The Last King Of Ethiopia, The Lion Of Zion: 5 Santim(Ethiopian Empire, 1936/1944)-Article

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

This Ethiopian coin represents the 2nd denomination coin of the Second Birr. Under the rule of Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. The coin is smooth edged design, made of copper. It's dimensions are 20 mm (0.787 in) wide, 1.75 mm (0.069 in) thick and weighs 4 g. While relatively simple, this particular coin has a complex history.

Due the events of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937) and WWII (1939-1945). The previous First Birr was replaced by the Itallian Lira, during the Italian occupation (1936-1941). Until the Italian Army's expulsion, in 1941. By the British Empire and local Ethiopian Arbegnoch (Patriots) fighters. Beginning 1 July 1942, the British-controlled East African Shilling served as interim currency.

In 1945, the Second Birr replaced the East African Shilling, at a rate of 1 Birr = 2 Shillings. The Second Birr was decimalized, divided into 100 Santim. As opposed to the previous First Birr, which used a more complex pre-decimal system, somewhat similar to the British Pound.


The coin's observe is relatively sparse and features a bust of Emperor Haile Selassie I, in left-ward profile. Emperor Selassie I served as the last Emperor of Ethiopia, ruling from 1930 to 1974. Selassie I reign saw the introduction of Ethiopia's first modern constitution and the abolition of slavery. The observe's only text is the coin's mint date, located below the bust.

The coin uses a unique Ethiopian dating system, based on letters of the Ge'ez alphabet. In which, individual letters are assigned values in the "1s" and "10s" range. With special characters valued at 100 (፻) and 10,000 (፼). Unlike similar dating systems, such as Hebrew dating. This Ge'ez based dating system lacks values for "100s". Leading to some relatively complex solutions, to overcome this limitation.

For example this coin reads ፲ ፱ ፻ ፴ ፮, broken down as ፲ (10)-፱ (9)-፻ (100)-፴ (30)-፮ (6).

Mathematically the date can be expressed as, 10(፲)+9(፱)=19x100(፻)=1900+30(፴)+6(፮)=1936. Notably a system upper and lower brackets are used to differentiate "numbers" from letters.

In addition, collectors should be aware of the differences of the Ge'ez and Georgian (standard) calendars. As it's fairly common for beginning collectors. To mistakenly assume that the coin's listed date, is referring to standard western dating. Often unaware of complexity of the Ge'ez calendar.

This unique calendar began on 29 August 8 CE and features an additional "leap year" day without exception, every 4 years. This has lead to a slowly growing gap between the Ge'ez and Georgian calendars. The before mention gap grows roughly 1 day, every 1 to 2 centuries. Further adding to this complexity, by it's very nature a Ge'ez year spans across 2 standard Georgian years.

For example, this coin's mint date (Ge'ez 1934) ranged from 12 September 1943 and ended in 11 September 1944. As a general rule, one can quickly create a rough estimate for standard year dates. By simply adding 8 years to the Ge'ez year. Which is occasionally used by vendors, when processing large quantities of Ethiopian coins and banknotes.

While more precise dating can be made, by calculating from the 11 September. More appropriate when estimating particular dates, such as historical events, unlisted in standard Georgian dating. Also it should be noted that Ge'ez years divisible by 4 (leap year). For the near future will begin on 12 September.


The reverse depicts the Lion of Judah, the Ethiopian imperial emblem. Besides the depicting the Lion of Judah, the reverse is relatively sparse. Featuring a single line of text in Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), it reads አምስት:ሳንቲም. This Ge'ez text roughly translates to "Five Santim", the coin's value. A colon sign (:) is used to divide the two words.

The Lion of Judah seal is said to have existed in Ethiopia, since the time of Menelik I. Who according to the 13th century epic the Kəbrä Nägäśt (The Glory of the Kings), Menelik I ruled in the 10th century BC. Born of a union between the biblical King Solomon (990-931 BCE) and Malikat Saba, the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty is said to stretch from the reign of Emperor Menelik I to Selassie I.

The Selassie-era lion differs from it's original biblical/Israelite version. Depicting a lion bearing the crown of Ethiopian Emperor and holding a crossed scepter. Thus representing the Emperor and the Lion, being one in the same.

The Lion Of Zion

An impressive portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie I, in full regalia.
Emperor Haile Selassie I in full regalia.

Emperor Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) was born as Lij Tafari Makonnen. In Ejersa Goro village, located in Harar providence. His father was Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael (1852-1906), governor of Harar, and grandson of Negas Sahle Selassie of Shewa (1795-1847). His mother was Woizero ("Lady") Yeshimebet Ali, who died during his infancy.

