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Imperial and Traditional Ranks and Titles

Taken from the 1998 book, Ethiopia Reaches Her Hand Unto God: Imperial Ethiopia’s Unique Symbols, Structures, and Role in the Modern World, by Gregory R. Copley, and published by the International Strategic Studies Association, PO Box 20407, Alexandria, VA 22320, USA.

The titles and ranks of state recognised by the Crown Council are listed below. But Ethiopian titles are more numerous, complex and subtle than in most European countries. Some titles are used only in one or more state or region, and not nationally. Some titles are courtesy forms, and without official power, such as woïzero, the title of a noble woman. The upper nobility itself is known as the makwanent. The immediate royal or imperial family are known as negusawi betasab; the more distant members of the family are known as mesafint.

It should be noted that some of the titles are used as court titles and also, separately, as military titles. In many cases, some of the titles were bestowed as honorifics, in recognition of the rank and closeness of the individual to the Emperor, and in other cases they were bestowed with the specific meaning of the rank. As well, there were and are often separate and distinct meanings when the rank is given in a military context as opposed to a court context.

Imperial, Royal and Noble Titles

Modern Titles of Nobility

Titles Bestowed by the Crown

Ethiopian Military Titles

Ethiopian Religious Titles

In general, military officers are referred to by the term and title yachiembel, although the word, like shalaqa, literally means “commander of a thousand).3A. Zervos’s book, Le Miroir de l’Éthiopie Moderne, 1906-1935, was an invaluable source of confirmation or elaboration on many of the traditional titles of Ethiopia. His book looked not only at the titles as they were used in the time up to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, but also at the historical origins. That this book was limited to a mere 1,900 copies makes it a rare jewel in modern Ethiopian scholarship. The title bacha is generally given to a lower-rank officer, and indeed was often used as the title for many officers in other services, such as the Customs service.

These are by no means all of the major ranks and titles. The equivalent of “Mister” is Ato; “Mrs” or “Madame” would be Woyzero. The Emperor, when spoken of in the third person, may be referred to as Janhoy, literally “the emperor”.

Noted historian of Ethiopian Imperial matters, and a direct descendant of Negus Sahle Selassie of Shoa, His Highness Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, highlighted some of the ambiguity regarding ancient and modern uses of some of the titles: “Le’ul Ras is the equivalent of a Royal Duke, whereas a Ras is a Duke. Every Le’ul Ras and Le’ul, as well as a Meridazmatch is a Mesfin, and is thus [likely to be] entitled to the distinction of His Highness or His Imperial Highness (HH or HIH).”4Correspondence with HH Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate to the author, June 30, 1998.

He also noted: “Ras is the highest title which can be bestowed upon someone who is not of Royal birth (ie: Ras Mesfin Sileshi, etc.). Indeed, it is the equivalent of a Duke in the civilian hierarchy and Field Marshal in military terms. Both Le’ul Ras Kassa Hailu and Le’ul Ras Seyoum Mengesha were officially appointed Field Marshals in 1934.”5Ibid. During the Zemene Mesafint, Tigré was ruled by a Ras; Amhara by a Dejazmatch. Like feudal lords in mediæval Europe, these ranks held massive authority. Even by the early 19th Century, for example, Begémder was still ruled by a powerful Ras; Gojjam by a Dejazmatch. And, at this time, the early 19th Century, the Emperor himself, still resident in Gondar, had little real authority over the regional rulers.

Most of the titles, such as dejazmatch, kegnazmatch, etc., when given in their traditional forms, were — and still are — within the gift not only of the Emperor, but also of the various kings of the component parts of Ethiopia. Even the rank of king — Negus — which was a title often assumed by leaders of Ethiopian states, ultimately became something which had to be sanctioned by the Emperor. This was particularly the case in the years after the Zemene Mesafent, the “Era of Judges”, when Emperor Téwodros attempted to re-impose some kind of Imperial consolidation on Ethiopia after a protracted period in which the various component states had acted more-or-less as totally sovereign states. Menelik II, as leader of Shoa, had taken the title of Negus during a period when he and Shoa were at odds with Emperor Yohannes IV. The Emperor, however, remained unsatisfied until he, in 1877 and 1878, was able to forcibly coerce Menelik into a position of fealty to the Imperial Throne. At that point, Emperor Yohannes, having accepted the very real acknowledgement of Menelik’s subordination, granted the Shoan leader the title of Negus. This was the first instance in which Emperor Yohannes had been able to make such a clear statement: the title was his to give, not for a regional leader to take.

