Lij Tafari Mäkonnen, better known as Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia’s 225th and last Emperor, was murdered in his palace while under house arrest by command of the new Communist masters on August 27th, 1975.
He supposedly could trace his line back to Menelik I, credited with being the child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as well as the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty in the 10th century BC.
His death followed the execution of 60 imprisoned former government officials, including family members like his son-in-law Abiye Abebe (born 1937), on November 23rd, 1974 on so-called “Bloody Saturday”.
After his hastily buried remains were discovered in 1992, on November 5th, 2000 Haile Selassie finally received a proper funeral at Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, the second most important place of worship in modern Ethiopia.
Haile Selassie was born in a mud hut in the small town of Ejersa Gora on July 23th, 1892 to Ras Makonnen (1852-1906), the governor of Harar, known in Arabic as the City of Saints and home to 82 mosques, in the recently conquered eastern part of the country.
Though even today, Ethiopia’s Muslims make up less than 1/3 of the current population of 110,000 million in one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and actually able to keep it.
Haile Selassie, a self-described devout Oriental Orthodox Christian all of his life, adopted the title “Might of the Trinity” when he was crowned emperor on November 2nd, 1930 in the capital’s Saint George’s Cathedral.
During his almost 44 years in power, he built a huge number of churches. Educated mostly by a French Catholic priest, he sought contact with other Christian denominations in that part of the world.
One of Haile Selassie father’s important allies was his cousin, Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913), who didn’t have a male successor and took care of him as a possible candidate after his father’s death.
Following the passing of Menelik II his grandson Lij Yasu (1895-1935) was appointed as Emperor. Yasu, who reportedly had converted to Islam, showed a pronounced lack of interest in politics, lacked diplomatic skills and was prone to cronyism, soon alienated many aristocrats, who in 1916 arranged his downfall.
In 1917, Haile Selassie had been made heir apparent and crown prince, becoming Ethiopia’s éminence grise: while he administered, the late Emperor’s daughter Zewditu (1876-1930) would govern. As Africa’s first Empress, she wrote history.
He also did as the first Ethiopian ruler who went abroad, visiting in 1924 the Holy Land, Egypt, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland and Greece.
On August 1st, 1923 Haile Selassie had managed to lead Ethiopia into the League of Nations, the failed predecessor of the United Nations, located in Geneva after World War I.
It was at its Assembly where he, although fluent in French, on June 30th, 1936 delivered a historic speech for assistance in his native Amharic, an Ethio-Semitic language.The fact that ultimately he didn’t receive it must have confirmed his suspicions about European colonialism.
Haile Selassie’s modernization campaign was merely based on the insight that “We need European progress only because we are surrounded by it. That is at once a benefit and a misfortune.”
After leading the Ethiopian resistance against the Italian invasion which began on October 3rd, 1935, Haile Selassie had to flee his homeland on May 2nd, 1936. He ended up living in exile in the United Kingdom from 1936 to 1941, most of it in Bath near London.
In World War II, during the East African Campaign, he returned with British help. Haile Selassie crossed the Sudanese-Ethiopian border on January 18th, 1941 and entered Addis Ababa on May 5th, 1941, exactly five years after the Italians had occupied it.
On 27 August 1942, Haile Selassie set the legal basis for the abolition of slavery, imposing severe punishment for it, including the death penalty. Considering Ethiopia’s backwardness, he was fully aware of the immense challenges and sought gradual modernization through rather slow social, economic and educational reforms.
After the first written Constitution of 1931, he granted another in 1955, which outlined equal rights for his citizens under the law without diminishing his own privileges and allowing political parties.
An aborted tax reform in the 1960s showed his increasing weakness. The Oil Crisis in October 1973 led to large unemployment and skyrocketing prices. Combined with a famine in the north-east, a guerrilla war in (now independent) Eritrea, and an army mutiny in February 1974 over low pay undermined his rule decisively.
Moscow-backed opposition forces ultimately ousted Haile Selassie on September 12th, 1974, bringing to an end a tradition of almost 3,000 years. Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (born 1937) took over. Until 1991, his socialist experiment cost the lives of 1.5 million Ethiopians.