ON THE LION'S TRAIL: in search of Haile Selassie I in present-day Ethiopia

 With the (supposed) murderi of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I on the 27th of August 1975, the Empire of Ethiopia seized to exist. Haile Selassie I, the last emperor from a dynastic lineage that claimed direct descent from the biblical king Solomonii, had spent his life time implementing politics of modernization, thus steering his country into the 20th century. Ironically though, the changesiii he implemented would eventually also lead to his own downfalliv.

In September 2010, about four decennia and two power shiftsv later, I travelled to Ethiopia in the company of writer Karel Michiels and television director David Verhaeghe. The fact these two gentlemen were travelling to Ethiopia to do research for a forthcoming documentary in which Haile Selassie I would play a pivotal role, provided me with the ideal excuse to book a ticket to the Horn of Africa and find out for myself what remained of the legacy Haile Selassie I bestowed on his nation.
 

ADDIS ABABA

 We had booked rooms at the Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in Addis and a remnant from the era of Menelik II as it was built by his consort Itegue Taytu in 1904. The Taitu has clearly seen better days, but the location of the hotel, central in the oldest part of the city, is ideal for exploring historical Addis. The Piazza (square) district is a remainder from the days of the Italian occupationvi. The area surrounding the De Gaulle Square is known for its budget hotels, nightlife, jewellery stores and coffee houses. On the corner of Mahatma Ghandi Street, Ristorante Castelli is located. The Castelli family opened the restaurant in 1948, making it the oldest Italian restaurant in town.

 For those in search of traces of Selassie’s reign, the Saint George cathedral forms an ideal starting point. Located just a short walk from the Taitu Hotel, it was in this cathedral - built by Italian prisoners of war in 1896 - that on the 2nd of November 1930 Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. Inside the cathedral building, some walls were decorated with frescoes by the renowned Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle, depicting a number of key eventsvii from the reign of Haile Selassie I. In an adjacent building, in fact the bell tower of the cathedral, a small museum was established. Apart from a number of religious artefacts like vellum manuscripts, sistrums and maquamiawoch (prayer sticks), the museum also houses a collection of imperial robes and ceremonial crowns belonging to Haile Selassie I, but also to Empress Zawdituviii, who was also crowned in the cathedral.

Once you start searching, little effort is required to find more traces of the Emperor. On the contrary, Haile Selassie I helped to shape the city into the metropolis it is today and his mark can still be found nearly everywhere.

 To get an idea of what the Addis Ababa of Haile Selassie I must have looked like in the nineteen-thirties - the beginning of his rule - a visit to Seba Derega, one of the oldest and more high-class neighbourhoods of the city, is highly recommended. The district takes its name from the seventy steps that once formed one of the most elegant avenues of the city, now lying in derelict and neglected condition. Most of the original buildings - villas featuring elements from Indian architectureix - still stand today. At the foot of the stairs, a fountain dedicated to Ras Makonnen, the father of Haile Selassie I and himself the governor of Harar province, can be found.

 Another highlight from this period is the old railway station located at the end of Churchill Avenue. Arguably the most beautiful Lion of Judah statue in the city dominates the square in front of the station. The bronze was erected in 1930 to add lustre to the coronation of Haile Selassie I. In 1936, however, the Italian occupiers shipped the statue to Rome and it would take until 1969 for the lion to take its rightful place in front of the railway station again. The Compagnie de Chemins de Fer Ethiopiensx was established in 1894 to build a railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti in what was then still French-Somaliland. The whole trajectory was only completed in 1917. Haile Selassie I laid the first stone of the railway station in 1927 and two years later the building was inaugurated by Empress Zawditu.

 During the Imperial era the train was the most luxurious method of transportation available, but when the Derg regime took power, decline set in. From 2007 the trajectory Addis Ababa - Dire Dawa was no longer serviced, halving Ethiopia’s railway network: the trains were outdated and slow and thanks to a road network - excellent to African standards - buses had shown themselves to be worthy replacements.

In the adjacent Ethiopian Railway Museum, two Imperial carriages dating from the nineteen-thirties and -fifties are housed. In the carriages the sleeping, working and meeting quarters of the Emperor were preserved in almost untouched condition.

Biggest killjoy for Selassie fanatics visiting Addis is the fact that almost all the palacesxi from the Emperor’s time, still holding most of the Emperor’s private possessions and with interiors preserved in their original condition, are closed to the general public. Even the slightest attempt to photograph one of the palace facades leads to an immediate confrontation with the military guards present.

