Traditional law in Ethiopia stated unequivocally that every subject in the Empire irrespective of class ethnicity or religion had the right to present his or her petition or case before the sovereign and was entitled his attention. This tradition is the basis for the existence of the Imperial Chilot and the tradition of Abetuta. After all possible courts and judges had heard a case and ruled on it, the parties had the right to demand that the case be reheard by the Emperor himself. The Emperor would then receive a report explaining the reasons for the court ruling from the Afenigus (supreme court justice) who last heard the case as well as the statements of the individual parties involved. The Emperor had the right to amend, overturn or uphold the rulings of any court, and to confirm or grant clemency in instances of the death penalty. This made the Emperor the Supreme Judge in the land. His court of justice was called the Chilot. The Emperors spent a great deal of time every week listening to such cases. Emperor Tewodros II is said to have heard a case of a man who was condemned to death for murder. In a fit of jealousy against a neighboring farmer, the accused had set fire to the neighbors fields. The resulting fire had not only wiped out the crops of his neighbor, but had killed the poor farmer as well. The accused argued that although he had indeed set the fire, he had not intended on killing the neighbor so he didn’t believe he should be executed for it. Indeed, he told the Emperor he was very distraught and remorseful over this unintended death, and that he had gone to confess his sins to his priest, and that the priest was the one who had turned him in for murder. Emperor Tewodros was scandalized and ordered that this thoughtless murderer of an innocent man be taken out and hung at once. However, he ordered the priest to be hung alongside the man. When a stunned observer asked why, the Emperor replied that although the man had committed a terrible murder, the priest had violated the confidentiality and sanctity of the act of Holy Confession and deserved death. The sentence was carried out. Emperor Menelik II in particular was said to enjoy doing much investigation of the details of various cases. He is particularly remembered for his exposure of fraud on the part of Ras Hailu of Gojjam who was trying to have a subordinate framed for murder. The subordinate was accused of writing a letter ordering the murder of another man, and affixing his seal to the said letter. Menelik demanded that the man’s seal be brought to him, and found that the seal used on the letter was actually larger than the real seal, so he conclusively proved the letter to be a forgery. Ras Hailu confessed to fraud and was arrested. Emperor Haile Selassie made a religious pledge at the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem in 1936, that if his country were to be liberated, he would hear all his cases in his Chilot standing in honor of the Justice of Christ. From the Ethiopian liberation and his restoration to the throne in 1941, to the end of his reign in 1974, even though he was in his eighties, the Emperor stood for hours listening to and ruling on cases that came before his Chilot. Abetuta is another tradition of the Ethiopian monarchy. Twice a month, the Emperor would recieve petitioners at his palace and hear their pleas for Imperial attention to whatever matter they had. People flocked to the palace to complain about taxes, to ask for help of every kind, to lay land claims and disputes before the Emperor, to complain of abusive officials or corrupt practices. The Emperor was obligated to listen to them and to render his assistance to them. Even though time was specifically set aside for this Abetuta, it was not limited to this. Anyone in the Empire had the right to approach the Emperor and cry out “Abet Abet Abet” and the Emperor was obligated by tradition to stop and listen to his subject and help in whatever way he could. People would hand him petitions through the window of his car, or they would come to the side of the highway and cry out “Abet Abet Abet” as he passed, and the Emperor would order the motorcade stopped, and the petitioner was summoned so that he or she could present their petition or plea. Even though the Ethiopian monarchy was highly ceremonial and had many rules of protocol and etiquette, the Emperors were easily and regularly approached by the simplest people in their lands and conversed with them in this manner. Even though the country was proclaimed a republic where former subjects of the monarch are now all equal citizens, they do not have anywhere near the access to the leaders of the land than they did under the Emperor.
