The Historical Background

To attempt a sketch of the Emperor Haile Selassie’s character and to chronicle the events of his reign is quite impossible without some explanation of the racial problems of his country. And to start on a discussion of these matters is to plunge into controversy and uncertainty. Abyssinia having been a melting pot of races, outlines are blurred and the theorists have a free hand. The history of the nation is also a matter of speculation. There are many big gaps.

Now the task of arguing over all these disputed theories is fascinating enough, but it must be left to the specialists. In this account of the mysterious people of the unconquered land, only those points will be stressed which are essential to the proper understanding of the position to-day.

Some readers may find what follows interesting, to others it may appear dull; but without this groundwork no clear idea can be obtained of the situation in which the Emperor finds himself. Unless the story of the Ark of the Covenant is known, accounts of how it is carried into battle lose their meaning; and the legend of Presbyter John, with its wealth of colour and splendour, is a valuable clue to the secret of the proud independence which the Ethiopians have always shown.

Nor can the Italian advance be understood unless it is seen as a last move in a long series of subtle intrigues by which the nations of the west have sought to become possessed of the reputed vast wealth of unknown Ethiopia. With this word of warning and encouragement the reader is invited to journey back in time and to review the history of this mysterious nation from its beginnings. To those not accustomed to such investigations let it be said that they can be every bit as interesting as the enquiries of a detective into a murder mystery. Theory is pitted against theory, trails are found and lost; and if the shedding of blood is to your fancy, in this at least there will be no disappointment.

On the other hand, the student of the Bible will find much that throws light on Old Testament history and on the foundations of the Christian faith. For despite all the derogatory explanations with which mention of the Coptic Church is so often surrounded, let there be no misunderstanding of the fact that Ethiopia is a Christian nation, that in doctrine and tradition it can hold its own with the western branches of the faith, and that if it has fallen short of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, it shares in this just condemnation with all Europe, where men have slaughtered each other for centuries in the name of the Prince of Peace and show noticeable readiness to do so again if occasion offers.

With this brief apologia let us attempt to dig out the early history of a people on whom the searchlights of modern publicity are now falling with such odd and sinister effect.

The origin of the Ethiopian (or Amharic) nation is one of the problems which ethnological science has not yet solved. It is a baffling problem, concerning which there are three main theories. The first is that the main racial roots are to be found in Egypt but that Jewish and negroid elements so fused with the race in the centuries before Christ that predominant characteristics are now lacking; the second, that an invasion or migration of the Sabeans of south-west Arabia is the basis of the Amharic nation; the third, that, though the second theory may be partly right, it was probably a Caucasian tribe who, at a very early date, passed southwards through the Sabean region and then crossed into Abyssinia, spending many years on the journey and acquiring certain Sabean characteristics en route.

It is this third theory which is finding considerable support now. It explains the name Amhara as a corruption of Himyara—a district in southern Arabia, and counters the argument that the inscriptions at Aksum are “ boustrophedon,” (that is, read right to left and then left to right in alternate lines, like an ox ploughing, says the Greek), which is a Sabean style, by the fact that the Geez language, which is employed by the Coptic Church of Abyssinia, has twenty letters or more identical with Armenian.

The father of the present writer arrived at somewhat similar hypotheses by a different line of argument, having noted how surprisingly light in skin certain Abyssinians are and how easily they mingle with white races. The theory of a Caucasian origin explains many racial peculiarities, and is, in fact, the most probable of those so far advanced.

But although the Yemen territory inhabited by the Sabeans has been more thoroughly explored than most parts of Arabia, Mr. St. John Philby, an outstanding authority on that region, writing of some disputed inscriptions said that their date could be fixed with certainty as not earlier than 800 B.C. and not later than the fifth century after Christ!

After which admission it is difficult for anyone to theorise with confidence concerning the Sabeans.

The story of a Caucasian race thrusting their way southward through Arabia and then turning west to cross the deserts and reach the mountain fastnesses of Ethiopia has a stirring ring. It is suggested that these tribes tired of the lowlands, being originally of mountain stock, and that learning of the highlands beyond the deserts migrated en masse. But there is no proof of this.

