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An Old Amharic poem from northern Ethiopia: one more text on condemning glory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2019

Maria Bulakh*
Russian State University for the Humanities / National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Denis Nosnitsin*
University of Hamburg
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This article presents a publication and translation (with linguistic and philological commentaries) of a recently discovered piece of Old Amharic poetry, possibly dating to the first half/middle of the seventeenth century. The published text bears the title Märgämä kəbr (“Condemnation of glory”), but its content differs from that of several other Old Amharic poems (not entirely independent from each other) known under the same title. It is only the general idea and the main topics that are shared by all Märgämä kəbr poems: transience of the earthly world, the inevitability of death and of God's judgement, and the necessity of leading a virtuous life. One can thus speak of Märgämä kəbr as a special genre of early Amharic literature, probably originally belonging to the domain of oral literature and used to address the Christian community with the aim of religious education and admonition of laymen.

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The overall number of known texts bearing witness to the early stages of the Amharic languageFootnote 1 and early Amharic literature has been gradually increasing in recent years, but we are still in the process of acquiring data, so that each new text in an older variety of Amharic is important and valuable and can lead to a revision of current views. The recent research work of the project Ethio-SPaRe in northern Ethiopia (Tigray)Footnote 2 resulted in the finding of many previously unknown manuscripts with Amharic texts, a few of which are definitely older than the nineteenth century. A poetic text of this kind, contained in a parchment manuscript uncovered by the project, will be discussed below.Footnote 3 A brief description of the manuscript will be provided, followed by the text and its translation, a thorough discussion of its language, a survey of related witnesses, and a note on its genre and literary properties.Footnote 4

The church where the text was found is known as Läq̆ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (wäräda Ganta ʾAfäšum, East Tigray), located close to the city of ʿAddigrat.Footnote 5 The text to which the present study is devoted is contained in one of the most interesting items in the church library,Footnote 6 the codex which has received the project signature MKL-008.Footnote 7

I. MKL-008 Mäṣḥafä qəddase, Missal

MS MKL-008 is a Missal, i.e. the manuscript containing Mäṣḥafä qəddase Footnote 8 (“Book of the Hallowing”), which is a more or less fixed compilation of liturgical texts used in the Mass. Some of the constituent parts of the Ethiopic Missal (e.g. some of the Anaphoras) have been extensively studied,Footnote 9 but the text organization and material structure of the text carriers, as well as individual Missal-manuscripts, have rarely been discussed in scholarly works dedicated to Geez literature. However, the Missals are omnipresent in the ecclesiastical libraries and comprise a significant part of the Ethiopian manuscript heritage.

MS MKL-008 belongs to the group of pre-eighteenth-century Missals recorded by the project team.Footnote 10 Originally a good quality book, MKL-008 was used intensively and is thus in poor condition. The text in question (referred to here as MärKL) is an added text contained on two folia, ff. 141–2. MKL-008, previously unknown and undescribed, is a very complex manuscript. Its description below is intended to help in estimating more correctly the age and the function of both the main text and MärKL, and their relation to each other.

Physical description

Outer dimensions (cm): 18.0 (h) × 15.5 (w) × 6.0 (t).

Binding: The codex has the typical Ethiopian binding. It was originally composed of two wooden boards covered with reddish-brown tooled leather. The front board is now missing; it has been replaced with an improvised construction made of recent newspaper and schoolbook. The back board is split and repaired with wire; it is decorated with a recent, crudely carved cross. Only the tooled turn-ins remain from the leather covering, on the inner side of the back board. The volume is sewn on two pairs of sewing stations.

MS MKL-008 is composed of 151 ff. in 17 quires.

Quire structure: I(10/ff. 1r-10v) – II(10/ff. 11r-20v) – III(10/ff. 21r-30v) – IV(10/ff. 31r-40v) – V(10/ff. 41r-50v) – VI(10/ff. 51r-60v) – VII(10/ff. 61r-70v) – VIII(10/ff. 71r-80v) – IX(10/ff. 81r-90v) – X(10/ff. 91r-100v) – XI(10/ff. 101r-110v) – XII(10/ff. 111r-120v) – XIII(10/ff. 121r-130v) – XIV(10/ff. 131r-140v) – <XV(2+1/single leaf 3, no stub/ff. 141r-143v)> – XVI(2/ff. 144r-145v) – XVII(6/ff. 146r-151v).

Almost all the surviving regular text quires of MKL-008 are “quinions” composed of bifolia; no single leaves were used except for quire XV (see below). In the current condition of the manuscript, at least one quire at the beginning is missing (see below, “Content”). The original place of quire XV, which contains the text under scrutiny, is unclear. In the present condition, it is composed of only one bifolio (ff. 141–2, leaves i and ii) and one singleton (f. 143), crudely attached with wire. Both the bifolio and the singleton could have been inserted at the end of the volume later, and put at their present place by chance, as the result of damage and improper handling of the manuscript. Probably for the same reasons, the structure of the quires XVI–XVII is disturbed and their leaves are misplaced (cf. below).

Layout: two columns (quires I–XIV, XVI–XVII) [one column for ff. 141–2, quire XV].

Written area (cm): 9.5 (h) × 11.5 (w).

Palaeography: The script dates to the first half of the seventeenth century or slightly later;Footnote 11 the writing was executed by a well-trained, very careful scribe (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), 1650–60, f. 140v [Mäṣḥafä qəddase]

The script is tall, rounded, very slightly slanted to the right.

The tops of the letters መ, ወ, ጦ, ሠ are slightly and uniformly slanted to the left.

The vertical strokes strive to be parallel, but the legs of በ or ሰ are slightly convergent (the bend of the left leg is slightly more pronounced).

The “feet” of the letters are rectangular, sometimes with very short hairlines.

The serifs are forked.

The numerals are styled with thin red and black dashes above and below (ff. 31rb, 32ra, 34ra–b, 45vb, 47va, 52va, or 84va, 144ra–b, etc.).

Rubrication is carried out very carefully, in the main hand.Footnote 12


The manuscript contains a collection of texts used in the Mass of the Ethiopic Orthodox Church (Mäṣḥafä qəddase):

  1. I) Prefatory service (Śərʿatä qəddase “Order of the Mass”) (ff. 1ra–30va), incomplete, the beginning is missingFootnote 13

  2. II) Anaphoras (ff. 30vb–146rb)

  3. II-1) Anaphora of the Apostles (ff. 30vb–44vb)

  4. II-2) Anaphora of Our Lord Jesus Christ (ff. 44vb–49vb)

  5. II-3) Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom (ff. 50ra–63va)

  6. II-4) Anaphora of Our Lady by St. Cyriacus of Behnesa (ff. 64ra–77rb)

  7. II-5) Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom (ff. 77va–84va)

  8. II-6) Anaphora of the 318 Orthodox Fathers of Nicaea (ff. 84va–95vb)

  9. II-7) Anaphora of St. Gregory of Nyssa (ff. 95vb–109rb)

  10. II-8) Anaphora of St. Dioscorus of Alexandria (ff. 109rb–112vb)

  11. II-9) Anaphora of St. Jacob of Serug (ff. 112vb–121ra)

  12. II-10) Anaphora of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (ff. 121rb–135rb)

  13. II-11) Anaphora of St. Basil of Caesarea (ff. 135rb–140vb, 144ra–vb, 148ra–vb, 147ra–vb, 146ra–b)

The set of the Anaphoras in MS MKL-008 is somewhat different from the common 14 Anaphoras in the contemporary official church editions of Mäṣḥafä qəddase:Footnote 14 the Anaphoras of Epiphanius, Cyril and Gregory Thaumaturgus are missing.Footnote 15

Apart from the main texts, the manuscript contains a number of smaller texts added later in the blank spaces (additiones), mostly of liturgical content:

  1. 1) F. 63vb: Bä-ʾəntä bəəʿt wä-fə śśəḥt wä-səbbəḥt bä-kwəllu wä-burəkt wä-nəṣəḥt ʾəgziʾtənä wäladitä ʾamlak Maryam… Excerpt from the Anaphora of Our Lady by St. Cyriacus of BehnesaFootnote 16

  2. 2) ff. 141r–142r: Märgämä kəbr “Condemnation of Glory”, a didactic poem [MärKL]

  3. 3) f. 143ra–vb: Three short prayers written in the same secondary hand, unidentified

    1. 3a) Ṣälot laʿlä ḫəbəstä ʾawlogya, “Prayer over the blessed bread”

    2. 3b) Ṣälotä maʿədd ʾəm-dəḫrä bäliʿ, “Prayer at the table after meal”

    3. 3c) -ʾ əmdəḫrä ʾaqwärrärä yəbäl zäntä: ʾəṣälli ḫabekä wä-ʾəsəʾəläkkä…, Prayer after the cooling down (of the Eucharistic bread?)

    The rest of the additiones are presented below according to the reconstructed sequence of the leaves (iv–viii) as they would have been accommodated in a quire, probably “quaternion”, which originally might have been the ultimate one (if we assume that the quire containing MärKL was the last quire).Footnote 17

  4. 4) ff. 146va–b (=leaf iv-verso), 151ra–b (=leaf v-recto): Bä-zä nəzzekkär ḫasabä ḫəggu lä-ʾəgziʾənä ʾiyäsus krəstos ʾənzä hallonä bä-zämänä Matewos…, Prayer while burning the incense, for the sake of commemorating various saints, which contains the date of writing: 7277 Year of Mercy, 20th day according to the lunar calendar, 15th day of the solar calendar of the month of Gənbot (f. 146va). However, the second and third numerals in the year number were corrected. The year 7277 is equivalent to 1785 ad. In the bottom margin, there is the word ʾ ərgätu (“His (/the) ascension”) in a thin black frame

  5. 5) ff. 151va–b (=leaf v-verso), 150ra–b (=leaf vi-recto), 150va, lines 1–9 (=leaf vi-verso): Sälam lä-kwəlləkəmu ʾəgziʾabəher ʾəgziʾənä ʾIyäsus Krəstos ʾamlakənä zä-təbelo lä-fəqurəkä Yoḥannəs… Excerpt from a liturgical text

  6. 6) f. 150va, lines 10–15 -vb (=leaf vi-verso): ʾƎllä mäṣaʾkəmu ʾəllä tägabaʾkəmu wä-ʾəllä ṣälläykəmu wəstä zatti qəddəst ʾəmmənä betä krəstiyan…, Prayer for those gathered in the church(?)

