“I was born in the land of the priests of Aksum. But I am the son of a poor farmer in the district of Aksum; the day of my birth is 25th of Nahasye 1592 AD, the third year of [King] Yacob. By Christian baptism I was named Zera Yacob, but people called me Warqye. When I grew up, my father sent me to school in view of my instruction. And after I had read the Psalms of David my teacher said to my father: “This young son of yours is clever and has the patience to learn; if you send him to a [higher] school, he will be a master and a doctor.”


After hearing this, my father sent me to study zemya. But my voice was coarse and my throat was grating; so my schoolmaster used to laugh at me and tease me. I stayed there for three months, until I overcame my sadness and went to another master who taught me qenye and seweseya. God gave me the talent to learn faster that my companions and this compensated for my previous disappointment; I stayed there four years. […] After this I left for another school to study the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.


I remained ten years in this type of study; I learned the interpretations both of the Farang and of our own scholars. Oftentimes their interpretations did not agree with my reason; but I withheld my opinion and hid in my heart all the thoughts of my mind.”


Zera Yacob (1599–1692) is often compared to Descartes and other enlightenment philosophers. There are those who see him as an African precursor to rationalism. Others, have argued that the text is a fake concocted by a lapsed Catholic priest, Juste d’Urbino. The extract here, taken from Claude Sumner’s text (by way of the world’s foremost blog on the philosophy of Zera Yacob—Ethiopianphilosophy.wordpress.com—presents the inception of the philosopher’s life and the origin of his questioning.