Ethiopian aristocratic and court titles
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Until the end of the Ethiopian monarchy in 1974, there were two categories of nobility in Ethiopia, the Mesafint (Ge'ez መሳፍንት masāfint, modern mesāfint, singular መስፍን masfin, modern mesfin, "prince") and the Mekwanint (makʷanin, modern mekʷenin or መኮንን mekonnen, "governor").
The Mesafint or princes, hereditary nobles, formed the upper echelon of the ruling class. The Mekwanint were the appointed nobles, often of humble birth, who formed the bulk of the nobility. Until the 20th century, the most powerful people at court were generally Mekwanint appointed by the monarch, while regionally, the Mesafint enjoyed greater influence and power. Emperor Haile Selassie greatly curtailed the power of the Mesafint to the benefit of the Mekwanint.
- Nəgusä nägäst (ንጉሠ ነገሥት, "King of kings") -- Emperor of Ethiopia. Although several kings of Aksum used this style, until the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty under Yekuno Amlak, rulers of Ethiopia generally used the style of Negus, although "King of Kings" was used as far back as Ezana. The full title of the Emperor of Ethiopia included the terms Atse (Emperor), Neguse Negest (King of kings), and Seyoume Igziabeher (Elect of God). The title of Moa Anbessa Ze Imnegede Yehuda (Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah) always preceded the titles of the Emperor. It was not a personal title, but rather referred to the title of Christ, and placed the office of the Christ ahead of the Emperor's name in an act of Imperial submission. Until Yohannes IV the Emperor was also Neguse Tsion (King of Zion). The Emperor was entitled to the dignities of Girmawi (His/Your Imperial Majesty), and Janhoy (ጃንሆይ, Sire), Atse (Emperor when referred to in the third person) and in his own household and family as Getochu (our Master in the plural).
- Negus (ንጉሥ, "king") -- This word was often used as part of the title to denote any important official. The title of Negus was awarded at the discretion of the Emperor to the Rases who ruled important provinces. The rulers of Gondar, Shewa, Gojjam, Wollo, have all held the title of Negus at some point. The title of Neguse of Tsion (ንጉሠ ጽዮን, King of Zion), usually held by the Emperor, gave hegemony over much of the north of the Empire and was seated at Axum. The title was last used by Emperor Yohannes IV. It was awarded to Negus Mikael, father of Lij Iyasu (Iyasu V), but changed to Negus of Wollo in consideration of the feelings of many princes in northern Ethiopia. After Lij Iyasu was deposed the title went to Tafari Makonnen, who later became Emperor Haile Selassie. He would be the last person to bear the title of Negus.
- Leul (ልዑል, "Prince") -- Title reserved for Princes of the Imperial blood. Came into use in 1916 following the enthronement of Empress Zewditu.
- Abetohun (አቤቶሁን) or Abeto (አቤቶ) -- Prince. Title reserved for males of Imperial ancestry in the male line. Title fell into disuse by the late 19th century. Lij Iyasu attempted to revive the title as Abeto-hoy ("Great Prince"), and this form is still used by the current Iyasuist claimant Lij Girma Yohannis Iyasu.
- Ras (ራስ, "head") -- One of the powerful non-imperial; Harold G. Marcus equates this to a duke. The combined title of Leul Ras was given to the heads of the cadet branches of the Imperial dynasty, such as the Princes of Gojjam, Tigray and the Selalle sub-branch of the last reigning Shewan Branch.
- Bitwoded (ቢትወደድ, "beloved") -- An office thought to have been created by Zara Yaqob who appointed two of these, one of the Left and one of the Right. These were later merged into one office, which became the supreme grade of Ras, "Ras Betwadad". Marcus equates this to an earl.
- Lij -- (ልጅ, literally "child") Title given from birth to sons of members of the Mesafint.
- Dejazmach (ደጃዝማች, "Commander or General of the Gate") a military title meaning commander of the central body of a traditional Ethiopian armed force composed of a vanguard, main body, left and right wings and a rear body. Marcus equates this to a count. The heirs of the "Leul Rases" were titled Leul Dejazmach to elevate them above the non-Imperial blood Dejazmaches.
- Fitawrari (ፊትአውራሪ, Commander of the Vanguard), a military title meaning commander of the vanguard of a traditional Ethiopian armed force. Marcus equates this to a baron.
- Grazmach (ግራዝማች, Commander of the Left Wing) a military title meaning commander of the left wing of a traditional Ethiopian armed force.
- Kenyazmach (ቀኛዝማች, Commander of the Right wing) a military title meaning commander of the right wing of a traditional Ethiopian armed force.
- Azmach (አዝማች, Commander of the Rearguard) a military title meaning commander of the rearguard of a traditional Ethiopian armed force. This was usually a trustworthy counselor and the leader's chief minister.
- Balambaras (ባላምባራስ, Commander of an Amba or fortress), these could also be commanders of the guards, artillery or cavalry of a traditional Ethiopian armed force, basically a man entrusted with important commands.