  7. 7) ff. 149ra, lines 1–7 (=leaf vii-recto): Täsahalkä ʾəgziʾo mədräkä…, Short excerpt from a prayer or hymnFootnote 18

  8. 8) ff. 149ra, lines 8–14 -rb (=leaf vii-recto), 149v (=leaf vii-verso), 145r (=leaf viii-recto): Mästäbqwəʿ bä-ʾəntä mutan, “Supplication for the dead”,Footnote 19 partly with musical notation signs; other supplications

  9. 9) f. 145v (=leaf viii-verso):Footnote 20 Prayer before the liturgical reading from the GospelFootnote 21

Varia and paratexts

Omitted portions of text have been carefully reintegrated in the margins in a different hand, and their places in the main text have sometimes been marked with so-called tie-marks (Amh. tämälläs).

For some of the Anaphoras, indications concerning the celebration dates (names of the feasts) have been added in the upper margin. Musical notation signs have been added above the lines for a large part of the main text, most probably somewhat later, in a different hand.

Commissioners and donors: The name of the commissioner appears in the supplication formula on f. 33vb, but it is half-erased, only the second part being readable: <…> [Mä]dḫən. There is no further indication concerning the identity of this person.

Dating: The dating for MKL-008 can be established on the basis of internal evidence. Several historical personalities are referred to in the book. Marqos, mentioned as the patriarch of Alexandria (see ff. 113ra, 144vb, etc.), is Mark VI, in tenure from 1645 to 1660; and Mikaʾel, the metropolitan of Ethiopia, was in office from 1650 to 1663 (see ff. 13rb, 15vb, 113ra). King Fasilädäs, mentioned on f. 13rb, reigned 1632–67. The resulting copying date of the manuscript is 1650–60.

Concerning the dating of ff. 141–2: The bifolio containing MärKL is worn, dirty and bears traces of wax, and is in some parts hardly readable. It is accommodated in a single column, the layout pattern being different from that of the main text. The irregular form of the leaves, and some disparate (erased) writing upside-down on f. 142v, may indicate that remainders of parchment (not good enough for regular text leaves) were utilized for the bifolio. The physical consistency of the parchment used for the bifolio appears somewhat different from the parchment of the textblock leaves.Footnote 22

The palaeographical evidence from the manuscript turns out to be essential. If one looks closely at the hand of MärKL and the hand of the main text, one notices some differences in the general appearanceFootnote 23 and in the quality of the script execution.Footnote 24 However, these can be at least partly explained though the “auxiliary” character of MärKL, which was of lower status in comparison with the main text and hence permitted scribal work of an inferior quality. It is difficult to find substantial and persistent differences in individual letter-shapes which would clearly demonstrate that the texts were written by two different scribes.Footnote 25 To the contrary, it appears quite possible that both texts were executed by the same scribe. If this assumption is correct, the relationship between MS MKL-008 and MärKL can be represented as follows. The scribe copied the main text of MS MKL-008 around 1650–60; the same scribe could have copied MärKL on a separate bifolio which was later added to the textblock of MKL-008. The composition of the original text of MärKL could have taken place in the first half or around the middle of the seventeenth century (see III.8).

II. The poem in Old Amharic

The text under study is a poem in Old Amharic entitled Märgämä kəbr, “Condemnation of glory” (hence MärKL), an appellation that has become known thanks to two recent publications of Getatchew Haile.Footnote 26 Below, the text is reproduced exactly as it appears in the manuscript (cf. photos in Figures 2, 3, and 4), and supplied with a tentative translation (some passages still remain obscure or ambiguous).

Figure 2. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 141r [Märgämä kəbr]

Figure 3. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 141v [Märgämä kəbr]

Figure 4. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 142r [Märgämä kəbr]

In the Amharic text column, subscripted small numbers in square brackets refer to the physical written lines; the arrangement of the Amharic text and the numbers in the translation column refer to the editors’ division of the text into verses. The square brackets in the Amharic text indicate the editors’ reconstruction of barely discernible letters (a dot under the letter means complete illegibility and physical destruction of the sign). Triangular brackets mark the editors’ reconstruction of letters/words omitted by the scribe. Dashes above and below an erroneously written letter indicate the scribe's immediate correction. Curly brackets mark letters inserted interlinearly.

III. Orthography and language of the poem

The text under scrutiny is characterized by a number of peculiarities. While some of these are to be discarded as scribal errors, others are to be explained in terms of palaeographic or orthographic variation, and still others reflect the phonological, morphological and syntactic features of Old Amharic.

III.1. Scribal errors

The text contains a number of obvious scribal errors and faulty corrections made in the main hand: ሐዋያት instead of the expected ሐዋርያት (f. 141r, l. 13); እንዳደ{ቀ}ሙ instead of እንዳይቀዳደሙ (f. 142r, l. 9); የተየ{ሐ}[ኝ] instead of የተሐየኝ (f. 142r, l. 3).

Some further cases are less clear since in principle they may reflect peculiarities of Old Amharic or be the result of palaeographic idiosyncrasies of the scribe.

In f. 141r, l. 9, the third order of ሺ in the form የሚሺት (instead of the expected የሚሸት) may be the result of erroneous repetition of the third order marker of ሚ (but cf. III.6.3).

In f. 141r, l. 14, one finds the form ነገራቸ instead of the expected ነገራቾFootnote 64 or ነገራቸው (cf. modern Amharic ነገራቸው). The actual presence of a form አይኖራቸው in the text (f. 141v, l. 13) suggests that the 3 pl. object index was spelled as -aቸው in this text, and that the final ው in the form under scrutiny was omitted through negligence.

Finally, in f. 141r, l. 11, the form ታሳይሐለት appears instead of the expected ታሳይሐለች (cf. modern Amharic ታሳይሃለች). The same word form in f. 141r, l. 4 (ታሳይሐለቺ) clearly shows palatalization of the final consonant. Thus, the absence of palatalization in f. 141r, l. 11 is likely due to scribal error.

III.2. Orthographic and palaeographic peculiarities

III.2.1. ከ and ክ, ኸ and ኽ

The kink which marks the sixth order in ክ and ኽ is not always easy to discern (see above, n. 25, on the same phenomenon in the main text of the manuscript). Note especially the form of ክ in the words አይ፡ መክት (f. 141v, l. 8) and አምላክ (f. 142r, l. 6); cf. also ክርስቶስ (f. 141r, ll. 13–4), where, however, the entire word, including the first letter, is hardly discernible. Likewise, the kink of ኽ in በዜኽ in f. 142r, l. 12 is difficult to descry.

In the 2 sg. masc. subject and object index and in the sg. masc. demonstrative, no kink is discernible at all, and consequently, the reading ኸ has been preferred (cf. III.4.1, III.4.3).

III.2.2. ኀ and ኅ

A distinct ኅ occurs twice (f. 141r, l. 9, l. 11) and has the classical shape (the vertical stem with a kink – graphically nothing but ነ [] – and a short curved line above, directed to the left, downwards).

MärKL contains two words in which the first order of the letter apparently stands for the sixth order: f. 141r, l. 8 (ኀብስት instead of the expected ኅብስት), f. 142r, ll. 11–12 (እን[ዴ]ኀ instead of the expected እንዴኅ; cf. እንዴህ in f. 142r, l. 12).

III.2.3. ቸ instead of ች

A distinct ች appears in the very first line of the text. Having the form of the sign ት with a dash above, it differs clearly from the first order ቸ. Yet in three cases ቸ is attested instead of the expected ች:

  • f. 141v, ll. 1–2; f. 141v, l. 14: ትላለቸ (cf. modern Amharic ትላለች);

  • f. 142r, l. 1: አታከማቸ (cf. modern Amharic አታከማች).

The employment of the first order ቸ instead of the sixth order ች has been observed in other Old Amharic texts (Geta[t]chew Haile Reference Geta[t]chew1969–70: 70, n. 10; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 73; cf. also Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 602, where it is noted that ቸ and ች are barely distinguished in the text).

III.2.4. ቺ instead of ች and ሺ instead of ሽ

There is one example of ቺ employed instead of ች, and one clear example of ሺ instead of ሽ:

f. 141r, l. 4: ታሳይሐለቺ instead of the expected ታሳይሐለች (cf. modern Amharic ታሳይሃለች);

f. 141r, l. 7: ሺቱ (cf. modern Amharic ሽቱ).

Such use of ቺ and ሺ (as well as the use of the third order instead of the sixth order for some other palatal consonants) is well attested in Old Amharic texts (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew1979a: 234; Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 158; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 73).

III.2.5. Separate writing of some particles or prefixes

As already noted in editions of other Old Amharic texts, some particles and affixes can be written as separate words in Old Amharic, unlike modern Amharic (cf. e.g. Richter Reference Richter, Fukui, Kurimoto and Shigeta1997: 550, Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 74). In the present text, the relevant example is f. 141v, l. 8: አይ፡ መክት (cf. modern Amharic አይመክት).

III.2.6. Writing of the copula ነው joined to the preceding word

The copula ነው frequently appears joined to the preceding word in Old Amharic writings (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Hess1979b: 121; Cowley Reference Cowley1983b: 25; Reference Cowley1974: 604). In the present text, this phenomenon is found in f. 142r, l. 7; l. 8.

III.3. Phonetic phenomenaFootnote 65

III.3.1. Preservation of the gutturals

It is well known that Old Amharic texts contain numerous examples of preservation of historical gutturals which have been lost in modern Amharic (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew1979a: 234; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 75; Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 114; Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Kaye1991: 529; Richter Reference Richter, Fukui, Kurimoto and Shigeta1997: 548; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn, Bown and Crowder1964: 108–9; Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 24–34).

Various texts show various degrees of loss of historical gutturals. Notably, R. Cowley observes that in the so-called Tract about Mary W ho Anointed Jesus' Feet and in Təmhərtä Haymanot, the reflexes of *ʾ and *ʿ are dropped word-medially and sometimes word-finally, while the reflexes of *h, *, and * are spelled out in all positions in the word (Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 605–6; Reference Cowley1983b: 21).

