece.[7]

Legal TextsEdit

In 1240 A.D. the structure of the church and the country was organized according to Fetha Nagast.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Weninger, Stefan. Ge'ez. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. p. 732.
  2. ^ Stuart, Munro-Hay (1991). Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-7486-0106-6.
  3. ^ Uhlig, Siegbert. 2005. "Gorgoryos." In Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: D-Ha: Vol. 2, edited by Siegbert Uhlig, 855–856. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  4. ^ Ludolf, Hiob. 1682. A New History of Ethiopia. Being a Full and Accurate Description of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, Vulgarly, Though Erroneously Called the Empire of Prester John. Translated by J. P. Gent. London: Samuel Smith Booksellers.
  5. ^ English translation by C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford, Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593–1646 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1954).
  6. ^ Baxter, Paul T. W., "Baḥrəy" in Uhlig, Siegbert, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003), p. 446.
  7. ^ Getachew, Fitsum (March 5, 2015). "Haddis Alemayehu – the Unique Personality in Ethiopian Literature". All Africa.