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Ethiopia's Aristocracy

WelcomeThe oldest Ethiopian aristocracy, dating from Biblical times, was essentially tribal and military in nature, and in some cases nomadic, and this changed little during the Middle Ages. The regional rulers were known by the titles of negus (king) or amir (emir), while the sovereign was the Negusa Negest ("King of Kings"), known in the West as the Emperor. Empress is Itegue.

Instead of attempting to consider the traditional Ethiopian titles of nobility by comparing these to European titles, let's view them in their native context.

Ras is the highest noble rank, sometimes borne by minor princes of the Solomonic blood. One had to be elevated to the the rank of negus by Imperial decree, but ras was usually hereditary. (The word's origin is Indo European, hence the Indians' raj, the Egyptians' ra, the Romans' rex.)

Bitwoded (abbreviated Bit.). Literally "beloved" by the king, the highest non-royal title ranks after ras in precedence.

Dejazmach (abbreviated Dej.) is a high title which follows bitwoded in precedence. It originally referred to a "gate keeper." In more recent times, it was also a military title.

Fitawrari (abbreviated Fit.) is a noble title and was formerly a military one, meaning "leader of the vanguard." This title ranked after dejazmach.

Gerazmach (abbreviated Geraz.) ranked after fitawrari and is translated literally "military commander of the left." This is one of the lower aristocratic titles but also one of the older ones.

Kenyazmach (abbreviated Kenyaz.) is equivalent in rank to gerazmach, to which it may be considered complementary. It means "military commander of the right."

Balambaras is a lower title of nobility of ancient origin, literally "castellan" or commander of a fortress. Similar in some respects to dejazmach but considered a lesser title.

Ato. Traditionally 'sir' for a gentleman. Now "Mister."

Woizero (abbreviated Woiz.) Traditionally an aristocratic lady, now Mrs.

Lij. Literally "child," this is a title reserved to the children of the titled nobility.

Titled nobles collectively were the makwanent.

Whereas European titles such as count and baron were military or feudal in origin, they had become essentially little more than social distinctions in most countries by the nineteenth century, while some traditional Ethiopian titles in use in the twentieth century still implied many of the roles and duties of the medieval era.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Ethiopian Crown began to "Westernise" its system of social ranks and honours with the introduction of titles of nobility and orders of knighthood based on the European model. (Ethiopia was not alone in this; similar developments occurred in Japan.) Thus were introduced the Continental titles of duke, marquis, count, viscount, baron and knight (in the orders of knighthood). Except for the knighthoods, these titles were usually hereditary in the male line of primogeniture, though a titled nobleman could sometimes designate which of his sons was to be his heir. In centuries past, the consent of the negus or (for higher titles) the Emperor was required to confirm the transmission. Menelik II decreed that only the Emperor himself could create (bestow) any title of nobility or honour in Ethiopia.

Though some of the Ethiopians granted such titles already bore native ones, others were newly ennobled with the Western ranks, which conferred court precedence but no special privileges beyond that.

The last Emperor of Ethiopia, Amha Selassie I, appointed the membership of the Imperial Crown Council with a decree of 15 July 1993, and the Crown Council has respected his decision that an Emperor should not be crowned until the Ethiopian monarchy is restored. During an interregnum, the Imperial Crown Council is the fount of all honours in the gift of the Empire of Ethiopia. In practice, the Crown Council occasionally recognises Ethiopian titles of nobility but very rarely creates these. (The present government of Ethiopia does not recognise hereditary titles.) During more than twenty years of exile, His Imperial Majesty bestowed honours (knighthoods) rather infrequently, though he founded the Order of Haile Selassie I in honour of his predecessor in 1992.

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