“Though virtually all-powerful in relation to the peasantry, and to the people at large, the nobles were almost entirely subordinate to the monarch. During the reign of Lebnä Dengel [Dawit II], the ‘great lords’, whom Alvarez6Francisco Alvarez, early 16th Century Portuguese traveller in Ethiopia. likens to kings, were thus ‘all tributary’ to the sovereign who appointed and dismissed them at his pleasure ‘with or without cause’.”7 Pankhurst, Richard: A Social History of Ethiopia. Op Cit. p.20.

The Ethiopian word shum-shir, meaning “appoint-demote”, applied to this process of changing of positions at the emperor’s, or king’s, whim.8Levine, Donald N. Wax & Gold. Op Cit.

Noted Ethiopianist scholar Donald Levine said: “Even after transforming and limiting the powers of the mesafint [extended royal family] and makwanent [senior nobles], these men have [still] been called the bala seltan (‘holders of power’).”9Levine, Donald N. Op Cit. p.185.

The lesser titles, however, were indeed in the past able to be given by the regional leaders as well as by the Emperor. The title ras, which is still frequently seen, is one of military or regional authority, which often implies that the person would be the head of an army attached to his region. The almost literal interpretation of ras is a “field marshal”, although in general terms, unless specified by the Emperor, equates today — according to some sources — to a lieutenant-general in Western terms, except where the ras is a political or royal/imperial figure. The rank of ras is today only given by the Crown.

A prince who is a military leader could be styled le’ul ras, for example, something like the equivalent of a Royal Duke in Britain. However, the creation of an actual Ethiopian dukedom, in the European or Japanese sense, only occurred in the 1930s in Ethiopia, when Emperor Haile Selassie created the Dukedom of Harar, with the first Duke (in Amharic: Mesfin) being the second son of the Emperor. In order of precedence, the Mesfin of Harar would rank higher than virtually all le’ul rases.

Following the example of the creation of the Dukedom of Harar, the Crown recognised the creation of titles which correspond to internationally-recognised ranks of nobility: Duke, Marquis, Count, Viscount, and Baron. Of these, only Duke equates directly to an Ethiopian title: mesfin. The word mesfin has clearly been referred to in some old documents as another term for “Prince”, the normal word for which is le’ul.10Zervos. Op Cit. Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate confirms this.

It is possible for these titles to be combined with traditional titles. For example, the Marquis of Ankober was created Bitwoded and Marquis of Ankober simultaneously.11Files of the Crown Council. [Ankober, founded by Negus Amha Iyasus, was the city from which Negus Sahle Selassie created the Shoan State. The city, then a thriving centre of some 15,000 people, was the home to a succession of kings, and was one of the twin capitals of Shoa.]

In some senses — in the ceremonial realm as opposed to the traditional European sense in which some of the titles of nobility relate directly to the control of territory — the title bitwoded approximates the level of a Count, although this is not a literal translation. A bitwoded is, however, a senior Imperial Court figure.12Zervos even notes that a Bitwoded is the official “in high charge of the [Imperial] Court”, although not all Bitwodeds are given the actual responsibility as opposed to the honorific. HIH Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, before he became Emperor Amha Selassie, created at least one Count, but without granting the traditional appelation of bitwoded.13Files of the Crown Council.

A blata or belata was the official who acted as the counsellor to the princes of the Blood, and also acted in place of the bitwoded of the Court in his absence. A blata would always have a stature after (or inferior to) a dejaz or dejazmatch.

