The commercial title of this book may put off those literary scholars who would be interested in its contents. The purpose of this review is to call attention to some of the remarkable information it contains about medieval and early modern African literature, a body of work that is too little studied. The late Stuart Munro-Hay, an independent scholar who has written several books about Ethiopia over the past two decades, did important archival research for Quest for the Ark of the Covenant in order to answer the centuries-old question of whether the Ethiopians possess the biblical ark, as claimed in their fourteenth-century text the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings).
Ever since the sixteenth century, Europeans have either dismissed most aspects of the Kebra Nagast as a legend or have worked to disprove its claims. Munro-Hay is part of this (overly) historicizing impulse in that he pays little attention to the [End Page 199] literary value of the text. Nevertheless, his research into the historical mystery of this medieval African text's claims also illuminates a literary mystery: the text's origin and development. Since Munro-Hay's focus is exclusively on the existence of the ark, however, the literary scholar must perform some exegesis to arrive at conclusions from his book that are relevant to literary study. What is the Kebra Nagast? How exactly did itcome about? What are its origins? Fortunately, his thorough analysis is based on ancient, classical, and medieval texts (rather than archeology, say) and thus the answers to literary questions can be read between the lines.
Astonishingly, this extraordinary text has never before received a book-length treatment. The question of when and where it was written and by whom has never before been fully explored. Munro-Hay is the first to examine almost all of the primary sources related to the Kebra Nagast, a truly impressive achievement given that these sources cover twenty centuries. Several of the sources had never before been translated into English, several had never been cited in books about the Kebra Nagast, and several had never been checked in the original. Munro-Hay took five years to travel around the world to look at texts in Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Arabic, and Ge'ez; paid to have untranslated sources translated; asked the advice of dozens of scholars, including many Ethiopian orthodox priests; and put together a convincing narrative of how the Kebra Nagast came about. While Munro-Hay's book is unlikely to end the debate about either the ark or the origins of the Kebra Nagast, it will allow that discussion to go on in a more informed way.
Written in the African classical language Ge'ez, the Kebra Nagast devotes forty chapters to describing how a pure, wise, and wealthy African woman named Maqeda or the Queen of Saba (Sheba) traveled to visit the biblical King Solomon. While there she held her own in long philosophical conversations with Solomon, but Solomon tricked her into sleeping with him. This deceit turned out to be Solomon's undoing, however, as Maqeda returned to her homeland Abyssinia and gave birth to a son called Ebna-Lahakim who grew up to carry off Israel's birthright forever. Leading a group of Israel's first born royal sons, the new David returned to Abyssinia with two of the most powerful totems in the world, the ark of the covenant and the stone tablets on which the ten commandments were carved, thus signaling that the Abyssinians had replaced the Israelites as the chosen people of God. The kings of Abyssinia have long claimed the two royals as ancestors, resulting in a Solomonic dynasty that lasted for almost seven hundred years and 111 emperors until its ostensible end in 1974. The Kebra Nagast—which in addition to the Solomon and Sheba narrative contains chapters of prophecy, theology, and history—is now revered as a holy text by Ethiopians and Rastafarians, a manifesto of...