a chapter from
"CATCH A FIRE"
(a biography of Bob Marley by Timothy White)
On July 23, 1892, a baby was born in Ejarsa Gora and was suckled in the fertile lands of Harage province, some eighteen miles from the city of Harar. On that first day a stern-faced nobleman kept a vigil outside a round house of dried earth and ash with a conical thatched roof of wattle-wood, listening for the child's first crackling cries for breath and life. He wore a black bombazine tunic, against which shone a smart sword in a silver sheath. Around his waist was a bandolier of cartridges, an ivory-handled pistol tucked in it at the belly, and upon his head was an Italian-made fedora of stiff black felt.
A gun bearer stood behind him, cradling the man's fine rifle in a scarlet cotton sheath, holding it high above the swirling dust. Farther back from the pair, fanned out in a wide half-circle upon the sloping hillock, was a large contingent of soldiers in ceremonial dress, each grasping a loaded carbine. And beyond this mass of men were tight clusters of peasants, prostrate and in prayer, the torrid breezes from the desert carrying their fervently chanted zemas (prayers) into the cool recesses of the house.
Inside, physicians and servants ministered to the mother under the watchful gaze of priests clutching long malwamiyas (prayer sticks). Keeping their heads bowed and their eyes averted, the servants fulfilled all requests quickly and quietly, but with extravagant care, knowing their very lives depended on their serving their mistress well on this momentous occasion. The mother was in the final stages of labor, and as they forced back impulses toward panic, the servants almost failed to hear the sputtering whimpers as the babe emerged from the womb, his tiny body steaming slightly.
The awful tension exploded with a shrill bawling from the tawny male infant, and all hands concentrated on preparing the child for inspection by his father. The servants' eyes blurred with tears of relief as they washed him, anointed him with fine oils and daubed his thin lips with melted, blessed butter, and their ears rang with the din of rifle reports as hundreds of guns saluted from every valley and hilltop the nativity of Tafari Makonnen, son of Governor Ras Makonnen of Harar under Emperor Menelik II and Makonnen's wife, Woyzaro Yashimabet.
This child was believed to be a direct descendant of the biblical King Solomon of Jerusalem and Queen Makeda of Sabo (Sheba), the southern lands of Ethiopia. Indeed, his bloodlines had been traced back to Solomon's grandfather, Jesse, the blackest Jew the world had ever known.
For several years, Ras Makonnen's chaplains and astrologers had been foretelling the infant's birth; Neptune and Pluto, they explained, had started slowly moving toward each other in the year 1399; both planets travelled along the Heliocentric Line, taking 493 years to intersect; the moment would come in July 1892, sparking off radiations from other zodiacal signs that would mystically influence the constellation Leo, which corresponded to the biblical House of Judah, Jacob's fourth son, who was born the same month, as recounted in Isaiah.
But before this birth, said the seers, there would be a great drought in Ethiopia, beginning in .1889, despite the fact that the country traditionally enjoyed two rainy seasons. The eventual return of the rains would confirm the identity and destiny of the child, as it was written in Isaiah 9:6: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the Government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."
When all was in readiness, a saddled mule was brought to carry Ras Makonnen the few yards from where he had been waiting to the front door of the house. He entered, beheld the luminescent baby, and offered a solemn prayer that, unlike all his previous offspring by Yashimabet, this son might survive his infancy. The priests made similar supplications to ward off demon spirits and buda—the human agents of the evil eye who transform themselves by night into predatory hyenas.
The customarily stiff and taciturn ras (prince) murmured a few words of comfort and praise to Yashimabet, who thanked him meekly. Then he departed on his mule, his retainers and soldiers following close behind him as he headed off in the direction of the walled city of Harar. At some point along the way he would partake of a celebratory meal of wat, a strongly spiced beef stew, traditionally eaten with the highly absorbent flat bread called injera, and washed down with sweet wine and talla, a robust beer.
As Ras Makonnen reached the main road leading to Harar, a few raindrops stained his tunic. A servant scurried up alongside his master, deftly covering him with a barnos, a black cloak of fine wool with a cowl for the head that was standard foul-weather equipment for the wealthy during the summer rainy season. Deep in contemplation, Makonnen scarcely noticed either the drizzle or the obsequious gesture. He wondered if this child of his would live to manhood. For what reason had so many others perished in the cradle? Was his own seed cursed by a devil, a zar, dispatched by sorcerers to mock his ambition? Or had corrupt servants poisoned the infants with bad coffee? And if the boy thrived and grew strong, would he succeed where his father had not in securing the emperor's crown for the house of Makonnen? Or was it God's will that the son should rise as high as his father—but no higher—in order to teach this proud family the meaning of true humility?
