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Ethiopia: Queen of Sheba, Now Available in French

This week, francophone blog Roots and Culture interviews [FR] Samuel Malher, a religious scholar from Strasbourg who has written the first unabridged French translation of the Kebra Negast, a sacred Ethiopian text.

The Kebra Negast, or the Glory of Kings, is considered sacred not only by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians, who comprise 65% of the country's population, but many Jamaican Rastafarians who believe it predicts the last Ethiopian King was God incarnate. It documents the lineage of the Ethiopian monarchs, who are said to descend directly from Menelik, son of the Israelite King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen Makeda, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. It also tells the story of how the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Israel to Ethiopia, and how the Ethiopians became God's new chosen people.

In the interview, Malher explains how he first became interested in Ethiopian Christianity in 1998, while studying theology at the University of Strasbourg.

One of his professors, an African, noted that African Christianity was often imported by Western missionaries, but questioned if that was true for all of Africa.

“I realized that Ethiopia, where Christianity had already arrived by the third century, deviated a bit from the rule,” Malher says.

Malher decided to go to Ethiopia to learn about the Queen of Sheba, the Ark, and a dynasty of emperors who ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century until 1974, all deriving legitimacy from their professed Solomonic lineage. He found an Ethiopia that was “deeply religious as it was proud of its history, always independent. A unique history still visible in its grand cities.”

Makeda, Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant

Makéda c’est “la belle” en éthiopien. Elle a d’abord entendu parler de la sagesse de Salomon, elle n’a pas résisté à attendre, à patienter chez elle. Elle s’est mise en route avec sa caravane, elle a emmené beaucoup de pierres précieuses, d’encens, de choses pour apporter, pour honorer le roi Salomon, qui avait déjà une grande réputation dans la région. Une fois arrivée sur place, la rencontre a voulu qu’elle se déroule dans le palais. Mais elle a eu le temps de voir aussi le pays, la Bande de Gaza par exemple, différents endroits sont cités par le Kebra Nagast, on peut retrouver les lieux, c’est vrai.

Et cette fameuse reine a rencontré le roi Salomon et lui aurait donné une descendance. Ce qui étonnant c’est que cette reine n’est pas restée auprès de celui qui pouvait être un concubin, ou un mari ou un partenaire pour la vie.

Elle est retournée auprès des siens dans le royaume de Sabah qui est parfois très difficile à situer. Il était peut-être beaucoup plus petit que l’actuelle Éthiopie, sans doute il se concentrait, il se limitait au haut plateau de l’Abyssinie, donc au nord de l’actuelle Éthiopie.”

Makeda means “the beautiful” in Ethiopian. When she first heard about the wisdom of Solomon, she could not [wait to meet him]. She set out with her caravan, bringing along many precious stones, incense, things to bring to honor King Solomon, who already had a great reputation in the region. The meeting was to take place in the palace as soon as she arrived. But she also had time to see the country, the Gaza Strip, for example; different places are mentioned in the Kebra Negast, and one can find these places, it's true.

This famous queen met King Solomon and gave him a descendant.

What is astonishing is that this queen did not stay afterwards with someone who could have been a consort, a husband or a life partner. She returned to her own people in the Kingdom of Sheba, whose location is very difficult to locate. It was probably smaller than present-day Ethiopia, and without a doubt was concentrated in, was limited to the high plateau of Abyssinia, north of Ethiopia.

The Political Origins of the Kebra Negast

Malher explains that the Kebra Negast was likely written sometime between 1200 and 1270, when two dynasties were vying for power in Ethiopia:

…c’était l’époque où il y avait deux dynasties qui se faisaient concurrence, d’une part la dynastie du roi Salomon, et puis les autres dont la dynastie des Agrées. Il y avait deux peuples qui prétendaient au pouvoir en Ethiopie. Et donc il y a là dans le Kebra Negast le fameux Isaac le pauvre qui est donc du côté de la dynastie Salomonienne qui aurait donc compilé le kebra Negast à partir des citations bibliques mais sans doute aussi à partir de récits oraux qui se racontaient, il les a mis par écrit tout d’abord sans doute en arabe puis en copte avant de pouvoir les traduire et les publier ouvertement en Guèze.”

…it was a time when two dynasties were competing for power, one the dynasty of King Solomon, and the other the dynasty of Agrées. There were two peoples claiming power in Ethiopia. And so there is in the Kebra Negast the famous Isaac the poor who is of the Salomonic dynasty side and who would have compiled the Kebra Negast not only from from biblical quotes but also from oral traditions, and he wrote them down undoubtedly first in Arabic, then in Coptic, before being able to translate and publish them openly in Ge'ez.