During the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1894-1896), (Ras) Tafari Makonnen served as a General. Proving himself during the crucial Battle of Adwa (1896), which ended in catastrophic Italian defeat. This victory secured his accession to the throne, via his paternal grandmother. Who was aunt to Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913).

In 1906, Tafari Makonnen became governor of Selale providence. While the providence was of marginal importance, it allowed him to continue his studies. After the death of his bother Yelma, due to illness in 1907. Tafari was made governor of Harar providence in 1910. He married Woizero Menen Asfaw (1891-1962), niece to the imperial heir Lij Iyasu (1895-1935).

Due to Iyasu's scandalous behavior and disrespect to court nobles. Iyasu was disposed and Tafari made Balemulu 'Inderase (Regent). Thus becoming the de-facto leader of Ethiopian Empire. Over seeing a period of modernization of the Empire. In 1923, Tafari secured Ethiopia's admission to the League of Nations, by promising to abolish slavery.

In 1924, he went on a world tour visiting numerous capital cities and world leaders. Among his entourage were veterans and sons of veterans, who defeated the Italians in Adwa. Their extravagant court dress was sensationalized by the media. Further helping to gain public attention of the recently recognized nation. While in Britain, Tafari presented a pair of Ethiopian Lions, in exchange for the crown of Emperor Tewodros II (1818-1868). Taken by General Sir Robert Napier, during the Expedition of 1868.

In 1928, Tafari consolidated power in a controversial move. On 2 November 1930, Tafari was officially crowned Neguse Negest ze-'Ityopp'ya ("King of Kings of Ethiopia"), at St. George's Cathedral, Addis Ababa. The event was attended by royals and dignitaries, from around the world. Despite having undisputed power, (now) Haile Selassie I commissioned the 1931 Constitution of Ethiopia. Introducing democratic limitations on his own power.

In 1935, the stability of Ethiopia was put to the test. Under fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Italy invaded Ethiopia. Beginning the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937), this time in greater numbers and superior technology. The once receptive League of Nations, refused to provided Ethiopia with financial and/or military aid. Even when the Italian military began indiscriminately using chemical weapons against Ethiopian civilian alike.

After the defeat of a number of Ethiopian offensives, Haile Selassie visited the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela. Where he made decision to command a resistance in exile. After it was declared the capital Addis Ababa, couldn't be defended.

An overhead view of Church of Saint George, Ethiopia..
Church of Saint George, in Lalibela.

Haile Selassie spent the majority of his exile (1937-1941) living in Fairfield House, in Bath, England. In 1937, he made his famous speech to the League of Nations. Which despite not successful at convincing the league to condemn Italy's invasion, which only 7 nations did. But gained the attention of the global public, as an anti-fascist icon. He was name Time "Man of the Year" 1937. While in exile he spent his days studied diplomatic history. And writing his 90,000 word autobiography.

In 1940, there was a break through in Ethiopia. The British organized Gideon Force, a special unit of British colonial troops and Ethiopian Arbegnoch (Patriots) fighters. Providing a decisive blow against the Italian occupation. Far beyond what would be expected by a conventional force, including members of other armies in exile. The East African campaign was taken up by conventional troops, which ended the occupation by November 1942.

After ending his exile, Haile Selassie donated Fairfield House, as a residence for the elderly. On 18 January 1941, he crossed Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Two days latter he met with members of Gideon Force and raised the Lion of Judah standard. On 5 May 1941, he reentered Addis Ababa, exactly 5 years after it's fall to Italy. Addressing the Ethiopian public of his return, below is an excerpt:

Today is the day on which we defeated our enemy. Therefore, when we say let us rejoice with our hearts, let not our rejoicing be in any other way but in the spirit of Christ. Do not return evil for evil. Do not indulge in the atrocities which the enemy has been practicing in his usual way, even to the last.

In the post war-era Haile Selassie made efforts to reintegrate into the international community. Becoming a founding member of the United Nations, on 13 November 1945. Through the UN a agreement was made to reintegrate the former Italian colony of Eritrea, into Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Kagnew Battalion took part in the UN Command mission, in the Korean War (1959-1953). Haile Selassie referred the UN mission as "redemption of the principles of collective security".

In November 1955, during his Silver Jubilee. Haile Selassie introduced the revised 1955 Constitution of Ethiopia. The revisited constitution was created with assistance of 3 American constitutional advisors. The goal being to refine power between the common Ethiopian citizen and aristocracy. It features separation of power between 3 independent branches. With special attention given to individual rights.

