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EMPRESS MENEN ASFAW
Menen Asfaw, Empress of Ethiopia (died 1961) was the wife and consort of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
Empress Menen was the daughter of Jantirar Asfaw of Ambassel. Her mother was Woizero Sehin Mikael, half-sister of Lij Iyasu (Iyasu V), and daughter of King Mikael of Wollo. Woizero Sehin's mother, Woizero Fantaye Gebru, was a direct descendant of Emperor Susenyos in the "Seyfe Melekot" line.
Empress Menen and Emperor Haile Selassie were the parents of six children: Princess Tenagnework, Prince Asfaw Wossen (Emperor-in-Exile Amha Selassie I), Princess Tsehai, Princess Zenebework, Prince Makonnen Duke of Harrar, and Prince Sahle Selassie.
According to both published and unpublished reports, the then Woizero Menen Asfaw was given in marriage by her family, to the prominent Wollo nobleman, Dejazmatch Ali of Cherecha, and bore him a daughter, Woizero Belaynesh Ali, and a son, Jantirar Asfaw Ali. This first marriage ended in divorce, and Woizero Menen then married Dejazmatch Amede Ali Aba-Deyas, another very prominent nobleman of Wollo. She bore her second husband two children as well, a daughter, Woizero Desta Amede, and a son, Jantirar Gebregziabiher Amede. Following the sudden death of her second husband, Woizero Menen's grandfather, King Mikael of Wollo arranged her marriage to Ras Leul Seged Atnaf Seged, a prominent Shewan nobleman, sometime in late 1909 or early 1910. Ras Leul Seged was considerably older than Woizero Menen was.
Woizero Menen probably met Dejazmatch Tafari Makonnen at the home of her uncle, Lij Iyasu. The rapport between the two may have inspired Lij Iyasu to attempt to bind Dejazmatch Tafari to him more firmly through marriage ties. He therefore arranged the separation of Woizero Menen from Ras Leul Seged, and sent her to Harrar to marry Dejazmatch Tafari Makonnen. They were married in early August of 1911. Ras Leul Seged apparently did not hold a grudge against Dejazmatch Tafari for this circumstance, blaming it entirely on Lij Iyasu who had ordered it. He was among the leaders who fought against the Iyasuist forces upon the fall of Lij Iyasu in 1917, and died in that battle. The circumstances of the marriage and how it came about are detailed in the unpublished memoirs of Ras Imiru Haile Selassie, Emperor Haile Selassie's cousin and childhood companion, who was party to the marriage arrangements and were intimately acquainted with these events. It is also detailed in the recently published Amharic biography "Tafari Makonnen, Rejimu ye Siltan Guzo"(Taffari Makonnen, the Long Journey to Power) by Ambassador Zewde Retta.
The account given in the Autobiography of the Emperor is somewhat less detailed. He mentions no previous children and no such order by Iyasu, but states only that at the age of 20, they were married by their own mutual consent, and describes her as "a woman without any malice whatsoever". The Emperor omitted much detail of his personal life from his autobiography, and it was much more of a professional and political work than a personal memoir.
Although many non-Ethiopians find it hard to understand that the Emperor would fail to mention such important details such as children from previous marriages and Lij Iyasu's personal role in the marriage, Ethiopians readily understand the reticence that people of prominence had and continue to have about revealing details of that nature in official memoirs and testaments. The rather complex relationship between Lij Iyasu and Emperor Haile Selassie, not to mention the complications that the enmity that arose between the two men within the family of Empress Menen made it wise to omit such details completely.
It was generally well known that Empress Menen's mother, Woizero Sehin, bore a grudge against her son-in-law for the overthrow of her brother Iyasu, and that breach was never healed. The fact remains however that the children of the Empress were no secret in Ethiopia, and were in fact titled nobles of the highest rank. Her descendents by her first two husbands remain close to the Imperial family. When Tafari Makonnen became Emperor of Ethiopia as Haile Selassie I, Menen Asfaw was crowned as Empress at his side. Empress Menen had no children by Ras Leul Seged.