Yet there was no guarantee that the boy would have the governorship; not even as the lineal descendant of Jesse and Solomon and the great-great grandson of King Sahela Selassie, regional sovereign of Shoa province, who had imposed his will upon the powerful Galla peoples, made treaties with foreign monarchs like Queen Victoria, and carried on the traditions, responsibilities and glories of the Solomonic dynasty, as set down in the holiest of Ethiopian books, the Kebra Nagast.
This was a land of treachery, deceit and low deeds in high places, Makonnen knew. While Menelik II might be his beloved cousin, a man to whom he pledged undying loyalty, the Empress Taitu was a scheming serpent who would stop at nothing to install one of her own line on the throne when the aging emperor died. If his son would endure, he would have to learn a great deal about the responsibilities of noble birth, obedience and the art of manipulation.
The rain intensified as the governor and his retinue crossed a lush field of durra, a sudden high wind knifing through the dense sorghum and scattering some guinea fowl that had been hiding among the shorter stalks by the road. The party pulled off into a mango grove to take shelter until the squall died down.
Still brooding, the prince absently pulled a ripe, rose-red mango from a low-hanging branch as his mule passed under it, causing his retainers to gape with shock. It was most uncommon for Ethiopian nobles to perform even the smallest tasks themselves, especially one so menial as picking fruit. Ras Makonnen bit deeply into the custard- soft flesh, warm juice spilling out of both corners of his mouth. He was about to gulp down the generous lump of pulp when he felt a strange quivering against his tongue. He spat and examined the fruit in his hand: the remaining half of a large gray worm wriggled out of the mango's creamy yellow center.
Makonnen slammed the rest of the fruit to the ground in revulsion and spat again, rubbing the inside of his mouth with his cloak. Just then a violent gust of wind and rain threw back the sheltering mango boughs, a thick bolt of lightning lit up the charcoal sky and in the ghostly flash it appeared to the prince as if the trees themselves were cowering in alarm, as their seasoned fruit was ripped from their limbs and flung a great distance by the furious blast of the storm.
The drought was over! Makonnen exulted to himself, but then the prince's mood darkened. Truly, mighty signs and portents were rapidly multiplying on this most curious and fateful birthday, but they were in conflict. The rains had come, the drought was at an end, but the spoiled fruit of the earth and the harsh, skeleton fingers of the sky were contrasting omens. Makonnen longed to trust completely in the fulfillment of the oracles, but he could not; instead he wanted to curse Cod aloud for His cruel uncertainties. Yet something in him made him hold his tongue.
The rain grew heavier, rendering the flimsy shelter of the trees worthless. So the party took to the road again and pressed on to Harar, each of the prince's retainers wearing the same uncertain expression as his master.
Makonnen decided that young Tafari would have the benefits of both a traditional and a European education. This was considered most unusual by the isolated, ethnocentric citizens of late-nineteenth-cen- tury Ethiopia. The nation's peoples, most of whose ancestors entered the country from Arabia, are divided into two main linguistic families, Cushitic and Semitic. The Galla (Tafari's mother's people) were the most formidable of the Cushites, and the Amharic peoples of Shoa the most influential of the Semites, with the language, politics and religion (the autonomous Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, or Coptic, Church) of the latter becoming predominant as Tafari came of age.
A member of the Shoan-Amharic nobility, Tafari was brought up as befitted a young prince who was one day to be wedded to a worthy woyzaro, or titled lady. Makonnen, having made a number of trips to Europe on state business (including the coronation of Edward VII of England), shared Menelik's view that an awareness of European politics, commerce and culture was essential if Ethiopia was ever to awaken from its feudal doldrums and join the modern family of nations. So Makonnen hired a French tutor from Guadeloupe, Dr. Vitalen, and later invited Abba Samuel, an Ethiopian working in the French mission, to provide his son with a solid Western education.
But Makonnen also believed that a future ras must learn to accept and appreciate the unusual dignity and preeminence over his countrymen that his descent from the Solomonic dynasty afforded. The trembling of the peasants and tenant farmers whenever they found themselves in the presence of royalty was natural, respectful and appropriate, he felt, as well as a sign of favor from God. An Amharic aristocrat, endowed with vast, untaxed lands handed down from his ancestors and augmented with gifts from his emperor, should be able to impose with the confidence of Divine Right strict standards of administration for his properties, and to employ his soldiers (Makonnen had more than six thousand men in his private army) to protect his holdings and collect rent and taxes. The privileged must be vigilant in maintaining a social order based on loyalty and humble submission on the part of their inferiors, while showing the same respect and fealty to the imperial court. Makonnen had spent a lifetime learning a painful lesson: he who does not know how to identify and assess power, in oneself and others, will be deceived by it, and he who does not know how to wield the power he possesses will eventually be undone by it.
From the start, Tafari was aware of a queer dichotomy between his father's European enthusiasms—specifically, an admiration for the orderliness and social mobility of Western society—and the Shoan-Amharic traditions that his father nonetheless adhered to, maintaining a rigid, regal household. The objective, his son eventually came to realize, was to somehow overlap these contradictory elements in his world without one canceling out the other.
