The story of Ethiopia and the black lion
By Befekir Kebede
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 22:14
Researchers have announced this month that DNA tests on a number of Ethiopian lions carried out in Addis Ababa Zoo have confirmed that Ethiopian lions are genetically distinct from all other lions of Africa. According to this scientific announcement, published in the New Scientist journal, Ethiopian lions have a distinctive dark mane, which covers the head, neck, chest and belly. This explains why Ethiopian lions are called black lions.
The study says seven black lions were captured in 1948 from the wild in Ethiopia and they were taken to a zoo-like sanctuary built for them in the capital, Addis Ababa. For more than half-a-century, the sanctuary served as the city’s only zoo, but its occupants have always been just the lions. The announcement came with a warning that there are now only 20 black lions remaining in the sanctuary and that they are at risk of extinction.
There can be no doubt that the sanctuary, attended regularly by residents and visitors of Addis Ababa, has raised awareness about lions and caused an upsurge of interest about them. But Ethiopians always had a unique fascination with lions.
There are a number of animal species that are endemic to Ethiopia. But the lion has always been Ethiopians’ favourite. It can even be said that the lion is the unofficial mascot of Ethiopia.
Emperor Tewodros II, who ruled Ethiopia from 1855 – 1868, was quite famous for taming a number of lions and he was always surrounded by them at his fortress in Makdela. History recalls that the Emperor, who committed suicide to deny the British of the prospect of taking an Ethiopian emperor hostage, wanted to embody the qualities and characteristics of the lion. Many would agree that he, as a single-minded leader of a proud nation, was lion-like: he was brave and courageous, protective of his territory, willing to fight if necessary and had a charisma that no one dared to compete with.
The son of Emperor Tewodros, Prince Alemayehu, who was captured by the British when his father died and taken to England at the age of 7, was also known to have been surrounded by lions while growing up in Ethiopia. A 2012 Book by Elizabeth Laird about the story of Prince Alemayehu is named The Prince Who Walked with Lions, and his well-documented closeness with lions would no doubt have inspired the title.
In relatively recent times, the last emperor of Ethiopia’s Solomonic Dynasty, Haileselassie, had a number of domesticated lions in his palace in Addis Ababa. The Emperor's crown title given to him when he was crowned emperor in 1930 was: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Power of the Trinity.
The Lion of Judah was the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah in the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew. King David and Jesus were both from the tribe of Judah and all of Ethiopia’s emperors and empresses are descendants of Minilik I – the first-born of King Solomon of Israel.
Under Emperor Hailselassie, Ethiopia had a flag for its version of the Lion of Judah with a lion carrying the Ethiopian flag wearing a crown on its head. But the use of the flag of the Lion of Judah became less common in Ethiopia after Emperor Haileselassie was deposed in 1975. However its use continued to grow among followers of the Rastafarian movement.
But the use of the lion or its symbolism was not just limited to the monarchy. Founded in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines carried an image of a lion as its trademark for years and one of Addis Ababa’s most famous public hospitals is named after the black lion itself. A celebrated Ethiopian patriotic movement known to have made an enduring contribution to the grassroots force that has kept Ethiopia the only independent state in Africa was proudly named the Black Lions Patriotic Movement. The city’s bus network which has become an icon to residents of Addis Ababa similarly goes by the name Anbessa – the Amharic name for lion.
Over the years, various brands of Ethiopian everyday products carried the name lion – a popular Ethiopian shoe brand and locally grown tea are among the favourites of many Ethiopians.
Confirming the persistence of the legend of the black lion into the culture of the current generation of Ethiopians, the country’s national football team, which has just qualified for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, is the team of the Black Lions.
The story of Ethiopia and the lion is endlessly fascinating. This month’s announcement of a study that confirms the unique nature of Ethiopia’s lions will add to the fascination and will cause a renewed discussion about the history of lions and Ethiopia.