Ethiopian Royal Hats Part I: Introduction

I’m honoured to welcome back Jake Short with a new 5-part series on the history and hats of the Ethiopian Imperial Family. This is not a royal house we have covered here and I thank Jake for the care and research he has put into this fascinating series. Jake is a longtime Royal Hats reader, contributor and knowledgeable commenter who documents his very stylish hat wearing life on Instagram or Twitter. Immeasurable thanks, Jake for this fantastic series!

Hats & History of the Ethiopian Imperial Family

In a similar vein to the series on Hawaiian royal hats, I want to introduce you to the royal hats of Ethiopia. Again, while I could just show you photos of hats, I believe not offering any historical context would be disrespectful to peoples and cultures quite different from most of our own. Thankfully, this history is more recent, so I don’t need to explain as much, and there are more hats to show off. The spellings of names and places come from Wikipedia; while Wikipedia’s accuracy is occasionally suspect, these seemed to be the most consistent and accurate, at least as accurate as translating from Amharic (and other Ethiopian languages) into the Latin alphabet can be. And while I did my best to ensure general accuracy, I apologize in advance for any mistakes and hope you will correct me as well. So, without further ado, let’s discover these Ethiopian royal hats!

Introductory History of Ethiopia

While Europe has largely been the center of focus concerning royalty, one of the oldest claims to monarchical authority is that of the Imperial Family of Ethiopia, or the House of Solomon (a.k.a. the Solomonic dynasty). While the Ethiopian Empire existed from 1270 – 1974 AD/CE, the ruling house claims to be descended from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Of course, this has no verifiable proof, but nevertheless the House of Solomon remains an ancient family, which traces its lineage back to the Kingdom of Aksum, which was taken over by the Zagwe dynasty in the 900s AD/CE.

The Ethiopian Empire began 300 years later when Yekuno Amlak overthrew the last king of the Zagwe dynasty, reestablishing his family as rulers of the region, and became nəgusä nägäst (literally “king of kings”), which was usually translated to emperor (here is a list of royal and noble titles in Ethiopia with an explanation of their meanings, or a similar list can be found here; translations with the Latin alphabet result in various spellings). Early on Ethiopia (sometimes called Abyssinia) maintained contact with the Byzantine Empire in eastern Europe, and more locally with the Muslim sultanates of Arabia and northeast Africa. After a period of decentralization and weak monarchical power, in the mid-19th Century Ethiopia quickly reunified and expanded under Emperor Tewodros II.

Tewodros’ gold alloyed crown with silver and copper filigree work and glass bead detail was looted by British troops at the siege of Magdala (Mek’dala) in 1868. It is shown below on exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

This expansion continued under Tewodros’ successors Yohannes IV and Menelik II through the first decade of the 20th century. Ethiopia is one of only two modern African nations (the other being Liberia) not to have been conquered and colonized by a European/Western power, although it did have many run-ins, battles, and even wars with the British and Italians (more on that later). In 1896, Ethiopia’s independence was officially recognized by European powers through the Treaty of Addis Ababa.

Emperor Yohannes IV, wearing a traditional headwrap turban, is recognized as a world leader in this somewhat inaccurate 1889 photomontage. Menelik II, the first Ethiopian royal to be photographed more widely, is shown below in a head wrap, a dark wide brimmed hat, traditional feathered crowns/headdresses and an Abyssinian crown.

Embed from Getty Images

Menelik II was the emperor credited with ushering modernization into Ethiopia. The colonization of Africa by most European powers meant he had little trust in the West and thought relations with Russia were a safe bet, especially as Russia wanted to counter further British colonial expansion; Orthodox Christian connections between the two countries also helped. His daughter and successor, Empress Zewditu, became nəgəstä nägäst (“Queen of Kings”) and ruled as the first and only Empress Regnant of Ethiopia.

Embed from Getty Images

Zewditu’s rule was largely a placeholder for the regent and heir Ras Tafari Makonnen, seen below in 1928 in bowler hat and traditional cloak, who we’ll explore further in the next post in this series. Ras is a title equated with Duke, though often rendered as Prince.

Embed from Getty Images

An interesting side note: The Illustrated London News reported on 5 July 1919 that three representatives had come to ‘present gifts and a friendly address from the Empress of Abyssinia and the Heir-Apparent, Ras Tafari, to their Majesties the King George V and Queen Mary, congratulating them on the victorious issue of the war, and reaffirming Abyssinian friendship with this country’. One of the gifts was this elaborate gilt-bronze pierced Abyssinian royal headdress encrusted with African origin stones. At the front are two ‘Lions of Judah’ crowned with an Ethiopian royal crown and flanking a processional cross. The ‘Lions of Judah’ were a symbol of Ethiopian princes and a reference to their Solomonic dynasty. The bust in profile mounted above the crowned lions is that of the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913).

Thank you, Jake, for this introduction to the Ethiopian Imperial family’s history through their hats. These Abyssinian crowns and royal headdresses aren’t like anything else we’ve seen from other royal traditions. I’m quite astounded by their detail and unique beauty. Stay tuned next Wednesday, dearest readers, for the second post in this series!

Photos from Getty as indicated and the Royal Collection Trust

9 thoughts on “Ethiopian Royal Hats Part I: Introduction

  1. Thanks everyone for your kind words so far. More hats are definitely on their way with future posts, along with some royals we are more familiar with.

    The Hawai’i series grew from a long personal interest with Queen Lili’uokalani, but this one stems partly from wanting to know more about the large Ethiopian community in the Washington, DC area, where I also live (this includes plenty of good Ethiopian food to eat as well!).

  2. I love your historical series of lesser known royal hats, Jake. With its many monarchies and tribes, past and present, I think Africa will prove to be very fertile territory.

  3. Thank you, Jake for taking us on another journey back in time. The tiara’s on the Queen of King’s are interesting to me in the height of the jewels. They seem to be the same height all the way around which does indeed make them look massive. Today, we are used to seeing tiara’s with jewels that start low on the sides and graduate up to their tallest height in the middle and usually do not complete a circle, but more of a semi-circle.

  4. Jake, thanks for kicking off another great series and history lesson. Can you imagine the weight and discomfort of some of these golden beauties? Maybe Shakespeare had it backwards when he wrote “[uneasy] heavy is the head that wears a crown.” (Henry IV Part 2)

  5. Thanks, Jake, for introducing us to another less-familiar royal line of hat wearers. I look forward to seeing more.

    I am struck by the shapes of the crowns. The emperor’s crown calls to mind the papal tiara (I think that is the correct term), which is now generally not worn, while the last photo recalls the shape of a bishop’s mitre. I wonder if this traces back to the ancient Biblical lineage of the Ethiopian dynasty, or perhaps the Western headgear imitating an older Ethiopian or Byzantine tradition.

    (And maybe an idea for a series on papal headwear, Jake? Or headwear in/worn in the Vatican?)

  6. While researching photos for this post, I came across these shots of Ras Mäkonnen. He was a grandson of Sahle Selassie of Shewa through his mother, Leult Tenagnework Sahle Selassie and as such, he was a first cousin of Emperor Menelik II. He is also the father of Ras Tafari Makonnen, who we all may know as Haile Selassie, who we’ll look at next week. In 1902, Ras Mäkonnen attended the coronation of King Edward VII in London, where these photos were taken. The headdresses really are spectacular.

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