The Kebra Negast established the Solomonic dynasty's divine origins, and thus their right to rule over Ethiopia:

C’est un modèle, le pouvoir est transmis avec une bénédiction, avec l’idée d’une élection, ça c’est très important, beaucoup de pays ont connu aussi cette tradition, jusqu’au moment où on est arrivé à l’idée de la démocratie, l’idée de la monarchie a été peu à peu mise de côté.

It is a model [where] power is transmitted with a blessing, with the idea of selection, and that is very important. Many countries have had this tradition, up until the moment they arrived at the idea of democracy, and the idea of monarchy was, little by little, pushed aside.

And also to repel foreign invaders:

Le Kebra Negast lui est vraiment connu en Éthiopie, il a était le livre de base des empereurs pour administrer leur pays mais aussi pour se comparer à d’autres pays donc en se disant descendant du roi Salomon, en se rattachant à des origines nobles, l’Éthiopie avait de quoi faire face à des pays qui voulaient peut être envahir le territoire éthiopien.

The Kebra Negast is really known in Ethiopia; it was emperors’ primary book for administrating their country but also for wocomparing themselves to other countries. By calling themselves descendants of King Solomon, by attaching themselves to noble origins, [Ethiopians] had something with which to confront those countries that perhaps wanted to invade Ethiopian territory.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chosen People

Ethiopia's territorial integrity and the rule of its Kings were supported not only by their claims of Solomonic ancestry, but by their possession of what they believe is the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses in the Old Testament to house God's Ten Commandments, and brought to Ethiopia by Queen Makeda and Solomon's son, Menelik–without Solomon's knowledge.

Le Kebra negast est un ensemble d’écrits qui décrivent l’histoire des patriarches, l’histoire de la reine mais aussi l’histoire de l’arche de l’alliance qui serait actuellement encore déposé dans une église dans le nord de l’Éthiopie et avec les prophéties qui tournent autour de l’élection du peuple d’Israël qui serait donc transférée sur le peuple de l’Éthiopie avec la présence de l’arche de l’alliance.

The Kebra Negast is a collection of writings which describe the history of the patriarchs, and the queen, but also story of the Ark of the Covenant, which is currently sitting in a church in northern Ethiopia, and the prophecies surrounding the selection of the Israeli people [as the chosen people] which would then be transfered to the Ethiopians with the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.”

L’arche de l’alliance on en trouve déjà la mention dans la bible dans le livre de l’exode et dans le livre des rois, où Moise était chargé de concevoir un coffre en bois d’acacia recouvert d’or et à l’intérieur seraient déposées les deux tablettes sur lesquelles figuraient les dix commandements. Alors cette arche intéressait aussi le peuple éthiopien car il représentait la présence de Dieu parmi le peuple. Là où était l’arche le temple était sanctifié…Elle représente la présence de Dieu et l’élection du peuple d’Israël parce que l’arche aurait eu un grand pouvoir, elle se déplaçait presque seule, de la volonté d’Israël d’accompagner le peuple d’Éthiopie pendant son voyage.

The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Exodus and in the Book of Kings, where Moses was commanded to fashion a box from Acacia wood and cover it in gold. The two tablets on which the ten commandments were inscribed would be placed iside. This Ark also interested the Ethiopian people because it represented God's presence among the people. Wherever the Ark was would be sanctified…It represents the presence of God and the selection of the people of Israel, because the Ark had a great power, it freed itself almost on its own from the will of the Israelites to accompany the Ethiopian people on their voyage.

Et aujourd’hui encore on retrouve une reproduction dans chaque église par la présence de tablettes qui représentent les dix commandements sous forme de copie. C’est un peu comme dans l’église catholique la présence du corps du christ par l’Ostie.

Aujourd’hui l’arche de l’alliance est un peu un objet de curiosité pour les journalistes pour les scientifiques aussi mais en même temps elle est protégée par l’église orthodoxe éthiopienne, qui la conserverait dans cette fameuse cathédrale de st. Marie de Sion.

Je pense que c’est vraiment une question de foi. Lorsqu’un prêtre éthiopien vous répond : “Si vous voulez prouver que l’arche n’est pas là, allez-y. Et le journaliste pose la question en sens inverse, il demande toujours est-ce que l’arche est vraiment là ? Elle est là, c’est à vous de le prouver, elle n’est pas là c’est à vous de le prouver !”

