The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, July 25, 2016

How did the Ethiopians learn of the Queen of Sheba?

In Throne of Glass I had cited the Ethiopic book Kəbrä Nägäśt, in the context of sura 27. My footnote there considered that sura's antecedents, to Jews proselytising non-Jews into their religion; this note was more in the "by the way this is interesting" genre than an attempt at anything more conclusive. I couldn't find much about pre-Islamic Ethiopic literature. The KN was the best I could find and I didn't know its composition.

KN features two figures "Sheba" and her son "Men(y)elik" – in the text, Makeda (of Ethiopia, not of Sheba) and Bayna Lekhem / Ebna Hakim. KN further ends in a colophon, which colophon is fourteenth century or later; see Stuart Munro-Hay, "A Sixth Century Kebra Nagast?", Annales d'Ethiopie 17.1 (2001), 43-58. But the rest of KN might be based on earlier material, now lost.

One problem Munro-Hay pointed out is that the geography in it seems muddled. But geography can seem muddled in the Bible too. On the latter, there was this strange guy once upon a time, by name of Salibi, who believed that he could solve the Bible's problems by transporting its action to northwest Arabia. Every now and then some fringe scholar tries to revive Salibi. Now, we have one Bernard Leeman in Australia; today I have run across his poorly-proofed essay “The Sabaean Inscriptions at Adi Kaweh–Evidence Supporting the Narrative of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle of The Kebra Nagast” (2009).

In Leeman’s reading of KN, a "Sheba Menelik Cycle" – by then in an Arabic form – has been secondarily translated to Gə'əz and spliced with a “Caleb Cycle”, an Axsumite propagandum of the 520s AD. Leeman takes this from perhaps-dated scholarship: the latest scholar he cites for that is Enrico Cerulli, Storia della letteratura etiopica (Milan: 1956).

Within KN, Leeman deems ch 59 wholly interpolated (although his fig 1 counts it as blue, for SMC). This chapter's Alexandria mention is Hellenistic of course; “Cairo” may or may not be a mediaeval Arabic gloss for “Fustat” or “Heliopolis”. Elsewhere “Ebna Hakim” is clearly an Arabic circumlocution for the son of Solomon (see 1 Kings 3:16-28). Leeman’s take on Ch. 59 belongs to a paragraph of how “redactors” of KN stuck in “helpful points”, “believing [SMC’]s geography ridiculous”. (I do not see where Ch 59 serves to link SMC with CC, so perhaps this much was prior to the final conglomeration of SMC+CC = KN.) Again I concur with Munro-Hay that KN’s final form cannot predate the Fatimi period.

I think it's worse than that for Leeman. Leeman notices that the core of the Cycle is the Holiness Code. But he dates the HC too early; this now tends to be dated to the Second Temple revival, which (as Leeman notes of angel Michael's cameo) dates after 586 BC. I am surprised that Leeman had not engaged with Israel Knohl, Sanctuary of Silence (1995).

As for the attempt to patch Salibi's thesis together and to get its corpse roaming the land again, ugh. Just quit it.

Anyway, Kəbrä Nägäśt is an interesting text, and I would love to read more scholarship on it. But I think scholars should start with the basics, and not do what Salibi did.

UPDATE 7/31 - Just remembered Pierluigi Piovanelli, "‘Orthodox’ Faith and Political Legitimization of a ‘Solomonid’ Dynasty of Rulers in the Ethiopic Kebra Nagast: A Reappraisal" (2011). This builds on Munro-Hay and doesn't even mention Leeman. It also doesn't credit the Caleb Cycle as contemporary with Axsum; Piovanelli views the names as too muddled. As for the SMC: these parts are based on an east-African reaction against Pseudo-Methodius, proposing an eschatic Ethiopian kingdom as the future restorer of the Christian world. That reaction predates the Fatimis.

For Piovanelli, the Ethiopians until Yekunno Amlak r. 1270-85 AD acquired a "once and future" tradition about this Ethiopic resurgence. Kəbrä Nägäśt, then, pretends to be that prophecy's fulfillment. But it seems still unknowable when this apocalyptic tradition entered Ethiopia in the first place.

posted by Zimri on 18:22 | link | 0 comments

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