It soon became obvious that he would be left to his own devices in this matter. His mother, Yashimabet, had died two years after his birth, and his father, a loving but extremely reserved man, was traveling most of the time on official errands or serving as a judge in the civil court in Harar. Embittered by his near-complete isolation, Tafari loathed his mother for deserting him, but admired his distant father for his detachment from sentimental bonds and obligations. In several respects, Tafari was nothing if not his father's son: he amplified Makonnen's romantic notions about the edifying value of cultural links with the West; he shared his esteem and his thirst for power, as well as his cold, aloof temperament. At a very early age, Tafari had developed the personality of a thoroughgoing autocrat.
Taking notice of this, Makonnen appointed his thirteen-year-old son to the largely honorary post of Dejazmatch, or Keeper of the Door, for a section of Harage province. A year later, in 1906, the proud father was dead.
When the first tests of his mettle came, young Tafari confronted them with the unwavering conviction that all that had been accumulated—both materially and politically—by his late father should be inherited by him. Furthermore, his stored-up resentment of women prepared him to face his two chief adversaries: Empress Taitu and her daughter Zauditu.
Taitu was keen on having Yelma Makonnen, the late prince's son by his first wife, replace his father as governor. Tafari (son of Makonnen's second wife) was devastated and then furious that Yelma should be favored over him. But he understood the nepotism of Ethiopian politics well enough to see why this course was adopted: his father's first wife was a cousin of Taitu's, and with her aged husband in poor health and favorably disposed to Tafari, Taitu was anxious to secure her family's hold on the throne while there was still time to set such a precedent.
And so Yelma got the governorship of Harar, as well as the army that went with it, while Tafari was sidelined with a minor appointment as governor of Selale, a small and insignificant corner of the realm. located to the northwest of the imperial city of Addis Ababa. In an effort to neutralize him completely, Tafari was compelled by Taitu to rule the tiny area in absentia from within the confines of Menelik's palace.
Ironically, this confinement turned out to be quite beneficial for him. Forced to live in an atmosphere of unceasing intrigue as the skirmishes for control of the throne escalated, Tafari gained a great deal of valuable knowledge by observing the snakes in their own pit.
Menelik's frail health gradually worsened, and in 1908 he suffered a stroke. Cut off from the now-incapacitated emperor, his last ally, Tafari was exiled to the southern frontiers of Ethiopia to serve as governor of Sidamo province. But he got three thousand soldiers in the bargain, in addition to the cynical counsel of his maternal grand-mother, Woyzaro Wallata Giyorgis, who was banished along with him. While Tafari was tranquilly growing accustomed to holding sway over his own outlying territory, Taitu was madly fending off endless plots in Addis Ababa.
The year before, Menelik had designated Lij Yasu, his headstrong twelve-year-old grandson, as his successor. Taitu, however, was pushing a more malleable candidate in Zauditu, one of Menelik's daughters. At this juncture, Tafari's half-brother Yelma died, and the governorship of Harar was left vacant. In 1910, with political muscle supplied by a loose confederation of other princes, Tafari regained his birthright, and then moved swiftly, in concert with his newfound comrades, to surround the imperial palace with troops. He then calmly but firmly informed Taitu that her duties at court would henceforth be confined to the nursing of the infirm Menelik, and that the torch of power would be handed over, for the time being, to a well-placed schemer sympathetic to Tafari, Ras Tasamma.
For a time, these audacious measures were effective, but in 1911 Tasamma died, and Lij Yasu once again began to make a determined bid for the throne. In 1913, Menelik finally succumbed, yet Lij Yasu went uncrowned because he had been impudent enough to convert to Islam, in direct defiance of the considerable authority of the Monophysite Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The church and the Shoan nobles fought long and hard to discredit Yasu, and in 1917 they decided to confirm Zauditu as empress.
While the puppet empress was left stranded in the vortex of a maelstrom, Muslims, led by the excommunicated Lij Yasu, sought to subvert the three-thousand-year-old Solomonic succession. But the twenty-five-year-old Tafari, who had since been named a ras by the church in recognition of his loyalty, prevailed upon the Zauditu regime to appoint him regent. Strikingly handsome, extraordinarily soft- spoken and deferential, he seemed an ideal second figurehead for the church and the Shoan faction, and he was granted his wish. He thus achieved through guile what he could never have gained by force of arms: ultimate proximity to the imperial scepter.
For the next thirteen years; Tafari maneuvered his way to a position of political indispensability. He assembled a staff of confidants and then installed them in government offices in Addis Ababa. He introduced a European-style bureaucracy and imported advisors and statecraft from the West. By 1923, he had ushered Ethiopia into the League of Nations. He traveled abroad extensively, accompanied by a retinue which included zebras and lions, and became the figure most closely identified with exotic, enigmatic Ethiopia on the international scene. And when he returned from such trips, he was chauffeured to the palace in a European limousine—as rare an item in Ethiopia as tame lions were in the West.