And today you find a reproduction of the Ark in each church and copies which represent the ten commandments. It's a little like how the Host represents the Body of Christ.

Today, the Ark of the Covenant has become something of an object of curiosity among journalists and scientists, but at the same time it is protected by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which preserves it in the famous cathedral of Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

I think that it's really a question of faith. When an Ethiopian priest response: “If you want to prove that the Ark isn't there, then go ahead.” And the journalist inverts the question, asking, “Is the Ark is really there? Whether it is there, is for you to prove. Whether it is not there is for you to prove!”

Kebra Negast and the Bible

Like most non-canonical texts, the Kebra Negast was not included in the Bible and some translations were even destroyed by the Church.

C’est un peu l’histoire des Apocryphes, l’église universelle a toujours eu la priorité de garder un recueil de texte que l’on appelle la Bible. Il y a beaucoup d’apocryphes en effet qui sont mis de côté, qui sont ignorés par beaucoup de fidèles déjà et qui ne sont pas très droits dans ce que veut exprimer l’Eglise. Il y a des écrits qui concernent parfois la vie de Jésus, la vie d’un prophète, la vie d’un patriarche, qui montrent le côté humain de ces hommes et de ces femmes, et l’Eglise voulait d’abord faire passer le message de Dieu, de la justice… Il y avait certaines raisons de ne pas exploiter ces textes.

It's the story of the Apocryphas. The Church has always had a priority to keep a collection of texts which is called the Bible. There are many apocryphas which were in effect cast aside, which were already ignored by many followers and were not very correct in terms of what the Church wanted to say. There were writings concerning the life of Jesus, the life of a prophet, the life of a patriarch, that should the human side of these men and women, and the Church wanted first of all to pass on the message of God, of justice…There were certain reasons not to use these texts.

However, the Kebra Negast relies strongly on certain Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, according to Malher:

La fin du Kebra Negast…parle beaucoup du Christ, du nouveau testament dans la Bible mais aussi beaucoup de l’ancien…Les éthiopiens ont repris les versets importants de l’ancien testament, tel que le prophète Jérémie, ou Zacharie ou Osée…qui ne sont pas beaucoup lus…

The later chapters of the Kebra Negast…talk a lot about Christ, of the New Testament of the Bible, but also a lot of the old…the Ethiopians took important versus from the Old Testament, such as those of the prophets Jeremiah, Zachariah or Hosea…which are not widely read…

The Kebra Negast blends together the stories of the major Israeli patriarchs into one, great patriarch and incorporates Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah which, “will come, build his house, and save his people.” Malher says these are words of forgiveness for all people, but that according to its own tradition, “Ethiopia is the chosen country, the favored country. For the other peoples, there is an idea of pardon, of reconciliation. I think that it is very important for the people of Africa, for people around the world to be able to read these promises, these prophecies.”

Malher also says that the Queen of Sheba's story is told in the Koran, but there she is responsible for Solomon's downfall, for tainting his behavior. The Bible on the other hand emphasizes the queen's decision to submit to the God of King Solomon and bring the religion of the Israelites back to her own country.

On Rastafari Beliefs

Roots and Culture also asks Malher about Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, whom Rastafarians consider an incarnation of God. Malher disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the divine blessing described in the Kebra Negast extends to all of Ethiopia's kings, not one in particular.

Le Kebra Negast s’arrête après 117 chapitres d’éloges et de gloire, il s’arrête sur le Christ.

Ce sont les prophètes, les rois, les entités mais il n’est rien dit du dernier empereur Hailé Sélassié.

C’est simplement pour dire que la bénédiction sera accordée à l’Éthiopie et sur les différents rois, sans avoir connu le dieu d’Israël auparavant, ils se sont soudainement tournés vers lui à travers le moment de la rencontre de la reine de Sabah et de Salomon.

Rien ne les prédisposait à se soumettre à ce Dieu .

Ils ont fait le pas qui leur accorde la bénédiction. C’est ce qui est dit vers la fin du kebra Negast, C’est Hailé Sélassié qui s’appuie sur ce texte pour légitimer sa descendance, son ascendance, il a donc un pouvoir légitime.

The Kebra Negast stops after 117 chapters of praise and glory, it stops with Christ.These are prophets, kings, entities but nothing is mentioned about the last emperor, Haile Selassie.To put it simply, the blessing accorded to Ethiopia and the various kings, without having known the God of Israel before, they suddenly turn to him at the moment that Sheba and Solomon meet.

