History of Kings (tarikä nägäst) at Zuramba Maryam, South Gondar


The History of Kings (tarikä nägäst) of Zuramba Dabra Ṣerḥa Maryām monastery

Edition, Translation and Historical analysis

by Asfaw Tilahun Feleke


Asfaw Tilahun Feleke is lecturer at Wollo University. He was awarded  a B.Ed. degree in History Education at Bahir Dar University in 2003 and a MA degree in History at Addis Ababa University in 2011. In October 2013, he enrolled in a doctoral program at the department of Linguistics and Philology, Addis Ababa University. His dissertation is entitled Edition, Translation and Historical Analysis of Tarikä Nägäst of Zuramba (South Gondär), his advisors are Dr. Anaïs Wion (CNRS, IMAF) and Dr. Endris Mohammed (AAU).

In September 2017, with the help of a grant from the CFEE, Asfaw Tilahun was able to investigate oral sources in order to fill gaps in the historical narration of manuscripts particularly concerning the history of Zuramba Church and its vicinity.

Ethiopian manuscripts dealing with history are of two kinds: Chronicles (zena mäwael) and History of Kings (tarikä nägäst). Text from the first category are long chronicles, while text from the latter are short or abbreviated chronicles. The main difference between the two is that chronicles were prepared in the royal palace or mobile camps of the king by employed scribes called as chronicler (Ṣəhäfä tə’ǝzaz), but tarikä nägäst were written in churches or monasteries by devoted scribes. Many chronicles and history of kings have been edited and translated by European scholars since the end of the 19th century[1].

Since then, there was active work by both foreign and national scholars on the manuscripts found in different institutions of Ethiopia. Yet, there are still thousands of manuscripts in the Ethiopian churches, monasteries, museums and libraries waiting for edition, translation, historical and textual analysis. The proposed text is one of those which still wait for scientific research in all aspects with the support of oral tradition.

The nature of History of Kings (tarikä nägäst), as a compilation of many documents and collection of many short chronicles make them of crucial importance for historical research regarding the nation and its institutions. More particularly, they are indispensable for kings who did not preserve their own chronicles like for all kings from Säyfä Arad (r. 1344-71) to Yäshaq (r. 1413-30) and Fasilädäs (r. 1632-68). Besides the nature of their scribes, free and devoted monks and the site of the production, churches/monasteries in contrast to royal chronicles produced by employed chronicler with strong supervision in the palace made them more faithful and acceptable for objective writing.

Photographs by Anaïs Wion (CNRS, IMAF).

The manuscript under study is preserved in the monastery of Zuramba Maryam, in South Gondar administrative zone, formerly known as Bägemder, in the district of Lay Gayint. It is entitled by its clergy History of the Kings, Tarikä Nägäst. This manuscript as described in detail in the next paragraph, has 144 folios dominantly written in Gә’әz language. Its title is somehow misleading as the content intertwined the history of the kingdom with the history of the Ethiopian Church as well as the local history of this specific monastery. The erudition of the authors of this codex is quite remarkable, according to the abundant number of sources they have been using. Despite its nature of classical erudition, the manuscript has also included two large texts in Amharic, the vernacular language.

Description of the manuscript

Serial numbers: EMML 7619; H3-IV-128; አም-IV-27843.

Codicological informations: 144 folio; 17x13.5 cm; parchment; wooden boards with half-back made of leather.

Paleography: neat 19th century handwriting, following the gondärine style, except fol. 132v-133 where it is a later handwriting.

The manuscript comprises computation of years; 14 lines of qəne; genealogical line of Ethiopian kings from Adam to King Täklä Giyorgis (r. 1868-71); with many other lists like lists of metropolitans up to Abba Sälama of the 19th century; lists of Mohamedans; lists of teachers of Däbrä Damo, Zuramba and Däbrä Libanos monasteries; lists of objects and grants given to Zuramba by various kings and teachers; the history of Zuramba of 6th , 9th, the end of 15th, and third quarter of the 16th century. Each of these is inserted in the manuscript in between the national history of Ethiopia from the pre-Aksumite time to the period of Zämänä Mäsafǝnt keeping its chronological order. Furthermore, the manuscript particularly has included short chronicles of King Gäbrä Mäsqäl, and from King Amdä Tsion to the period of Zämänä Mäsafənt, as well as the text called Wealth of Kings and many other documents.