Despite his populous appeal, the 1958 Tigray Famine. Was part of his undoing in the long-run. As he refuse to provide aid to the region. Due to a mixture of ineffective local leaders, a lack of resources and ethnic secessionist opposing centralized rule. The famine allowed Soviet propagandist to falsely contrast Selassie as an inept traditionalist, against the utopia of Marxism–Leninism.

In 1960, Haile Selassie deployed Ethiopian troops as UN peacekeepers during the Congo Crisis. Later that year, on 13 December 1960. The Kebur Zabagna (Honor Guard) unsuccessfully attempted a coup, to install Haile Selassie son Amha Selassie (1916-1997) as emperor. The coup was rapidly defeated by members of the regular Ethiopian Army and police forces. It remain a pivotal moment in Ethiopian history, where the role of the Emperor was questioned.

On 1 September 1961, Eritrea was in a state of open rebellion. Leading the Haile Selassie to abolish UN mandated federation agreement and the Eritrean parliament. Eritrea was reintegrated into Ethiopia by military action. Whether not the conflict can be regarded as civil war or an act of invasion. Is a subjective matter of political perspective.

That same day, Haile Selassie attended the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Which provided an alternative political option for developing nation, during the Cold War (1947-1991). The nations of the NAM supported Ethiopia annexation of Eritrea. In 1962, Eritrea was declared the fourteenth province of Ethiopia.

In line with Selassie's desire for alternative political movements. He founded the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Serving as the organization's first leader, successfully negotiating the Bamako Accords. Which ended the border dispute between Morocco and Algeria. The following year Selassie proposed the concept of a "United States of Africa".

During the later phase of the 1960s, segments of the Ethiopian intelligentsia began emphasizing with communism. Making the situation worst conservatives elements of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and aristocracy. Made the necessary land reforms difficult to undertake in a democratic manner. As the majority of the rural poor were illiterate and therefore disconnected from the political process.

Flag of the EPLF, a Eritrea-based communist militia. Which fought the Ethiopian Army in a 30 year long war.
Flag of the EPLF

The political situation reached a tipping point with the Wollo famine (1972-1974). Compounded by the 1973 Oil Crisis, which dramatically increased the price of food, fuel, and imported goods. Leading to massive unemployment in Ethiopia's cities and rapid inflation. Revolution broke out on February 1974, after 4 days of riots in Addis Ababa. Efforts were made to subsidize the cost of fuel and freeze the prices of basic goods.

Although a promised 33% raise in military was deemed not enough, to pacify the mutinied members of the army. Which began in the city of Asmara and rapidly spread throughout the empire. Leading to the Prime Misiter Aklilu Habte-Wold (1912-1974), on on 27 February 1974. Emperor Selassie made a televised statement agreeing to the mutineers' demands and declared Endelkachew Makonnen (1927-1974) as Prime Minister.

On 12 September 1974, the a committee (Derg) of low-ranking military officers seized control of the government. Declaring the Soviet-backed "Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia". On 24 November 1974, 60 former g\high-ranking members of government were executed. By firing squad at Alem Bekagn ("Farewell to the World") prison, in Addis Ababa. Emperor Selassie is believed to have been straggled in his sleep, sometimes in 1975.

The Derg's successor, the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Collapsed in 1991, to due the rapid decline and collapse of the Soviet Union (1922-1991) that same year. In 1992, Emperor Selassie's bones were recovered from beneath a concrete slab, on the place grounds. His coffin was buried at Bhata Church, near his great-uncle Emperor Menelik II (1844-1914).

Size Comparison

A 5 Santim coin with US Penny for comparison.
A 5 Santim coin with US Penny for comparison.

Additional Notes

  • All non-currency website images are public domain images, provided by Wikimedia.

  • The name Birr translates to "silver" in Ge'ez, Satim is a Ethiopian variant of "cent".

  • The First Birr can be broken into the formula,16 Ghersh = 1 Birr = 32 Bessa.

  • The rank of Lij (Amharic for "child") was a rank given to youth of noble blood.

  • The rank of Ras (Amharic for "head") is roughly similar to a European duke.

  • Th rank of Negus (Amharic for "king") was a hereditary role, in large providences.

  • The Kagnew Battalion served with the US 9th Division, during the Battle of Porkchop Hill.

  • A.H. Garretson, J. Spencer, and E. Burlington served as US advisors, to the 1955 constitution.

  • The 1955 constitution features 28 articles to the "Rights and Duties of the People".

  • The "Derg" ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1987, transitioning to a civilian government.

  • The People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, was ruled by the Workers' Party of Ethiopia.

  • On 5 November 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox church provided Haile Selassie I with a funeral.

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