Translation and Edition of the Kəbrä Nägäśt (The Glory of the Kings)

Program Director

The Kəbrä Nägäśt’s story about a Black Queen of Sheba has riveted audiences for centuries and is the frequent subject of popular history shows. For the book relates how the Queen of Sheba, whose story is first told in the Bible, was an Ethiopian queen who had a son with the Israelite King Solomon. Imaginatively expanding on the laconic biblical account, the Kəbrä Nägäśt tells how Solomon tricked the Queen of Sheba into sleeping with him and how their son eventually took the Ark of the Covenant from Israel to Ethiopia, thus transferring God’s blessings to a new chosen people. Ever since, Ethiopian tradition claims, the kings of Ethiopia have descended from the Middle Eastern King Solomon and the African Queen of Sheba. The transfer of the ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, like the transfer of the sacred images of the gods from Troy to Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid, anchors the Christian Ethiopian nation’s claim to spiritual supremacy and its kings’ claims to dominion over other kings. The hybrid national and racial identity crystalized in the Kəbrä Nägäśt has been mirrored in the work’s reception in later periods, especially its central role among the Rastafari communities. 

Ethiopia has eight centuries of criminally understudied texts. It is one of the most important literary archives in the world. Although this archive is being digitized at a terrific rate, very little of it is being translated or studied. Less than one percent of its over hundred thousand texts is available in any European language. They are written in the ancient language of Gəˁəz (or Classical Ethiopic), an Afro-Asiatic language spoken and written in Ethiopia throughout the first millennium CE and still used in the Ethiopian church today. 

Yet, these are texts written by Africans for Africans in African languages about African people from the 1200s into the present. Most people in the world do not believe that Africa has any writing before the mid-twentieth century or the arrival of Europeans. Without translations and editions of at least some of the texts, this tenacious lie, that Africa has no written culture, will continue to thrive. Without good editions and translations, these texts cannot be taught and the global canon cannot be expanded. And, if the global canon cannot be expanded, then the humanities will wither. Providing access to these texts is essential to the future of the humanities, which cannot survive with Africa as a lacuna.