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the square cross

the imperial arms

the national emblem





For the early history of Ethiopia I may refer to History of Ethiopia


Modern History

Under the Emperors Theodore II (1855–1868), John IV (1872–1889), and Menelik II (1889–1913), the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation.


Interventions of European colonial powers

Ethiopia was not colonized by a European power until 1936 (see below); however, several colonial powers had interests and designs on Ethiopia in the context of the 19th century “Scramble for Africa.”

When Queen Victoria in 1867 failed to answer a letter Theodore II had sent her, he took it as an insult and imprisoned several British residents, including the consul. An army was sent from Bombay to Ethiopia to rescue the captured nationals, under the command of Sir Robert Napier. The Ethiopians were defeated, and the British stormed the fortress of Magdala (now known as Amba Mariam) on April 13, 1868. When the Emperor heard that the gate had fallen, he killed himself. Sir Robert Napier was raised to the peerage, and given the title of Lord Napier of Magdala.

The Italians now came on the scene. Asseb, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, had been bought from the local sultan in March 1870 by an Italian company, which, after acquiring more land in 1879 and 1880, was bought out by the Italian government in 1882. In April 1888 Italian forces, faced the Ethiopian army, but negotiations took the place of fighting, with the result that both forces retired, the Italians only leaving some 5000 troops in Eritrea, later to become an Italian colony.

On May 2 1889, Emperor Menelik II signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians, granting them a portion of Northern Ethiopia, the area that would later be Eritrea and part of the province of Tigray. The Italians notified the European powers that this treaty gave them a protectorate over all of Ethiopia. Menelik protested, showing that the Amharic version of the treaty said no such thing, but his protests were ignored.

Ethiopia’s conflict with the Italians was resolved by the Italians’ defeat at the Battle of Adowa on March 1, 1896. A provisional treaty of peace was concluded at Addis Ababa on October 26, 1896, which acknowledged the independence of Ethiopia.

When Menelik II died, his grandson, Lij Iyassu, succeeded to the throne but soon lost support because of his Muslim ties. He was deposed in 1916 by the Christian nobility, and Menelik's daughter, Zauditu, was made empress. Her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was made regent and successor to the throne.

Upon the death of Empress Zauditu in 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen, adopting the throne name Haile Selassie, was crowned Emperor. His full title was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.”


The Italian period and World War II

Fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopian territory on October 2, 1935, occupied the capital Addis Ababa on May 5. Haile Selassie was forced into exile in England despite his plea to the League of Nations for intervention against the Italians.

An Italian empire in Africa (Italian East Africa) was created, comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somalia, on May 9, 1936. The King of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) assumed the title of Emperor of Ethiopia at the same time.

In spring 1941 the Italians were defeated by British and Allied forces. On May 5, 1941, Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa and retook his throne. The Italians, after their final stand at Gondar in November 1941, conducted a guerrilla war in Ethiopia that lasted until summer 1943.

With the defeat of Italy, Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony of Eritrea, obtaining the secular Ethiopian aspiration to have a seashore.


Post-World War II period

After World War II, Emperor Selassie exerted numerous efforts to promote the modernization of his nation. The country's first important school of higher education, University College of Addis Ababa, was founded in 1950. The Constitution of 1931 was replaced with a new one in 1955. The new constitution expanded the powers of Parliament. While improving diplomatic ties with the United States, Haile Selassie also sought to improve the nation's relationship with other African nations. To do this, in 1963, he helped to found the Organisation of African Unity.


The Derg period

After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aging Haile Selassie I was deposed. On September 12, 1974, a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg (“committee”) seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. Haile Selassie died on August 22, 1975. He was allegedly strangled in the basement of his palace.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman. The new Marxist government undertook socialist reforms, including nationalisation of landlords' and church's property.

In 1984, the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established, and on February 1, 1987, a new Soviet-style civilian constitution was accepted by popular referendum. The country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on September 10, 1987, and Mengistu became president.

In 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically-based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.


Post-Derg period

In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) which was composed of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992, the OLF withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples' Democratic Coalition also left the government.

In 1994, a new constitution was written that formed a bicameral legislature and a judicial system. The first free and democratic elections took place in May 1995.




The development of Ethiopian heraldry can be divided into three periods


The first period is the period of the Aksum empire and of  the early Salomonic Dynasty and lasted from the first century AD until the beginning of the 15th century. In this period our sources are mainly numismatic for Aksum. For the early Salomonic period we are informed by Arabic and Catalan travellers and in particular by portolans, maps of the world made by Catalan carthographers showing flags and images of rulers.