My dissertation is scrutinizing the process of copying and composing this composite manuscript from different sources and editing and translating parts of it, according to the time limit. By order of priority, I am planning on editing: an unedited version of the Short Chronicles, called “interpolated” (fol. 1-46); a regional history of Bägemdir and Zuramba (fol. 127-33); an Amharic document of another version of the Short Chronicle (fol. 46-66).

Though Christianity was introduced to the Ethiopian region in the first half of the 4th century, its expansion to the entire country took place, according to the traditional historiography, with the coming of the so called ‘nine saints’. They succeeded to do so by translating the Bible and other Holly scriptures into Gә’әz language, constructing churches and monasteries, introducing monastic life and so on. Their evangelical activity was stimulated by the rise of Priest Yared, ‘founding father’ of Ethiopian Church music at home. However, as to their hagiographies, all of these activities were confined to Tigray region. On the contrary, the tradition of Zuramba moved their role beyond Täkäze river into Bägemdǝr.

Abba Arägawi, one of the nine saints, together with the ‘father’ of Ethiopian church music Yared, and the reigning King Gäbrä Mäsqäl went to Lake Ṭana region, then returned back home eastwards. It was on this occasion that they succeeded to establish the monastery of Zuramba by staying there for three years each with his own task[2]. During the reign of Dəgnazan, Zuramba supplied forty monks to the evangelization campaign of Shäwa under the leadership of Abba Yidla, ancestor of Abunä Täklä Haymanot.

At the end of the 15th century the monastery was rewarded gult at Dawnt by King Na’od for the creative work of its teachers. In the religious conflict of the 16th century imam Ahmed ‘Gragn’ demolished Zuramba along many churches and monasteries of the country. Though the victorious king Gälawdewos rise many churches up to their former status and created new ones such as Tädbabä Maryam and Mäkanä Säma’ǝt Gälawdewos. But Zuramba had to wait his two consecutive successors, King Minas and Särsä Dengel. The former began its reconstruction two years before the end of his reign and the latter completed it and also restored all its land grants in the first four years of his reign.

It is obvious that, all the historical, political, social and religious events composed in the manuscript alone will not enable me to give objective historical analysis to the academic audience. Incomplete and vague expressions; inconsistency, ambiguity seemed to be challenging issues for the task. These problems therefore led me to edit the manuscript by comparing it with two other manuscripts[3] which have closer similarity by their content and style of writing with it. Diplomatic method is favored tool of edition to accomplish the task.

Apart the analysis of the manuscripts themselves, I made observations and collected oral history while in the field to fill the gaps mentioned above. With the help of a grant from the CFEE I have spent one month of fieldwork at Zuramba Maryam Church, Nəfas Mäwcha Town (capital of the district where the church is located), Däbrä Tabor town (capital of South Gondär Hägärä Sibket) in March 2018.

During this fieldwork, I have collected oral history of Zuramba Church and its locality using interviews made with five priests and local officials. The interview made with Afä Mämhər Fänta Afäwärq was a constructive one in filling the gap about Mämhər Gäbrä Kidan (Engəda)[4], Mämhər Läbawi Kərsətos[5] and Aläqa Həruy, supposed writer of Gädla Urael in the reign of Emperor Tewodros II (r. 1855-68). In addition to this he has fed me dozen of information about its nearby town, Sali and many other churches in its vicinity. Lastly the information he told me about the contributions of King Bäkafa (r. 1721-30), Emperor Tewodros II and Emperor Hailä Sellassie I (r. 1930-74) is external to the main text. The tour made with the support of the CFEE has also helped me to record all these interviews using a smartphone for a better analysis of it with repeated listening.