 An exception to this rule is made for the buildings of the Addis Ababa University, the former Genete Leul Palace, donated by Haile Selassie I in 1961, to be used for the establishment of a university. Apart from the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, founded by Dr. Richard Pankhurstxii, the buildings now also house the Ethnological Museum. In the museum the Emperor’s and Empress’ bed and bathrooms were kept in their original condition. Unfortunately a strict “no photography” policy is enforced here also.

 Most of Haile Selassie’s prestige projects have also stood the test of time. Africa Hall, situated across of the Jubilee Palace and the former headquarters of the Organisation of African Unityxiii (OAU), an organisation originally established by the Emperor in 1963, is these days occupied by UNECA (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa). In the centre of the city, in the area surrounding Churchill Avenue, the National Theatre - where the Emperor’s box was preserved in its original condition - and the unique and still functional Commercial Bank of Ethiopia building with its somewhat futuristic look, can be found.

 On the square between the two aforementioned buildings, thrones the well-known stone Lion of Judah statue, erected in celebration of the Imperial Siver Jubilee in 1955. The National Library, founded by Haile Selassie in 1944, is just a few blocks away. Originally the library’s collection was entirely made up of books from the private collection of the Emperor.

 As mentioned earlier, the Ethiopian Empire came to an abrupt end in 1974 with the coup led by Cornell Mengistu Haile Mariam. His paranoia-driven dictatorial regime reached new bloody extremes in the period 1977 - 1978, in Ethiopia commonly known as the Red Terror, a time when everyone remotely suspected of opposition or dissention was arrested, tortured and executed without remorse. It’s Ethiopia’s sad little equivalent to the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the Cambodian re-education tactics of the Khmer Rouge, a stigma in the history of the country that has been given a place of remembrance in the Red Terror Museum. The exhibition in that museum opens with the deposition of Haile Selassie I on September 12th 1974, illustrated with the now infamous “last” picture of the Emperor being led away in a simple Volkswagen Beetle, forever to disappear into the annals of history.

SHASHAMENE

However, let’s not forget the Rastafarians. Somewhere in the nineteen-thirties, they started revering Haile Selassie I as a mythical demigod. To them, Ras Tafari was a black Christ reborn and of course a living God cannot die. To this day, the Rastafarians keep the name of the Emperor alive.

 In 1948, Haile Selassie I bequeathed a piece of land to Africans in the Diaspora wanting to return to the black continent. Even though some of the initial settlers were not associated with the Rastafarian faithxiv, Shashamene, a village 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, is these days mainly known for being the centre of Rastafarianism.

 Each housexv (Twelve Tribes, Nyahbinghi and Boboshanti) has its own compound in the town and the images of Haile Selassie I or the imperial Lion of Judah symbol are nowhere more present than here. For real memorabilia of the Imperial era, a visit to Ras Hailu Teferi is highly advisable. This artist from Saint Vincent is the curator of his own little museumxvi, where, apart from his own artwork made of banana leaves, he exhibits his collection of imperial paraphernalia. Coins, medals, insignia, uniforms and more, Ras Hailu has it all! If you’re looking to stay in Shashamene, the Zion Train Lodge, a little paradise run by Ras Alex, a rastaman from Guadeloupe, and his wife Sandrine, is recommended. At the lodge it’s possible to spend the night in a tukul (round traditional hut) surrounded by lush greenery and the kitchen serves the most delicious ital food all day long!

BACK TO ADDIS

  There’s one address left to visit: the Holy Trinity cathedral built by Haile Selassie I himself. The Trinity (“Selassie” in Amharic) is the largest cathedral in Ethiopia, but different from most other churches in the country (which have a circular design), it has the more western shape of a Latin cross. In the cemetery surrounding the cathedral, a number of prominent figures were buried; among them the popular Ethiopian musician Tilahun Gesesse and the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurstxvii, the last one a passionate advocate of the Ethiopian cause during the Italian occupation. Another point of interest is the monument for the sixty members of the last imperial government executed by the Derg on November 24th 1974.

Inside the cathedral - which by the way has Belgian stained-glass windows - two thrones, used by the Emperor and Empress whenever they attended a service, can still be found and just as in the Saint George cathedral the walls of the apse are decorated with frescoes depicting important scenesxviii from the life of Haile Selassie I. In a chapel to the back of the building the remains of the Emperor and Empress are resting in two huge stone sarcophagi. Empress Menen was buried here after her death in 1962, but she would have to wait until the year 2000 for her spouse to join herxix.

SELASSIE’S LEGACY

There’s an absolute abundance of physical remnants from the reign of Haile Selassie I, but establishing how the Ethiopians themselves view their history and the image they have of their last emperor, is no easy feat, though.

