When Haile Selassie went to Jerusalem

Old books burst with history, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. So it proved with my dusty old copy of George Adam Smith’s Historical Geography of the Holy Land, which dates from 1897 and looks every one of its 114 years of age. HGOTHL is a fascinating read and was much in demand by European visitors to Palestine in the early years of the 20th century, but more on that another time. Something else was inside.

Scanned here, you can see the ancient page that fell out. ‘Sanctuary for the Lion of Judah‘ is H.V. Morton’s tale of ‘the defeated Emperor of Abyssinia seeking a temporary refuge among the Abyssinian Community in Jerusalem’ dating from the May 9, 1936 edition of the Daily Herald. What’s all this about then?

The Lion of Judah arrives in Judah by train, May 1936

Haile Selassie is the most obvious name here. The Emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from 1930 to 1974, he was heir to a dynasty tracing its roots back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and messiah to Rastafarians, who take their name from his – Ras (Head) and Tafari (his original first name).

He had been the head of state of a country that had been targetted by expansionist Italy under Mussolini, keen to avenge the failures of Italian colonialism that Il Duce viewed as an embarrassment. Hats off to A30yoyo on Flickr who found and shared the photos above and below.

Haile Selassie in front of a modernist house, Jerusalem

In 1936, Italian forces had finally completed the takeover of Ethiopia, forcing Selassie into exile. Though his eventual destination was Fairfield House in Bath, England, his first stop on leaving Africa from Djibouti was Jerusalem, then under the rule of the British Mandate and, as Simon Sebag Montfiore notes in his excellent history of the city, quite a tempestuous place to say the least.

H.V. (Henry Vollam) Morton, the author of the piece, and is widely considered one of the finest travel writers ever. In 1936 he was fresh from completing In the Steps of St Paul, the follow-up to his 1934 bestseller In the Steps of the Master, which was his account of visiting Palestine. He was something like Michael Palin combined with Bill Bryson, so when the Daily Herald wanted a piece on the Abyssinian Christians who must have seemed so exotic to 1930s Britain it is natural that Morton wrote the piece. Given the plug for his next article at the end of this, appears to have been having his work serialised for the paper.

And what about the Abyssinian monks, worshipping in a tent on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre? They’re still there, as they have been for millenia, in the ‘kind of African encampment’ that Morton describes in the cutting. Here, at Easter, you can still see them ‘gyrate sadly round the roof in the moonlight looking for the body of Christ.’ Morton signs off noting ‘Those are the strange people among whom the Lion of Judah, as they call their Emperor, will seek refuge to-day.’ Today they remain exotic and fascinating, rather than strange, but still an essential part of life in the Old City.

I’m pretty sure Selassie did not literally seek sanctuary with the monks, as the Ethiopian Royal Family had a house in the city, but his visit was a symbolic one and helped to keep his profile high and question which of the two nations involved in the conflict was the barbarous one in need of civilising. And under five years later he was back as Emperor in Addis Ababa following the defeat of Italian forces.

The Italian stamp on Ethiopia and Eritrea can still be seen to day in modernist Asmara and Addis Ababa’s Piazza area, a tasty word for the city’s bus-boys to yell at passers by as the tour for trade.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve found a random clipping inside an old book. You can read about that plea to demolish the Bank of England here. Not bad for £6 with postage. There are finds galore like this on the mighty Abebooks, and you’re buying from booksellers around the world which keeps prices keen. There are quite a few H.V. Morton titles on there, with who-knows-what waiting to be discovered inside.

5 responses to “When Haile Selassie went to Jerusalem

  1. Hi Tom

    Great post. Not sure if you’ve read any Flashman books yet but think you might enjoy Flashman on the March.




  2. Wonderful post. I’ve read several of Morton’s books and was fascinated to see his newspaper article. Thank you very much!


Leave a Reply to Will Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s