Beneath these officials lay a host of ranks, titles and responsibilities, many of which are listed in the tables, above. But there are titles for many other functions, as well, ranging from Teklegna (the administrative representative of the chief of a region) to Kotetari (who acted as the controller of receipts for the governors of regions); and so on. The title Tigré-Makonnen, for example, was given to the leader of Tigré, but later was used for the chief of the Agamé district, and generally also carried the rank and title of Fitawrari.

Emperor Haile Selassie I, who, although he was descended directly from the Solomonic line, was not directly descended from Emperor Menelik’s branch. Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen in 1892. His father, Ras Makonnen, was Governor and Ras of Harar, a close friend of his cousin, Emperor Menelik II, and a key figure in the Shoa Amhara nobility. As the son of a noble, Tafari was born with the honorific Lij. Because of his later functions and power, he was accorded the title Ras, and as Ras Tafari became Regent of Ethiopia and, in 1928, Negus of Ethiopia, before becoming Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.

The Emperor, who is accorded the prefix “His Imperial Majesty” (in its Western translation), is, under the terms of the pre-revolutionary Constitution of Ethiopia, Head of State. He is also accorded the title “Elect of God” (Atsie), and is the Head of the House of Solomon, and holder of the Throne of Solomon. The wife of the Emperor, the Empress, has no constitutional power, unless she rules in her own right as Empress, as was the case with Empress Zauditu, early in the 20th Century.

The title “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” is often attached to the Emperor’s name, but is not a title of the Emperor himself. As Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate noted: “The phrase ‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah’ has never been the title of Ethiopian monarchs. Rather, the words ‘The Lion of the Tribe of Judah hath prevailed’ (see Genesis 49:9) should be seen as the Imperial motto, in the same way that ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ is the motto of the British ruling house. It is only our Lord Jesus Christ who is accorded this title [‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah’], and Ethiopian Monarchs used this motto in order to proclaim that they were Christians.”14HH Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, in correspondence with the author, June 30, 1998.

In proclaiming the 1955 Constitution, the phrase “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” appeared above the name of the Emperor, indicating the religious authority of the Crown.

The Crown Prince, although named by the ruling Emperor as his heir, is only named Emperor on the death of the ruling Sovereign if so approved by the Crown Council. He is accorded the prefix “His Imperial Highness” (HIH), as are all princes of the Blood in direct line of the ruling branch of the house. Princesses of the blood of the direct line of the ruling branch of the House, and the wives of such princes of the Blood are accorded the prefix “Her Imperial Highness”. Princes of the Solomonic bloodline from an older or cadet branch of the family are styled His Highness (HH), rather than HIH.

Princesses were created directly by the issuance of a decree from the Emperor. These were often immediate family members, and are princesses in their own right. As well, wives of princes of the blood are automatically styled as princesses as courtesy titles.

A Viceroy may be named by the Ruling Emperor to act in an executive capacity in matters of State when the Emperor is incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform the functions of State, or to perform certain regional functions (such as the governor-generalship of a governorate or region). Upon the death of the Ruling Emperor, a viceroy having been appointed by the Emperor may continue in this capacity at the discretion of the Crown Council.15

The Crown Council, during an interregnum, may name a Viceroy in its own right to represent the President of the Crown Council when the President is indisposed or wishes to despatch a Viceregal representative to a particular area or situation.
In all other aspects, the Crown Council itself undertakes the effective office of the Crown until the interregnum is ended by decision of the Council. The 1955 Constitution stipulates one limitation on the Council, however: only a reigning Emperor may create a new prince or princess.

Much of the formal codification of the Constitution was the work of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who took what was essentially the first step in some three millennia to bring the Ethiopian monarchy into line with what might be called international practices and norms. He had successfully engineered Ethiopia through the Italian invasions of the 1930s and through World War II, and had emerged as a statesman of international stature.