The following quote by Harold G. Marcus from the fittingly titled book Beyond The Throne: The Enduring Legacy Of Emperor Haile Selassie I” (Shama Books, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2001) perfectly summarizes the situation: “Although the emperor lived on in the minds of older Ethiopians, he was lost to the younger generation who learned their history from books that rendered events and personalities from a highly politicized point of view. It is little wonder that those thirty or younger, now the majority of people in Ethiopia, know little about Haile Selassie I.”

Indrias Getachew, author of that same book, continues along the same line: “The passing of time has allowed those Ethiopians who had the privilege to compare what we had with what has come after. When I hear my elders speak about that time, it is with bittersweet nostalgia, their voices heavy with regret and resignation for an era that has now passed. Though I was only three years old when the emperor passed away, I believe that those times were better in many respects. This is not to argue that there were no problems or that the calls for reform that precipitated the events of 1974 were unjustified. What is disturbing is the manner in which things were handled, for not only did we lose an integral part of what it meant to be Ethiopian - 3000 years of royalty and all the cultural attachments that come with it - we also lost our dignity. Emperor Haile Selassie I led Ethiopia into the modern era and that remains his most important legacy. The foundation upon which the future of this historic nation is based was set during his era and despite the attempts to wipe out his legacy during the Dergue era, it endures. The fundamental changes that will deliver a modern Ethiopian society all have their roots in the accomplishments of Ethiopia’s last emperor; everything from the educational system to the basic infrastructure required for developing a modern economy. Although tremendous challenges remain to combat poverty, the means for accomplishing this were set forth by the emperor, his enduring legacy to his people.”

Whether it’s out of patriotic nostalgia, divine reverence or historic admiration, for many Haile Selassie I remains one of the most fascinating figures in the political and religious history of the 20th century. Yours truly can only express hope the Ethiopians will at the very least discover Haile Selassie’s touristic potential. Time will tell if the Lion of Judah shall roar again.

Footnotes

i

On 28 August 1975, the state media officially reported publicly that the "ex-monarch" Haile Selassie had died on 27 August of "respiratory failure" following complications from a prostate operation. His doctor, Asrat Woldeyes, denied that complications had occurred and rejected the government version of his death. Some imperial loyalists believed that the Emperor had in fact been assassinated, and this belief remains widely held. (www.wikipedia.org)

ii

The Solomonic dynasty is the traditional Imperial House of Ethiopia, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (in Ethiopia known as Makeda), who is said to have given birth to the traditional first king Menelik I after her Biblically described visit to Solomon in Jerusalem. 1 Kings 10:1-10. The full story can be found in the Ethiopian book Kebra Nagast.

The dynasty, a bastion of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, came to rule Ethiopia when Yekuno Amlak overthrew the last ruler of the Zagwe dynasty. Menelik II, and later his daughter Zawditu, would be the last Ethiopian monarch who could claim uninterrupted direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Emperor Haile Selassie could only claim it through his paternal grandmother, Tenagnework Sahle Selassie). (www.wikipedia.org)

iii

Amongst Haile Selassie’s most important accomplishments are the drafting of the first Ethiopian constitution in 1931 (with a second updated version in 1955), the founding of a national bank and the introduction of paper money, the construction of schools (Tafari Makonnen School) and universities (Haile selassie I University), the introduction of an electricity grid, the opening up of Ethiopia through the construction of roads (Moyale Road, which leads from Addis Ababa to the Kenyan border, also known as the King’s Highway among Rastafarians) and aviation infrastructure (e.g. Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa’s international airport) and finally the abolition of slavery (August 26th 1942). Also worth mentioning is the fact that, following a treaty from 1948, in 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church got its own Ethiopian Abuna (archbishop/patriarch), for the first time in her century long existence, ensuring its complete independence from the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria.

iv

Famine mostly in Wollo, northeastern Ethiopia, as well as in some parts of Tigray is estimated to have killed 40,000 to 80,000 Ethiopians between 1972 and 1974. Although the region is infamous for recurrent crop failures and continuous food shortage and starvation risk, this episode was remarkably severe. It led to the 1973 production of the ITV program “The Unknown Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby. Dimbleby's report suggested a far higher death toll than was borne out by the facts and showed images of emaciated Ethiopians, alternated with footage of a lavish banquet held at the imperial palace. The consequences soon made themselves felt: foreign aid was sent on a massive scale and Selassie’s international reputation received a firm blow.