In this period we notice that the symbols used are of the common Christian kind, that is to say that we meet square crosses and latin crosses to symbolize the ranges of authority. These we find in the Aksum Empire and in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


In the second period, which lasts from the beginning of the 15th century until the middle of the 19th century a heraldic symbol for the ruler himself is introduced. We are informed about this symbol mainly by German and Portuguese sources.

Most important for us is the report of the Constanz Council held in the second decennium of the fifteenth century which was attended by some Ethiopian delegates.. Ulrich Richental, the chronicler of the Council,  gives the coats of arms of these delegates and gives an explanation [1].

The coats of arms are like these:



Per fess Azure and Argent, a cross Gules. Imperial crown.



Sable, strewn with crosses crosslet fitchée, a balance Or. Royal crown


Argent, a lion rampant Or, holding a latin cross Gules. Royal crown.

The explanation, containing some disinformation, reads:


“Honorandus dominus et princeps dominus prespiter Johannes de Yndia maiori et minori, que terra situata est retro Tarthariam ubi Tartharia finem habet. Ab eadem Tartharia restant 10 diete usque ad Yndiam, ubi requiscit sanctus Thomas. Et est in eadem contracta civitas insigna, que vocatur volgaliter Ordo. Ab ista civitate omnes imperatores et reges Tartharorum deberent esse nati et trahere principatum ab ista civitate. Que fuererunt antiquitis ibi Cesares et habebant in omnibus regnis Tartharorum eligere sub se Cesaren vel regem. Sic et fecerunt Troyani, postquam Romani et nunc electores Sacri Ymperii Romanorum. Et ubi, in quo regno non habetur princeps de Ordo Tartharie, ille princeps, qui sic non est natus, oportet eum habere vicarium de Ordo, qui sibi in nomine Ordo accomodat feoda, et Omaida et alia regimina, que spectant ad regnum. Sicut Magnus Can habet unum de Ordo, qui est vicarius suus, et omnes Tarthari similiter habent.

Dominus prespiter Johannes debet esse archiepiscopus, et habet sub se 4 archiepiscopos et 30 episcopos, et habebat nullum nuntium hic, nisi fuerunt 3 Ethiopi, qui finxerunt se esse de terra et regno isto. Qui autem ignorabant Latinum neque habebant ydeoma, quod intelligi quisquam poterat.”


Important for the interpretation of the three coats of arms is that there is a ‘Honorable lord and prince Priest John of Greater and Lesser India’ and that ‘Lord Priest John has to be an archbishop with four archbishops under him and 30 bishops, and he has no nuntius here, but there are three Ethiopians who claim to be from his land and kingdom’.


In the first place it was well known by our Catalan carthographers that the empire of “Prester John” had to be located in Ethiopia but this seems to be ignored by Ulrich Richental. [2]


In the second place we may interprete the “coats of arms” to be the emblems of the administrative-, the religious- and the armed authorities of the Ethiopian Empire. These differ a little bit from the emblems used in the west and seem to be influenced by the Egyptian Mameluk empire of the time. In that empire, headed by the Caliph as ‘the spiritual leader of the muslim community’, the executive was the Sultan who directed the ‘Men of the Turban’ or judicature, the ‘Men of the Pen’ or administration, and the ‘Men of the Sword’ or armed forces.[3]


If we take this into account it would explain the symbols used in the ‘coats of arms’ to be: the square cross of the christian administration, the balance and the recrossed crosses of the christian judicature, and the lion ‘defender of the faith’ (the faith symbolized by the latin cross) of the christian armed forces of the Ethiopian empire. It would mean that the three Ethiopian delegates were representing these three institutional ranges of authority. The imperial crown would imply that the head of the administration, the prime minister or vizier, was considered to be the (representative of) the Emperor or the Imperial crown.

This model would also explain the triple cross as the symbol of the ‘spiritual leader of the Ethiopian Christian community’ i.e. the ‘Metropolitan Archbishop of Axum and of All Ethiopia’.


The copy of the Richental Chronicle in the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek which dates from 1460-1507, gives some other additional and surprising information as it depicts the coats of arms of the kings of four parts of India and the coat of arms of the king of Ethiopia. [4] Of course we do not know what persons are behind those arms but they may correspond with the governors of the provinces of Gurage, Hadiya, Iffat, Manz and Wag, who bore the title of Qas in the 16th and 17th centuries.



His majesty King and Lord of India

Or, three birds wings spread per pale Sable


The Illustrious King of Ethiopia

Or, two dragons (?) respecting

issuing from a stump Sable


The Illustrious King of


Azure, a balance Or

The Illustrious King of

Central India

Azure, a chalice Or

The Illustrious King of

Further India

Az. three birds passant per pale ppr.