- Nigiste Negest - "Empress Regnant" (ንግሥተ ነገሥት) (in her own right) Literally "Queen of Kings". Empress Zewditu (reigned 1917–1930) was the only woman to be crowned in Ethiopia in her own right since ancient times. Rather than take the title of Itege which was reserved for Empress-Consorts, Zewditu was given the feminized version of Niguse Negest to indicate that she reigned in her own right. She was accorded the dignity of Girmawit (Imperial Majesty) and the title of Siyimte Igziabiher (ሥይምተ እግዚአብሔር) (feminized "Elect of God"). She was commonly referred to as Nigist (Queen). The 1955 revised constitution excluded women from the succession to the throne so this title was effectively abolished.
- Itege (እቴጌ) - "Empress Consort" were generally crowned as consorts by the Emperor at the Imperial Palace. However, Empress Taitu Bitul, consort of Menelik II, became the first Itege to be crowned by the Emperor at church rather than at the Palace. Her coronation took place on the second day of the Emperor's coronation holiday. Empress Menen Asfaw became the first Itege to be crowned by the archbishop on the same day and during the same ceremony as her husband, Emperor Haile Selassie. The Itege was entitled to the dignity of Girmawit (Her/Your Imperial Majesty).
- Leult (ልዕልት) -- Princess. Title came into use in 1916 uppon the enthronement of Empress Zewditu. Reserved at birth for daughters of the monarch, and granddaughters in the male line. Usually bestowed on the wives of "Leul Rases" as well as the monarch's granddaughters in the female line upon their marriages. The notable exception to the rule was "Leult" Yeshashework Yilma, Emperor Haile Selassie's niece by his elder brother, who received the title with the dignity of "Highness" from Empress Zauditu upon the princesses marriage to 'Leul Ras' Gugsa Araya Selassie in 1918, and then again from her uncle upon his coronation in 1930 with the enhanced dignity of "Imperial Highness".
- Emebet Hoy (እመቤት ሆይ, "Great Royal Lady") --Reserved for the wives of those bearing the title of "Leul Dejazmach" and other high ranking women of Royal blood.
- Emebet (እመቤት, "Royal Lady") --Reserved for the unmarried granddaughters of the monarch in the female line (they were generally granted the title of "leult" upon marriage), and to the daughters of the "Leul Rases".
- Woizero (ወይዘሮ, Dame) -- Originally high noble title that over time came to be the general accepted form of address for married women in general (Mrs.). It was still awarded by the Emperor on rare occasions in the 20th century to non-royal women, and sometimes with the higher grade of Woizero Hoy (Great Dame).
- Woizerit (ወይዘሪት, Lady) -- Originally high ranking noble title for unmarried women, now the general accepted form of address for unmarried women in general (Miss). It was sometimes awarded with the added distinction of Woizerit Hoy (Great Lady), but only to widows.
Important regional offices
- Bahr negus (ባሕር ንጉሥ, "ruler of the Seas") -- King of the territories north of the Mareb River, and as a result the most powerful office in medieval Ethiopia after the Emperor himself. As a result of the revolts of the Bahr negus Yeshaq and the self-determination of Medri Bahri in modern day Eritrea in the later 16th century, this office lost much of its power. Although men are mentioned as holding this office into the early 18th century, they were of little consequence.
- Meridazmach (መርዕድ አዝማች, "Fearsome Commander" or "supreme general") -- This title is related to "Dejazmach" or "Kenyazmach" above. Beginning in the 18th century this came to denote the ruler of Shewa until Sahle Selassie dropped it in favor of the title of Negus. Later revived in 1930 in Wollo for Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen.
- Mesfine Harrar (መስፍነ ሐረር) --Duke of Harrar. Hereditary title created in 1930 for Emperor Haile Selassie's second son, Prince Makonnen. (The wife of the Mesfin was properly titled Sefanit but was more commonly referred to as the Mesfinit). Upon the death of the Prince, his son Prince Wossen Seged was elevated as Mesfin Harrar and would currently be second in line in the line of succession if Ethiopia were still a monarchy after Prince Zera Yacob.
- Nebura ed (ንቡረ እድ) ("one put in office through the laying of hands") -- civil governor of Aksum reserved for the clergy. Also called Liqat Aksum. Because of the historical and symbolic importance of this city, the rules of precedence promulgated in 1689 ranked the Nebura ed ahead of all of the provincial governors. Indeed, when the title was granted with Ras Warq (the right to wear a coronet), it was higher than even the title of Ras. Although a civil title granted by the Emperor, it was usually bestowed on a clergyman due to Axum's status as the holiest site of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church within the country. The title of Nebure ed was also granted to the administrator of the Church of St. Mary at Addis Alem, founded by Menelik II west of Addis Ababa. However the Nebura ed of Addis Alem was much further down the hierarchy than the Nebura ed of Axum, and was not accorded the Ras Warq.