The spellings attested in MärKL are in the same line as those of the texts edited by Cowley. MärKL shows consistent omission of etymological *ʾ and *ʿ word-internally and word-finally: ይነሳ (f. 141v, l. 12; cf. Gez. n äśʾ a, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 404), ትገባ (f. 141r, l. 14), ይመጻል (f. 141r, l. 15), ይመጻሉ (f. 141v, l. 3; l. 11; cf. Gez. mäṣ ʾ a, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 369), አኝቶኸ (f. 141v, l. 4; cf. Arg. əññeʿ, Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2013: 227; for comparable forms in Old Amharic and other South Ethio-Semitic languages cf. Bulakh and Kogan Reference Bulakh and Kogan2016: 285–6), አያወጻም (f. 141r, l. 16), ያወጹኀል (f. 141v, l. 2; cf. Gez. ʾ a, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 605), የሰማኸ (f. 141v, l. 16; cf. Gez. säm ʿ a, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 501), አጽና (f. 141v, l. 16; cf. Gez. ʾ aṣnə ʿ a, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 559), በሬ (f. 141r, l. 6; cf. Gez. b ə ʿ ray, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 84), ባልቴት (f. 141r, l. 7), ባል (f. 141r, l. 16; cf. Gez. ba ʿ əl, ʿ al, ba ʿ əlt, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 84).

At the same time, word-initial አ seems to be preserved when preceded by a proclitic (a similar tendency has been observed in several editions of Old Amharic texts; cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 603; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 74):

f. 141v, l. 11: ያአንተን (cf. modern Amharic ያንተን).

Note that the spelling ያአንተን does not reflect the underlying form {yä-antä-n}, but rather is the result of vowel assimilation across the guttural: *yä- ʾ antä-n > ya- ʾ antä-n.

Note also the form በአራት in f. 141v, l. 4, where, however, the preservation of አ at least in the written form is characteristic of modern Amharic as well.

As for the distinction between word-initial አ and ዐ, in Amharic words the spelling with አ seems to be preferred even in cases of historical *ʿ: [እ]ንጨት (f. 141v, ll. 2–3; cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 57), አፈር (f. 141v, l. 6; cf. Bulakh and Kogan Reference Bulakh and Kogan2016: 152–3); cf. also በአራት (f. 141v, l. 4; cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 71). This implies that no distinction between ʿ and ʾ existed at the time of the creation of the copy, the above-mentioned words being pronounced either with initial ʾ or with no initial consonant.

The text shows interchangeability between ሀ and ሐ (as in the verb “to swear”: ይምህል (f. 141v, l. 11) vs. አትምሐል (f. 141v, l. 16)), ሀ and ኸ (as in the demonstrative pronoun, cf. III.4.3), ሀ and ኀ (as in the adverbial “like this”: እን[ዴ]ኀ, f. 142r, ll. 11–12 vs. እንዴህ, f. 142r, l. 12), ኸ, ሐ, and ኀ (as in the 2 sg. masc. subject and object indexes, cf. III.4.1). It is therefore unlikely that these graphemes represent different phonemes; in all probability, by the time this copy was produced, the merger of *h, *, and * into a single phoneme (transcribed here with h, as in modern Amharic) had been completed.

This single phoneme h, rendered by ሀ, ሐ, ኸ or ኀ, is often present where expected on etymological grounds (going back to *h, * or *), even where it has been lost in modern Amharic. This involves the following roots and lexemes:

  1. 1) The forms of the verb “to see” (አየ in modern Amharic, going back to *ḥzy, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1979: 123; the spelling with ሐ is well-attested in Old Amharic, cf., e.g., Littmann Reference Littmann1943: 484) and its passive stem: ሕየው (f. 141r, l. 15), የተሐየኝ (f. 141r, l. 1). Note that the guttural is dropped in the causative stem, cf. below.

  2. 2) The numeral “one” (አንድ in modern Amharic, going back to *ʾaḥad, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 12; for the spelling ሐንድ in Old Amharic cf. e.g. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Hess1979b: 122): ኀንድ (f. 141v, l. 7).

  3. 3) The forms of the verb “to swear” (ማለ in modern Amharic, going back to *mḥl, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 335): ይምህል (f. 141v, l. 11), አትምሐል (f. 141v, l. 16). Note that in this case, the influence of Gez. mäḥalä is not to be excluded.

  4. 4) The verb “to dream” (አለመ in modern Amharic, going back to *ḥlm, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 230): የሐለሙ (f. 141r, l. 2). Again, the influence of Gez. ḥalämä can well be imagined.

  5. 5) The verb “to pass” (አለፈ in modern Amharic, going back to *ḫlf, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 260–1): ከኀለፈም (f. 142r, l. 12). The influence of Gez. ḫaläfä is likely.

  6. 6) The adjective “far” (ሩቅ in modern Amharic, going back to *rḥq, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 467): በርኁቅ (f. 141r, l. 9). The influence of Gez. rəḥuq is likely.

Note also ተብዙኅ (f. 141r, ll. 8–9), ብዙኅ (f. 141r, l. 11; ብዙ in modern Amharic, going back to *bzḫ, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 117), which, however, in both contexts is followed by a Geez lexeme and can itself be a Geez insertion (cf. III.7).

At the same time, the text contains five certain cases of lost *h, * or * (despite the existence of Geez equivalents containing the guttural):Footnote 66

  1. 1) ላም (f. 141r, l. 6): modern Amharic ላም (cf. Gez. lahm, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 309);

  2. 2) አይማጸኑ (f. 141v, l. 15): modern Amharic አይማጠኑም (cf. Gez. tämaḥ änä, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 335);

  3. 3) ረብስ (f. 141r, l. 12, with the particle -ስ): modern Amharic ረብ (cf. Gez. räbḥ, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 461);

  4. 4) ይዞ (f. 141v, l. 4): modern Amharic ይዘው (cf. Gez. ʾaḫazä, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 14);

  5. 5) መ[ܼራܼራ]ት (f. 141v, l. 13–4): modern Amharic መራራት (cf. Gez. täraḫrəḫa, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 468),

  6. 6) ታሳይሐለቺ (f. 141r, l. 4), ታሳይሐለት (f. 141r, l. 11): modern Amharic ታሳይሃለች (cf. the forms of the verb “to see” with the initial guttural quoted above).

Thus, the evidence for preservation/loss of h in the text is inconsistent. One may suspect that the examples of the preserved gutturals are due to archaic orthography (which may have been in use not only for lexemes having transparent Geez counterparts, but also for the specifically Old Amharic forms of the verb “to see” and of the numeral “one”) and do not reflect the actual pronunciation.

III.3.2. Preservation of ejective affricate

A well-known feature of Old Amharic is the preservation of affricate , which in modern standard Amharic has mostly shifted to plosive (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew1979a: 234; Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 161–2; Reference Getatchew and Kaye1991: 528; Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115; Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 603; Richter Reference Richter, Fukui, Kurimoto and Shigeta1997: 548; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn, Bown and Crowder1964: 109–10; Reference Strelcyn1981: 75; Podolsky Reference Podolsky1991: 22–3; Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 34–7; cf. also Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1968). In the text under survey, this phenomenon is observed in the following cases:

  • ጽዋት (f. 141r, l. 2): modern Amharic ጥዋት, going back to *ṣbḥ (cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 545; for the Old Amharic spelling ጽባት, ጽዋት cf. Ludolf Reference Ludolf1698: 97);

  • ጽገት (f. 141r, l. 6): modern Amharic ጥገት; the Geez form ṣəggät, adduced in Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 550, but absent from Dillmann Reference Dillmann1865, is probably an Amharism appearing in post-Aksumite texts;

  • ጸጅ (f. 141r, l. 10): modern Amharic ጠጅ; for the Old Amharic spelling ጸጅ cf. Ludolf Reference Ludolf1698: 98, Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 75;

  • ይመጻል (f. 141r, l. 15); ይመጻሉ (f. 141v, l. 3; l. 11): modern Amharic መጣ; cf. Gez. mäṣʾa (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 369);

  • አያወጻም (f. 141r, l. 16); ያወጹኀል (f. 141v, l. 2): modern Amharic ወጣ; cf. Gez.  ʾa (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 605);

  • ይራወጻሉ (f. 141v, l. 5): modern Amharic ተራወጠ; cf. Gez. roṣä (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 477);

  • አጽና (f. 141v, l. 16): modern Amharic አጠና; cf. Gez. ʾaṣnəʿa (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 559);

  • አይማጸኑ (f. 141v, l. 15): modern Amharic ተማጠነ; cf. Gez. tämaḥänä (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 335).

III.3.3. Spirantization

Podolsky (Reference Podolsky1991: 32–3) has convincingly demonstrated that spirantization k > h was more widespread in Old Amharic than it is in the modern language (cf. also Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 13, 49 ff.). In the text under scrutiny, however, no examples of spirantization have been detected except for those forms which have entered modern Amharic as well:

2 sg. (cf. III.4.1) and pl. (as in f. 141r, l. 1) subject and object indexes (the elements - and -hu go back to proto-Ethio-Semitic *-ka and *-kum, respectively);

ኁለንታዋ in f. 141r, l. 4 (modern Amharic ሁለንታዋ; cf. Gez. kʷəllänta, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 281) and ኁሉም in f. 141v, l. 7 (modern Amharic ሁሉም; cf. Gez. kʷəllu, ibid.).

III.4. Morphology

III.4.1. The 2 sg. masc. suffix

Word-finally, the 2 sg. masc. object index and the 2 sg. masc. subject index appear as -ኸ in all the attested occurrences listed below:

object index: አይምሰልኸ (f. 141r, l. 11), አኝቶኸ (f. 141v, l. 4), ገንዞኸ (f. 141v, l. 4), አለብኸ (f. 142r, l. 2);

subject index: የሰማኸ (f. 141v, l. 16).

These forms contrast with the vowelless ending -ህ of modern Amharic. The only attestation of -ህ in the text under scrutiny is በላይህ in f. 141v, l. 6. There is, however, no reason to believe that the shape of the 2 sg. masc. index attached to the preposition was different from the 2 sg. masc. subject and object indexes, since such an opposition is not known from any Ethio-Semitic language. Rather, we are dealing with two alternative forms of the 2 sg. masc. suffix.

Examples of word-final 2 sg. masc. object index and 2 sg. masc. subject index -ኸ in Old Amharic are found in several pieces of Old Amharic poetry published by Getatchew Haile (Reference Getatchew and Kaye1991: 527). Since the modern Amharic -h must go back to *-ka > *- (with subsequent spirantization and loss of the final vowel), the form - (rendered by ኸ) is a plausible predecessor of the modern Amharic form.

