Haile Selassie I in his limousine during his state visit to Bern on 25 November 1954. His headdress is decorated with a lion’s mane.
Haile Selassie I in his limousine during his state visit to Bern on 25 November 1954. His headdress is decorated with a lion’s mane. Swiss National Museum

Emperor Haile Selassie, God of the Rastafarians

Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975), who was crowned ‘King of Kings’ in Addis Ababa in 1930, was believed in Ethiopia to have been chosen by God. The Rastafarians in Jamaica even ‘recognised’ him as their Messiah and God. A look at the dual ‘careers’ of a 20th-century figure who was as remarkable as he was controversial.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Art historian

‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia, Lord of Lords and Elect of God’ was the full title of Tafari Makonnen from 1930 onwards. Born in 1892 in the Ethiopian province of Harar, 37 years later he was to become the last throne holder of the dynasty that had ruled the Ethiopian empire for nearly 3,000 years. In Harar, his father, Ras Makonnen Woldemikael, held the office of governor. Tafari’s mother passed away when he was two years old. After the death of his father the father’s cousin, Emperor Menelik II, who had no sons of his own, took the young Tafari to the imperial court in Addis Ababa to raise him. Years of family and palace intrigues followed, at the end of which, in 1917, Tafari Makonnen was invested as Regent alongside the newly crowned Empress Zewditu, eldest daughter of Menelik II. However, Zewditu’s throne was on shaky ground from the start.
Tafari (left) and his father, before 1905.
Tafari (left) and his father, before 1905. Wikimedia
Ras Tafari Makonnen (left) and Empress Zewditu, 1917.
Ras Tafari Makonnen (left) and Empress Zewditu, 1917. Wikimedia

Coronation of the ‘King of Kings’

After further, sometimes bloody, power struggles, the ambitious and astute string-puller Tafari Makonnen, who now bore the title Ras (duke, prince) like his father, gained more and more support, influence and power at the imperial court. In 1928 he had himself crowned Negus (king) by the Empress Zewditu – whose health and position of power had by now been significantly undermined. In doing so, she had effectively handed over state power to him. As Empress, she remained the nominal head of state – but only for a short while longer. Following the Empress’s death, the circumstances of which have never been fully clarified, Negus Tafari Makonnen was crowned ‘Negusa Negast’ (‘King of Kings’), Emperor of Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa on 2 November 1930. The week-long coronation festivities, celebrated with much fanfare and attended by high-ranking European guests including official representatives of the colonial powers France, Great Britain and Italy, were covered in detail around the world. The regnal name of the new ruler was Haile Selassie I, which translates from Amharic as ‘Power of the Trinity’. This self-chosen name certainly has no ring of humility about it. For a ‘Chosen One of God’, as all Ethiopian emperors were traditionally believed to be, however, the choice is not particularly surprising. Of much greater interest is the story of how this ‘claim to divine power’ is derived.
The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I, 1930. YouTube

Offspring of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon

Christianity has been the state religion in Ethiopia – one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, along with Armenia and Georgia – since the middle of the 4th century AD. The Emperor, whose power was unrestricted, simultaneously held office as leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian emperors were established by the Solomonic dynasty from 1270 AD. Their right to rule is based on the national epic of Ethiopia, the ‘Kebra Negast’ (‘Glory of the Kings’), written in the late 13th century. The epic contains an account of the legendary Queen of Sheba, also referred to in the Old Testament, ruler of a vast kingdom stretching from southern Arabia to Ethiopia. After meeting the biblical King Solomon, leader of the Israelite tribe of Judah, she is said to have given birth to his son Menelik I back in her homeland. According to legend, as a young man Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem, where Solomon is said to have crowned him Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba: detail of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, 1425-52.
Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba: detail of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, 1425-52. Wikimedia
Haile Selassie was considered a representative of the Solomonic dynasty and the 225th successor to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Like all emperors of Ethiopia, he called himself the ‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah’. The lion, with crown and sceptre, was also depicted on the Ethiopian flag.
National flag of the Ethiopian Empire of the Lion of Judah in the period 1897-1936 and 1941-1974.
National flag of the Ethiopian Empire of the Lion of Judah in the period 1897-1936 and 1941-1974. Wikimedia

Meanwhile, in Jamaica

In Jamaica, an island nation in the Caribbean about 12,000 kilometres from Ethiopia, Haile Selassie was simultaneously endowed with a second ‘career’: that of Messiah and God. This happened without any active participation by the ruler. Many sources cite a prophecy made in the 1920s by political activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) as the origin of Haile Selassie’s divine worship: ‘Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand’. The father of the ‘Back-to-Africa’ movement and of Ethiopianism in Jamaica foretold the coronation of a powerful black king who would bring about the long-awaited return to Africa and the liberation of the black peoples from colonial oppression. The Christianised descendants of slaves stolen from Africa, people who now lived in the slums of Kingston and in the jungle interior of the island – many of them descendants of what were known as Maroons – drew hope of a better life from the prediction of a better future on the continent of their roots. In the biblical departure from Egypt (Exodus) and in the return from exile in Babylon, they saw precursors of their own struggle against oppression, and Ethiopia, the only African country that had never been colonised, was glorified as the ‘Holy Land’ (while Jamaica remained a British colony until 1962).
Time Magazine, 6.1.1936, Volume XXVII, No 1, cover.
As a result of Haile Selassie’s commitment and service to his country against the fascist aggressors – Ethiopia was occupied by Mussolini’s troops from 1936 to 1941, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III had himself proclaimed ‘Emperor of Abyssinia’, and Haile Selassie lived in exile in London – Time Magazine published a cover story on him for its ‘Man of the Year’. Time Magazine, 6.1.1936, Volume XXVII, No 1, cover. Wikimedia

