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Abyssinian Aristocracy

It would be a mistake to regard Abyssinia or Ethiopia as a savage and uncivilised country. The empire was made up of small kingdoms; the major portion of the population profess the Christian religion, and accept as divine their feudal Constitution, which strongly resembled that which obtained in Europe during the Middle Ages. The 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.

In the 18th Century the absence of any strong central government in the country favored the rise of petty independent chieftains, many of whom had strong Muhammadan sympathies, though (in accordance with a fundamental law of the state) all the Abyssinian princes must belong to the Christian faith. The Muhammadans, too, aspiring to the dignity of the Abyssinian aristocracy, abjured the faith in which they had been" born and pretended conversion to Christianity in order to get themselves enrolled in the order of the nobles, and as governors of Christian provinces made use of all their influence towards the spread of Islam.

Every province was governed by a "Ras" - chief, or prince - and the affairs of each small town or village were administered by a council of old men. Every yard of land paid a tax to the State, and this tax not unfrequently took the form of military service. The representative of the Government was also local magistrate, and, on the whole, justice was fairly administered; there was in each case a right of appeal to the governor of the province.

Abyssinia possesses a stroug provincial aristocracy, which has remained more or less independent of the Emperor, but Menelik has known how to bind together these varying elements, and his military successes have greatly consolidated his position. The most powerful class was that of the feudal military aristocracy, from the rank of Dejajmatch [Dejazmach], or Duke, ruling one or two provinces, and leading 5000 armed men into the field, down to that of the simple officer on whom the Ras or Negus has bestowed a silk skirt.

  1. Negusa Negest ("King of Kings"), known in the West as the Emperor. Empress is Itegue.
  2. negus (king)
  3. 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.
  4. Bitwoded (abbreviated Bit.). Literally "beloved" by the king, the highest non-royal title ranks after ras in precedence.
  5. Dejazmach / Dejajmatch (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.
  6. Fitawrari (abbreviated Fit.) is a noble title and was formerly a military one, meaning "leader of the vanguard." This title ranked after dejazmach.
  7. 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.
  8. Kenyazmach (abbreviated Kenyaz.) is equivalent in rank to gerazmach, to which it may be considered complementary. It means "military commander of the right."
  9. 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.
  10. Ato. Traditionally 'sir' for a gentleman. Now "Mister."
  11. Woizero (abbreviated Woiz.) Traditionally an aristocratic lady, now Mrs.
  12. Lij. Literally "child," this is a title reserved to the children of the titled nobility.
The mesafint [extended royal family] and makwanent [senior nobles] were called the bala seltan [holders of power]. The aristocracy of Abyssinia was composed of men to whom the Emperor had given favors and presents as rewards for their services. But neither the gifts nor the functions were hereditary. Acquired by merit, this nobility was not transmissible from father to son. The man was judged by his own works only. One might see in Abyssinia men who have been nothing suddenly become great and their sons remain absolute nobodies.

The holder of vast stretches of land, which he possesses by the pleasure of the Emperor, the Abyssinian lord is, therefore, .entirely in the hands of his sovereign. He is, more properly speaking, an officer, or functionary, exercising certain duties, sometimes in command either of a province, or of one or the Emperor's palaces. If he is a provincial lord, he is surrounded by a retinue of followers, whom he nourishes at his table, and who pay him a veritable court, and so, naturally, there is a constant struggle between a powerful aristocracy, the natural enemy of the centralization of power, and the Imperial power, which seeks to weaken and discipline the nobles.

The history of the Ethiopian Empire consists almost entirely in this struggle between the crown and the provincial aristocracy. Often the latter has had the advantage, and dictators have risen from its midst that have succeeded in governing weak or lazy kings. Often, too, the crown has assailed its turbulent vassals and crushed them under its heavy heel. Thus in the eighteenth century the great Bacuffa subdued the rebellious lords. The repression was bloody. " The terror was such," writes an historian, " that none was willing to occupy the post of chief secretary even after his death." This terrible sovereign used to lead the people to believe he was dead in order to hear what they would say about him, and then to wreak further vengeance.

By the end of the 19th Century the old kingdoms of the north presented Menelik II with some difficulties, though even here his predecessor John had already paved the way by crushing the turbulent aristocracy. Menelik had merely to give the finishing blow by abolishing, as opportunity offered, the hereditary governorships, and by appointing his own nominees - generally his kinsmen or connexions by marriage - in their place, often at the same time subdividing or otherwise altering the boundaries of the ancient provinces.

The old chiefs had often assumed the title of Negus, as being next in rank to the Emperor, the Negus Nagasti; but Menelik, though he was obliged to tolerate his old and powerful rival, Tekla Haimanot, as Negus of Gojjam till the latter's death in 1901, never conferred on any governor of his own appointment a title so near to his own. His nominees bore the titles of Rets (commander-in-chief of a provincial army) or Dejazmach (general) or Fitaurari (commander of an advanced guard)-the title being personal to the holder and bearing no relation to the importance of his province or of the military force placed under his command. by 1900, Menelik had secured that the administration of all the provinces in his Empire should be in the hands of newly-appointed governors entirely dependent upon his pleasure and possessed of no local influence to tempt them to revolt. They were, moreover, surrounded with minor officials, each anxious to step into the governor's shoes and always ready to report any indiscretion on his part to headquarters.

What, however, robbed Menelik's system of administration of any possibility of efficiency was the fact that, though he had absolute power over his governors, he had no control over their subordinates. Each province was divided into districts and each district into groups of villages-every unit, from the district to the village, being under its appropriate official, who was only responsible to his immediate superior and no one else. The Emperor's orders, therefore-in order to be actually executed-had to filter down from the governor at the top to the village headman at the bottom, and in the process would be, more often than not, hopelessly blocked. The practical result is pithily expressed in the Abyssinian proverb : ' No dog knows his master's master.'

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:33:19 ZULU