In Search of Zera Yacob

May 2, 2022 - May 4, 2022
Philiminality Oxford

Worcester College
1 Walton Street
Oxford OX1 2HB
United Kingdom

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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  • Royal Institute of Philosophy
  • Mind Association
  • Aristotelian Society
  • Worcester College, Oxford


University of Oxford (DPhil)
Cambridge University

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[UPDATE - Conference postponed till May 2022]

In Search of Zera Yacob will be the first international and interdisciplinary conference on two remarkable philosophical texts from early modern Ethiopia, the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the atäta Walda Heywat. These texts have fascinated and puzzled alike on account of their philosophical depth, beauty and apparent historical singularity. They have been called the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’, and served to demonstrate, in the words of Claude Sumner, that “modern philosophy, in the sense of a personal rationalistic critical investigation, began in Ethiopia with Zera Yacob at the same time as in England and in France”. 

This conference aims to examine the ideas, language and history of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob by putting scholars from across the world, and across disciplinary boundaries, into dialogue. It aims to stimulate a productive discussion between scholars from philosophy, history, philology, and Ethiopian studies, and to serve as a prolegomenon to broader philosophical study of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. Contributors to the conference will explore the text’s philosophical arguments and their significance, the historical context of intellectual exchanges in Ethiopia, issues of translation and the forging of philosophical vocabularies, notions of authorship and authenticity in philosophical writing, the legacy of colonialism for Ethiopian studies, and the methodology of a truly global history of philosophy.

One of the guiding threads of the conference is the century-long controversy over the authorship of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the Ḥatäta Walda Heywat: do the texts have a genuine 17th century Ethiopian authorship, as asserted in the texts, or was the supposed ‘discoverer’ of the texts, the Capuchin monk Giusto d’Urbino, in fact their secret author? In addition to bringing new research to bear on the debate, we hope that the conference will provide an opportunity to analyse the history and politics of this controversy, from the first scholars who admired and enthusiastically catalogued and edited the texts in the early 20th century, to its rejection by Carlo Conti Rossini, an orientalist, and apologist for the fascist invasion of Ethiopia, and the reassertion of a 17th century authorship by Almeyahu Moges, Amsalu Alkilu and Claude Sumner in the 1970s. We hope also to explore the suggestions of scholars such as Binyam Mekkonen that the atäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, ‘authentic’ or not, can obscure other rich philosophical resources to be found elsewhere in Ethiopian literature. The conference will thus also provide an opportunity to interrogate the often fraught and often ideological underpinnings of these arguments, examining the role of colonial knowledge production in shaping the controversy, and the history of Ethiopian studies at large. Addressing this controversy with an eye to its troubled history is important if the Ḥatäta is to receive the attention it deserves.

Further study of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob might have profound implications for the history and historiography of philosophy in Africa and in a global orientation, for understanding processes of philosophical translation and connected intellectual histories, as well as the history of Ge’ez philology and literature.

Invited Speakers:
Dr Teshome Abera, Addis Ababa Science and Technology University
Prof. Peter Adamson, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich/King's College London
Prof. Wendy Belcher, Princeton University 
Mr Eyasu Berento, Kotebe Metropolitan University
Prof. Getatchew Haile, Curator Emeritus of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library
Dr Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie University
Dr Ralph Lee, SOAS
Prof. John Marenbon, University of Cambridge
Prof. Binyam Mekonnen, Addis Ababa University
Dr Fasil Merawi, Addis Ababa University
Prof. Justin E. H. Smith, University of Paris 7 - Denis Diderot
Dr Anaïs Wion, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Dates: May 2022 (exact date TBD, pending pandemic developments)

For all enquiries, please contact: [email protected].

The conference is organized with the generous support of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Hinton Clarendon Fellowship, Worcester College.

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March 1, 2022, 4:00am BST

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