By Isaias Haileab Gebrai
February 17, 2022

Ge‘ez, is a South Semitic language that survived as a spoken language in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea until sometime between 900 and 1200 and remains in use as a liturgical language to this day. In its earliest form, the Ge’ez script was an abjad, or writing system consisting only of consonants; by the 4th century the script had developed into an abugida, or alphasyllabary, a writing system in which each symbol represents a consonant-vowel combination. Ge‘ez literature is dominated by religious texts, and this is reflected in the collection of manuscripts at the Fisher, which includes prayer books, a Psalter, a hagiography of Abuna Gabra Manfas Qeddus, and a life of Jesus Christ.

Ge’ez is believed to have been spoken in the region until the fall of Axumite kingdom around the 10th Century AD. At the moment, it remains confined only to church services in the Ethiopian and Eritrea Orthodox Incarnation Christianity. A vast amount of literature has been written in Ge’ez language, at the heart of which is Ge’ez Qenie – vis-a-vi Geez Oral Poetry. Ge’ez Oral Poetry has been composed in Ethiopia for hundreds of years. While Ge’ez Poetry is oral, the rules for its composition are written and learned. The rules for the form, meter, rhyming patterns, rhythm, diction, phrases, lines, stanzas, figures of speech and so on are all fixed and written formulas. Therefore, students of Ge’ez poetry are expected to master the rules of the composition before they are recognized and graduate as poets in the language. However, the end products, i.e. the poems themselves are simply oral and left for memorizing minds to savor. On every Sunday services and on countless of other religious or cultural festivals, Ge’ez Poetry is composed to highlight the occasions.

As a result of it remaining oral, Ge’ez oral poetry did not receive the attention that the rest of Ge’ez literature, especially that of Manuscript cultures have received. Currently many researchers in Ethiopia, Eretria and in several European research institutes are researching and documenting vigorously the rich written literature of Ge’ez from old times, which for the most part is in the form of parchments. However, while most of the materials that are being rescued, documented and researched are works of literature, one cannot fail but notice that the primary focus of all this research seems to be directed toward the linguistic originality of the script of Ge’ez language rather than the literary aesthetics and Geez tradition contained in those works. This, plus the relatively late introduction of Geez Poetry teaching in Ge’ez literature (which is arguably about two thousand years old) seems to be the reason why the profusely rich Ge’ez oral literature in general and Ge’ez oral Poetry (Qenie) in particular have yet to be receive significant attention in the study of Geez literature. Another reason for the lack of enthusiasm in researching the imaginative aspect of Ge’ez is the popular notion that Ge’ez literary materials are merely religious and that no real secular stories could be found in them.

But the fact remains that Ge’ez literary materials and even the Church hagiographies are full of secular stories and historical documents. In those ancient materials of Ge’ez literature, one can find a vast richness of socio-economic accounts of the times when Ge’ez was the language of the state as well as the language of the people, especially those of the very vibrant civilizations of Axum and Adulis.

There is no doubt that Ge’ez was and still is widely considered to be the sacred language of Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian society. Be that as it may, the Ge’ez literature, especially that of Ge’ez Poetry has a huge reserve of profound and complex works of figurative language and narration that studying it is of paramount importance. The literature of Ge’ez, especially Ge’ez Poetry should be critically studied, not only because it reflects the popular culture but also because it may reveal a great deal of the social changes taking place in the dynamic cultural mold of the society.

A huge amount of grammar and poetic structure manuals were produced originally in Geez. These include teachings and techniques of Qenie (poetry) and Sewasew (grammar). Ge’ez Qenie demonstrates lyrical poetry in a complex manner for it is composed with utmost skill and command of the language that it bemuses even speakers of the language. As a result, not all speakers of Ge’ez can produce it. For someone to be a poet in Ge’ez Qenie completely, they have to study the art for up to seven years and to become a poetry teacher, they need to stay in a Qenie School for up to seven years of additional time. What goes in to the making of Qenie composition is the reason it takes a high level of mastery and a great deal of time to master. Ge’ez Qenie is divided in to more than 16 types, each of them with different forms and usage, as well as lyrical notes.

The subject matter of Ge’ez Qenie is also diverse. Some of them are for happiness, others are for sorrow, some are practiced during fasting seasons, such as the lent season, others during happy and festive moments, some are short and highly charged with figurative words, and others are long and still full of aesthetics. Their themes are wide ranging: from family matters to higher political criticisms, from praises of God and saints to gossip and pun among elite church circle, from day to day socio – economic affairs to expressions of good and bad aspects of harvest, well being or poverty, justice or oppression, beauty of nature or the dangers of the wild, seas and oceans or mountains, deserts, love, hate etc.

In order to understand the composition of Ge’ez Qenie (Poetry), one needs to know about how Geez letters, phonemes, words, word initials, pre-initials, word endings, pre endings, stress patterns, initial phrases, middle phrases, final phrases, and rhymes are constituted. Geez letters have seven variants which can be arbitrarily pronounced as: /aa/, /oo/, /ee/, /u/, /ie/, /e/, and /o/. Ge’ez stress patterns too have eight variations: ተነሽ (high intonation), ወዳቂ (flat), ተጣይ (low intonation) ሰያፍ (slant), ተናባቢ (compound), ማጥበቅ (accent), ማላላት ( loose) and ኣጎበር (propositional suffix).

One of the great examples of oral Ge’ez tradition is Ge’ez poetry. This rich and quite complex cultural heritage is only mastered by very few speakers of the language, who study the art for up to seven years. Their usage of figurative speech is so high that so much history and analysis of the past is to be extracted by studying them. However, the oral poems remain intangible as intangible can be because they are not recorded in any books or manuscripts by the Churches where they are composed. Even though there are still speakers of Ge’ez, who specialize in the art of oral lyrical poetry and remember many oral poems from notable poets of ancient times, not much is recorded or published in written form. Therefore, there is a great probability that the tradition will be forgotten and much needed history and lessons from the past will disappear in obscurity. The trend is particularly worrying because Ge’ez oral poetry is not as vibrant as it used to be and the monasteries in Ethiopia and Eretria are not producing as many poets as they used to in the old times. Throughout its history, Ge’ez poetry has not been meant to be recorded or written down in any form of books or parchments, but to be rehearsed and for the moment. No serious attempts have been made by the monasteries or churches, which are usually custodians of the tradition to record it in writing.

Therefore, there is a great need for researching, recording and preserving the rich history and culture whiles the art and the knowledge of the language is still in the memory of the shrinking number of its custodians. As the oral tradition of Ge’ez poetry is becoming increasingly endangered because students are not learning the language and the art as they used to do in the past, the continuity of oral Ge’ez poetry is in a worrying situation. Hence concerted efforts and steps must be taken to record and study it as a cultural heritage. Oral Ge’ez poets in Churches and Monasteries need to be encouraged to develop a practice of recording the composed poems in written or electronic forms.