Nothing predisposed them to submit to this God.

They took the path that gave them this blessing. That's what it says at the end of the Kebra Negast. It was Haile Selassie who relied on this relied on this text to legitimize his descendents, his ancestors; and so he has a legitimate power.

J’ai rencontré des rastas en Éthiopie, à Shashaménie. On a discuté, on s’entend sur pas mal de choses.

Parfois c’est aussi un préjugé, l’élection divine, je pense que chaque homme est béni, chaque homme peut être élu, c’est pas seulement l’empereur Hailé Sélassié qui est l’unique élu.

Cette bénédiction s’étend à tous les rastas, chacun est considéré par le grand dieu qui a donc posé son regard sur l’Éthiopie.

I met Rastas in Ethiopia, at Shahamenie. We talked, and we agreed on many things.

Sometimes it's also a prejudice, divine election, I think that every person is blessed, every person can be chosen, Emperior Haile Selassie is not the only chosen one.

This blessing extends to all the Rasta; each is considered by the Almighty God, who looked upon Ethiopia.

Why Translations Are Important

The last French translation of the Kebra Negast was published in 1915, and included just ten chapters detailing only “the most romantic elements of the encounter with the Queen of Sheeba.” His translation from Ge'ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, is unabridged.

Malher says this translation is very important, particularly now that other forms of Christianity have taken root in Ethiopia.

Parmi les 65% des Chrétiens il y a naturellement aussi des églises très récentes qui sont arrivées, l’église catholique, l’église protestante et l’église d’une communauté américaine, qui s’implantent en éthiopie. On retrouve de multitudes de concessions, de communautés différentes…

…Beaucoup de religions se développent ou prennent une place importante dans la vie du peuple éthiopien. C’est important de pouvoir dialoguer.

Comme beaucoup de religions ont des livres, la Bible traduit dans beaucoup de langues, l’Ethiopie a la particularité d’avoir le Kebra negast, un livre millénaire, qui mérite d’être connu par les étrangers, par ceux qui visitent l’Éthiopie, pour se plonger un petit peu dans la culture et dans la littérature éthiopienne c’est sans doute avec le Kebra Negast traduit en Français que l’on peut déjà faire un grand pas dans ce sens là…

Among the 65% [who are] Christians there are naturally also churches which are very recently arrived: the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and a Church from an American community, which implant themselves in Ethiopia. There are many concessions, different communities…

…Many religions develop or take an important place in the lives of the Ethiopian people. It's important to be able to have a dialog.

As many religions have books, the Bible is translated into many language, Ethiopia is uniqu ein having the Kebra Negast, a millennial text which deserves to be known by foreigners, by those who visit Ethiopia, to dive into the culture a little bit and into Ethiopian literature. By translating the Kebra Negast into French we are already taking a great step in that respect…

You can read the complete interview, in French, at the Roots and Culture blog.

Photographs: Kebra Negast by Samuel Malher; the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia, which houses the Ark of the Covenant (Wikipedia); and Haile Selassie I, the last King of Kings of Ethiopia (Library of Congress)

5 comments

  • meron

    i would realy love to read this i was also wondering if the fithanegest has been translated??

  • i think that this book must be in reach just like the bible,we Africans most fo do not know about our people who played a big role in keeping africa free from colonisation,cos if you look cafully you will see that most african countries who had civil wars,it all stated from the colonises.

  • This is a wounderful History about the Ethiopian, the Eritrean and the yemen people which are the descendants of the the great King of Israel and the beautiful waelthy Queen of saba. these people share in common the inheritance of the choosen people of Israel, the Arc of the covenent and they are the Orthodox church which have no resemblance in all the other churchs because of thier covenent Arc which is the exact copy of the original Covenant Arc which Mosse build in the wilderness while the Israel people are possesing the promised land. So in conclusion since we accept Christ the messia and becoause we are the descendants of Abraham , the Israelite people we are the chossen people of God. Here what we have to consider is, eventhough the Israelite people are the choosen people they don’t have the Covenant arc this time more over thy din’t accept Juses Christ. But we the Ethiopian people and the Eritrean people we are possibly the choosen people from the descendant of King David trough King Solomon and queen of saba.

  • annavita lanong

    is this book lyk a bible for the ethopians or the rastafarians?if so it should be translated into english…

  • […] Traducido por Gabriela Garcia Calderon Orbe· Ver post original […]

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