When Ethiopia first appears in history it is trading with Egypt as an equal, but there are soon records of the flag following trade and constant wars result between the two peoples. At times they are under one ruler; then there are insurrections and accounts of large-scale Egyptian expeditions to suppress them. There seems, too, at this time to have been considerable trade with the Jews.

The power of Egypt fades. The Ethiopians are isolated in the great hills. Meanwhile there has been established in Shoa an important kingdom, but there is little save legend concerning it.

The one great legend on which the whole history of Ethiopia relies is the story of the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon and whose personality made such an impression upon Jewish history. It is one of the world’s great stories and is clearly founded on historic truth.

It is told in the Bible in splendid language:
The First Book of Kings—the ninth chapter—beginning at the twenty-sixth verse:
“And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber, which is beside Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon.
And they came to Ophir, and fetched thence gold— four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon.”

The actual position of Ophir has never been determined with any certainty, but this town or province is thought by some authorities to have been in south-west Arabia. The narrative does not say, however, that the Queen of Sheba came from there, nor that it was through the trade with Ophir that word came to her of Solomon.

“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not anything hid from the king which he told her not. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up into the house of the Lord; there was no more spirit in her. And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thine acts, and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard. Happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom. Blessed be the Lord thy God, which delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel: because the Lord loved Israel for ever, therefore made he thee king, to do judgment and justice. And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon. And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees and precious stones. And the king made of the almug trees pillars for the house of the Lord, and for the king’s house, harps also and psalteries for the singers: there came no such almug trees, nor were seen, unto this day. And king Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned, and went to her own land, she and her servants.”

The Song of Solomon, that amazing love-poem, may have referred to the Queen of Sheba, but its language though wonderful is so obscure that there can be no certainty. The line “I am black but comely, O thou daughters of Jerusalem,” is difficult to understand, since it seems almost impossible that the Queen of Sheba should have been black in the negroid sense of that word. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that she was lighter in colour than the present Ethiopians who have mingled with darker races—though never with negro blood—and are probably less white than their ancestors.

But leaving aside the problems raised by the Song of Songs the main biblical narrative remains, an excitingly told and very vivid story.

There must be some fact behind a story told with such power and detail as this, but the Ethiopians are probably wrong in thinking that the Queen of Sheba ruled in the holy city of Aksum, since her visit to Solomon must have taken place about the year 900 B.C., while there seems fairly clear evidence that Aksum was not of any importance till about the time of Christ. That there was considerable trade from Ethiopia long before this date is quite certain, however, and it seems probable in the highest degree that much of it was with the Children of Israel.

The commercial intercourse between the Ethiopians and the Israelites is explained by various legends as resulting from the fact that they are of the same race. At the time of the crossing of the Children of Israel one column (it is said) was cut off and compelled to turn south, arriving eventually in Abyssinia.

An interesting commentary on the biblical narrative is the Abyssinian theory to account for the parting of the waters. This is that the migrating Israelites did not cross the Red Sea but the region farther north where there now runs the Suez Canal. This was in those times a chain of shallow lakes. When the wind blew strongly and continuously from the north (as it still does at certain seasons) the waters of these lakes were piled up towards the Red Sea leaving the northern waters so shallow that at times they were hardly more than a series of pools through which it was easy to pick a way, though patches of quicksands were frequent. When the north wind dropped and the southern gales began—a change which often takes place with great suddenness, the waters rolled back.

The loss of the Egyptian pursuit is put down either to Pharaoh’s charioteers having travelled so fast that they did not have time to discern the quicksands and were thus engulfed before they could draw back, or that they were caught by a shift of the wind of exceptional suddenness and violence.

That something of this sort may well have occurred is clear to anyone who has travelled in the Red Sea areas, and it is an undoubted fact that there exists in Ethiopia a tribe known as the Falashas who are Jewish both in appearance and in religion. Their emergence was one of the minor scientific sensations of the present century. The Falashas had been completely cut off from the rest of the Jews until they were discovered and welcomed back into the fold.

