SELASSIE I (Khayla Sellase I, 1892-1975)

Held to be the elect of God, he became “King of Kings” of Ethiopia in 1930 and was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until his death. He was the last sovereign of the Solomonic dynasty. His reign lasted forty-four years and stands out as an epoch in during which the country underwent significant changes. Tafari, as he was originally named, was born of Ras Makonnen, a cousin of Menelik II, and a woman of a lower social status called Yashimmebet (Yasi Emma Bet), who died in Harar shortly after her son’s birth in July 1892.

He received his education first under an Ethiopian religious tutor and then under the French Lazarist missionaries in Harar. Later, he attended the Menelik II School in Addis Ababa, which was run by a Coptic teaching staff, who probably left an indelible impression on him, for he retained Coptic instructors and advisers throughout his reign. One was the famous professor MURAD KAMIL, who headed a group of Coptic educators in Ethiopia during the period of reconstruction following the liberation of the country in 1941. He had, however, to discontinue his education in order to govern districts in Harar, Shewa, and Sidamo, successively, before he was nominated by the rebelling in 1916 to assist Empress Zawditu Menelik in the running of state affairs.

Upon her death in 1930, he succeeded to the imperial throne under the name of Selassie I. At his grandiose coronation, the patriarch of Alexandria was represented by Archbishop Yusab, who later became patriarch. The sovereign’s religious policy was predominantly liberal and tolerant toward other religions and denominations, priorities being naturally reserved for the Church, whose patron he was. His relations with the See of Alexandria were generally cordial, though occasionally strained. The problems emanated from two historical developments: the question of the rights of the Ethiopian Orthodox in Jerusalem, which had engaged the Copts since the mid nineteenth century, and the question of autonomy for the Ethiopian church, which was repeatedly raised for several centuries.

During his visit to in 1924, Ras Tafari had reviewed the question of the Ethiopian cloister (see DAYR AL-SULTAN) with the Coptic archbishop TIMOTHEOS, but as the matter remained inconclusive, the crown prince went to Egypt to discuss it with the aging Patriarch Cyril V. The patriarch received him with pleasure and held a special mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mark in his honor. The prince, in turn, presented the patriarch with a golden crown, a golden cross, a golden staff, a silk tunic embroidered with gold, and a cape. He also visited the tomb of Saint Mark and some Coptic Christian schools in which a few Ethiopian students were enrolled.

The patriarch nonetheless referred the Ethiopian request to the Coptic synod, and the regent plenipotentiary had to leave for home without a definite answer. The problem remained unsolved, despite numerous subsequent negotiations and court proceedings in the 1960s, mainly because national feelings and political complications prevailed on all sides.

The second problem could, however, be solved in stages. In 1928, JOHN XIX became Coptic patriarch, and the Ethiopian ruler used the opportunity to take up the matter of appointing several Ethiopian at the same time on grounds of the size of the Ethiopian empire and the prevailing difficulties of communication. The patriarch was more understanding than his predecessors and agreed to ordain a few dignitaries at once, provided that the abun remained a Copt. Consequently, Abuna Qerelos (Cyril) III was consecrated for Ethiopia, and four Ethiopian scholars, who were nominated by the Ethiopian authorities, were ordained in 1929. They were Abraham, Petros, Yeshaq, and Mika’el. A fifth one, Sawiros, who could not travel to Egypt on account of illness, was consecrated in when the patriarch visited the Ethiopian capital in early 1930 (see ETHIOPIAN AUTOCEPHALY).

The relations between the emperor and the were cordial until the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), when the dignitary was more or less forced to leave his diocese. The Italians wanted to separate the Ethiopian from Alexandria so as to bring it under their full control, and Qerelos was summoned to Rome for consultations, after which he returned to Egypt. The Italians appointed an Ethiopian metropolitan who ordained some bishops. This Italian policy was condemned by the See of Saint Mark.

Upon his return from exile, Emperor Selassie questioned the of the Coptic metropolitan, who allegedly deserted his congregation at the time of distress, and he demanded that an Ethiopian be consecrated in his stead. After an correspondence, exchanges of delegations, and lengthy consultations, it was agreed upon that Qerelos was to be reinstated and that upon his death he would be succeeded by an Ethiopian dignitary, an agreement that was accordingly realized in 1951. The sovereign nonetheless continued negotiations with the aim of making the two sister churches equal in hierarchical status, and in 1959 he succeeded when he reached an agreement through which the first Ethiopian patriarch could be installed. The aim of the emperor’s policy was not the complete separation of the two churches, but rather the attainment of equality and close cooperation.

During his reign, more Ethiopian students than ever were sent to Egypt to study at Coptic institutions of learning, and the establishment of the first Ethiopian theological seminary was entrusted to the Copts. He aimed at fostering understanding and collaboration not only between the churches of Ethiopia and Egypt but also among all five Eastern sister churches, the heads of which met for the first time at a conference summoned by the emperor in 1965. He also created within the church’s central administrative a foreign relations office to intensify the church’s contacts with the outside world. His dethronement in September 1974 was followed by an abrupt separation of the Ethiopian Orthodox from the state with which it had been closely linked for about sixteen hundred years, and the church was suddenly left to look after its affairs under difficult circumstances.


  • Bei’de Maryam Mersha (Ba’eda Maryam Marsa). “Die Geschichte der äthiopischen Patriarchen von 1926 bis zur Gegenwart.” Doctoral diss., Ruprecht Karl University, Heidelberg, 1982.
  • Clapham, C. Selassie’s Government. London, 1969.
  • Selassie. The Autobiography of Emperor Sellassie I: My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, 1892-1937, trans. E. Ullendorff. Oxford, 1976.
  • Heyer, F. Die Kirche Äthiopiens: Eine Bestandsaufnahme. Berlin, 1971.
  • Hyatt, H. M. The of Abyssinia. London, 1928.
  • Kolta, K. S. “Murad Kamil.” Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 127 (1977):6-7.