III.4.2. The 3 sg. masc. object index

In the form አይኖርው (f. 141v, ll. 7–8), the 3 sg. masc. object index attached to the imperfect base is -əው, rather than the modern Amharic -äው (note, however, that the form -äው is also attested: ያጫውተው, f. 141v, l. 8; cf. also ያይቀረው, f. 141v, l. 12; cf. also -äው with imperative base in ሕየው, f. 141r, l. 15).

The 3 sg. masc. object index -əው attached to the verb አሰኘ (but not to other verbs in Getatchew's text) was recorded in Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 235 (alongside the 1 pl. object index -əኝ). While Getatchew Haile tends to ascribe these forms to the graphic confusion between ኘ and ኝ, the existence of a parallel in MärKL suggests rather a genuine morphological feature of Old Amharic.

III.4.3. Demonstrative pronouns

The text contains the following forms of the 3 sg. masc. independent demonstrative pronoun, once as a bare form, and three times with three different enclitics:

f. 141r, l. 3: ይኸ;

f. 141v, l. 13: ይ[ܼህ]ስ (with contrastive -ስ);

f. 141v, l. 16: ይኸን (with accusative marker -ን);

f. 142r, l. 3: ይኸት (with the post-pronominal element -ት, cf. III.5.3).

The spelling ይ[ܼህ]ስ, where ህ, although not quite clear, is still discernible under the blot, indicates that we are dealing with a form identical to ይህ in modern Amharic. The form yəhä, which occurs in the rest of the attestations, finds parallels both in modern Amharic (mostly before suffixes and enclitics, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1995: 62–3, but cf. also Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 194, 199) and in an Old Amharic text published by Getatchew Haile (Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 239, example 4.1.c.: ይኸስ, ይኸት; note that in both cases, the vowel ä appears before an enclitic).

The combination of the demonstrative with a preposition clearly lacks a final vowel: በዜኽ (f. 142r, l. 12).

The element -zzeh (contrasting -zzih in modern Amharic) finds an exact correspondent in several other Old Amharic texts (cf. Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115: ከዜህ, ስለዜህ; Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 604: በዜኽ, ስለዜኽ; Geta[t]chew Haile Reference Geta[t]chew1969–70: 74: እንበለዜሕ; cf. Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 196).

III.4.4. 3 pl. of converb

The text contains several converb forms in which the marking for 3 plural is expected, but which exhibit the ending -o or, once, -u:

ለብሱ (f. 141v, l. 3);

ይዞ (f. 141v, l. 4; l. 5);

አኝቶኸ (f. 141v, l. 4);

ገንዞኸ (f. 141v, l. 4).

As Goldenberg points out (Reference Goldenberg and McCollum2017: 553, n. 1), the apparent absence of number agreement results from contraction äw > o (in ለብሱ, sporadically shifting to -u),Footnote 67 otherwise attested in Old Amharic in the 3 pl. object index (on which cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 603, 604).

This phenomenon is known from other Old Amharic texts, e.g. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 237 (ሐብሮ፡ አይለብሱሞይ instead of the expected ሐብረው …); Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg and Goldenberg2013: 169, line 212 (ይኅዞ፡አሰሩ instead of the expected ይኅዘው).

III.4.5. Negative imperfect in the main clause

Of the 16 examples of negative imperfect forms in the main clause, seven have the element -ም, obligatory in modern Amharic:

አይገኝም (f. 141r, l. 2), አይሻገርም (f. 141r, l. 3), {ܼአ}ይለኝም (f. 141r, l. 15), አያወጻም (f. 141r, l. 16), አይለያዩም (f. 142r, l. 9), አይቀዳደሙም (f. 142r, l. 10), አይለዋወጡም (f. 142r, l. 11).

The remaining forms represent prefixal negation without the element -ም:

አያማክር (f. 141r, l. 16), አይኖርው (f. 141v, ll. 7–8), አይ፡ መከት (f. 141v, l. 8), አይሆን (f. 141v, ll. 8–9; l. 9), አይኖራቸው (f. 141v, l. 13), አይቆም (f. 141v, l. 14), [አ]ትኖር (f. 141v, l. 15), አይማጸኑ (f. 141v, l. 15).

Negated main verbs without the element -ም are found in other Old Amharic texts (cf. Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 132–3; for an additional example cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 237: እንዴት፡ አልነሳ instead of the expected እንዴት፡አልነሳም).

III.4.6. Relative imperfect (positive and negative)

The prefix yämm(ə)- (in modern Amharic the only marker of relative imperfect) is attested once: የሚሺት (f. 141r, l. 9). An example of simple imperfect, unexpanded by any special relative marker, is found in the syntactic position of a relative imperfect in f. 141v, l. 8: ያጫውተው (modern Amharic የሚያጫውተው). Similar usage of simple imperfect is known from other Old Amharic texts (cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1983b: 23; Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 163; Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg1977: 488).

The text contains two examples of negative imperfect in the relative clause:

ያይፈርዱ (f. 141v, l. 10), ያይቀረው (f. 141v, l. 12).

In both forms, the negative prefix is attached to the relative prefix - (rather than to yämm-, as in modern Amharic). This same negative relative imperfect form is known from other Old Amharic texts (cf. Geta[t]chew Haile Reference Geta[t]chew1969–70: 79–80; Reference Getatchew1979a: 235; Reference Getatchew and Hess1979b: 121; Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115; Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 605; Reference Cowley1977: 139, 142; Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg1977: 488; Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 145–6).

The text under scrutiny also contains three examples of negative imperfect following the conjunction እንደ “just as, like”. In all these examples, the relative marker is absent:

እንዳይለያዩ (f. 142r, l. 8), እንዳደ{ቀ}ሙ (f. 142r, l. 9; for the scribal error, cf. III.1), እንዳይለዋወጡ (f. 142 r, l. 10).

In modern Amharic, relative imperfect is demanded in this construction (Leslau Reference Leslau1995: 701–2). For Old Amharic, lack of relative marker after እንደ has been observed by Cowley (Reference Cowley1977: 141; an obviously related phenomenon is lack of relative marker after the conjunction ከ, cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1977: 141; Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 163).

III.4.7. Frequentative stems

Some Old Amharic texts are characterized by lack or extreme rarity of frequentative stems (Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn, Bown and Crowder1964: 110; Reference Strelcyn1981: 77). It is therefore worth observing that the text under scrutiny contains three frequentative verbs (each of them employed twice):

እንዳይለያዩ (f. 142r, l. 8), አይለያዩም (f. 142r, l. 9);

እንዳደ{ቀ}ሙ (f. 142r, l. 9; for the scribal error, cf. III.1), አይቀዳደሙም (f. 142r, l. 10);

እንዳይለዋወጡ (f. 142r, l. 10), አይለዋወጡም (f. 142r, l. 11).

III.4.8. Prepositions

In the sequence of paired nouns on f. 141r, ll. 4–11, the comitative preposition is mostly ተ-; only twice is ከ- employed with the same function.

There is one example of the ablative preposition ከ- (f. 141v, l. 7). Besides, ከ- is once used with the meaning “towards” (f. 141v, l. 3), which likewise finds parallels elsewhere in Old Amharic (Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115).

The semantic opposition between the comitative ተ- and directional ከ- was observed by F. Praetorius (Reference Praetorius1879: 401). However, in the modern language ተ- has become a variant of ከ- (cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1995: 605, 706 with n. 1; on the dialectal distribution cf. Zelealem Leyew Reference Zelealem and Voigt2007: 455). In at least some Old Amharic texts, the semantic distinction between ተ- and ከ- is quite prominent, with only sporadic encroachment of one on the other's domain. This is true of the “Royal Songs” (cf. Littmann Reference Littmann1943: 483, 489, 493), Təmhərtä haymanot (Cowley Reference Cowley1974, cf. e.g. ablative ከ- in 10v, lines 1, 4 vs. comitative ተ- in 12v, lines 5–6) and Məśṭirä ṣəgeyat (Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg and Goldenberg2013, cf. e.g. ablative ከ- in lines 23–4 vs. comitative ተ- in lines 27–30). In the discussion of ተ- and ከ- in Old Amharic, the semantic aspect is usually ignored, as in Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 605, Richter Reference Richter, Fukui, Kurimoto and Shigeta1997: 550, Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 86.Footnote 68

Several authors have observed the employment of the Geez preposition እንበለ “without” in Old Amharic instead of the Amharic ያለ (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 163; Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115; Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 606–7). In the present text, too, Geez ዘእንበለ appears in f. 142r, ll. 2–3 in this function (admittedly, the whole phrase ዘእንበለ፡ እረፍት might be considered a Geez insertion, cf. III.7).

III.5. Syntax

III.5.1. Simple and compound imperfect in the main clause

The text contains two instances of simple imperfect in the main sentence:

ትገባ፡ መንግሥተ፡ ሰማያ[ܼት] (f. 141r, l. 14);

ይነግሩ፡ ያአንተን፡ ኃጢአት (f. 141v, l. 11).

Less certain are three other cases, where the whole phrases may be Geez insertions (cf. III.7):

ዓለም፡ ኀላፊት፡ ትመስል፡ ጽላሎት (f. 141r, ll. 1–2);

ትዋረስ፡ ዘለዓለም (f. 141r, ll. 14–5);

ትዋረስ፡ ዘለዓለም፡ መንግሥተ፡ ሰማያት (f. 142r, ll. 1–2).

At the same time, the text contains 17 examples of compound imperfect: ታሳይሐለቺ (f. 141r, l. 4), ታሳይሐለት (f. 141r, l. 11), ይመጻል (f. 141r, l. 15), ይጣለፋል (f. 141v, l. 1), ትላለቸ (f. 141v, ll. 1–2; l. 14), ያወጹኀል (f. 141v, l. 2), ይወስዱኀል (f. 141v, l. 3), ይመጻሉ (f. 141v, l. 3; l. 11), ይላሉ (f. 141v, l. 4), ይራወጻሉ (f. 141v, l. 5), ያለ{ብ}ሱሐል (f. 141v, l. 6), ይከምሩብሐል (f. 141v, l. 6), ይመለሳል (f. 141v, l. 7), ያቆምሐል (f. 141v, l. 9), ይሉሐል (f. 141v, l. 13).

