Ethiopian literatures are composed in several languages: Geʿez, Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigré, Oromo, and Harari. Most of the literature in Ethiopia has been in Geʿez and Amharic. The classical language is Geʿez, but over time Geʿez literature became the domain of a small portion of the population. The more common spoken language, Amharic, became widespread when it was used for political and religious purposes to reach a larger part of the population.
Geʿez was the literary language in Ethiopia from a very early period, most importantly from the 13th century. The Kebra nagast (Glory of Kings), written from 1314 to 1322, relates the birth of Menelik—the son of Solomon and Makada, the queen of Sheba—who became the king of Ethiopia. The work became a crucial part of the literature and culture of Ethiopia. Royal chronicles were written, and there was some secular poetry. But most of the writing was religious in nature and tone. Many translations of religious works were produced, as were works having to do with the lives of Zagwe kings. In the 15th century, Ta’amra Maryam (The Miracles of Mary) was written, and this was to become a major work in Ethiopia. There were also translations from Arabic.
Two writers created the foundation for the Amharic literary tradition. The first novel written in Amharic was Libb-waled tarik (1908; “An Imagined Story”), by Afawark Gabra Iyasus. The oral storytelling tradition is clearly in evidence in this novel, in which a girl disguised as a boy becomes the centre of complex love involvements, the climax of which includes the conversion of a love-smitten king to Christianity. Heruy Walda Sellasse, an Ethiopian foreign minister who became the country’s first major writer, wrote two novels that are critical of child marriage and that extol Christianity and Western technology. But he was also critical of the Christian church and proposed in one of his novels its reform. In his second novel, Haddis alem (1924; “The New World”), he wrote of a youth who is educated in Europe and who, when he returns to Ethiopia, experiences clashes between his European education and the traditions of his past. Drama was also developed at this time. Playwrights included Tekle Hawaryat Tekle Maryam, who wrote a comedy in 1911, Yoftahe Niguse, and Menghistu Lemma, who wrote plays that satirized the conflict between tradition and the West. Poetry included works in praise of the Ethiopian emperor. Gabra Egzi’abeher frequently took an acerbic view of traditional life and attitudes in his poetry.
After World War II, important writers continued to compose works in Amharic. Mekonnin Indalkachew wrote Silsawi Dawit (1949–50; “David III”), Ye-dem zemen(1954–1955; “Era of Blood”), and T’aytu Bit’ul (1957–58), all historical novels. Girmachew Tekle Hawaryat wrote the novel Araya (1948–49), about the journeying of the peasant Araya to Europe to be educated and his struggle to decide whether to remain there or return to Africa. One of Ethiopia’s most popular novels, it explores generational conflict as well as the conflict between tradition and modernism. Kabbada Mika’el became a significant playwright, biographer, and historian. Other writers also dealt with the conflict between the old and the new, with issues of social justice, and with political problems. Central themes in post-World War II Amharic literature are the relationship between humans and God, the difficulties of life, and the importance of humility and acceptance. Kabbada Mika’el wrote drama reinforcing Christian values, attacking materialism, and exploring historical events. Taddasa Liban wrote short stories that examine the relationship between the old and the new in Ethiopian society. Asras Asfa Wasan wrote poetry and historical novels about political events, including the military coup attempted against Emperor Haile Selassie I in December 1960. Writers such as Mengistu Gedamu and P’awlos Nyonyo became more and more concerned in their works with social issues, and the widespread struggle between tradition and modernism was debated. Novelists looked further afield and wrote about apartheid in South Africa and the African nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba. At the turn of the 21st century there was also a concern with preserving traditional materials in Amharic.