During these years, he ferreted out and punished his enemies. Renegade Lij Yasu was captured in 1921 and thrown into prison, where he remained bound in the golden chains Tafari had ordered to be cast for this purpose. Yasu was fed fine food, and was allowed to indulge himself with a host of concubines in whatever manner he wished; indeed, Yasu could have most anything he desired—except to be released from the dungeon. He would remain manacled there in strictly circumscribed luxury until his death twelve years later.
In 1926, Habte Giorgis, a war minister who had opposed Ras Tafari's rapid ascendance, expired of natural causes—or so it was claimed. Ras Tafari swiftly confiscated Giorgis's private lands and assumed command of his sixteen-thousand-man army, employing them to move against Empress Zauditu's last belligerent supporters. "He creeps like a mouse, but has the jaws of a lion," observed another ras that same 'year.
Ras Tafari had become the most formidable man in Ethiopia, and he insisted that Zauditu crown him negus, or king, vowing that he personally would drag her down from her throne if she dared refuse. In a final attempt to thwart him, Zauditu sent her husband's sizable army against Tafari's forces, but the army was immediately crushed and her husband killed. On April 2, 1930, two days after Ras Tafari's victory, Empress Zauditu was also dead, in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.
But the Ethiopian people could be certain of this: against all odds, a thin, seemingly fragile man who stood but five feet four inches tall and had rarely been heard to raise his voice, a man who twenty-odd years before had no living parents and no powerful connections to pave his way politically, had somehow risen to challenge, outwit and finally vanquish the last of his opponents.
Rumors cropped up in Addis Ababa that even Ras Tafari's trusted personal counselors were terrified of him, reluctant to shake his hand or gaze directly upon his stark features, with its pointed nose, sparse beard and penetrating, almost black eyes, all framed by wild, bushy hair.
Many of his countrymen were reminded of the biblical prophecy that after the Last War is fought, a King of Kings out of Jesse's root would be crowned in the land of David, a man whose eyes are like fiames of fire, whose hair is like wool and whose feet are black like burning brass, and that in due course that greatest of all kings would vanquish Death and proceed with the Last Judgment, toppling the thrones of Babylon, and throwing all pretenders to temporal power and their deluded followers into the Void.
Queer tales began to circulate about Tafari's boyhood, the most notable concerning his supposed ability to speak to animals. During his youth, it was claimed, he had on several occasions been seen conversing in the bush with leopards and lions, the fierce jungle beasts becoming docile at his feet, much as they had responded centuries before to the fabled Ethiopian hermit. Saint Abbo.
Further, it was said that as a young student Tafari was quite bright and competent at his lessons, but that he had truly astounded the priests with the depth of his knowledge concerning religious and mys- tical matters. Not only could he quote freely from the Kebra Negast, but also from the Book of Kufale, the Book of Enoch, the Shepherd of Hermas, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, the Matshafa Berhan (Book of Light), the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, the Books of Eden (secretly deleted from Genesis during the Dark Ages), all thirty-one books of the Hebrew Bible, the twenty-one canonical books of the New Testament and numerous other apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works.
According to one story, a local priest in Harar had visited the young Tafari shortly after the death of his father and asked him where he had gained such vast knowledge. Tafari replied that much of it had come to him at the moment of his baptism, conducted according to tradition on the fortieth day of his life. The priest who presided at the ceremony had opened Tafari's eyes with the first touch of holy chrism, and everything that ensued was as comprehensible to the infant as if he had been an adult. The priest pronounced his surname, he remembered, and next his baptismal name, and then of course he blew softly in Tafari's face to drive off the evil spirits. At that instant, Tafari claimed, he felt himself enveloped by a golden glow, and as the priest began to anoint him, water touching his forehead, breast, shoulders and all of the other thirty-seven prescribed places, he felt his knowledge increase, filling him up like a vessel and endowing him with a great sense of clarity about Creation and the final purpose of man.
However, in the weeks afterward, the knowledge and this special sense of lucidity seemed to ebb away. When did it return? the priest inquired. When the birds and the beasts and even the insects began to greet him and speak to him, reminding him of what he already knew, Tafari replied. Which was the first creature to speak to him? Tafari requested a sheet of paper and some pastels and began to draw, with extraordinary facility, a picture of a bird. It resembled a dove, but with exotic, multicolored plumage. The priest was about to ask Tafari what sort of bird it was when he was dumbfounded to see the bird fly off the page and out through the nearby window, disappearing into the sky.
Word of the late governor's strange boy spread rapidly but discreetly through the network of liqe kahnat (chief priests) in the provinces, and it is said that they arranged several secret meetings with him to question and, perhaps catch him in .what they supposed might be blasphemous mischief or pagan magic.