Forms of the imperfect without auxiliary in main clauses are found in other Old Amharic texts (cf. Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 126–7). In the “Royal Songs” they are well attested, while the compound imperfect is absent (Richter Reference Richter, Fukui, Kurimoto and Shigeta1997: 550). In most other texts one encounters both simple imperfect and compound forms in main clauses (cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1983b: 25; Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew1980: 579; Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 80; Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 128).

III.5.2. Agreement

In Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 236, lack of number agreement is mentioned as a specific Old Amharic feature. In two of three examples quoted by Getatchew Haile, the verb is marked as singular while its subject is represented by two coordinate nouns. In the text under scrutiny, this phenomenon can be observed in the following two phrases:

ሰማይ፡ ምድር፡ ሲፈጠር (f. 142r, l. 11);

ሰማይ፡ ምድር፡ ከኀለፈም (f. 142r, l. 12).

Absence of number agreement is also observed in f. 141r, l. 3: የመስከረም፡ ጽጌያት፡ አይሻገርም፡ ለጥቅምት.

III.5.3. Post-pronominal -ት

One of the most interesting features of Old Amharic is the employment of the element -ት, absent from modern Amharic. This element, appearing after independent pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, and pronominal suffixes, was discovered and examined by Goldenberg, who analysed it as a copula (Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg1974: 247; Reference Goldenberg1976; cf. also Cowley Reference Cowley1977; Reference Cowley1983a: 24–5; Reference Cowley1983b: 25, 31–3). For criticism of this analysis cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Hess1979b: 119–21; Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 167–8; Reference Getatchew and Goldenberg1986: 238–40. The element -ት is plausibly interpreted as a focus marker in Crass et al. Reference Crass, Demeke, Meyer and Wetter2005: 30 and Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 180–9.

In the present text, one example of post-pronominal -ት is found: የተየ{ሐ}[ኝ]፡ (instead of የተ{ሐ}የ[ኝ], cf. III.1) ይኸት (f. 142r, l. 3). Note that this phrase is very similar to one of the examples adduced in Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg1974: 247 (ለኔስ፡ የተሐየኝ፡ ይኽት).

III.5.4. Word order

The rigid left-branching syntax of modern Amharic is not characteristic for the text under scrutiny. One finds quite a few clear examples of right-branching order (well attested for Old Amharic, cf. Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 138–44):

  • Verb - Subject (ዋይ፡ ዋይ፡ ትላለቸ፡ ምሽት in f. 141v, ll. 1–2; ይመጻሉ፡ ካህናት in f. 141v, l. 3; ይራወጻሉ፡ ወራዙት in f. 141v, l. 5; etc.);

  • Verb - Object (ልንገራችኁ፡ ነገር in f. 141r, l. 1; ታሳይሐለት፡ ብዙኅ፡ ትፍሥሕት in f. 141r, l. 11; etc.);

  • Verb - Indirect object (ክርስቶስ፡ ነገራቸ፡ ለሐዋያት in f. 141r, l. 13–14);

  • Noun - Relative clause (ነገር፡ የተሐየኝ in f. 141r, l. 1; እርሱም፡ ጥሉላት፡ በርኁቅ፡ የሚሺት in f. 141r, l. 9).

Instances of left-branching word order are also present in the text. Note, for instance, the preverbal subject in ክርስቶስ፡ ነገራቸ (f. 141r, l. 13–4), መቃብር፡ ከፈት[ሲ] (f. 141v, l. 5–6), ኁሉም፡ ይመለሳል (f. 141v, l. 7), etc.; the preverbal object in መሬት፡ በላይህ፡ ይከምሩብሐል (f. 141v, l. 6), ይኸን፡ የሰማኸ (f. 141v, l. 16), etc.; relativized verb preceding the modified noun in በተከማቹ፡ መላእክት (f. 141v, l. 10); genitive modifier preceding the modifed noun in የሰው፡ ከብት (f. 141v, l. 12) and የጕል[ܼማܼሳ፡] ምሽት (f. 141v, ll. 12–3). Note also the equative non-verbal clauses with the order Subject - Predicate - Copula in f. 142r, ll. 7–8.

III.6. Vocabulary

As expected, MärKL contains a number of lexemes absent or rarely used in modern Amharic, or divergent in form from their modern Amharic equivalents. Some of these can be found in sections III.3.1, III.3.2. Other lexemes from this text which are missing from Kane Reference Kane1990 or divergent from the forms attested there are listed below.

III.6.1. ሽመት

The form ሽመት appears once in the text (f. 141r, l. 4) instead of the expected ሹመት. The graphic variant of the same form, ሺመት, is known from other Old Amharic texts (Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 78). ሽመት is apparently a derivation from ሸመ “appoint”, a direct correspondent of Gez. śemä “appoint” (śimät “office”, Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 539–40; cf. also Tna. šəmät/šimät “office”, Kane Reference Kane2000: 865).

On the passive stem from the same root, ተሸመ, attested in another Old Amharic text, see Appleyard Reference Appleyard2003: 115 (where modern Amharic ሹመት “office, appointment”, ሾመ “to appoint” and ተሾመ “to be appointed” are correctly explained as back-formations from ሹም).

III.6.2. ወቶት

The form ወቶት in f. 141r, l. 7 (in contrast with modern Amharic ወተት) is known from other Old Amharic sources (cf. Ludolf Reference Ludolf1698: 72; Geta[t]chew Haile Reference Geta[t]chew1969–70: 76; Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 606; Reference Cowley1983a: 25; Bulakh and Kogan Reference Bulakh and Kogan2016: 222).

III.6.3. የሚሺት

In f. 141r, l. 9, the form የሚሺት instead of the expected የሚሸት (unless due to a scribal error, cf. III.1) seems to point to a specific Old Amharic verb ሻተ (the variation የሚሺት/የሚሽት is in accordance with the orthography of Old Amharic, cf. III.2.4). The modern Amharic ሸተተ “to smell” is then a recent innovation. Its cognates in South Ethio-Semitic exhibit various extensions of š-t, mostly via an additional vowel or laryngeal after t (Čah. šäta, Ǝnm. Gyt. šätā, Eža Muḫ. šätta, Ǝnd. šettaʾa, Leslau Reference Leslau1979: 587). Note especially Gaf. šičä (Leslau Reference Leslau1956: 238), whose underlying form may be identical with that of the hypothetical Old Amharic ሻተ.Footnote 69

III.6.4. ፍኛላት

The word ፍኛላት in f. 141r, l. 10 is to be identified with fiñalat “tasse” (this word is mentioned in Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn1981: 72, 1.1.1, although we could not find it in the Old Amharic text discussed by Strelcyn). The origin of this lexeme is probably to be sought in Gez. fəyyalat, pl. of fəyyal “vial, glass, bowl, cup” (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 173; Dillmann Reference Dillmann1865: 1377, < Gr. fiálē). The phonetic aspect of this identification is, however, far from clear: the change ñ > y, attested in Amharic dialects of Wogera and Wollo (Zelealem Leyew Reference Zelealem and Voigt2007: 451, 454) as well as in an Old Amharic text (Cowley Reference Cowley1983b: 21), is apparently unidirectional. The form ፍኛላት may have emerged under the influence of fənǧal “porcelain teacup or coffee cup” (Kane Reference Kane1990: 2321, < Arb. finǧān-, cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1990: 18; on its presence in Old Amharic cf. Strelcyn Reference Strelcyn, Bown and Crowder1964: 263). Despite the semantic difference, folk etymology regards fənǧal as the Amharic equivalent of Gez. fəyyal (cf. Dästa Täklä Wäld Reference Dästa Täklä Wäld1962 am: 985: fənǧal… bägəʾəz fəyyal yəbbalalfənǧal is called fəyyal in Geez”; cf. also Dillmann Reference Dillmann1865: 1377). The insertion of n into fəyyal under the influence of fənǧal would lead to fənyal > fəñ(ñ)al.

III.6.5. ወሸርበት

ወሸርበት in f. 141r, ll. 10–11 does not have a direct equivalent in modern Amharic. The only comparable lexeme is rather remote in shape: mäšräb “large trough in which water or other liquid is kept…” (Kane Reference Kane1990: 622, < Arb. mašrab-, Leslau Reference Leslau1990: 200). Yet an exact correspondent is found in Zay: wošärbät “kind of jar” (Leslau Reference Leslau1979: 669).

The Zay term may well be an early Amharism, ultimately going back to Arb. mišrabat- “cruchon en terre” (Biberstein Kazimirski Reference Biberstein Kazimirski1860: 1211).

III.6.6. አኝቶኸ

In f. 141v, l. 4, the form አኝቶኸ appears, which is the 3 pl. (cf. III.4.4) converb (with the 2 sg. masc. object index) from the verb አኛ “to cause or to assist one to lie down” (cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Segert and Bodrogligeti1983: 160), itself a causative to *እኛ (cf. እኛለሁ “I sleep”, etc.) attested in Geta[t]chew Haile Reference Geta[t]chew1969–70: 71. On other Old Amharic attestations of this root, as well as on its cognates in other South Ethio-Semitic languages cf. Bulakh and Kogan Reference Bulakh and Kogan2016: 285–6.

III.6.7. ስበት

The lexeme ስበት in f. 141v, l. 5 might be a derivative from the verb ሳበ “to draw, pull, pull tight” (Kane Reference Kane1990: 513; however, the meaning “gravity, gravitation” adduced in Kane Reference Kane1990: 514 for səbät hardly fits the present context). Possibly it relates to some technical details in the Ethiopian seventeenth-century funeral ritual (cf. the references in notes 53–4 and Pankhurst Reference Pankhurst1990: 196–9). Could ስበት in the present context refer to something like ropes (the method of transporting the dead body has been already referred to above, see verse 55; cf. traditional depiction of lowering the body, wrapped in a mat or cloth, into the grave by means of ropes, Chojnacki Reference Chojnacki1983: 324, fig. 144c)? Alternatively, the word can be seen as a derivative from säbbätä “to break the soil with the plough” (Kane Reference Kane1990: 524; cf. also səbät “first furrow”, ibid.), perhaps metaphorically referring to the instruments for digging the grave. Admittedly, both interpretations are highly speculative. A deeper historical study of the funeral practices of the Ethiopian Christian highlands might shed light on this passage, a task going beyond the scope of the article.