At about the same time the data from Ulrich Richental are copied by Konrad Grüneberg in his “Wappenbuch” (about 1480) [5] He leaves out the arms of the King of Ethiopia (!) but adds two other ones: Azure, a crucifix proper, and Azure a lady on horseback in a ferryboat proper.


Towards the close of the 15th century the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. Engaged in the search for Prester John was Pêro da Covilhã, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490, and, believing that he had at length reached the far-famed kingdom, presented to the ruler of the country a letter from his master the king of Portugal, addressed to Prester John.

Pêro da Covilhã remained in the country, but in 1507 an Armenian named Matthew was sent by the Emperor Na’od (1494-1508) to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims.

Probably as a result of his visit, but also imitating Konrad Grüneberg, the Portuguese herald João do Cró could depict the arms of India Maior and India Minor in his Livro do Armeiro-mor of 1509. [6]


João do Cró: Arms of  India Maior

Or, a balance Sable

Probably the arms of today’s Somalia, in the 17th c. called Æthiopia Inferior.

João do Cró: Arms of India Minor

Purpure, a crucifix Or, the crucified proper.

Probably the arms of  today’s Ethiopia, in the 17th c. called Æthiopia Superior


The arms with the balance were copied by the German heraldist Martin Schrot (1581). We find the balance back in the national emblem of today’s Republic of Somalia.



The arms with the crucifix are not contradicted by the letter-heading  of a certificate on behalf of Miguel Castanhoso sent in 1544 by King Galawdros (Claudius, 1540-’59) to King John III of Portugal (1521-’57). In this letter Galawdros thanks the King of Portugal for his support in his war against the muslim invaders (the Abyssinian-Adal War, 1528-’40) and recommends Miguel Castanhoso (an envoy of Vasco da Gama) into the grace of the King for his dedication to the Ethiopian case.


The arms with the crucifix reappeared in 1668 as the arms of Ethiopia, the field Azure, the cross Or, the crucified Argent. [7]













ï Letter from King Claudius of Ethiopia to King John III of Portugal, 1544.

In the letter-heading a crucifix. In this letter the King presents himself as: King Galawdros, son of  King Wanag Sagad, son of King Naod. son of  King Esquender, son of King Baed Maryam, son of King Zara Yaeqob, son of king Dawit, son of King Salomon; Kings of Israel...

Foto: Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo.




In this period we see that in European perception of the Ethiopian heraldic symbols, the emphasis shifts from the symbol of the Emperor as an  administrator to the symbol of the Emperor as a warrior. Until now, alas, they can not be confirmed by Ethiopian contemporary sources.


The third period lasts from the revival of the Ethiopian Empire in 1855 until present. In that time a national emblem was introduced which, in fact, puts the emperor on a par with the nation. It anticipated to the introduction of a new part of the imperial title: “Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia”, by Menelik II (1889-1913).[8]

The national emblem was used as the main symbol on the imperial seal, the imperial arms and the national flag. After the revolution of 1974 it was replaced by a national emblem of a completely new design.


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© Hubert de Vries 2009-11-04

Updated 2009-11-12

Updated 2009-12-24


[1] Richental Ulrich: Das Konzil zu Konstantz MCDXIV-MCDXVIII. Faksimile Ausgabe. Josef Keller Verlag. Hamburg, 1964. Fol. 130a. Illustrations from the copy in the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek dated 1507. l2b, l3a.

[2] ) Probably he based this opinion on Otto von Freising  (1112-’58) who locates the Empire of Prester John “in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia”. See: Mediaeval sourcebook.

[3] ) Riley-Smith, Jonathan: The Crusades, Christianity and Islam, who gives an extensive organigram of the mediaeval Egypt state.

[4] ) Ulrich Richental: Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils. Augsburg, Anton Sorg (1507). BSB-Ink: R-178  fols. 119, 121, 121v.

[5] ) Konrad Grünenbergs Wappenbuch (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 9210) [S.l.] Bayern, 1602 - 1604 [BSB-Hss Cgm 9210]

[6] ) This can be found on  Instituto dos Archivos Nacionais

[7]) Zervos, Adrien: Les emblèmes et insignes nationaux de l'Ethiopie. In: L'Empire d'Ethi­opie, le miroir de l'Ethiopie moderne. 1936, pp. 29. Zervos cites “Histoire de l’Ethiopie” of  L.-J. Morié (Auguste Challamel, Paris 1904) and writes ‘...elles ont dû adoptées vers 1600; en 1578 elles n’existaient pas encore.                                                            

[8]) For the imperial title see:  Royal Ark Ethiopia

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