At one of these meetings the boy is said to have made it plain that he was well acquainted with the rare manuscripts ofAbba Aragawi and the other Coptic monks known as the "Nine Saints," who entered Ethiopia in 480 A.D. and founded the first monasteries in Tigre province. He also revealed that he was acquainted with the occult applications of Urim and Thummim and the mezuzah, as well as the use of the magic words gematria and notarikon in Egyptian necromancy and also of the magical names Adonay, El and Elohe. He exhibited familiarity with the cabalistic doctrines, the writings of Gilgamesh, the pagan rituals surrounding the worship ofisis, of the serpent Arwe, and of the Abyssinian gods of Earth (Meder), Sea (Beher) and War (Mahrem), as well as the arcana of astrology and numerology. But most importantly, Tafari exhibited to the priests his understanding of the central messages in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Egyptian Book of Two Ways.
In the ancient Egyptian, or Coptic, language, the word for magician meant "scribe of the House of Life." Men so styled were known as kindly wise men, not evil tricksters, and the requests for spells to ward off malevolence that people sought from them were a facet of everyday existence. However, there were several formal rituals that were reserved for ceremonies of the utmost seriousness, among them the Heb-Sed Festival, in which, after he had reigned for thirty years, the pharaoh would travel to Sakkarah, some thirty miles from the Great Pyramid. There, in a holy place flanked by immense monuments, the aged pharaoh would run, jump, wrestle, dance and become miraculously rejuvenated, newly endowed with the vigor of an adolescent. There was also the ritual known as the "Breaking of the Red Jars," in which red clay bowls from Thebes and human figurines fashioned in Sakkarah were smashed in meticulous sequence to repel or destroy the ruler's enemies.
These rituals were performed under the supervision of senior Coptic magicians, the very same order of men who were once bidden by the pharaoh to match their sorcery with Moses and Aaron in a contest of enchantment, to determine whether or not they were actually speaking with the authority of God's Word in demanding that the Egyptians let the Israelites go free. For the Egyptians believed that with the proper sequence of rites and incantations performed in the House of Life, there was no limit to the magical possibilities.
At the core of this conjury was the Word. To say or write the proper word was to make it so. Names, of course, were of the utmost significance in ancient Egypt. All Egyptians had many different names, only one of which was their real name—and, if possible, this was never revealed to anyone. Spells could only be effective, no matter how artfully crafted, if they were cast against a person under his true name. It was said of a man as powerful as the pharaoh that "even his mother does not know his name."
No one, Tafari told the priests, knew his true name.
At one point, an old abmnet (abbot) allegedly asked to examine Tafari's palms. He saw that there were stigmata there, and that the lifeline circled back upon itself in an emblem of infinity. Tafari whispered a word in the abbot's ear, and all color drained from the old man's face. He left the room, apparently in shock, refusing to return or to speak with his colleagues.
Tafari concluded his final session with these scholars and holy men by recounting, as vividly as if he had witnessed the events himself, the story of how King Solomon of Jerusalem had come to know and woo Queen Makeda of Sheba. For uncounted hours, or so it is maintained, the holy men listened with rapt attention, astounded by the young boy's intimate familiarity with these ancient events, without the slightest interruption on their part.
The boy spoke slowly, careful not to skip over any detail, whether it concerned the aspect of a sunrise on a given day and the weather that followed, the architecture and interior design of the palaces and the squalor of slaves' hovels, the stinging, chafing dust in the city streets and the heat waves shimmering up from the vast desert basins in the late afternoon, or the dress, speech, manner and even diet of one of the venerable figures who appeared in his narrative. Descriptions of emotions were handled with particular respect, the complexities of various key events were unhurriedly unraveled, and all of it was deftly woven into a tapestry of utterly arresting discourse.
Tafari explained that the ravishing and wealthy Queen Makeda had learned of the great King Solomon from the Ethiopian merchant prince Tamrin, who owned almost four hundred ships and caravans numbering five hundred camels. After returning from a trading voyage to Jerusalem, where he had delivered large quantities of ebony, red gold and sapphires to the Hebrew king, Tamrin told Makeda of his majestic temple and palace, and of his goodness and righteousness as a judge over his subjects.
Enthralled, Makeda decided she must visit this great king and set out, Tamrin acting as her captain, with a caravan of eight hundred camels, innumerable attendants and a massive baggage train. Upon her arrival in Jerusalem, she was welcomed into the palace by Solomon, who overwhelmed her with his hospitality and enlightened her with his wisdom. Solomon persuaded her to turn away from the worship of the sun and Makeda became a follower of the one true God, the God of Israel, He Whose Name Should Not Be Spoken.
At length, the virgin queen announced her desire to take all that she had learned back to her own people, but Solomon, feeling amorous toward Makeda, persuaded her to linger another season to "complete her instruction in wisdom." On her last night in the palace, there was a farewell banquet of unprecedented splendor, after which Solomon requested to lie with her. She declined, entreating that he swear not to take her by force. He complied, on the stipulation that she take nothing more from him on that night. She agreed, and so Solomon satisfied himself with her slave. But during the night, she arose to get a drink of water from the cistern in the sleeping chamber, and Solomon, who had been feigning sleep in order to observe her, insisted she had broken her oath by taking such a precious substance in so dry a land. Thus, she had no choice but to submit to his lust.