Empress Menen was active in promoting women's issues in Ethiopia, was Patroness of the Ethiopian Red Cross, and the Ethiopian Women's Charitable Organisation. She was also patron of the Jerusalem Society that arranged for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. She founded the Empress Menen School for Girls in Addis Ababa, the first all girls school which had both boarding and day students. Girls from all over the Empire were brought to the school to receive a modern education, encouraged by the Empress who visited it often and presided over its graduation ceremonies. The Empress gave generously, as well as sponsored programs for the poor, ill and disabled. She was also a devoutly religious woman who did much to support the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. She built, renovated and endowed numerous churches in Ethiopia and in the Holy Land.
Prominent among these are the St. Raguel Church in Addis Ababa's Merkato district, the Kidane Mehret (Our Lady Covenant of Mercy) Church on Mt. Entoto, and the Holy Trinity Monastery on the banks of the River Jordan in the Holy Land. She gave generously from her personal funds towards the building of the new Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion at Axum, but did not live to see it completed and dedicated.
When the Empress was exiled from Ethiopia during the Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941, she made a pledge to the Virgin Mary at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, promising to give her crown to the church if Ethiopia were liberated from occupation. The Empress made numerous pilgrimages to Holy Sites in then British-ruled Palestine, in Syria and in Lebanon, during her exile to pray for her occupied homeland.
Following the return of Emperor Haile Selassie and his family to Ethiopia in 1941, a replica of the crown was made for future Empresses, but the original crown that Empress Menen was crowned at her husband's side in 1931 was sent to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Empress Menen, although often seen wearing a tiara at public events that called for it, would never again wear a full crown.
Empress Menen performed perfectly in the role of Empress-consort. In her public role, she combined religious piety, concern for social causes, and support for development schemes with the majesty of her Imperial status. Outwardly, she was the dutiful wife, visiting schools, churches, exhibitions and model farms, attending public and state events at her husband's side or by herself. She took no public stand on political or policy issues. Behind the scenes however, she was the Emperor's most trusted advisor, quietly offering advice on a whole range of issues. She avoided the public political role taken by her predecessor as Empress-consort, Empress Taitu Bitul, whose political activism had caused deep resentment in government circles during the reign of Menelik II.
The Empress and some of her family were placed under house arrest briefly during the 1960 Imperial Guard coup attempt against her husband at her villa outside the Guenete Leul Palace grounds in northern Addis Ababa. Following the return of the Emperor and the crushing of the coup attempt, there was much speculation as to the conduct of the Crown Prince, who had been proclaimed monarch by the coup leaders. It was noted that the Crown Prince had accompanied his mother in a drive through the palace grounds, making stops at Imperial Guard posts to exchange pleasantries with the guards, on the night before the coup was launched.
The ailing Empress had been urged to visit the posts by security officials, who were concerned about the soldiers' morale, and perhaps had an idea that something was brewing. The appearance of the Empress with the Crown Prince at her side may have been used by coup leaders as an indication to their followers that the Empress might sympathise with a movement that brought her favoured son to the throne. It is extremely unlikely that either the Empress or the Prince had any idea of what was being plotted. However, a cloud of suspicion never left the Crown Prince, and the Empress was deeply saddened by this.
Following her death in 1961, the Empress was buried in the crypt of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa among the tombs of her children. Prime Minister Aklilu Haptewold delivered her eulogy paying tribute to her charity, her piety, and her role as advisor and helpmate to the Emperor, as well as her personal kindness and goodness. On the third day memorial and commemoration after the funeral, the Emperor himself paid tribute to his wife by saying that although the Prime Minister had aptly described what kind of person his late wife had been, he wanted to say that during their 5 decades of marriage, not once had it been necessary to have a third party mediate between him and his wife, and that their marriage had been one of peace and mutual support. The Emperor's grief was indeed profound.
Later, the Emperor built a pair of grand sarcophagi in the north transept of Holy Trinity Cathedral's nave, in order to transfer his wife's remains there and be buried at her side himself. Due to the revolution, the murdered Emperor was not buried there, and the Empress remained in her original tomb in the crypt. During the ceremonial burial of her husband's remains in November 2000, the remains of Empress Menen were also disinterred from the crypt tomb, and placed in the sarcophagus in the nave of the Cathedral, next to her husband as he had originally intended.