Ethiopia's earliest dynasties reigned when the pharoahs ruled Egypt, but few of these early kings and queens are known to us by name today. Historical tradition tells us the Imperial Family descends from Solomon and Sheba, but the same could be said of several other, extinct, Ethiopian lines. The actual recorded lineage of the Solomonic dynasty dates from 1268. A few Ethiopian dynastic practices remain unchanged over centuries.
Ethiopia is a land of kings. The title negus literally means king, but in Ethiopia there was traditionally, since medieval times, a king of kings, who Europeans referred to as an emperor. A negus was not a mere vassal; he was a sovereign ruler of a territory whose ethnic history was unique. In more recent times, the imperial families had an Amharic heritage, but an emperor could just as likely have been from Oromo. If we were to compare this aspect of Ethiopia's royal tradition to those of other nations, we would find it quite similar to those of Germany, whose "imperial" family, the House of Prussia, was one of numerous German royal families, or pre-Norman Ireland, where the kings were united under the House of Connacht. India, with its numerous princes, united at first under a native emperor and finally under Queen Victoria as Empress, also comes to mind.
Imperial succession in Ethiopia requires the assent of a family council. One of an emperor's sons might be designated heir apparent, but he could ascend the throne only with the consent of a council of princes (including his brothers and cousins) and high clerics. In recent centuries, this group of family members evolved into the Crown Council, whose place is well-defined by the Ethiopian Constitution promulgated in 1955. The origins of the family council are rooted in ancient tribal law in eastern Africa and the Arab states. The royal families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have dynastic laws very similar to those of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia (though certain of their principles are based on medieval practices influenced to some extent by Koranic law).
Dynastic succession based on election is sometives criticized for its seemingly tenuous nature; it occasionally prompts familial disputes and even civil war. Even under peaceful circumstances, subjects do not know who their new king will be until the family council takes its joint decision. However, it should be remembered that fratricidal dynastic wars had been known in Europe for centuries, while some of the longest-lived monarchies, including the Vatican and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, still elect a new sovereign upon the death of a former one.
The Ethiopian Crown has traditionally bestowed honours in several orders of chivalry. Awarded for merit, most were established in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the model of the honours conferred by European monarchies. An exception is the older Order of Saint Anthony, distinctly religious in character.
Today, the Imperial Crown Council bestows decorations upon those who have made worthy contributions to Ethiopia, its people and culture, or, in certain instances, upon individuals who have contributed to the cause of African culture and unity. In keeping with Ethiopia's multicultural heritage, most of these decorations are bestowed without respect to the conferee's religion or nationality. There are both male ranks (knights) and female ones (dames) in most of the orders.
Most of the orders are active (extant), though some are only rarely bestowed today. The ranks of some (but not all) Ethiopian orders conform to European norms, being: knight of the collar, knight grand cross, knight grand officer, knight commander, knight officer, knight, dame, companion.
Order of King Solomon. Founded in 1874 as part of the Order of Solomon's Seal (see below) and bestowed in one rank (knight or dame), the Order of King Solomon is usually reserved to monarchs and heads of state. It is a rather ornate decoration suspended from a collar chain.
Order of King Solomon's Seal. Established by Emperor John IV in 1874, the Order of Solomon's Seal was at first bestowed in several ranks, though today it is usually conferred in the rank of knight grand cross. In 1922, it was divided to form the Order of King Solomon (see above) and the present Order of King Solomon's Seal. The insignia, a cross within the Seal of King Solomon ('Star of David'), is suspended from a deep green ribbon.
Order of the Queen of Sheba. Empress Zawditu founded this order for ladies in 1922, but it was soon extended to gentlemen in several ranks. The insignia is a green and purple star of Solomon bearing, in the centre, the cipher of Queen Makeda suspended from a purple and pale green ribbon.
Order of the Holy Trinity. Established in 1930 on the occasion of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, this order was initially bestowed in several ranks but today is awarded almost exclusively in the grade of knight grand cross. The decoration is a gold medallion displaying the Holy Trinity on a sky blue enameled background, suspended from a red and gold ribbon.
Order of Menelik II. Founded in 1924 to honour the Emperor of the same name, this order was often referred to as the "Order of the Lion" for the noble beast depicted in the centre of its green and red cross. The insignia is suspended from a deep gold ribbon lined at its edges in red and green, thus representing the Ethiopian flag. The order is bestowed in several ranks.
Order of the Star of Ethiopia. This order was founded by Emperor Menelik II in 1885 based on an older decoration. Bestowed in several ranks, the Order of the Star is a multi-pointed gold filigree star set with jewels, suspended from a ribbon of red, gold and green.
Order of the Ethiopian Lion. This is actually a newer order, founded in 1996 in the tradition of the Order of Menelik II, which was often referred to as the "Order of the Lion." The decoration of the Order of the Ethiopian Lion is a circular medallion bearing, in its centre, the lion of Ethiopia. The ribbon is red, yellow and green. As it is not based on a cross, this order's design is not considered offensive to Muslims. It is bestowed in several ranks.
Order of Haile Selassie I. Founded by Emperor Amha Selassie I in 1992, to commemorate the centenary of the birth of his august predecessor, this order is bestowed upon Africanists and others in several ranks. The decoration is a cross enameled white bearing in its centre a likeness of Haile Selassie, suspended from a blue ribbon edged in the Ethiopian colours.
Order of Saint Anthony. This is the oldest Ethiopian order of chivalry, bestowed exclusively on clerics, usually in the ranks of knight grand cross or companion. The decoration is a deep purplish blue Latin cross formy suspended by a striped ribbon of similar colours. The Order of Saint Anthony was bestowed in the latter Middle Ages by Ethiopia's kings and archbishops, and implied membership in an elite confraternity.