The following morning, Solomon gave her a ring upon which was engraved the seal of the Lion of Judah, instructing her to give it to her firstborn male child, and then to send the boy to him for his education when he came of age. During the long journey back to Ethiopia, Makeda gave birth to a boy she named Ebna Hakim, meaning "son of the wise man."
Growing up in Sheba, Ebna was continually teased by his companions because of his illegitimate birth. By the time he reached his teens he could endure no more ridicule and mortification. Angry and confused, he summoned the courage he had previously lacked and questioned his mother about his unknown father. Pleased, she told him of Solomon, producing the ring for him.
Elegant in its bold simplicity, it was unlike any that Ebna had ever seen. Initially he resisted when Makeda sought to slip it on his finger, but he eventually accepted the ring and put it on. Its effect on him was unsettling, as if a surge of jagged, burning energy were suddenly coursing through him. Embarrassed that his mother should see him so discomfited, he tried to curb his anxiety, but the turmoil in his spirit would not be assuaged, and his hand was shaking furiously as he fumbled to pull off the ring. Light-headed and perspiring heavily, he held it out to Makeda, but she refused to take it back. It is a man's ring and a king's gift, she told her son, and then she sent him to his father to study.
When Ebna presented himself before the king, he was rebuffed at first, much to his chagrin and astonishment, since Solomon believed him to be an impostor. "I will know my son," he thundered, "by the ring he wears!" Ashamed, Ebna produced the ring, and his father's anger gave way to sorrow. "You are fearful of its power, " said Solomon, "yet its power comes from you. You must learn to embrace your destiny. "
Ebna spent many happy years in Solomon's court but eventually decided to return to "the mountains of his mother's land." The king, disappointed that he would not be his successor (since Solomon's eldest son, Rehoboam, was rather frivolous-minded), permitted him to go on the condition that he take with him the most erudite sons of his personal counselors to teach the Hebrew Law in Ethiopia. Ebna was agreeable to this, but the counselors and their sons objected, believing they would be beyond the reach of God's special grace and protection if they left Israel.
Enraged by their impudence, Solomon placed the counselors' sons under a sacred ban. They capitulated but plotted vengeance. Azarias (also known as Eleazar), son of the high priest Zadok, hatched a plot to steal the Ark of the Covenant and take it clandestinely to Ethiopia to ensure Jehovah's proximity. The plan was carried out without Ebna's knowledge.
When Solomon realized what had taken place, he sent his cavalry to overtake the caravan, but Jehovah, displeased with Solomon's debauchery and his vanities, befuddled the king's horsemen and caused the travelers to move so swiftly that they arrived at their destination months ahead of schedule.
Thus, the Ark found a new, permanent home in Ethiopia, with Jehovah's blessing, Tafari explained to the priests at the close of his monologue, and Ebna, wearing Solomon's ring upon his finger, became emperor, taking the name Menelik.
At first humbled by the force and beauty of Tafari's recital, the priests gradually grew jealous and greatly suspicious of the wealth of uncanny detail with which the youth had embellished the biblical stories. They demanded to know the sources of his information.
Instead of replying to the question, Tafari addressed a monk who had served in the Cathedral of Azum, where the Ark is kept. Tafari described to him in hushed tones the kedusta kedussan, the Holy of Holies or inner sanctum where the tabbot —the Ark— is kept, and then recited various inscriptions written upon it. Close to fainting with the shock of what Tafari was disclosing, the monk is said to have covered his ears to shut out these blasphemous revelations, and he and the rest of the priests hurriedly dispersed.
Later, they made a solemn pact among themselves to do everything within their means to keep the young Tafari from ever gaining power in the land. He was too dangerous, dangerous beyond belief.
The stories about Tafari's boyhood encounters with the priests and his occult wisdom and uncanny powers were spreading like a runaway brushfire throughout Ethiopia in 1930 as the country prepared to carry out Ras Tafari's vow that his coronation in November would be the grandest and most solemn that Africa had ever known.
It was the law of the land that any lion slain within its borders was the property of the emperor, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Months before the coronation, a bale of lion skins was shipped to London, to be transformed into ceremonial garments by a Bond Street tailor. One million dollars' worth of gold and jewels were acquired in Europe by Tafari's envoys and likewise dispatched to England, where they would be fashioned into two imperial crowns incorporating Solomon's seal and the Lion of Judah crest. (The crowns had to be completed and hand-delivered to Addis Ababa in time to permit Coptic priests to pray over them for the required twenty-one days prior to the coronation.) Also, the state coach of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was purchased to transport the emperor and empress, along with a team of snow-white Hapsburg stallions, and an Austrian coachman formerly employed by the Emperor Franz Josef was hired to drive it.
