Quite remarkable literary development had the ancient Ethiopian language (ge ‛ ez), which still remains almost exclusively in liturgical usage, as among us the Latin; and until yesterday it was practically the only written language, like Latin among us in the Middle Ages, thereby preventing other languages from rising from the state of simple vulgar. Since culture in Ethiopia was centralized in the hands of the clergy, Ethiopian literature has a prevalent religious and ecclesiastical character; moreover, for the greater part it consists of translations whose value is sometimes constituted by the fact that the original texts, from which they come, seem to have disappeared, or at least are still unknown to us. What could have been written in the times of paganism was lost, except for numerous inscriptions engraved in the stone. Therefore Ethiopian literature is exclusively Christian.
Ethiopian literature can be divided into two periods. The ancient period, from the IV-V century up to the century. VII about d. C., is characterized by translations from the Greek; the following period begins around the century. XIII, is characterized by translations from Arabic and also sees a direct production take place.
The translations of the ancient period mainly include those of the books of the Old and the New Testament: it is likely that the Gospels were the first to be turned into Ethiopian. They reproduce a Syrian-West review, which reveals the origin of the missionaries from whom they were brought into the lands of Altsum; and most probably their version was the work, at least for a considerable part, of these same missionaries; indeed, according to a tradition, the Gospel of St. Matthew had an Ethiopian dress precisely from one of them called Mattà (Ma ṭ a ‛= Syriac Mat ā, “Matthew”) or Libanos, who awaited you during his stay in Eacla. Subsequently the other books were translated: the Syracid seems to bear the date of its version, 678. The value of these versions is very varied: sometimes the Ethiopian text can validly contribute to the critical and exegetical study of the primitive text, sometimes more than a translation we should speak of a compendium. Furthermore, whether the first versions appeared stylistically incorrect or not in accordance with the use of the spoken language, or whether new Greek texts with new redactions found better acceptance in the country, the Ethiopian text was subjected to one or more revisions, based on to Greek reviews other than those on which the first version was conducted. In addition to the canonical books, numerous apocryphals were translated, Kuf à l ²), the Book of the Shepherd of Hermas, that of Isaiah’s ascension, that of Enoch, etc. In this respect, Ethiopian literature has rendered precious services to the studies of ancient Christian literature, preserving us apocryphal texts whose text would otherwise have been lost; indeed, for a long time, precisely these writings constituted the major interest of the studies of Ethiopian literature, which was therefore called the handmaid of theology. Other translations are of the monastic rules of San Pachomius; of the book called Fisalgos or Physiologus, a kind of natural history treatise inspired by religious criteria; perhaps of the acts of some martyrs of the Egyptian church. Also in the ancient period a large collection of numerous writings by ecclesiastics of Syria, Asia Minor etc. was composed, Q ē r ĭ llos “Cyril” because homilies and extracts from works by Cyril patriarch of Alexandria play an important role. The Q ē r ĭ llos has monophysitic intentions, and most likely it was compiled, or at least directed in its compilation, by Syrian clergymen at the court of Aksum, who cared about the good relations of this with the Byzantine court.
After the century VII, for about five centuries, there is no trace of literary activity in Abyssinia, which cannot fail to surprise, both for the length of the period, and because precisely during this period falls the time of the greatest literary activity of the Copts (and it is on the other hand, it has been shown that the relations between Abyssinia and the Alexandrian patriarchate did not suffer too long interruptions), and because the Greek language and Greek books continued in the same period to be used in Christian Nubia, so that even that vein should not have been completely truncated for the Ethiopians. In any case, the recovery seems to have taken place in the 10th century. XIII, with versions from Arabic or with works inspired by Arabic.
