Sacred Texts  Christianity  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 

The Kebra Nagast, by E.A. Wallis Budge, [1932], at

p. vii


   WHEN the English translation of the "Book of the Glory of Kings" appeared in 1922 it received a generous welcome from the gentlemen of the Press, and the approval of it by the public generally was shown by the fact that within two months from the day of publication a reprint was called for. The amusing and interesting character of the book which piles up fancy tales, fables, legends, folk-lore, dogma, mysticism and pious remarks on a substratum of historical fact was frankly admitted by all the reviewers, but a few of them raised the question of the historicity of the Book of the Glory of Kings. It must be said at once that we shall never know whether the queen who visited SOLOMON was a pure-blooded ABYSSINIAN or an Arab queen from YAMAN or HADRAMAUT or some other part of the great Arabian peninsula. But the tradition that some "Queen of the South" did visit SOLOMON is so old and so widespread, that a kernel of historical fact, however small, must be hidden somewhere in it. It would not surprise me if SIDNEY SMITH or C. J. GADD one day published in the great Corpus of cuneiform texts from the tablets in the BRITISH MUSEUM a Sumerian or Babylonian inscription telling how some great queen from latter-day INDIA paid a visit to a king of one of the city states like ETANA, or MESANNIPADDA or the great SARGON of AGADE, to be instructed in the wisdom and civilization of his day. The story of such a visit would be noised abroad among the nations around by the caravan men, and the scribes of the day would incorporate it in their historical romances. It is quite possible that the story of SOLOMON and the Queen of SHEBA is based upon one which is far older. Something like this has actually happened with the history of GILGAMISH,1 a king of URUK, in the Ethiopic history of the exploits of p. viii ALEXANDER THE GREAT. In the latter work the scribe tells us how the Macedonian king sought for the waters of life, and how he made his way through inpenetrable forests and arrived at the sea of the waters of death,1 and how he tried to fly up into heaven,2 &c., all of which is described in the Epic of GILGAMISH, the prototype of ALEXANDER to the scribe. The meeting of GILGAMISH with SIDURI the "SÂBITU" i.e. "inn-keeper" or "ale-wife" finds its counterpart in the meeting of ALEXANDER with ḲUNDÂḲÂ (CANDACE), the queen of ETHIOPIA, which country, by the way, ALEXANDER never invaded. ALEXANDER found such favour with ḲUNDÂḲÂ that she invited him to her private apartments and shared her bed with him. The beauty of ḲUNDÂḲÂ overcame ALEXANDER just as the beauty of MÂḲĔDÂ overcame SOLOMON, and it is possible that GILGAMISH fell a victim to the "ale-wife". The object of the Ethiopian scribe, ancient or modern, was to make a "good story", and he never allowed facts, or anachronisms, or names of persons or places, or even possibility or probability to hamper him.

   The next question is, How far are the ABYSSINIANS justified in claiming definite kinship with the SEMITES? In dealing with this question the following facts must be considered. There is little doubt the aboriginal inhabitants of ABYSSINIA were negroes or negroids who came from the valley of the NILE. At a very early period, which must be called prehistoric, tribes and peoples who lived on the western side of the peninsula of ARABIA made their way across the sea from ASIA into AFRICA in the south at some place like BÂB-AL-MANDAB and in the north at some place in the peninsula of SINAI. In this way the influence of Asiatic peoples entered ABYSSINIA. Later a section of the HAMITES, whose language was akin to that of the LIBYANS, BERBERS, and EGYPTIANS, brought into p. ix ABYSSINIA a language which for convenience we may call "Ethiopic" though its more correct name is "Kushite". The translators of the Bible into "Ethiopic" identified, quite incorrectly, ABYSSINIA with KÛSH, the Hebrew name for the country which we now call NUBIA. Owing to the intermingling of SEMITES and HAMITES a Semitic element entered the Hamitic language at a very early period. The northern part of ABYSSINIA, that is, the mountainous section of it, became the principal settlement of the SEMITES, who are known as the "AGAW", and from them were probably descended many of the FALÂSHAS or "Abyssinian Jews".

   In the eleventh or tenth century before CHRIST a further invasion of ABYSSINIA by Asiatic SEMlTES took place, and it was they who taught the Abyssinians the elements of civilization. The principal tribe of the invaders was called "ḤABASHA", and they came from YAMAN in western SOUTH ARABIA. They gave the name of "ḤABESH" to this part of AFRICA in which they settled, and it is from this that the modern name of "ABYSSINIA" is derived. The immigration of SEMITES from ASIA went on steadily during the following centuries, and the newcomers introduced the writing which was current at that time in ARABIA, and trades, arts and crafts. Two or three centuries before the Christian era they succeeded in forming a kingdom, the capital of which was ’AKSÛM. The SEMITES who settled in Upper, Middle, and Lower ABYSSINIA became merchants and traders, and of such trade and commerce as existed at that time they were the originators and organizers. The SEMITES who settled in and about ’AKSÛM were known as the "’AG ‛ÂZIYÂN", i.e. the "free", and the language they spoke is called "GĔ‛ĔZ", now frequently called "ETHIOPIC". From this is derived the modern language of TIGRAY called "TIGRIÑA". The language of the SEMITES in Middle and Lower ABYSSINIA is known as "’AMÂRIÑÂ" or "AMHARIC" .The Abyssinians at that period had no literature.

