The Lions of Judah

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. 

It is all his heirs now, of all political persuasions, who have come face to face with the complexity of Ethiopia and the difficulty and dangers of nation-building here as among any peoples long, long acquainted with each other. 

And related to each other not only by history but by blood.







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 and elsewhere.





Emperor Haile Sellassie, c. 1973, tempera on cardboard.  A painting in traditional format by a priest, Alaqa GabraSellassie,unknown birthdate,died1986, 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 of Ethiopia 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 wer traditionally inherited among the Amhara (with one exception unrelated to this emperor or to 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.  He had  many faces.  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  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 judgments may 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 freedom and spiritual evolution. 



Ras Tafarian representation of the emperor. Unknown date and provenance




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. Blood kin.



July 2018: Diplomatic relations restored. The state of war ended. 

Blood kin.


Women with flags in Asmara Image copyright Mela Gebre Medhin

Jubilant Eritreans took to the streets of the capital, Asmara, in the first week of July 2018 as Ethiopia’s prime minister visited







Domesticated lions and other large felines lived in the emperor’s compound.



Haile Selassie I & Lion. #UnityByRastaEmpire:

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 of the peoples in its cultural zone:  Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and the Sudan.  There are extant photos of men along the Arabian littoral riding lions.


The very ancient link of the Yemen and Ethiopia is evident in the pre-Christian architecture, symbols and ideograms found in both places. 


There is also this sculpture found in the Yemen.  It has been associated with a family called Muhasni, thought to have been wealthy traders:




Striding Lions with Erotes children, bronze; produced from molds by indirect lost wax casting.

Yemen, Wadhi Bayhan, early 1st century BCE to mid-1st century CE. Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC




But the domestication of lions 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 and are 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.




Ethiopian black-maned lion shot by National Geographic  in the Bale Mountains and posted in February 2017






The emperor on a state visit to the United Kingdom (October 1954) in a state coach with Elizabeth II.  He is wearing head gear crowned with the mane of a black lion. Posted by Abinet Alemayehu on the website Historical Photos of the Horn of Africa.




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.




Post from the net of unknown provenance; date before 1973





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.




 **By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty, Haile Sellassie I,  King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.


Strictly,  the ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah’ was not a title but a justification of the right to rule as a direct descendant of Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.


6 thoughts on “The Lions of Judah

  1. This is a facinating account, brilliantly compiled with such an enjoyable commentary. Thank you, Sarah.

    1. Thanks, Susannah!

      A remarkable person and in a lineage of such; without whom there would be no Ethiopia. I recall my father holding my hand to steady himself at the age of 95 to show me all the tributes in the mauseleum of Menelik II; and whispering the detailed history of his consolidation of the country as indicated by the items in the mauseleum. Whispering so as not to disturb the old man’s sleep! Sarah

    1. Yes: more than 40 years after his death and his presence is still palpable even if the generations who knew him personally are now all but gone. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Thank you. I met him and lived under hs rule for some years. They were the most peaceful years of all that I lived in Ethiopia. Sadly, old age I think, caused him to make a big mistake which allowed communism in for a period. Hopefully it will come out of its present political/tribal mess after the recent elections.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      He was a remarkable man and he maintained the peace, as you say, for decades. But nobody can hold back a people from the exercise of power over themselves and their affairs and the times overtook him.

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