Some reports suggest that the Emperor was unaware of the extent of the famine, while others assert that he was well aware of it. The crisis was exacerbated by military mutinies and high oil prices, the latter a result of the 1973 oil crisis. The international economic crisis triggered by the oil crisis caused the costs of imported goods, gasoline, and food to skyrocket, while unemployment spiked.

Ironically, Haile Selassie initiated the changes that led to his downfall. The military training program that exposed Ethiopian officers to representative institutions in the United States; and Haile Selassie I University and foreign scholarships taught students to think about political economy. The Emperor, however, could not seem to adapt to new concepts, and he lost touch with his subjects. If the pace of change was slow under the Emperor, it was deliberately so as he was quoted stating: "We must make progress slowly so as to preserve the progress we have already made.". (www.wikipedia.org)

v

Haile Selassie's reign came to an end in 1974, when a Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist military junta, the "Derg" led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, deposed him, and established a one-party communist state, which was called People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In the beginning of the 1980s, a series of famines hit Ethiopia that affected around 8 million people, leaving 1 million dead. Insurrections against Communist rule sprang up particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa and the Soviet Union did not intervene to save the government side. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides. The Transitional Government of Ethiopia, composed of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution, was set up. The first free and democratic election took place in May 1995 in which Meles Zenawi was elected the Prime Minister and Negasso Gidada was elected President. (www.wikipedia.org)

vi

In 1936, Italian East Africa covered Eritrea, the just-conquered Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland. The colony was divided into the six governorates of Italian East Africa: Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, plus four provinces of Ethiopia (Amhara, Galla-Sidamo, Scioa, Harar) each run by an Italian governor. Each governor was answerable to the Italian viceroy, who represented the Emperor Victor Emmanuel III.

Italian East Africa briefly enlarged in 1940, as Italian forces conquered British Somaliland, thereby creating a single Somali provincial entity within Italian control, though this and the colony was broken apart one year later as Italian East Africa was occupied by British forces in the course of the British-led East African Campaign (June 1940-November 1941). (www.wikipedia.org)

vii

The frescoes are mainly based on famous photographs; among the scenes depicted are the speech Haile Selassie I delivered in front of the League of Nations in Geneva on June 30th 1936 and the hoisting of the imperial flag after the emperor re-entered the country at Um Iddla on January 18th of 1941.

viii

Zawditu (April 29, 1876 - April 2, 1930) was Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. The first woman head of an internationally-recognized state in Africa in the 1800s and 1900s, she was noted for opposing the reforms of Tafari Makonnen (the later Emperor Haile Selassie I) and for her strong religious devotion. (www.wikipedia.org)

ix

A great number of Indians in Addis worked in the construction sector. In 1909 their number was limited to only 149, most of them living in poor conditions. A key figure of the early Indian community in Addis was Haji Kawas, an Indian Muslim from Peshawar, who led a group of Indian workers who constructed several building of the Ghebbi.

The Indians left some of the most visible marks on Addis Ababa’s architecture, as shown by the old buildings in the Piazza area. Among the traditional Indian architectural features that can be found in Addis are the external walls double the thickness in Ethiopian dwellings (a feature also common in Gujarat buildings and aimed at alleviating heat through adequate ventilation), verandas (open and supported by wooden posts in the older buildings, closed in the more recent ones), main entrances sheltered by double doors (the outer usually multi-glazed) and roof finials and decorations on the eaves (in India often a symbol or a reference to the owner’s name). Also worth mentioning are the tower-like structures featured on several houses of the time (imported yet again from Gujarat, the Indian region from where most Indian constructors and carpenters who worked in Addis originated). Among the most interesting example of Indian style architecture in Addis are the Arada post office and the old Holy Trinity church. ("Cultural
Heritage Promotion, An Exemplary Restoration Of A Historic Building In
Kasanchis, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia")

x

The Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de Fer Éthiopiens was a semi-private firm founded in 1894 to build and operate a railway across eastern Ethiopia from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti in what was at the time French Somaliland. The firm failed in 1906 when political discord halted construction, and it failed to obtain any new capital. In 1908, the assets of the company were transferred to a new firm, the Compagnie de Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien de Jibuti à Addis Abeba, which received a new concession to finish the line to Addis Ababa. After a year of wrangling with the previous financiers and their governments, construction began anew. By 1915 the line reached Akaki, only 23 kilometers from the capital, and two years later came all the way to Addis Ababa itself. (www.wikipedia.org)

xi

In Addis Ababa Haile Selassie I had three palaces at his disposal; the Genete Leul (which was later converted to the Haile Selassie I University), the Gibbi or Menelik Palace (the old imperial palace from the era of Menelik II, these days serving as the seat of government) and finally the Jubilee Palace, built during his reign, and his prime residence (these days the National Palace and the official residence of the Ethiopian president).