Furthermore, the good will of the Säbäka Gubae of Zuramba Church has helped me to have access to manuscripts still preserved in the church. Accordingly, I noticed that most of the history of Zuramba Church recorded in the Tarikä Nägäst is also copied with similar style in three other manuscripts of the church, namely Gädlä Urael, Gädlä Arägawi and Gädlä Yared. In fact, list of successors of Yared which have been omitted in the Tarikä Nägäst is also included in these manuscripts.

Therefore, all of these and other continuous analysis on the aforementioned oral traditions are expected to fill the gap by reducing largely the incomplete and vague expressions; inconsistencies and ambiguity nature of the manuscript.

[1] Perruchon, Chroniques de Zärʿa Yȃʾeqȏb et de Baʾeda Mȃrryȃm, rois dʾEthiopie de 1434 a 1478, Paris, 1893; Conzelman, Chronique de Galȃwdêwos (Claudius), roi d’Ethiopie, Paris, 1895; Pereira, Chronica de Susenyos, Rei de Ethiopia, Lisboa, 1892; Guidi, Annales Regis Iyȃsu I, Louvain, 1907 (CSCO); Blundell, The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia, Cambridge, 1922; Littmann, The Chronicle of King Theodore of Abyssinia, Princeton, 1902; Mondon Vidhaillet, Chronique de Theodores II roi des rois d’Ethiopie (1853-1868), Farnborough, 1971. Beyond these other scholars like C. Conti Rossini, Ignazio Guidi, F. Béguinot and P. Marrassini are examples of main contributors on scholarly work of Ethiopian manuscripts. With the exception of Weld Blundell, who translated his work in English, the rest still remained in their respective European languages. Therefore, this becomes another challenge to Ethiopian scholars while conducting research on such literature.

[2] The king by constructing the church, the priest by teaching church music and the monk by teaching monastic life to the newly established community (Tarikä Nägäśt, Zuramba: ff. 6-11)

[3] The first is the manuscript of Tarikä Nagäśt of Mäkanä Säma’ǝt Gälawdewos composed in the church of the same name located in South Gondar in a distance of about 100 km from Zuramba. The other one is the manuscript of Tarikä Nagäśt of Mängäśtä Sämayat prepared in the church with similar name found in Gojam.

[4] Donor of the Tarikä Nägäst according to its colophone and of many other objects (f. 65 and with an excommunication in f. 130).

[5] Mentioned in the text f. 36 as main informant of King Särsä Dengel with his disciples.



Tarikä Nägäśt of Mäkanä Sämǝ’at Gälawdewos (Dära, South Gondär), EMML 8962, 50 folios; photographed by A.Wion and Habtamu Mengestie in 2008.

Tarikä Nägäśt of Mängäśtä Sämayat (Goǧǧam), 93 folios (photographed by M. Herman).

Tarikä Nägäśt of Zuramba (Lay Gaynt, South Gondär), EMML 7619; H3-IV-128; አም-IV-27843, 144 folios.


Conti Rossini, C. (ed.) 1961, Vitae Sanctorum Antiquiorum: Acta Yared et Panṭalēwon, Louvain, 2, XVII (CSCO 26, 27 [SAe 9, 10]).

Guidi, I., 1895. Vita Za-Mîkâ’êl Aragâwî, Roma.

Huntingford, G.W.B. 1965b, “‘The Wealth of Kings’ and the End of the Zague Dynasty”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 28/1, pp. 1-23.


Kropp, M., 1980. « An hypothesis concerning an author or compiler of the « Short Chronicle » of the Ethiopian kings », Sixth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Tel-Aviv, 14-17 April, 1980, p. 359-372.

Merid Wolde Aragay, 1972. Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Highland, 1508-1708, PhD thesis, London University.

Sergew Hable Sellassie, 1972. Ancient and Medieval History of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Tadesse Tamrat, 1972. Church and State in Ethiopia (1270-1525), Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Citer ce billet
Secrétaire Scientifique (2018, 25 juin). History of Kings (tarikä nägäst) at Zuramba Maryam, South Gondar. UN ŒIL SUR LA CORNE / AN EYE ON THE HORN. Consulté le 15 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/mlum

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