Throughout Addis Ababa, new roads were built, existing ones widened and a host of new buildings, monuments, archways and statues erected to commemorate the occasion, scheduled for the second of November. Invitations went out to dignitaries around the world, and the guests began arriving in mid-October, by steamship at the port of Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden in what was then French So- maliland, and making their way into the mountainous interior of Ethiopia on railways specially refurbished for the 780-mile trip. Among those who had arrived by the end of the month were Isaburo Yoshida of Japan, Marshal Franchetd'Esperey of France, Rear Admiral Prince Udine of Italy, Greek Count P. Metaxas, Baron H.K.C. Bildt of Sweden, Muhammad Tawfiq Nasim Pasha of Egypt and Great Britain's Duke of Gloucester, who came bearing a one-ton coronation cake. German President von Hindenburg sent five hundred bottles of fine Rhine wine, and the French government dispatched a private airplane. But it was Special Envoy Herman Murray Jacoby, appointed by Herbert Hoover to represent the United States, who was entrusted with the greatest largess. Besides an autographed and handsomely framed photograph of the President, he was accompanied by an inventory of unofficial, privately purchased presents that included an electric refrigerator, a red typewriter emblazoned with the royal coat of arms, a radio-phonograph console, one hundred records of "distinctly American music," five hundred rosebushes, including several dozen of the so-called President Hoover variety, a new strain ofamaryllis developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a bound set of the National Geographic, a bound report of the Chicago Field Museum's expedition to Abyssinia and prints of three motion pictures: Ben Hur, King of Kings, and With Byrd at the South Pole.
Among the events of the days preceding the coronation were the unveiling of a statue of Menelik II in front of the Cathedral of St. George and an all-night service in the cathedral on the eve of the coronation ceremonies. The Negus Ras Tafari and his wife Woyzaro Menen prayed in unison with richly costumed priests and deacons, who danced, chanted and beat drums and prayer sticks in time with the music of harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and the one-stringed masanko. Periodically the incense-clouded sanctuary vibrated with the impassioned singing of the female choir and the rhythmic hand-clapping which accompanied the hymns. Outside, on the steps of the cathedral, nobles and diplomats stood holding lighted candles.
Sunday, November 2, 1930, dawned clear and balmy, and by 7:00 A.M. most of the seven hundred official guests had taken their places in the luxuriously draped hall at the west side of the cathedral, lion-maned feudal chieftains seated side-by-side with uniformed foreign dignitaries. Shortly after 7:30 A.M., the great doors of the Holy of Holies opened ponderously and hundreds of chanting priests filed out, followed by the negus, dressed in white silk communion robes, who stepped to a gold-posted canopy near the center of the nave and settled lightly onto his red and gold throne. The Amharic liturgy was celebrated by the Abuna Kyril, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, assisted by a representative of the Alexandrian Coptic Patriarch.
His Majesty rose to pledge his loyalty to the church and to the state and promised to put the welfare of his subjects above all personal concerns. As each declaration and blessing was made, he received the symbols of his imperial office: the royal insignia, the gold-embroidered scarlet robes, the jewel-encrusted saber, the scepter and the orb, the ring of Solomon, two diamond rings and two gold lances. The Abuna came forward and, repeating a rite that dated back to the consecration of David by Samuel and Solomon by Nathan and Zadok, he anointed Tafari's brow with oil and crowned him Haile Selassie I, Power of the Holy Trinity, Two Hundred Twenty-fifth Emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty, Elect of God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The Abuna sealed the moment with the benediction "That God may make this crown a crown of sanctity and glory. That by the grace and blessings which we have given you may have an unshaken faith and a pure heart, in order that you may inherit the crown eternal. So be it."
As Selassie's eldest son. Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, knelt before the emperor in a gesture of the most profound respect, 101 cannons thundered a salute outside the cathedral. For days, the celebrations and rejoicing went on throughout Addis Ababa and the rest of the empire, even among the peasants and townspeople, who were barred from the coronation festivities and the immediate precincts of the cathedral. Correspondents from the international press filed glowing accounts of all that had occurred.
In Africa, Selassie was hailed as the greatest of modern monarchs and a symbol of the continent's vast potential. In the United States, residents of Harlem jammed movie houses to watch the newsreel footage of the event. And in the Caribbean, as elsewhere in the West, the advent of Selassie's reign was taken as shining proof for all down-trodden people of color that, as the back-to-Africa Garveyites and the firebrands of the syncretistic Rastafarian cult had foretold, the day of Deliverance was at hand.
To the Garveyites, Haile Selassie I was a hero without peer. To the Rastafarians he was the Living God of Abraham and Isaac, He Whose Name Should Not Be Spoken.
