In Search of Zera Yacob: The Life and Afterlife of a 17th Century Ethiopian Philosopher, and the Question of Whether he Existed
In 1852, a strange and remarkable manuscript was discovered by a Capuchin monk in the highlands of Ethiopia. The Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, written in 17th century Ethiopia, recounts the life and thought of a priest named Zera Yacob, forced to flee his homeland and take up residence in a mountain cave where he constructs a system of rationalist metaphysics with radical ethical and religious consequences. If the text is authentic, then modern philosophy was invented in Ethiopia at the same time as in Europe, and changes many assumptions about the global history or philosophy. Why then, have we never heard of Zera Yacob?
Over the last century, a scholarly debate has raged over the authenticity of these manuscripts. Commentators have suggested that the text is in fact a forgery, not discovered but composed by the monk who sent the manuscripts back to Europe, whilst other have reasserted the Ethiopian character of the text. This research project seeks to resolve the authorship debate by combining philosophical, historical and literary analysis with the methods of Ethiosemitic philology, with a secondary aim of unravelling the fraught cultural politics of colonialism and its aftermath that underlies the authorship debate in the twentieth century.