III.7. Geez insertions

As is usual with Old Amharic compositions, the text under scrutiny is interspersed with Geez lexemes, collocations and phrases. The distinction between the two languages is not always easy to draw (as in case of ብዙኅ = Gez. ብዙኅ and modern Amharic ብዙ; or in case of some phrases such as ዓለም፡ ኀላፊት፡ ትመስል፡ ጽላሎት, cf. below). Furthermore, one should distinguish between Geez borrowings (such as መንግሥተ፡ ሰማያ[ܼት፡] in f. 141r, l. 14, ካህናት in f. 141v, l. 3, etc.)Footnote 70 and sporadic Geez insertions. The latter are as follows:

መርገመ፡ ክብር (title);

ለዓለም፡ እኪት (f. 141r, ll. 3–4);

ኀብስት (f. 141r, l. 8);Footnote 71

መባልዕት (f. 141r, l. 9; the status of the preceding (ተ)ብዙኅ is not clear, cf. III.3.1);

ትፍሥሕት (f. 141r, l. 11; the status of the preceding ብዙኅ is not clear, cf. III.3.1);

በቍዔት (f. 141r, l. 12);

አስተብቍዖት (f. 141r, l. 13);

ውሂብ (f. 141r, l. 13);

ወራዙት (f. 141v, l. 5);

በአውደ፡ ፍትሕ (f. 141v, ll. 9–10);

መንበረ፡ ዳዊት (f. 141v, ll. 15–6);

ጽንአ፡ ደዌ (f. 142r, l. 2).

There is one phrase whose syntax clearly indicates a Geez insertion: [ܼእን]ተ፡ ውስጡ፡ ኃጢአት (f. 141r, ll. 11–12). Some further phrases may also be treated as written in Geez:

  • ዓለም፡ ኀላፊት፡ ትመስል፡ ጽላሎት (f. 141r, ll. 1–2; note, however, the lack of the accusative marker -ä in ጽላሎት, which rather suggests an Amharic sentence with Geez loanwords/insertions);

  • ትዋረስ፡ ዘለዓለም (f. 141r, ll. 14–5);

  • ትዋረስ፡ ዘለዓለም፡ መንግሥተ፡ ሰማያት (f. 142r, ll. 1–2).

Furthermore, the theological postulates in f. 142r, ll. 5–7 are apparently written in Geez.

III.8. Linguistic traits and the dating of the text

On the basis of the linguistic evidence one can draw conclusions as to the time of creation of the text. Among other things, the text demonstrates the following archaic features: preservation of some gutturals (cf. III.3.1), right-branching syntax employed side-by-side with head-final structures (cf. III.5.4), non-obligatory status of the postpositional element -ም in negative main clauses (cf. III.4.5), possibility of employing the simple imperfect in main clauses (cf. III.5.1). According to Girma Awgichew Demeke (Reference Girma2014: 3), these features are typical of pre-eighteenth-century Amharic (cf. also above, I). The estimated time of the composition of MärKL could possibly be the first half or middle of the seventeenth century.

IV. The witnesses of the Märgämä kəbr poems

Until recently, three witnesses of the Märgämä kəbr have been known (following Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005, Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014, and applying his “labels”): C, in MS EMML no. 5483; E, in MS EMML no. 7007; and J, in MS Jerusalem, JE 541. The complicated relationships among them can be summarized as follows. The end of text C (lines 325–58 ca.) is related to the last part of text E (lines 311–41 ca.).Footnote 72 The initial part of text JFootnote 73 is related to the initial part of E (lines 1–137 ca.).Footnote 74 At the same time, each witness has extensive text portions not shared with the others. On the present occasion, we would like to introduce a fourth, formerly unnoticed, witness of Märgämä kəbr which is transmitted in MS British Library, Orient. 575.Footnote 75 It is very close to text J, so we have assigned to it a provisional siglum “J1”.Footnote 76 MärKL, presented above, is a fifth Märgämä kəbr text. It is different from any of the published or accessible texts, and we can assume, at least for the moment, that MärKL is an independent composition.

An archetype text of the Märgämä kəbr could have existed, being the source of some or all known Märgämä kəbr poems, but the chance that it may ever be discovered is very small. One may hypothesize how the circulation of the Märgämä kəbr poems took place. We can consider several possibilities. The great differences between the texts might have resulted from: 1) wide circulation and transmission through many copies;Footnote 77 2) the great liberty which the scribes took while copying those texts – using only a certain portion of the exemplar, readily diverging from it, introducing many additional verses, etc. As a result, the differences between the texts are so substantial that in effect each one represents a different recension of the poem, or is a nearly independent work. But the straightforward copying of the poems took place as well (as we observe on the example of J and J1); 3) the important role of the oral tradition in the creation and circulation of the poems (cf. below, V).

V. Märgämä kəbr poems and early Amharic literature

The published poems mentioned in section IV share not so much the text passages but primarily the poetic form of expression and didactic mood. They all convey, of course, one essential religious idea: one should reject the temptations of the earthly world in order to avoid eternal damnation; one should take care since one never knows when and how one's life will end. The depictions of the temptations and sins, of death, of the eternal punishment, and of the virtues constitute the main topics of the poems. Elaborating upon them, the poems partly overlap thematically but mostly use different imagery and narrative technique.Footnote 78

If we assume that MärKL is an independent composition, then it seems that its seventeenth-century author was inspired or influenced by other Märgämä kəbr poems. The one who gave it the title Märgämä kəbr (the author or copyist?) was aware of the existence of a generic group with such a ‟label”, a few works in Amharic sharing some essential similarities. Based on the conclusions of Getatchew Haile,Footnote 79 we wonder if we should consider the Märgämä kəbr poems, which are rhymed didactic speech addressed to the community of the faithful, as a specific genre of early Amharic literature.Footnote 80 Despite a certain vagueness in their formal characteristics, the Märgämä kəbr poems as a whole are clearly distinct from other kinds (“genres”) of early Amharic works.Footnote 81 Moreover, the Märgämä kəbr as a genre can be placed alongside some other Christian literary traditions pivoting on the same main topics, i.e. condemning the temptations and the luxury of the worldly life, preparing the soul for the life after death, etc.Footnote 82

The Märgämä kəbr poems were composed with the aim of direct religious education of the people, and the poetical mode of expression and the Amharic language were the appropriate means for this. The presence of MärKL specifically in the Missal manuscript MKL-008 is not at all accidental: it would have been meant as a post-liturgical edifying addition to the Missal.Footnote 83 However, it cannot be excluded that the Märgämä kəbr poems were created, memorized and circulated mainly orally. In such a form they could easily incorporate – according to the needs, the literary skills and the background of the composer – fitting motifs and images originating from works of “elevated” Geez literature on the one hand, and from everyday life and culture as reflected in oral Amharic literature, on the other. Only in some cases were such compositions fixed in written form (see above, IV). Building fluid textual tradition(s), the poems were written down and copied possibly as a kind of aide memoire, providing for users (educated ecclesiastics, preachers?) a ready selection of topics and rhymed passages. This might be one of the ways the nascent Amharic written literature developed.Footnote 84



– Arabic


– Argobba


– Čaha


– Ǝndägañ


– Ǝnnämor


– Gafat


– Geez


– Greek


– Gyeto


– Muḫǝr


– Tigrinya


1 The features of Old Amharic have been discussed in various publications of Old Amharic texts and scholarly studies, in particular the recent book by Girma Awgichew Demeke (Reference Girma2014). Following this author (ibid., p. 3), we will use the term “Old Amharic” to refer to the form of Amharic spoken and written in Ethiopia before the eighteenth century (with the earliest texts possibly dating from the fourteenth century). Some evidence on the earliest known stages of Amharic is contained in the so-called Arabic–Ethiopic Glossary (Bulakh and Kogan Reference Bulakh and Kogan2016).

2 The project Ethio-SPaRe: Cultural Heritage of Christian Ethiopia – Salvation, Preservation, and Research, funded by the European Research Council under the 7th Research Framework Programme IDEAS (Independent Researcher Starting Grant 240720) ran from December 2009 to May 2015 (, with its seat at the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies, Hamburg University (

3 Poetic compositions written in manuscripts constitute a distinct group of sources in Old Amharic. Getatchew Haile (Reference Getatchew1979a, Reference Getatchew and Kaye1991, Reference Getatchew and Khan2005, Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014) and Gideon Goldenberg (Reference Goldenberg and Goldenberg2013) are the only scholars to have published any of these texts in recent years.

4 While this article is the product of joint work, there was a separation of competence, in the best tradition of multidisciplinary research. Part III was penned predominantly by Maria Bulakh, while parts I, IV, and V were compiled mostly by Denis Nosnitsin. The edition and the tentative translation of the text, presented in part II, are the result of our united efforts. Denis Nosnitsin has carried out part of his research within the framework of the long-term project “Beta maṣāḥəft: Manuscripts of Ethiopia and Eritrea”, funded by the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Hamburg ( Maria Bulakh's work was supported by the Russian Science Foundation, grant #16-18-10343. Warm thanks are due to Orin Gensler for amending the English style and for a number of penetrating remarks and comments. We are deeply grateful to the anonymous reviewers whose critical observations and suggestions have helped to improve the text considerably. Needless to say, all remaining errors are ours.

5 A preliminary survey has been provided recently (Nosnitsin Reference Nosnitsin2013: 155–8); the area has been briefly investigated by archaeologists and found to be of potential interest (Sernicola Reference Sernicola2012).

6 The entire manuscript collection of the church comprises c. 30 manuscripts. The oldest, dating from c. mid-fifteenth–early sixteenth century, is MKL-002, Täʾammərä Maryam (“Miracles of Mary”). The Four Gospels book of the church, MKL-005, dates to the time of King Täklä Giyorgis (reigned during several periods between 1779 and 1800). Some other books of the collection are interesting and valuable, though none predates the sixteenth century; one of them, MKL-016 Gädlä Kiros (“Acts of Kiros”), has recently been treated in a more detailed way, see Krzyżanowska Reference Krzyżanowska and Nosnitsin2015.

7 A preliminary description of the manuscript has been compiled for the Ethio-SPaRe database by Iosif Fridman.

8 Transliteration of Geez, Amharic and Tigrinya throughout this article mostly follows the principles of Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Quotations from Leslau (Reference Leslau1987) have been modified accordingly. The names of languages (Geez, Tigrinya) are given in conventional English orthography (rather than in transcription).