In the time of King Yāgbe’a Ṣyon (died 1294) the Book of Vision of the prophet Habacuc seems to have been translated into Qartasā. Shortly after, between 1314 and 1322, a Yeṣhaq, nebura and of Aisum, with the help of other ecclesiastics and under the patronage of Yā‛bika Egzi ‘head of Tigrè, composed one of the greatest works of Ethiopian literature, the Kebra Nagast “Glory of the Kings”, a kind of religious novel on the queen of Sheba, on Solomon and their son Menelik, a novel that was intended to glorify and consolidate the Solomonid dynasty which has just arisen in the Amhara: the very appearance of such a work is proof that it is in time of full literary activity. Indeed, homilies, prayers, lives of saints are translated from Arabic. Other prayers, religious poems, lives of indigenous saints, even the story of the wars of kings ‛Amda Ṣyon in 1332 against the Muslims, perhaps an early text of court customs (Ser ‛ ata mangest), are written in Ethiopian. In the first half of the century. XIV abbā Giyorgis of Gāseččā composes the Book of Hours. Before 1379 the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are translated, and perhaps towards the same time also the Didascalia. Metropolitan Salama, who came to Ethiopia in 1348-9 and died in Ḥaqalēt in 1387-8, gave great impetus to the movement, promoting a general revision of the text of the Holy Scriptures that scribes and centuries had greatly altered, and having translated or translated himself lives of saints and martyrs (such as those of Abba Nob = Apa Anoub, d’Abakerazun, Giusto, Ippolita and Tecla), the office of the dead, the treaty of Philoxenus bishop of Mabbūg, etc. Even afterwards, the movement, both in Ethiopia and in the monasteries of Egypt and Jerusalem where Abyssinian pilgrims gathered, continued intense. A Sem‛on in the Egyptian convent of Sant’Antonio translates the Acts of San Basilide in 1397: the same translates the synoxary. Absādi, founder of Dabra Mariam (Dabra Māryām) in Eritrea, is presented to us as a zealous collector of books and an engine of studies.
In 1424 abbā Giyorgis da Saglā drew up a treatise of refutations of heresies, after discussions with a European, Messer Zan, probably a Venetian, to whom the letters and the church of Abyssinia also owe other writings. With King Zar’a Yā‛qob the movement reaches its apogee. The king himself is the author of several works, including voluminous ones: in one of them, of discussions against the Jews, Ma ṣḥ afa Mil ā d “Book of the Nativity”, he inserts an interesting report on his war against the Muslim king Aḥmed Badlāy; in another, Ma ṣḥ afa Mes ṭ ir, aimed at establishing the observance of the Sabbath, has other important references to events of her time; a third, Egzi ‘ “God reigns” consists of short hymns to the saints for every day of the year. Among the many products of his time we remember the translation of the Miracles of Mary, a work that receives various editions, including indigenous ones, and is very important for its influence on indigenous art, and the Book of the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth (But ṣḥ afa mes ṭ ira sam ā y wa meder), one of the most curious products of Abyssinian literature: it is an esoteric work, which, by revelations and with symbolic explanations, wants to make known to some initiates what prophets and apostles did not know, and seems to contain the doctrine of a schismatic sect, according to the teachings imparted by a Baḥayla Mika’hl to the author Yesḥaq, probably an Eritrean, perhaps by Acchelè Guzai. Another heretical sect, widespread especially in Agamè and nearby, a sect that has its center in Gundagundi, has its own small interesting literature, the main manifestation of which are the Acts of one of its followers, Abakerazun, which have pages full of life. King Zar’a Yā‛qob’s successors do not stray from the path he traced in this field; his widow, Ellēni, Ṣ ad ā la ṣ ahay “Splendor of the Sun”, has come down to us; His son, King Ba’eda Maryam, is the author of two malke ‘ and in honor of St. Michael and the Eucharist, being the malke ‘ and a kind of lyric poem, every verse of which begins with the salutation (salam) to a part of the body of the being praised and is held in laudi for it; King Nā’od is, in turn, the author of a malke ‛ e in honor of the Virgin, another poem in honor of her, and several short religious poems, preserved in a codex of the British Museum; finally, King Lebna Dengel continues to protect letters and writers, so in his time, especially in the first half of his reign, new works enrich the national literature, among which we can recall the translation of the Life of the martyr George of Lydda, made in 1510 by a Mikā’ēl, in addition to the Miracles of that saint translated in 1487 or 1488, the translation of the voluminous ascetic works of John Saba (Arag ā wi manfas ā w), perhaps that of the story of Girgis ibn al- ‛Amīd al-Makīn, the writing of stories of the king’s predecessors, etc.