p. x

   Details of the downfall of the Semitic kingdom which had ’AKSÛM for its capital are wanting, but we know that its successor was ruled by kings who were pagans; among these were APHILAS, ENDYBIS, and ALALMIDIS (’ELLA ‛AMÎDÂ), the father of ‛EZÂNÂ, the ’Αειζανάς of the GREEKS, who reigned in the first half of the fourth century of our era. ‛EZÂNÂ, who has been called the "CONSTANTINE OF ABYSSINIA" was the greatest king of ABYSSINIA known to history , and he adopted Christianity as the national religion of his country. With the coming of Christianity Abyssinian literature came into existence.

   From the facts summarized briefly in the preceding paragraphs it is clear that the ABYSSINIANS or ETHIOPIANS, as the people themselves prefer to be called, owe more to the SEMITES than to the HAMITES, or NEGROES, or EGYPTIANS, or GREEKS, or any other people with whom they came in contact in the prehistoric or historic periods. The SEMITES found them negro savages, and taught them civilization and culture, and gave them the Holy Scriptures on which their whole literature is based, and set before their eyes shining examples of righteous kings, prophets, priests, and holy men. And from first to last there must have been a very large admixture of Semitic blood in the ABYSSINIANS introduced by marriage and concubinage.

   The original form of the Legend of the Queen of SHEBA probably came into being soon after the great invasion of ABYSSINIA by the SEMITES in the tenth century before CHRIST. In the opinion of the ABYSSINIANS divine authority was given to it by Our Lord by His words quoted in the Gospels (Matt. xii. 42; Luke xi. 31), and they never doubted that SOLOMON was the father of the son of the Queen of SHEBA. It followed as a matter of course that the male descendants of this son were the lawful kings of ABYSSINIA, and as SOLOMON was an ancestor of CHRIST they were kinsmen of Our Lord, and they claimed to reign by divine right. This belief was probably shared by p. xi the kings of the Semitic kingdom of ’AKSÛM, which city was at a very early period regarded as a duplicate of JERUSALEM and was called the "ZION OF ABYSSINIA". When the ABYSSINIANS adopted Christianity in the second half of the fourth or the first half of the fifth century they decided to sever as far as possible their connexion with their pagan ancestors from ARABIA. The SEMITES who claimed kinship with the HEBREWS of JERUSALEM abandoned MAḤRAM and the other gods of the MINAEANS and SABAEANS in favour of JAHWEH, the god of the HEBREWS. When the SEMITES who were Christians had the Holy Scriptures translated into GĔ‛ĔZ the translators used a script which, though based on the old writings of the MINAEANS and SABAEANS, was different from it in some very important particulars. The old inscriptions, like Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, &c., read from right to left, but the ABYSSINIANS decided to read their texts from left to right, as did the BABYLONIANS and ASSYRIANS. This decision was due probably to Greek influence. The letters of the old Arabian alphabets were entirely consonantal and vowels were expressed by the semi-vowel letters. Some genius, name unknown, discovered a way of expressing the vowels in GĔ‛ĔZ by attaching short lines and minute circles to the consonants of the Sabaean alphabet and by modifying the forms of some of the consonants themselves. Thus the ABYSSINIANS turned the old Sabaean alphabet into a syllabary. Two examples will make this clear.

   The Sabaean letter = B. With the circles and lines added to it by the Abyssinians we have: በ = bă, ብ = bĕ, ቡ = bû, ቤ = bê, ባ = bâ, ቢ = bî, ቦ = bô.

   The Sabaean letter = D. With the change of position from perpendicular to horizontal, and the circles and lines added we have: ደ = dă, ድ = dĕ, ዱ = dû, ዲ = dî, ዳ = dâ, ዴ = dê, ዶ = dô. p. xii Thus the ABYSSINIANS provided for the expression of the "o" sound, which the ASSYRIANS and BABYLONIANS failed to do.

   The translators of the Bible into GĔ‛ĔZ rejected HABESH, the old name of ABYSSINIA, and in their version definitely gave the name of ETHIOPIA (’ÎTĔYÔPĔYÂ) to the region, the capital of which was ’AKSÛM. They read that the "eunuch of great authority under CANDACE queen of the ETHIOPIANS 'was called' a man of ETHIOPIA" (Acts viii. 27), and as the country over which that queen ruled was the KÛSH of the Old Testament, they rendered that name by "ETHIOPIA" (e.g. Psalms lxviii. 32.; lxxxvii. 4). Strictly speaking KÛSH was UPPER NUBIA. The name HABESH was disliked by the indigenous peoples of the country , and though in the modern Amharic dictionaries HABASHÂ is still to be found, the present-day native hates to be called "HABASHIYY", for by him it is regarded as an abusive epithet. Thus the Abyssinian Christian gained a new national name, a new script, and a new literature.