9 See, e.g., Hammerschmidt Reference Hammerschmidt1987, and more recent overviews in Fritsch Reference Fritsch2001 and Bausi Reference Bausi, Uhlig and Bausi2010.

10 The Ethio-SPaRe project team has recorded a few hundred Missals, of which 93 are described in the project's database. Of these, there are some 11 Missals which are considered to be of pre-eighteenth-century date; the oldest of them, AKM-009 (ʾAmbäsät Kidanä Mǝḥrät), has been provisionally dated to the first half of the seventeenth century.

11 Uhlig (Reference Uhlig1988: 425) indicates a number of manuscripts showing a stage of script development which precedes the full formation of the Gondärine script (the so-called gwəlḥ). MS MKL-008 can be considered as belonging to this group. The traits of the handwriting mostly fit the characteristics described for the period mid-sixteenth–mid-seventeenth century (Uhlig Reference Uhlig1988: 425–544). In particular, the handwriting of MKL-008 shows some similarity to such samples used in Uhlig Reference Uhlig1988 as MSS London BL Or. 732 (Uhlig Reference Uhlig1988: 467–77), Or. 644 (480–1), Or. 754 (486–7) or Or. 518 (498–9).

12 A brief reflectographic examination of the inks of MKL-008 with microscope dinolite Pro2 AD413T–I2V, carried out in May 2014, showed that the black ink of the main text is – as expected – of the most common carbon type. The red ink appears to be of plant type, possibly with very slight admixture of mineral components (cf. Rabin Reference Rabin, Andrews and Macé2014: 302–5).

13 The beginning (f. 1ra: …lä-ʾəgziʾənä wä-mädḫaninä wä-ʾamlakənä ʾIyäsus Krəstos. Zä-ʾaqäma lä-betä krəstiyan…) corresponds to ch. 1, §1 in the “Order of the Mass” of the contemporary Missal (Mäṣḥafä qəddase 1962 A.M., Śərʿatä qəddase ch. 1, §1). However, a substantial portion of the text is missing, more than a few lines as compared with the modern Mäṣḥafä qəddase. The missing portion might be a single leaf or a whole quire.

14 Cf. Mäṣḥafä qəddase 1962 am.

15 Cf. Habtemichael Kidane Reference Habtemichael and Uhlig2003.

16 See Mäṣḥafä qəddase 1962 am: 18 (§§11–2).

17 In Denis Nosnitsin's opinion, the first half of the quire had the following sequence of leaves: f. 144 = leaf i; f. 148 = leaf ii; f. 147 = leaf iii; f. 146 = leaf iv (the recto-side contains the explicit of Text II–11, see above).

18 In which St. Mary is called sämay dagəmit, “the second Heaven” (cf. Grohmann Reference Grohmann1919: 308).

19 See Mäṣḥafä qəddase 1962 am: 290–1.

20 The reconstruction seems to be confirmed by the condition of leaf viii-verso (f. 145v), very worn and dirty, indicating that it might have been the outer leaf of the quire.

21 See Mäṣḥafä qəddase 1962: 42–3, §§186–7.

22 Cf. the traces of blood vessels in the parchment clearly discernible in the (lower) margins, absent in the regular text leaves.

23 The script of MärKL looks less elegant; the height of the letters is slightly less and some letter shapes are broader (esp. መ); the tops of the letters are parallel to the lower ruled line; the vertical lines are upright; there is a tendency to rectangularity. “Hairlines” are strongly articulated.

24 The lines of the hand in MärKL are frequently hesitant, some letters are slightly misshapen, some vertical lines are bent, there is no rubrication, the serifs are executed less clearly and are rather “flagged”, not forked, etc.

25 One rather finds hints to the contrary, sometimes in those letters where the distinctive traits of the scribal hand would be expected to be conspicuous: cf. (in both texts) the strongly accentuated vertical downstroke in ፍ, with the body of the letter raised high (cf. f. 140vb, ll. 9 and 10 against f. 141r, ll. 10 and 11); the same for ሩ (f. 140va, l. 5 against f. 141v, l. 6); ል with the left downstroke tending to be straight, right downstroke slightly bent, and small closed “inner loop” (the marker of the sixth order) (ff. 140vb, l. 8 and 141r, l. 5); in particular ዴ, with the fifth-order marker (a small ring) being a rightward extension of the horizontal line below (not set up under it, and not on an additional short vertical/oblique line); the sixth-order marker (“kink”) in ክ shaped not very conspicuously (in MärKL, due to a less careful execution, the marker looks like a small “tooth”, sometimes barely discernible, cf. III.2.1); the numerals 1 (፩) and 3 (፫) are written in a similar way, and with dashes above and below (but in MärKL there are no rubricated elements at all).

26 Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005; Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014. In the translation of the title, we have followed the wording of Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005: 265.

27 Here the word nägär is used in the most common sense (“matter, thing, affair”, cf. Kane Reference Kane1990: 1061).

28 cp. Ps. 143:4; Job 8:9, 14:2.

29 On the form ሽመት cf. III.6.1.

30 It is not clear which sense of the word nägär is intended here: either more general “matter, thing, affair” (as above, cf. n. 27), or the specific “court case, dispute” (cf. Kane Reference Kane1990: 1061).

31 The translation of lines 4–5 (verses 11–12) is very uncertain; the text is possibly corrupt. In the current version, we consider the word ዓለም (with an attribute ተናጋሪት) as the subject of the verbal form ታሳይሐለቺ.

32 Kane Reference Kane1990: 2149: ṭäbt “defensive and offensive weapons” (see Guidi Reference Guidi1889: 65, song XI, line 2; Littmann Reference Littmann1943: 498; cf. also Mersha Alehegne Reference Mersha2011: 678).

33 Kane Reference Kane1990: 2183: ṭəggät “milk cow (which has milk, is not dry)” (cf. III.3.2).

34 On the form ወቶት cf. III.6.2.

35 Kane Reference Kane1990: 824: qeǧo or qäǧo “straw vessel used for milking or for fetching water”.

36 Kane Reference Kane1990: 931: bəzzət “cotton or wool which has been fluffed”; cf. also Gez. bəzzət “linen, wool” (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 118).

37 On the form ኀብስት instead of the expected ኅብስት cf. III.2.2.

38 Kane Reference Kane1990: 2089: ṭəlulat “milk, butter, eggs or meat or dishes made from them which may not be eaten on fast days”.

39 On the form የሚሺት cf. III.1, III.6.3.

40 Kane Reference Kane1990: 236: mäqlämt “a small knife used in cutting meat”, Gondär usage. Cf. also wäqlämt in Mersha Alehegne Reference Mersha2011: 678.

41 On the term ፍኛላት cf. III.6.4.

42 Kane Reference Kane1990: 2300: fəqen, fəqän “ewer, container for water”; Kane Reference Kane1990: 250: matot “ring of leather or grass used to support a round-bottomed vessel, stand, support”.

43 Kane Reference Kane1990: 332: madəgga “earthenware jar”.

44 On the term ወሸርበት cf. III.6.5.

45 The literal translation of verses 34–5 is: “Let not what contains sin appear like truth to you”.

46 The literal translation of verses 36–7 is: “Let me tell you about the benefit which has profit in it”.

47 On the form ነገራቸ cf. III.1.

48 On the form ሐዋያት cf. III.1.

49 2 sg. masc. The same form is used in verses 43 and 44.

50 The reconstruction of the final word ሕይወት is suggested by the following considerations: the rhyme in final -t is characteristic for this section of the poem; the syntax of the phrase demands an explicit direct object; the noun ሕይወት fits the context (cf. a structural parallel in verse 91, and a semantic parallel in verse 112); the similarity of ሕይወት to the next word ሕየው suggests an omission by (quasi)homoeoarcton.

51 Kane Reference Kane1990: 1711: dulät “assembly (to discuss rotation of office)”.

52 Cf. Maḫtämä Səllase Wäldä Mäsqäl 1962 am: 587.

53 A kind of stretcher made of wooden poles is meant here, which was used in Christian Ethiopia for transporting the wrapped corpse to the burial place (“couch” in Parkyns Reference Parkyns1853, vol. II, 60–1 [ch. xxx]; cf. “bier” in Walker Reference Walker1933: 52–7; see also the picture printed in Pankhurst Reference Pankhurst1990: 197, showing the transportation with two wooden poles; cf. somewhat different depictions in Chojnacki Reference Chojnacki1983: 322, figs 143b, p. 323, fig. 144b).

54 The verse alludes to a constituent element of the funeral ritual of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the “greeting of the tabot by the deceased” (on the tabot, the consecrated stone or wooden slab sometimes described as “altar tablet” and present in each individual Ethiopian church, see Heldman Reference Heldman, Uhlig and Bausi2010: 802–4 and Fritsch Reference Fritsch, Uhlig and Bausi2010: 804–7). According to the contemporary version of the Mäṣḥafä gənzät (“Book of the Funeral Ritual”), after the funerary procession has passed all seven “stations” (məʿraf), the body is to be brought to the church and then introduced inside (this is the last, eighth “station” of the ritual). If the deceased was a priest or deacon, the dead body should be brought into the sanctuary (mäqdäs, the sacred area where access is absolutely prohibited to the layman, cf. Fritsch Reference Fritsch and Uhlig2007: 765–7) and placed near the “altar”, i.e. the tabot (or, rather, a special chest where the tabot is usually accommodated). At that moment, a special “prayer of greeting” (ṣälotä ʾəmmaḫe) should be read. But those who are neither priests nor deacons should be placed only outside of the church, at an entrance (ʾafʾa betä krəstiyan) (see Dobberahn Reference Dobberahn, Becker and Ühlein1997, I, 46, 242–3; II, 873, 1007–8). The poem does not specify who are those brought in to the tabot, possibly meaning equally all the dead without distinction.

55 Kane Reference Kane1990: 1040: nät “mat of tanned oxhide”. Cf. also Gez. nät “scarlet; scarlet garment” (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 406–7).

56 On the obscure form ስበት cf. III.6.7.

57 On the separate writing of አይ cf. III.2.5.

58 Cf. Getatchew Haile 2005:260, verses 87–88.

59 Kane Reference Kane1990: 782: qʷənnamat “leather sack or bag used for carrying knives, writing implements and materials, etc.”; cf. Gez. qʷənamät, qʷənamat, qʷänamat, qʷänämat “money bag, purse” (Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 434).