Haile Selassie and the Rastafarians

Among an ever-growing group whose name derives from Haile Selassie’s original name and title, Ras Tafari Makonnen – the Rastafaris, or Rastas for short – the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie was seen as the fulfilment of Garvey’s prophecy. Their faith, rooted in Christianity, with Old Testament and apocalyptic references and permeated by a ‘black messianic mysticism’, teaches the divinity of Haile Selassie, whose coronation is considered to be the promised return of Jesus Christ as announced in the Bible. Or, put another way, the Rastafarians believe that God has appeared on earth in the form of a human being three times: first in the form of the Old Testament priest Melchizedek, then as Jesus Christ and finally as Haile Selassie. Nature too has twice played its part, in the form of a ‘divine sign’ which the Rastafaris took as confirming that Haile Selassie was their God (Jah) incarnate. In 1930 Jamaica suffered an extreme, prolonged drought. But immediately after the announcement of the imperial coronation, the longed-for rains began to fall on the island. Another event that gave impetus to the Rastafari movement occurred on 21 April 1966. On that day, Haile Selassie was expected in Jamaica as a state guest. Tens of thousands of Rastafarians at the airport in Kingston ‘recognised’ their returned Messiah with jubilant cheering and rejoicing, after his plane landed just as the sun began to shine again after several hours of rain showers. Since then, the date has been celebrated as Grounation Day and is considered the second most important holiday for the Rastas after 2 November, the date of the imperial coronation.
Video of Emperor Haile Selassie landing in Jamaica for his state visit in 1966. YouTube

Reggae, the music of the Rastafarians

The Rastafari religious movement is mostly known only for an external feature of many Rastas, their dreadlocks, or for its music, reggae, whose most popular proponent to this day has been Bob Marley (1945-1981). Rising from the slums of Kingston to achieve global fame, Marley was instrumental in bringing Rastafarianism into pop culture and causing it to spread around the world. Marley always started his concerts with the words ‘Greetings in the Name of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie the First, Jah Rastafari’. His lyrics often reference Haile Selassie’s person and works, as well as his speeches. A well-known example is the reggae classic ‘War’, released in 1976 on the album ‘Rastaman Vibration’. The lyrics are based on Haile Selassie’s iconic speech with the title, translated from Amharic, ‘What Life Has Taught Me About the Question of Racial Discrimination’, which the Emperor delivered to the United Nations in New York in 1963.
Bob Marley singing ‘War’. YouTube

Downfall and death in the mid-1970s

Until the end of the 1960s, Haile Selassie was seen abroad as an enlightened, modern ruler, with whom people liked to be seen on the red carpet. But in his own court his approach was feudal and old-fashioned, and over time this was the cause of increasing discontent, even among his closest followers. For Haile Selassie, sharing or even relinquishing power was out of the question, and he was also reluctant to bring in reforms. On the one hand, he had dragged Addis Ababa out of the Middle Ages and modernised large sections of the city. On the other hand, time stood still in the provinces. At the beginning of the 1970s, Ethiopia was still one of the most economically underdeveloped countries in the world. Per capita GNP was the lowest in Africa. The average life expectancy was barely 30 years, and 60% of all newborns died before reaching their first birthday. Inflation as a result of the oil crisis and the catastrophic famine that followed repeated periods of drought triggered mass demonstrations and student riots in 1973. Parts of the army revolted and eventually 120 officers, including the country’s future dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, conspired against the Emperor and overthrew him on 12 September 1974. Mengistu held the Emperor under house arrest in the palace. On 27 August 1975, a servant found him dead in bed. It is now all but certain that the frail 83-year-old was smothered with a pillow. Mengistu had his body buried under the floorboards of a palace lavatory.
T-shirts featuring Haile Selassie for sale in Harlem, New York, 2021.
T-shirts featuring Haile Selassie for sale in Harlem, New York, 2021. Library of Congress

Haile Selassie’s immortality

However, the events of the mid-1970s did nothing to dent his veneration as God by the Rastafarians in Jamaica. Among the devout Rastas, his mortal death and controversial reputation caused not the slightest doubt as to Haile Selassie’s divinity. Rastafarianism still flourishes today, and is cultivated worldwide by its followers. Reggae, which has no lack of young talent, also confers immortality on Haile Selassie. Among the genre’s young stars is Jamaican musician Chronixx. Before his concert on the top floor of the Reitschule Bern in September 2014, his tour bus made a stop on the way from Zurich to Bern to visit the special exhibition ‘Playing host to an Emperor. Haile Selassie’s state visit in 1954’ at Jegenstorf Castle. The castle is a place of pilgrimage for Rastas from all over the world, as it served as Emperor Haile Selassie’s residence during his state visit from 25 to 28 November 1954.
Chronixx (left) with members of his band in front of the main entrance to Jegenstorf Castle. The triangle hand sign means ‘Power of the Trinity’ – the English translation of the Amharic regnal name ‘Haile Selassie’.
Chronixx (left) with members of his band in front of the main entrance to Jegenstorf Castle. The triangle hand sign means ‘Power of the Trinity’ – the English translation of the Amharic regnal name ‘Haile Selassie’. Murielle Schlup

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