   As Christianity spread southwards the idea of the Solomonic ancestry of the kings of ETHIOPIA in the period between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries gained ground everywhere. During this period many kings who were not of the Solomonic line reigned, and a group of them called the ZÂGUÊ were masters of ETHIOPIA for about 330 years. At length there appeared a member of the Solomonic line called YEKUENÔ ’AMLÂK (1270-85) in SHOA, and with the help of the great saint TAKLA HAYMÂNÔT he expelled the ZÂGUÊ and became "King of the Kings of ETHIOPIA". In return for this help of the saint, YEKUENÔ ’AMLÂK agreed to give to the Church one-third of the revenues of his kingdom, and his successors have, on the whole, followed his example.

   As regards the present edition of the Queen of Sheba little need be said. In the first edition of my translation of the KEBRA NAGAST (all vowels short) there were 31 plates containing monochrome photographs, reproductions of p. xiii coloured illustrations copied from Ethiopic manuscripts of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The scenes and subjects represented were all of a religious character, but had no special reference to the Book of the Glory of Kings, for strangely enough that work is without illustrations. Nothing in a systematic way of publishing specimens of Ethiopian Art had been done before LADY MEUX published the coloured facsimiles of all the illustrations, both vignettes and full pages, from her two splendid manuscripts of the Miracles of the Virgin Mary and from the Life of Ḥanna the mother of the Virgin, and the Life of Mabâ‛ Ṣĕyon. I therefore added the 31 plates of illustrations from the manuscripts of the great MAḲDALÂ Collection now in the BRITISH MUSEUM, thinking that they would give the reader a good idea of the character of Ethiopian art generally. But it must never be forgotten that the art represented on the plates is not indigenous, for it is borrowed directly from or is based upon the paintings which were executed for the kings of ETHIOPIA by FRANCISCO DI BRANCA-LEONE, a Venetian monk, who is commonly called "the Frank". He flourished in the reign of ZAR’A YÂ‛ḲÔB (A.D. 1436-68). This monk came to ABYSSINIA with the view of converting the people to Christianity, and he is famous as "the Frank" who by the command of the king, carried on several debates with ABBÂ GÎYÔRGÎS on the faith. When the king discovered that he was a painter as well as a monk, he set him to work at painting pictures of Our Lady and the saints to be hung up in the churches, and it was he who painted for BA’EDA MÂRYÂM (A.D. 1468-78) the picture of the Virgin and the Infant CHRIST which exasperated the ABYSSINIANS. He represented the Virgin holding the Child on her left arm as was customary in Europe, but the ABYSSINIANS regarded the left hand as the "hand of dishonour", and they wanted to destroy the picture. This the king refused to permit, and it was hung in the ’ATRONSA MÂRYÂM, a church in the town of the same name in the south of AMḤARÂ, on the p. xiv ’ABÂY RIVER, and there it remained until the third year of the reign of THEOPHILUS (A.D. 1709). In that year the GALLAS came and wrecked the church, and killed the priests, and the picture and the coffin containing the remains of BA’EDA MÂRYÂM were hurled over a precipice on SUNDAY, AUGUST 23.

   The Introduction and Translation given in the first edition of the Queen of Sheba are repeated herein practically unaltered. The readings of two or three passages have been, I hope, improved, and a few references added. To write the literary history of the KEBRA NAGAST I believe to be impossible at present, owing to the lack of material. We can never expect to find out what was the original form of the Legend of the Queen of SHEBA, and it is impossible to assign dates to the various recensions of it which have been made in Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic. The sources of many of the legends reproduced in the great work are untraceable at present, and the unauthorized additions made to it by generations of scribes cannot with certainty be identified. It would be very interesting to know when the KEBRA NAGAST (all vowels short) began to be politically important, and regarded as the source of the invincibility of the ABYSSINIANS. The success of the British Expedition under GENERAL NAPIER in 1868 disturbed their equanimity somewhat, but they comforted themselves by remembering that it was directed against THEODORE, who was after all only an impostor. The natives everywhere helped the British Army because they wished to see the usurper smashed. Had they been hostile the result of the expedition would have been different. The battle of ADWA showed how the ABYSSINIANS could deal with an army of European soldiers, and "unconquered ABYSSINIA" is now the fiery, passionate cry of every patriot of ETHIOPIA from ’AKSÛM to the Equator.

 48 Bloomsbury Street
Bedford Square, W.C.
  August 22, 1932


p. vii

1 For his authentic history see Sidney Smith, Early History of Assyria, p. 34.

p. viii

1 See the Epic of Gilgamish (British Museum), London, 1929.

2 See the "Legend of Etana" in Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 519f.