- Tigray Mekonnen (ትግራይ መኮንን) -- governor of the province of Tigray. Under the rule of Emperor Yohannes IV in the late 19th century, the Tigray Mekonnen briefly became responsible for the territories once controlled by the Bahrnegus, and became the most powerful governor of Eritrea.
- Wagshum (ዋግሹም) -- governor (or shum) of the province of Wag. The Wagshum was a hereditary title, and these rulers traced their ancestry back to the kings of the Zagwe dynasty.
- Shum Agame -- Governor of Agame district of Tigrai, and hereditary in the family of Dejazmach Sebagadis, a major figure of the Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes) period. Ras Sebhat Aregawi, a longtime rival of the family of Emperor Yohannis IV was one of the more famous of the Shum Agame.
- Shum Tembien (ሹም ታምብየን) -- Governor of Tembien district of Tigrai. Emperor Yohannis IV was the son of Shum Mercha of Tembien.
- Jantirar - Title reserved for the males of the family who ruled over the mountain fortress of Ambassel in Wollo (now Debub Wollo Zone). The title of Jantirar is among the oldest in the Ethiopian Empire. Empress Menen, consort of Emperor Haile Selassie, was the daughter of Jantirar Asfaw.
Important offices of the Imperial Court
- Enderase (እንደራሴ, Literally "As Myself") -- Regent of the Empire. Also title used by the monarch's representatives to fiefs and vassals.
- Reise Mekwanint (ርዕሰ መኳንንት, Head of the Nobles) -- Title granted during the Zemene Mesafint to the holder of the "Enderase-ship," which raised the holder over all appointed nobles. Last granted to Yohannes IV by his brother-in-law Tekle Giyorgis II before the former deposed the later and seized the throne for himself.
- Tsehafe Tezaz (ጸሐፌ ትእዛዝ, Literally "Scribe by Command") -- Minister of the Pen. This was the most powerful post at the Imperial court. According to John Spencer, he was "the one who traditionally walked two steps behind the Emperor to listen to and write down all orders that the latter gave out in the course of an audience or an inspection tour." Spencer adds that under Haile Selassie the Tsehafe Tezaz safeguarded the Great Seal, kept the records of all important appointments, and was responsible for publishing all laws and treaties; "his signature, rather than that of the Emperor, appeared on those [official] publications although the heading in each case referred to His Imperial Majesty." The office was combined with that of Prime Minister during the tenure of Aklilu Habte-Wold (1961–1974).
- Afe Negus -- (አፈ ንጉሥ, Literally "Mouth of the King") Originally, this was the title given to the two chief heralds who acted as official spokesmen for the Emperor. As the Emperor never spoke in public, these officials always spoke in public for him, speaking as if they were the Emperor. By 1942, this title was granted only to Justices of the Imperial Supreme Court.
- Lique Mekwas (ሊቀ መኳስ) -- The impersonator or double of the Emperor, who accompanied him in battle. Two trusted and highly favored officials were given this title. They always walked or rode on either side of the monarch in battle, or in public processions, dressing as magnificently, or more magnificently then he, in order to distract assassins.
- Aqabe Se'at (አቃቤ ሰዓት) - Literally, "Keeper of time", a high official, often a clergyman, who was responsible for keeping the Emperor's schedule and had authority over the clergy assigned to the Imperial Court. The position was one of immense power in medieval times, but became largely titular under the Gondarine Emperors and eventually went out of existence.
- Blattengeta (ብላቴን ጌታ) -- "Lord of the Pages", High court official that served as administrator of the Palaces. Later used as an honorific.
- Blatta (ብላታ) -- "Page", high court officials in charge of maintaining palace protocol and meeting the personal needs of the Imperial family.
- Basha (ባሻ) -- Originally derived from the Turkish (Ottoman)/Egyptian title of Pasha, but considered a lower rank in Ethiopia, whereas Pasha was a high rank at the Turkish and Egyptian courts.
Higher ranks from the title of Ras through Balambaras were also bestowed upon members of the Mekwanint. A Ras who was a member of the Mesafint (such as Ras Mengesha Yohannes, son of Emperor Yohannes IV) would usually be given precedence over a Ras who was a member of the Mekwanint, (such as Ras Alula Engida who was of humble birth) even though their ranks were equal. There were also however parallel rules of precedence based on seniority based on age, on offices held, and on when they each obtained their titles, which made the rules for precedence fairly complicated.
- Part of text in which the Emperor is addressed with the Atse term. Talking about Alula Engida.
- Ethiopia Military Tradition in National Life Library of Congress
- Edward Ullendorff notes that the title of "Nebura ed" is also used by the head of Basilica Church of St Maryam at Addis Alem, "built by Menelik as the southern Aksum". (The Ethiopians, 2nd ed. [London: Oxford, 1960], p. 109)
- John Spencer, Ethiopia at Bay: A personal account of the Haile Selassie years (Algonac: Reference Publications, 1984), p. 118
- Margary Perham, The Government of Ethiopia, second edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. 154
- Perham, The Government of Ethiopia, p. 86
- Ethiopia: a country study. Edited by Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1993. Online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ettoc.html#et0163