Haile Selassie in Jerusalem Sanctuary for the Lion of Judah in the Holy City

Haile Selassie in Jerusalem Sanctuary for the Lion of Judah in the Holy City

A weighty, gold-plated dinner knife and fork set emblazoned with a lion − the Lion of Judah−  was a constant presence in a locked vitrine in my parents’ pre-1948 home in the Talbiyya neighborhood of Jerusalem. The valuable Ethiopian memento disappeared, along with the rest of my family’s treasured belongings, after the Israeli occupiers ransacked our house in 1948. How did my father come to possess these Ethiopian objects?
The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie travelled twice to Jerusalem in the twentieth century. This article describes how the long history of the besieged Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem  contextualizes the meaning of his visits. My personal connections to these historic events include the role that my father, Dr. Vahan Kalbian, played in Selassie’s 1936 visit, when my father was presented with this impressive royal gift. This essay focuses especially on the Armenian community’s connection to Ethiopia, of which my father’s experience is an important episode.

The Ethiopians and Jerusalem
Modern day Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia (al-Habasha in Arabic), is often described as the “cradle of humankind.” In addition to a long and rich history, the modern Ethiopians have a long-standing connection to Jerusalem.2 According to the Bible,3 the legendary Queen Makada of Sheba (assumed to be an Abyssinian), visited Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE, a tale also recorded in the Abyssinian myth Kebra Negast (“Glory to the Kings”). The purpose of her visit, as described in the Abyssinian legend, was to learn governing skills from the renowned King Solomon. They became intimate friends and she converted to Judaism.4 They had a son, Menilek, who Solomon dreamt was to be the leader of a new order in Israel. After the dream, Solomon sent Queen Makada home and told her to send their son back to Jerusalem when he came of age. When Menilek later returned to Jerusalem as a young man to be taught governance by his father, Solomon offered to make him the prince of Jerusalem. Menilek declined and returned home to become the first ruler of Abyssinia; he was later claimed by the last reigning Ethiopian royal family to be their direct ancestor.5 One of the revered titles of the emperors of Abyssinia, “The Conquering Lion of Judah,” was an emblem everpresent on their national flag.6
According to legend, the Queen of Sheba pilfered the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon`s temple in Jerusalem on her way out of Judah, although many Ethiopians now believe that it was Menilek who brought the Ark to Ethiopia on his return to Axum after visiting his father in Jerusalem.7 The remains of the Ark are now said to be in a small chapel in the monastic complex of Saint Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia.
The early influences of Judaism that were brought back by the Queen of Sheba were never abandoned over the centuries. Traditional sources claim that Judaism was practiced side by side with the animism that existed in Abyssinia before the introduction of Christianity.8 Ethiopia’s language is Amharic, the second most commonly spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, manifesting the country’s close affinity to Judaism. This relationship might lead one to ponder if the current Ethiopian national flag, with its five-pointed star centerpiece replacing the earlier “Lion of Judah,” is a tribute to Ethiopia’s Solomonic connections. Also Abyssinian churches are typically built in a circular shape over a replica of the Ark of the Covenant in the central altar, similar to the Jewish temple.
In the 1980s and 1990s, over 100,000 Ethiopians who claimed Jewish lineage – referred to as the Falash Mura – were airlifted from Ethiopia and relocated to Israel. Several thousand more remained in Ethiopia and engaged in a decades-long battle with Israel for permission to immigrate there. Finally, in 2015, the Israeli government granted permission to the remaining Falash Mura, but their acceptance, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry, was “conditioned on a successful Jewish conversion process.”
Christianity reached Abyssinia as early as the first century ce, as mentioned in the New Testament.10 However, it was not officially declared the state religion until 330 ce, and only then as an integral part of the Apostolic Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, established by St. Mark. The Armenians, the Syrian Jacobites, the Copts, and the Ethiopians make up the Eastern Orthodox churches, designated as the monophysites after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 ce.11 The Abyssinian Church was led by a bishop (abuna) appointed by the Coptic bishopric of Alexandria.12 It remained part of the Coptic Church until 1959 when the churches separated due to deteriorating relationships between Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the emperor of Ethiopia. Since the Ethiopian church had gained autonomy, the Coptic Orthodox pope of Alexandria granted the church its own patriarch. Numerically it still remains the largest of all the Eastern Orthodox churches, and continues to exert considerable influence in modern Ethiopia.

The Ethiopians and the Holy Sepulcher

In common with the other Christian apostolic churches, the Ethiopian church has had a continuous presence in Jerusalem since the mid-thirteenth century until the present, with a special bond to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Ethiopians had minor holdings inside the church, but lost them in the nineteenth century. Historically, what were considered the three “minor” churches – the Abyssinian, the Coptic, and the Syriac – had their properties and privileges under the aegis of the Armenian Church, which shares “ownership” of the Holy Sepulcher equally with the Latin and Greek Orthodox churches. The Ethiopians had possession of St. Helena’s Chapel,13 but they lost it to the Armenians in 1838 when an epidemic wiped out the Abyssinian clergy. The Egyptian Copts, who had a stronger presence in the Holy Sepulcher, moved in and mistreated the surviving Ethiopian monks, seizing their assets so that currently the Ethiopians have no holdings inside the church.14 Their sole possession is what remains of a medieval Crusader cloister, now a courtyard, on the roof of the Armenian St. Helena’s Chapel. They also hold two adjoining chapels, strategically situated on the sole access leading down to the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The roof/courtyard can also be reached from the major thoroughfare of the Old City, Suq Khan al-Zayt, after Zalatimo’s sweets shop.

   The Ethiopians named their rooftop area Dayr al-Sultan (Monastery of Solomon). A Washington Post article in 1993 described the living situation of the monks and nuns as several primitive, unsanitary, residential cabins. The article elaborates

The Ethiopians have tried for years to get the Israeli minister of religious affairs to assist them in doing desperately needed repairs on the roofs of the single-level mud huts. Two months ago, the government rebuilt a wall that collapsed during a snow storm last year. Some of the hovels are in such disrepair they have to be cordoned off.

Unsuspecting tourists enter the compound unaware of the monks worsening conditions. They are greeted by a foul smell that is masked with strong disinfectant emanating from the broken down toilets. The tiny courtyard is surrounded by nearly forty makeshift, dingy gray structures. An online petition circulated in 2011 urging Israel’s prime minister to repair the monastery suggests that the poor conditions have persisted.17 More recently, St. Michael Church closed due to a roof collapse caused by repair work on the Holy Sepulcher.18 On the other hand, the convent which houses the Coptic patriarchate is an elaborate structure built on an old cistern located on the north side of the rooftop courtyard. Two Ethiopian chapels on the south end of the courtyard, the Chapel of the Angels and the adjoining Chapel of Saint Michael, provide the only access from the rooftop down to the Holy Sepulcher (figures 1 and 2). This posed a predicament for the Coptic clergy who had to cross the Ethiopian courtyard and go through the locked Ethiopian chapels in order to gain access to the stairs leading down to the Holy Sepulcher (figure 3)



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