Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter XI

June 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

When King Susenyos died in MDCXXV A.D., his son Fasiladas reigned in his place; at first he liked the Frang as his father did, but he did not persecute the Copts, in order that there be peace all over Ethiopia. During this time I came out from my cave and set out for the country of the Amhara; then I passed to the country called Byegamder where to all the enemies of the Frang I appeared as one of the monks who was ousted during Susenyos’ period. Because of this, they liked me and provided me with food and clothing.

In this manner, I was moving from region to region, never wanting to return to Aksurn, for I knew the wickedness of its priests. Remembering that man’s path is made firm by God, I said; “Direct me, O Lord, in the way I should go and to the land I shall dwell in.” I intended to cross [River Abbay] and to stay in the land [known as] Gwazzam, but God led me to a place I had not thought of.

One day I arrived at Enferaz and went to a rich person by the name of Habtu, whose [name] is [the same as] Habtu Egziabher; I spent a day with him. The next day I asked him to give me paper and ink to write a letter to my relatives in Aksum. He asked me: “Are you an expert at writing?” I answered: “Yes, I am.” He then said: “Stay with me for a few days and copy for me the Psalter of David; I will pay you for this.” I agreed and heartily thanked God for showing me the way by which I could live from the fruits of my work. I hated to go back to my previous profession, for I did not wish to teach falsehood, [knowing] that if I thought the truth, people would not listen to me, but would hate me, accuse me and persecute me. But I preferred to live with all men in peace and friendship; I wanted and preferred to feed on the fruit of my work, ignored by men and secluded with the wisdom God had taught me, rather than to live richly in the house of sinners.

A short time later, ink and paper were ready and I wrote a Book of the Psalms of David. My master Habtu and all who saw my writing were in admiration, for it was beautiful. As wages, my master Habtu gave me a fine suit of clothes; later on the son of this Habtu, whose name was Walda Mikayel, told me: “Write for me as you did for my father.” I did so and he gave me a cow and two goats. After this many persons came to me and asked me to write the Book of David and other books and letters; there was no other writer except me in this region; they provided me with clothing, salt, cereals, and other similar things.

My master Habtu had two young sons: the name of one was Walda Gabryel, who was called Tasamma, the name of the other was Walda Heywat, who was called Metku. Their father Habtu said to me: “Teach them to read the psalms; I shall supply you with boarding: what you earn by writing will be yours.” I said: “O my father! I shall do all that you have ordered me to do. I only ask that you be as a father, a mother and kinsfolk to me; for I have no relatives.”


Zera Yacob’s Treatise was, again, Ethiopia’s first autobiography as well her first philosophical text. At some point, if only for the sake of completeness, I should comment on these autobiographical elements and the historical setting. For now, though, I’ll just note the introduction of Walda Heywat the final paragraph. After just a few more chapters, we’ll see how Walda Heywat would continue Zera Yacob’s work.

Back to chapter X.


Poverty and Happiness

June 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I know that our heart is always in the hand of God; it is possible for God to make us happy and content if we are in difficulties, poverty and sickness; again it is possible for him to make us miserable even if we live in wealth and all the luxuries of this world. Hence we see every day poor and wretched people enjoying the bliss of their heart; but the rich and the kings are sad and depressed in their riches, because of their limited desire. (Treatise of Zera Yacob, chapter 10)

When I spent a couple of months in Ethiopia, I was struck by the fact that when people have little or nothing, they need each other. As a result, they have tightly-knit communities, and they help each other out. When someone came into money, he shared it with his friends. I found this awkward: in wealthy societies, we pride ourselves on our independence, and expect the same from others; we try to draw sharp lines between our personal relationships and our economic ones.

Nobody turns down wealth and stability, but financial security also tends to isolate us, to the point that, after the incredible accumulation of wealth witnessed in the West over the course of the 20th century, many North Americans now have no friends beyond their own spouse. Since friendship is one of the main elements of a meaningful, fulfilling life, this is an enormous loss. It is hard to say that a house of one’s own in the suburbs is worth it.

Religious observance has declined in the West along with social ties. Just as we feel less dependent on each other, we feel less dependant on God. Since we feel less dependance, we think about ur Creator less, and call upon and worship him less. Since a sense of our cosmic purpose is another major component of a meaningful life, this also a great loss. It is not merely, as Zera Yacob says, that God can make the poor happier than kings, but that in some ways it is easier for Him to do so.

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:6–24, ESV)

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