Soon after Selassie assumed the throne, he launched a campaign to introduce democratic institutions and in general to lead Ethiopia out of its feudal past. The new constitution, adopted in 1931, changed the status of Ethiopia's 26 million people from the chattels of the nobility to citizens of the empire.
In an effort to nudge the poor, illiterate and largely rural population into the twentieth century, a primary and secondary school system was created. The antiquated system of land tenure was reformed and slavery was outlawed. The civil service was streamlined, more roads built and other public works projects initiated. But progress was slow in a country of 45 5,000 square miles, whose tribal population spoke more than two thousand different languages and dialects.
The long shadow of fascism that was spreading across Europe in the 1930s suddenly darted in the direction of Ethiopia in 1934, when Benito Mussolini attempted to expand Italy's colonial interests in Africa beyond Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. Selassie looked to the League of Nations for support, but he was ignored. Ethiopia was invaded in October 1935, Addis Ababa fell shortly afterward and Selassie went into exile in 1936, going first to Jerusalem to pray and then to Britain. In June of that year, he addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, shaming the delegates for their cowardice in an extraordinarily dignified and impassioned speech on behalf of self- determination. "God and history will remember your judgment," he told them. "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."
Winston Churchill rescued him from his tribulations in May 1940, when Italy formally entered World War II as an enemy of the United Kingdom. Smuggled into Khartoum by the British, Selassie organized an army in the deserts of the Sudan. The triumphant emperor reentered Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, five years to the day after the city had been taken by Italian forces. Pressing forward with his work of reform and modernization, he built two hundred new schools and also set about reviving the stagnant economy, obtaining a vital coastal port on the Red Sea.
Selassie issued a new constitution in 1955 that granted universal suffrage and equal rights under the law for all his subjects, but the document contained a crucial caveat: "By virtue of His Imperial Blood as well as by the anointing which He has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred. His dignity is inviolable and His Power indisputable."
Five years later, while Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, there was a palace-based coup attempt sanctioned by his son, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen. The emperor returned to crush the mutiny and hang the ringleader, who was the commander of the imperial bodyguard. The prince was spared, a gesture of leniency that recalled the emperor's kindly treatment of defeated Italian troops in 1942. But Selassie had sensed a chilling shift in the political winds that were sweeping across his realm.
The stated objectives of the coup were to install a new regime that would promote speedier social and economic advancement. Selassie began to give periodic radio addresses in which he kept his countrymen apprised of his latest programs and policies. But many of the people felt this was too little, too late. A tiny faction of Ethiopia's intellectual elite began to throw its weight around in the early 1970s, a time when the so-called Horn of Africa was beginning to emerge as one of the most strategically important, and politically volatile, regions of the world. With the United States sending military aid to upgrade the Ethiopian army, the Soviet Union moved to arm the country's age-old enemy Somalia and backed the ongoing revolutionary-secessionist struggle in the region of Eritrea.
Meanwhile, discontent was spreading among the general population, who were angry with extremely low standards of living and soaring prices. When a 1973 drought in two northern provinces resulted in approximately 100,000 deaths, discontent and outrage at government ineptitude was mounting. The peasant-based army demanded a pay raise, furious at the spectacle of an emperor who lived in opulence in the midst of dire poverty and was reputed to have stowed away billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts (although such charges were never substantiated).
The dissident forces organized, and they came for the emperor in the cold rain, on Thursday, September 12, 1974. This was after a solid week of bleak, wet weather, broken up for him only by television news reports of the arrests of his ministers and friends. A few relatives escaped the revolutionaries' dragnet, and Crown Prince Asfa Wossen was recovering from a stroke in a hospital in Switzerland, but most of the House of Makonnen and its inner circle were imprisoned or executed.
At the appointed hour, the emperor confronted a contingent of troops in the vestibule of his office in the Jubilee Palace. He stood before a decorative map of Ethiopia, resplendent in full dress uniform. He was driven to an army barracks as roadside crowds screamed "Thief!" then taken into a grimy barred cubicle and left there, bundled in his woolen cape, a tin plate of cold food with cockroaches scampering over it at his feet. He knelt and prayed.
Months later, eighty-two-year-old Haile Selassie I was returned to the Jubilee Palace, where he was confined to his small bedroom apartment for whatever remained of his stay on this earth.
The clock struck seven on the morning of August 27, 1975, as a servant stood weeping at the bedside of the Lion ofJudah—according to government reports. In London, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen issued a written statement demanding that "independent doctors and the International Red Cross be allowed to carry out an autopsy to ascertain the cause of death of Ethiopia's and Africa's father."
No tezkar, or memorial service, was held in the Cafthedral of St. George or anywhere else in the country.
In the years that followed, despite extensive sleuthing by outsiders, the burial site of Haile Selassie I was never located. And no one could find the sacred ring of Solomon.
In the Caribbean, on the island of Jamaica, devout brethren of the Rastafarian cult flashed strange, unfettered smiles.
"You nuh cyan bury Jah," the Rastas said