60 On the form የተየ{ሐ}[ኝ] instead of የተ{ሐ}የ[ኝ] cf. III.1.

61 An alternative interpretation implies a different division into verses, with emendation of the punctuation: ጽንአ፡ ደዌ፡ አለብኸ፡ ዘእንበለ፡ እረፍት። የተየሐኝ፡ ይኸት፡ “the strength of illness will be against you incessantly (without interruption). This is what appeared to me.”

62 On the form እንዳደ{ቀ}ሙ instead of እንዳይቀዳደሙ cf. III.1.

63 Verses 95–111 are a concise presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity in Amharic. Concerning verses 101–8, we can find similar equations involving the members of the Trinity, e.g., in the “Confession of Jacob Baradaeus”, cf. Cornill Reference Cornill1876: 421, esp. አብ᎓ ልብ᎓ ወወልድ᎓ ንባብ᎓ ወመንፈስ᎓ ቅዱስ᎓ ሕይወት᎓ (እብል᎓ ወአአምን᎓ ሠለስተ᎓ አካላት᎓ ወአሐዱ᎓ አምላክ᎓ አሐቲ᎓ ሥምረት᎓ ወ፩ኀይል᎓ ወአሐቲ᎓ ቅድምና።). In the context of a discourse on Trinitarian theology the term ʾakal is conventionally rendered as “person”; the term mänbär (verse 99) does not seem to be typical. The well-known Amharic treatise ʾAmməstu ʾaʿmadä məsṭir explains that ʾakal (person), gäṣ (face) and mälk (image) are perfect and distinct for each member of the Trinity; as to the “person”, the treatise explains that ʾakal is (everything) “from the hair of the head to the toenails” (сf. ʾAmməstu ʾaʿmadä məsṭir 1952 am: 12–3; on the terminology, see Ayala Takla-Hāymānot Reference Ayala Takla-Hāymānot1974: 117–30). MärKL speaks about the “person” only for two members of the Trinity. Contemporary theologians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church employ the term ʾəstənfas (breath) and not ḥəywät, e.g., Habtä Maryam Wärqənäh 1963 am: 61–6=3 (drawing upon Geez works, in particular the compendium Haymanotä ʾabäw, stressing the co-equality of all members of the Trinity). The formula employed in MärKL appears incomplete and deficient, perhaps as a result of mistakes and text corruption, or because of difficulties in the exact Amharic wording of the theological concepts, or perhaps because it represented a kind of local theological stance.

64 On the spelling -ቾ instead of -ቸው cf. Cowley Reference Cowley1974: 604; cf. also Girma Awgichew Demeke Reference Girma2014: 117–8.

65 This section deals with Amharic lexemes and word-forms. Obvious Geez loanwords and Geez insertions (cf. III.7) are not treated here.

66 A much less reliable case is ስበት in f. 141v, l. 5 (cf. III.6.7), which can be tentatively related to the root *sḥb ‘to pull, to draw” (for which cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1987: 492–3).

67 Since the ending -o with converb is normally the 3 sg. masc. subject index, the shift to -u (be it phonological, graphical, or merely a scribal emendation) may represent an attempt to avoid the homophony.

68 According to Girma Awgichew Demeke (Reference Girma2014: 86), “… the distribution of seems very limited in O[ld] A[mharic]”. This is certainly an underestimation: ተ- occurs six times in the “Royal Songs” and no fewer than 11 times in Təmhərta haymanot.

69 Further cognates, pointing towards medial -o- (some of them with insertion of -n-), are more distant from the above-mentioned forms (cf. Leslau Reference Leslau1997: 220; Reference Leslau1963: 137; Reference Leslau1979: 587, 565, 569).

70 Geez expressions mentioned as such in Kane Reference Kane1990 have been considered here as Geez borrowings in Amharic. Obviously, this is an artificial criterion; in reality, there is no sharp borderline between accepted loanwords and sporadic insertions.

71 According to Kane Reference Kane1990: 14, the lexeme is present in Amharic with the meaning “sacramental bread”, while the meaning “bread” (clearly intended here) is restricted to the Shoan variety.

73 Denis Nosnitsin has recently visited the library of the Ethiopian Patriarchate in Jerusalem and inspected MS JE 541 (see Ephraim Isaac Reference Ephraim, Isaac1984–86: 74) which appears to be of primary importance for understanding the textual tradition of Märgämä kəbr poems.

74 Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005: 255, “Although E and J seem to originate from one source, they are different recensions … The collation, obviously, is limited to sections where the two documents do in fact have lines in common”.

75 Wright Reference Wright1877: 119–20, no. clxxxvii, the poem occupies ff. 104v–109r. The manuscript was referred to in Cowley Reference Cowley1983b: 23, n. 6, but it has been largely overlooked.

76 The exact relationship between J and J1 is still to be clarified. The title Märgämä kəbr does not appear in J1. The text starts: ይኽ᎓ መጽሐፍ᎓ አትመን᎓ ይላል᎓ ክብር᎓…, cp. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005: 257, n. 1; there is neither an introductory formula nor a concluding formula. The text is accommodated on the end-leaves but is incomplete (at least one text folio is missing). The text is divided into 12 parts by the word məʿraf “chapter” (the same in text J), partly accompanied by a number and in four cases followed by the sentence ደግ፡ ነው፡ መጽሐፍ። “(This) book is good!” In six cases, the chapter ends with the sentence ምን፡ ይተርፋል፡ ዘእንበለ፡ ፃዕር “What remains except the agony (of death)!” (with some variations).

77 Which would imply that most of those copies have been lost or have not yet turned up. This cannot be completely excluded, because a large number of manuscripts from the essential collections in the relevant regions (Amharic-speaking areas of Gondär, Goğğam, etc.) are still inaccessible.

78 Only accidentally do the poems coincide (in motifs rather than in exact wording). For instance, concerning MärKL and the poem in MS EMML 5483, cf. “dead body on a wooden stretcher” (Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014, verse 35; cf. verse 55 of MärKL), or “the world deceitful like a night dream” (Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014, verse 90; cf. verses 2–5 of MärKL). Parallelism is used intensively in all the poems, but for the rest the narrative technique is not always the same. Only the narrator in MärKL develops his discourse by telling about his “vision” – what “he saw without being asleep”. Elsewhere the narrator gives “useful advice” to his listeners (Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew and Khan2005, esp. ll. 3–4, 129, 159; Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014, esp. ll. 25, 71, 87–88). Formalizing the appearance of the text as a literary work was not considered necessary either. Not every poem employs the (Geez) title Märgämä kəbr, and not all have the introductory formula (“In the name of the Father, and the Son…”) and concluding formula.

79 Cf. Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew, Bausi, Gori and Lusini2014: 445, 447 (“During the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, there came a point when Ethiopian religious teachers developed three approaches for teaching morality and theology in Amharic. These teachings took the forms of “The Five Pillars of Mystery … catechism and poetry”; “… these texts might not be poems at all, but a third type of speech that stands between prose and poetry, a style that might be called ‘Rhyming Prose’ or ‘Poetic Prose’”).

80 i.e. “genre” in the sense of “kind of work” or “literary type”, as presented in, e.g., Cuddon Reference Cuddon1998: 342, while “prose” and “poetry” are terms referring to the mode of language use (metrically organized compositions vs. those written in “natural”, unrestricted language).

81 The Amharic “heroic praise songs” also seem to represent a distinctive genre (being even looser, from the formal point of view, than the Märgämä kəbr poems); they were composed and circulated orally, and only in rare cases written down in manuscripts (the so-called “royal songs” are the best known examples, cf. Guidi Reference Guidi1889; Littmann Reference Littmann1914; the “panegyrics” in Getatchew Haile Reference Getatchew1979a – warlike praise songs labelled by the composer as religious qəne-poems – belong to this genre as well).

82 The Märgämä kəbr poems strongly remind us of a sizeable European literary production, in both Latin and vernacular languages, that evolved around the medieval religious concept of contemptus mundi “contempt of the world”. Some of the literary devices used for those works were exactly the poetic mode of expression and the vision-form (cf. Gnädinger Reference Gnädinger, Bautier, Berghaus and Biedermann1999, Silagi Reference Silagi, Bautier, Berghaus and Biedermann1999 and other related articles).

83 Of course, the use of the Märgämä kəbr would be expected first in the Amharic-speaking area, and not in the core of Tigray. This might be indirect evidence concerning the origin of MS MKL-008, which was possibly produced not in Tigray (but in the Goğğam or Gondär area?) and introduced into the collection of Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät only at a much later time. In assuming this, one immediately thinks of the collection of Mägdäla Mädḫane ʿAläm, captured by the British expeditionary troops in 1868, a large part of which was distributed among the churches of northern Ethiopia. The quality of the book and its scribal work might also speak for a place of manufacture outside Tigray. However, better proofs are not available for the moment; direct indications pointing to the Mägdäla Mädḫane ʿAläm collection are missing (such as a number written in a European hand on the guard leaf, or an ownership note mentioning that church; see Ancel and Nosnitsin Reference Ancel and Nosnitsin2014).

84 On the whole, MärKL (and other Märgämä kəbr poems?) fits chronologically into the process of the birth of Amharic literature in the seventeenth century as described by Lanfranco Ricci (Reference Ricci and Botto1969: 852). For the moment, it is unclear whether the Märgämä kəbr poems can be assigned to what Ricci calls “la controproduzione abissina monofisita in risposta” (to Catholic propaganda), and whether the Märgämä kəbr poems had any direct or indirect links to non-Ethiopian and non-Orthodox literary traditions (cf. the surprising conclusions regarding the Old Amharic work Məśtirä ṣəgeyat, Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg and Goldenberg2013: 156–7). These issues go beyond the scope of the present article and should be treated in a new history of Amharic literature, which is an obvious desideratum.


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Figure 0

Figure 1. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), 1650–60, f. 140v [Mäṣḥafä qəddase]

Figure 1

Figure 2. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 141r [Märgämä kəbr]

Figure 2

Figure 3. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 141v [Märgämä kəbr]

Figure 3

Figure 4. (Colour online) MS MKL-008, Läq̌ay Kidanä Mǝḥrät (Ethiopia), f. 142r [Märgämä kəbr]

Figure 4

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An Old Amharic poem from northern Ethiopia: one more text on condemning glory
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