Here below is an undated photo of Haile Sellassie I** , the last Ethiopian emperor, 1892 -1975 The wainscot may indicate that it was taken during the emperor’s exile in England (1936-’41).
Today is his birthday.
Books continue to pour off the presses about his life, relationships and policies. And so many paintings. His photo and the imperial insignia – the lion, crowned and carrying the imperial standard with a red-green-yellow flag- are everywhere in Addis Ababa.
Emperor Haile Sellassie, c. 1973, tempera on cardboard. A painting in traditional format by a priest, Alaqa Gabra Sellassie, unknown birth date, died 1986, Ethiopian. Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.
Nostalgia for a time turning golden in memory, one thinks.
But there is also the memory of the man himself. A man with rare qualities and vast presence.
The man himself.
Here is a fact. Also the answer to a question.
The fact is that, while it is true that the children of the governing elite had advantages of education and access as everywhere in the world (the emperor’s father was a close ally of Menelik II), no titles or positions were traditionally inherited among the Amhara (with one exception unrelated to this emperor or this dynasty).
You had to prove yourself. The more ambitious the ambition, the more perilous the accession to the position desired.
The emperor reached the throne very young through a series of maneuvers and alliances the practice of which prepared him for his long reign (regent: 1916-1930; emperor: 1930-1974).
As to the question: I asked this of a man who worked for the emperor for forty years. How did he manage people? And so many people who generated so much conflict?
The answer: the emperor had a very subtle psychology: he appeared to you as you would want him to be. You would align yourself then with him. You would support what he was saying, asking, requiring.
Which is not to deny his ruthlessness. As with anyone with power.
This kind of management by a man who retained his throne only to the extent that he could manage the competing interests around him and the pressures from outside Ethiopia amounts to saying that he was able to hold in mind something and its opposite at the same time along with variants of these opposites.
Not momentarily as in an epiphany. But all the time and at any time in which he needed the insights which emerged. This allowed him possibilities of imagination and action more vast and more nuanced than that available to the majority of us. Which he exercised.
Whence the contradictory adjectives used about him alive and dead. And the difficulty of judging his carefully gaged but significant accomplishments in the context of the immiseration of many of his people periodically afflicted with famine death. There are the hagiographers. There have also been the facile denouncers. Only now are emerging massively documented histories on the basis of which balanced judgements might emerge.
He was defeated finally by old age and the unfulfilled expectation of his people in a world of rapid change.
He lives still in majestic memory among a group of his people for whom he represents a very ancient order of governance grounded in Orthodox Christianity and in the princely traditions of Ethiopia’s northern peoples.
Among an even larger group he lives for his stand against Fascist Italy, for the end of European colonialism, for the Non-Aligned movement’s efforts to provide a third way for countries between the USA and the USSR; and for the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union).
He lives among Rastafarians for whom he was and is a symbol of political and spiritual freedom.
And then there is Eritrea.
Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia by UN mandate in 1950.
Had the emperor not forcibly annexed Eritrea in 1962, who can tell but that the Eritreans would not have embarked on their long struggle for independence from Ethiopia (1962 – 1991; organized political opposition having begun in 1958). Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians have died in these internecine struggles. Nor has peace been fully established between the two peoples, as close to each other as peas in a pod.
Domesticated lions and other large felines lived in the emperor’s compound.
Haile Sellassie I at the Jubilee Palace, Addis Ababa with one of the domesticated lions in an undated photo.
This was not uncommon in Ethiopia among sedentary populations. These were also tamed by some or all of the peoples in its cultural zone: Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and the Sudan. But this would not have been common among all Ethiopians especially pastoral or semi-nomadic populations. At one hundred years of age, my father awoke with nightmares that lions were prowling close: he was raised in a small hamlet in far western Ethiopia in a family who raised a few crops and also kept cattle. Lions were a danger.
The lion is called the ‘black’ lion in Ethiopia for the dark mane occurring on the head, neck, chest and belly of some of them.
Ethiopians have posted photographs of tamed lions to the website ‘Historical Photos of the Horn of Africa’.
A post by Lebne Dengel to the site Historical Photos of the Horn of Africa. The lion, Mekuria, was famous. Here with his handler and tamer. Unknown date but before 1972.
Woman and child with a domesticated lion. Posted to the Historical Photos from the Horn of Africa. Unknown date.
Post by Abebe Haregewoin to Historical Photos from the Horn of Africa. Unknown date.
Parchment painting of Abune (Father) Samuel from the 17th century; a design transferred onto cotton scrim and embroidered in wool by the owner of this blog. 2015. To Ethiopians, it is not that the saint is riding a lion that is extraordinary: what is extraordinary are the saint’s words and deeds.