Born on August 19, 1844, Menelik II was born Sahle Mariam in Ankober, a capital in the autonomous Ethiopian province of Shoa. His paternal grandfather, Sahle Sellaisie, was the first Shoan leader to become a negus (king); it was he who gave his grandson the name Menelik. It is said that Sahle Sellasie predicted that his grandson would grow to be a great man, a king who would restore Ethiopia’s empire.
According to Ethiopian tradition, Menelik I–the son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba–was the first ruler of Ethiopia, and the one to whom the family traced its ancestry. Menelik I (originally named Ebna la-Hakim, “Son of the Wise”) was the first Jewish emperor of Ethiopia and ruled around 950 BC.
Menelik I was head of dynastic family that led Ethiopia for over 2,900 years
According to an Ethiopian account called the Kebra Nagast, the Queen of Sheba had sexual relations with King Solomon and gave birth by the Mai Bella stream in the province of Hamasien, Eritrea. The child was a son who went on to become Menelik I, King of Axum, and founded a dynasty that would reign in the eventual Christian Empire of Ethiopia for over 2,900 years–less one usurpation episode and interval of about 133 years until a “legitimate” male heir regained the crown–until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.
The Ark of the Covenant is in a church in Ethiopia
Menelik, a practicing Jew, had been given a replica of the Ark of the Covenant by King Solomon; however, it was switched–thus it was the original Ark that traveled to Axum with him and his mother. It is still there, guarded by a single priest whose responsibility is caring for the Ark as his life’s work.
The claim of such a lineage and of possession of the Ark of the Covenant has been an important source of legitimacy and prestige for the Ethiopian monarchy throughout the centuries of its existence, and had important and lasting effects on Ethiopian culture as a whole. The Ethiopian government and church deny all requests to view the alleged ark.
Young Menelik II sent into exile at court of Tewodros II
During the reign of Menelik’s father, Haile Malakot (1847-55), Shoan independence saw its end at the hands of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II, whose army defeated the Shoan forces. Menelik’s father died during the fighting, and Menelik, his mother, and leading Shoan nobles were all exiled at Tewodros’s court. Shoa was incorporated into the Ethiopian empire.
The young Menelik received both a clerical and martial education–and also learned much about the art of politics while living in court. Tewodros treated him well and took a personal interest in Menelik’s schooling. Given the title of dejazmach (earl), Menelik married Altash, the daughter of the emperor.
Menelik II takes Shoan throne in 1865
In 1865, Shoa had split with Tewodros’s empire and a usurper had claimed its thrown. Menelik II then fled the Imperial court to claim the throne that his father once held. Proclaiming himself negus, Menelik developed a power base comprised of the Shoan military and conservative nobles. The 21-year-old was an enlightened monarch–he extended toleration to the Muslims and animists in his Christian kingdom. Shoa was isolated from the civil wars that tore apart northern Ethiopia during the last gasps of Tewodros II’s reign. Thus Menelik II was able to remain neutral and solidify his power.
His former mentor, Tewodros, became involved in a diplomatic fiasco with Great Britain over the taking of British hostages. Menelik decided to remain neutral, which resulted in a major setback for his Imperial aspirations. His failure to side with the Europeans against Tewodros–the British defeated him at Magdala in 1868–gave rise to a rival named Kasa. Siding with the British, Kasa assumed the Imperial throne as Yohannes IV and ruled from 1872-89.
Menelik saw need for European power, technology, diplomatic ties
Menelik learned that if he were to rise to emperor, he would need to have European power and technology behind him. Thus he approached the Italians and French for weaponry and other European states for their technology. Menelik also saw that the establishment of diplomatic ties with foreign powers was an important step in reaching his goals.
Despite the fact that he was forced to relinquish his claim to the Imperial throne, he continued to act as an independent sovereign. When Egypt attempted imperialistic expansion into the Horn of Africa, Menelik developed a relationship with their government. Going behind Yohannes’s back, he negotiated with fundamentalist Muslims who took power in Sudan. Menelik also cultivated friendship with Great Britain and signed treaties with Italy.
Menelik II crowned negus negast–emperor of Ethiopia
Upon hearing of the death of Yohannes in battle, Menelik was crowned negus negast (king of kings), or emperor, on November 3, 1889. Within the year he concluded the Treaty of Wichale with Italy. The treaty provided that Italy would not recognize any other claim to Menelik’s imperial title, and the Italians had a powerful African ally.
Relations between the two countries soured from that point onward. Italy claimed that Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate, and sent a force of 20,000 into its former African ally. Menelik mobilized a force of 120,000, and at Adwa on March 1, 1896 defeated the Italians handily. Seventy percent of the Italian forces were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Demonstrating that an African nation could defeat a European army, diplomats flocked to his new capital of Addis Ababa.
After the defeat of the Italians, Menelik spent his time on modernization of Ethiopia and strengthening his centralized power. He built roads and bridges, a railroad system–created an infrastructure to promote modernization. He established a postal system, telegraph lines were erected. He introduced a national currency and Mint, as well as establishing the Bank of Abyssinia. Menelik was fascinated with Western machinery and technology and enjoyed studying photography, medicine and mechanical devices.
A few years before his death in 1913–in 1909–he was paralyzed and incapacitated. All of the work that he did to strengthen and modernize Ethiopia came undone. It would not be until the rule of Haile Selassie that the modernization of the country would continue.