xii

British academic with expertise in the study of Ethiopia and the son of well-known suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. (www.wikipedia.org)

xiii

The Organization of African Unity was established on 25 May 1963. It was disbanded on 9 July 2002 by its last chairperson, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and replaced by the African Union (AU). (www.wikipedia.org)

xiv

In 1948, Emperor Haile Selassie I donated 500 acres (2.0 km2) of his private land to allow members of the Rastafari movement, Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) officers and members, and other settlers from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean to go to Africa. The return would be under the auspices of the EWF, founded in 1937 by the Emperor's special emissary to Black America, Melaku E. Bayen. The first West Indian family that settled in Shashamene, were Mr. James Piper and his wife Helen from Montserrat, who arrived in 1955. In 1961, the Jamaican government sent a delegation composed of both Rastafarian and non-Rastafarian leaders to Ethiopia to discuss the matter of repatriation, among other issues, with the Emperor. He reportedly told the Rastafarian delegation: "Tell the Brethren to be not dismayed, I personally will give my assistance in the matter of repatriation". The first actual Rastafarian brother and settler, Gladstone Robinson, who was also an official delegate of the EWF, was sent to Shashemene on behalf of the organization in June, 1964, followed by Papa Noel Dyer, who hitchhiked and thus found his way to Ethiopia from England, eventually arriving in September, 1965. (www.wikipedia.org)

xv

There are three main sects or orders of Rastafari today: the Nyahbinghi Order, Boboshanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Many Rastafarians do not belong to any sect, however, and the movement as a whole is loosely defined and organized.

The Nyahbinghi Order (also known as Haile Selassie I Theocratical Order of the Nyahbinghi Reign) holds steadfast to ancient biblical values. They consume nothing that harms their body, because the body is the temple and the temple the church. The Nyahbinghi Order is a non-violent order that calls upon God's (Jah’s) power to execute judgment upon all black and white "downpressors". This is the oldest of the orders and it focuses mainly on Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia, and the eventual return to Africa. It is overseen by an Assembly of Elders.

Boboshanti was founded by Prince Emmanuel Charles Edwards in Jamaica in the 1950s. "Bobo" means black and "shanti" refers to the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, from which this sect believes Jamaican slaves have descended. Members of Boboshanti are also known as Bobo Dreads. In belief, Bobo Dreads are distinguished by their worship of Prince Emmanuel (in addition to Haile Selassie I) as a reincarnation of Christ and embodiment of Jah, and the fact members of the order wear long robes and tightly wrapped turbans around their dreads. They adhere closely to the Jewish Law, including the observance of seventh-day Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and hygiene laws for menstruating women. They live separately from Jamaican society and other Rastafarians, growing their own produce and selling straw hats and brooms (meant to symbolize their cleanliness).

The Twelve Tribes of Israel sect was founded in 1968 by Dr. Vernon "Prophet Gad" Carrington. It is the most liberal of the Rastafarian orders and members are free to worship in a church of their choosing. Each member of this sect belongs to one of the 12 Tribes (based on the names of Jacob’s twelve sons, Genesis 35), which is determined by birth month and is represented by a color. (www.wikipedia.org)

xvi

The works Ras Hailu exhibits in his Banana Art Gallery are all made without the addition of artificial colorants or paint. For more information: Banana Art Natural Developed Ideas, Self Help Programme, P.O. Box 8909, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.

xvii

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 - 27 September 1960) was a notable campaigner for the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. She was for a time a prominent left communist. In the mid-1920s she drifted away from communist politics but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1932, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council. She also responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News from 1936, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie I. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture; her research was published as “Ethiopia, a Cultural History” (London: Lalibela House, 1955). She died in 1960, and was given a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie I named her “an honorary Ethiopian”. She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in the area reserved for patriots of the Italian war. (www.wikipedia.org)

xviii

See endnote vii

xix

In 1992, the emperor's bones were found under a concrete slab on the palace grounds; some reports suggest that his remains were discovered beneath a latrine. For almost a decade thereafter, as Ethiopian courts attempted to sort out the circumstances of his death, his coffin rested in the Beta Mariam mausoleum, near his great uncle Menelik II's imperial resting place. On November 5th 2000, Haile Selassie I was given an Imperial funeral by the Ethiopian Orthodox church, but the post-communist government refused calls to declare the ceremony an official imperial funeral. Most Rastafarians rejected the event and refused to accept that the bones were the remains of Haile Selassie I. (www.wikipedia.org)