As early as the time of King Theodore, that is round about the middle of the nineteenth century, the existence of these tribes was vaguely known, and it was, in fact, the tactless conduct of a Jewish missionary sent to them that was partly responsible for King Theodore’s outburst against Europeans. But it was not until 1906 that the Falashas corresponded officially with the rest of their Jewish brethren. A congress of European Rabbis sent them greeting—to which they answered: “That you existed O our brothers in the one true faith we had heard but deemed it only a fable. Now that your letter gives us certain knowledge we rejoice to be received by you into the faith of Moses....”

It is said in Abyssinia that the lost tribes of the escaping Israelites, as soon as they were settled in the new country, fitted out an expedition to search for their kindred. This started from the spot which was afterwards the site of the lost city of Adulis (whose ruins can still be seen in Annesley Bay, though now some four or five miles from the shore), and explored the east coast of the Red Sea until it linked up with the now victorious Israelites who had captured the Promised Land.

The trade between the two divisions of the race grew in volume until the Queen of Shoa decided to go and visit the great king in the north of whose magnificence such wonderful tales were related and who was the kinsman of her people.

Now this may well be true, since the country from which the Queen of Sheba of the Old Testament came is very hard to track down with certainty. For a long while it was accepted that she was Queen of Saba, but it is now fairly certain that Saba was not ruled by a queen at the time of Solomon. Some historians have therefore shifted the domain of the legendary queen into northern Arabia, but in this case the difficulty arises that there was not any tribe in that quarter sufficiently wealthy to fit the story, since the Queen of Sheba is clearly ruler of a very rich nation. This difficulty is got over by suggesting that the first tellers of the story combined the wealth of one place with the queen of another, but that is hardly a satisfactory explanation of so circumstantial a tale as is set out in the First Book of Kings.

When it is remembered, however, that Shoa is in its earlier form Shoba, it is plain that a very strong case can be made out for the truth of the Abyssinian legend, which fits the whole facts very well indeed.

The legend is that the Queen of Sheba formed a temporary union with Solomon and that a son was born to her who inherited the beauty of his mother and the wisdom of the great king. The Queen returned to her country and made no other journey to Solomon, but when her son grew to manhood he enquired concerning his father and asked leave to visit him.

He went humbly and without any great array of followers. He did not tell Solomon his name, but no sooner had he stepped before the king than his royal bearing, his air of wisdom beyond his years, and his resemblance to his father, plainly revealed his identity. Solomon, proud to own so fine a son, welcomed him royally, talked with him concerning the mysteries of earth and heaven, posed problems for his solution, and expressed himself well satisfied with his attainments. When it was time for Menelek to take his leave the king his father showed him a gift which he had prepared for him. It was a model in minute detail of the Ark of the Covenant. The copy was amazing in its exactitude, the workmanship without the least flaw.

But Menelek had all the knowledge of his father and knew that, magnificent as the gift appeared, it had no real value. The real Ark was a thing of God and he who possessed it was given power over all the earth. The replica was no more than a relic of curious craftsmanship and had, for all its splendour, no occult virtue to confer upon its possessor.

Menelek was determined to possess the real Ark, and he saw that the existence of the copy gave him an obvious opportunity. On the night prior to his departure, having discovered a secret entrance to the temple, he was able to effect substitution.

In the morning he left bearing with him among many costly gifts the authentic Ark of the Covenant, on the possession of which depended all Solomon’s greatness.

From that time the fortunes of the Israelites declined and they were taken into captivity; while Menelek founded a great line of kings who, so long as their church possesses the mystic Ark, can never be conquered.

The justification for this apparently shabby trick was that King Solomon had not kept his promises to the Queen of Sheba and had tricked her into consenting to the alliance. She, too proud to admit her outwitting by complaining of it, had nevertheless harboured an undying grudge which she had instructed her son to repay in full should opportunity offer.

This, then, in its main outlines is the legend of Solomon and Sheba (of which there are many versions) as believed by the Ethiopians. The dynasty is dated from Menelek the First and the motto to this day is: The Lion of Judah hath conquered.

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March 14, 2021