Born as Tafari Makonnen in 1892, he married Woyzero Menen, the daughter of Emperor Menelik II and granddaughter of Negus Mikael of Wollo, in 1911. By becoming Ras, Tafari became the focus of the Christian majority’s approval, over Menelik’s grandson, Lij Iyasu, who succeeded, de facto, to the Throne in 1911. Emperor Menelik had suffered a series of strokes and his wife, Empress Taitu, effectively retained considerable power through Ras Tessemma, whom Menelik had named as Regent in 1909, until the faction surrounding Lij Iyasu effectively took power, pushing Empress Taitu into house arrest. Iyasu (sometimes referred to as Yasu) was never crowned, and he was alleged to have converted to Islam, although this was never documented. He did, however, have an illustrious lineage, not only through the Solomonic bloodline, but also made a significant claim to the bloodline of the Prophet Mohammed, in effect making him and the current bloodline of Haile Selassie sharifs — descendants of the Prophet — as well as descendants of King Solomon. Burke’s Royal Families of the World, Volume II, stated that Iyasu had in fact converted to Islam.16Burke’s Royal Families of the World, Volume II: Africa and the Middle East. London, 1980: Burke’s Peerage Limited. In any event, the possibility of the conversion, and the belief that it had occurred, was sufficient to cause unremitting opposition from the Church. He had proven, in any event, incapable of ruling the Empire. Menelik’s daughter, Zauditu, was made Empress (Negeste-Negestate on condition that she separated from her husband, whom the Shoan nobility distrusted, and that her cousin, Tafari Makonnen — who was married to Iyasu’s niece — became Regent.17Ibid.

Iyasu’s father attempted to rally support for his son, but his forces were defeated militarily and he died in captivity. Lij Iyasu was himself arrested in 1921 and some years later died in custody. But during his period, uncrowned, in office, Lij Iyasu took a stand in Ethiopia’s international relations which was contrary to the approach which his grandfather would have taken, and one markedly different from that taken by other Ethiopian leaders of the time: he supported the Axis powers — Germany and Turkey in particular — against the Allies during World War I.

Iyasu was never crowned as Negus or Negusa Negest ze Ethiopia, and his only formal title was Lij, itself an honorific to connote that he was born of noble blood. But his bloodline was clear, and he was always referred to as “Lord” (Abetu) when addressed during his period at the helm of affairs. [The title Abetu had, at the end of the 17th Century and in the early 18th Century, been a title of authority by itself; the first ruler of nominally sovereign Shoa was called Abetu.] The title Abetu (to mean “Lord”) would never be used to address a noble of other rank, as the title “lord” would be used in Britain, where a marquis, earl, viscount or baron are rightfully addressed as “lord”.

With the disintegration of the Iyasu administration, Ras Tafari Makonnen was named heir and Regent in 1917, but did not ascend the throne as Negus until 1928 and did not become Emperor until the death of Empress Zauditu in November 1930. He then took the name “Haile Selassie” (meaning “Might of the Holy Trinity”) as his throne name. And he became the fourth Imperial monarch to hold his court in Addis Ababa — meaning “New Flower” in Amharic — the city founded by Emperor Menelik in 1896.

Few cultures have so many unique structures and titles as Ethiopia. Much of this is a direct result of the relative isolation of the Ethiopian societies, which grew up protected by the rough topography of the region, and by the fact that world trade for countless centuries passed them by, flowing down the Red Sea and only occasionally touching its littorals. After several thousand years, the remnants of the cross-Red Sea empire of the Sabæans still exist in language (the Ethiopic languages, being Semitic-Hemitic, derive from this era), and other symbols.

There are many titles in Ethiopian society which are for functions which do not exist in direct parallel elsewhere. Religious and cultural life became rich with structure and meaning. Obeisance to hierarchical structures gave Ethiopians a sense of their own being and place in the world which today is often replaced (as it is in Western societies) by a reaffirmation of self-worth which derives solely from material possession or fashion.

That Ethiopians can take pride in their historical structures and symbols is a measure of their retention of true wealth.