In medival Ethiopia, to avoid the problem of rival claimants to the throne, the Emperors began the unique practice of imprisoning all the male heirs of the House of Solomon. The sons, brothers, uncles and nephews of reigning Emperors were all placed in comfortable imprisonment to prevent them from launching a bid for the throne, or being used by rebels to further their causes. Several places, usually inaccessable mountain top citadel monasteries were used for this purpose. Debre Damo and Gishen Mariam monasteries at various times were used for this purpose, but the spot that became the established prison for the men of the Imperial family became Woyni Amba. When an Emperor died, the leading nobles of the day would go immediately to Woyni and bring down a prince to be crowned. Sometimes they followed the wishes of the dying Emperor in their choice, and other times they chose whomever they thought would serve their purposes. More often than not they adhered to the principles laid down in the Fitha Negest, and chose the eldest son of the previous monarch, or his closest male relation. The last Emperor to have emerged from Woyni Amba was Yohannis III who would be deposed by Tewodros II.
In Ethiopian tradition the position of Emperor was highly honored and exalted. Even when Imperial power was at its very lowest point during the Zemene Mesafint, when entering the presence of the Emperor for a personal audience, proper etiquette required that the person, irrespective of rank, sink to the floor by bending the right knee and extending the left leg backwards untill he reaches the floor, and press his forehead to the floor at the entrance to the room, again halfway between the entrance and the throne, and again at the foot of the throne, this time kissing the emperors shoe or hem of his robe. As a sign of favor, the Emperor may extend his hand to be kissed instead of his shoe/hem. At public gatherings or ceremonies, people could approach the Emperor and bow in the same manner, however, only those related by blood or marriage, or the highest officials of the land were permitted to kiss the Emperor’s shoe or hem. Usually two court officers would stand on either side of the Emperor and greet those who came to pay homage in public on his behalf verbally, while the Emperor silently nodded his aknowledgement of the bows. Men were expected to remove their shema (thin cotton shawl type wrap worn by both men and women) from their sholders, and wrap it around their waist, with the ends crossed over their chests and flipped over their shoulders (called madegdeg). It is said that Emperor Tewodros II continued to madegdeg in the presence of the deposed Yohannis III even after he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia himself. The only other place one would madegdeg their shema would be when entering a place of worship. It was proper for all except clergy to remove head coverings in the presence of the Emperor. Emperor Tewodros II engaged in a bitter dispute with the Orthodox Church over the refusal of the clerics to remove their turbans in his presence, but did so when they entered churches. The priests won that dispute, and no other monarch questioned their right to remove their turbans only in the House of the Creator. Beginning during the reign of Emperor Menelik II, European forms of greeting, deep bows, curtseys, and kissing of the hand when extended by the Emperor, became acceptable, although the traditional manner persisted until the end of the monarchy even though efforts were made to simplify court etiquette. When one left the Imperial presence, one was expected to walk out backwards, bowing at least once. It was extremely bad etiquette to turn ones back on the monarch. This proved hazardous, especially if one of the Emperor’s pet dogs happened to be around. The Empress, the Patriarch (previous to 1951, the Archbishop and the Echege of Debre Libanos) those with the title of Prince or Princess, and the Wagshum (by right of the Abdication Agreement of the Zagwe Dynasty) were the only people permitted to be seated in the Imperial presence if the Emperor was also seated. No one but the Empress and the Patriarch (previous to 1951 the Archbishop and the Echege) could remain seated if the Emperor was standing. No one was permitted to approach the Emperor from behind, and often, a screen would be erected behind him to prevent this while he sat or stood at public state occasions. In medeival Ethiopia, the monarch was always went about under a large canopy that was held over his head, with curtains that hung down all around him to sheild him from profane glances. A large red velvet canopy, heavily encrusted with gold was held over Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen at their coronation in 1930. This is the last time such a portable canopy was used in procession. The medeival Emperors often recieved people seated behind a curtain, and their faces veiled. Later the canopy was replaced by a large umbrella/prasol, of red silk or velvet, heavily embroidered in gold, silver and jewels. The Empress was also entitled to a similarly decorated red umbrella. The monarchs were accompanied by their umbrella carrier and umbrella wherever they went. Princes and Princesses also were entitled to similar umbrellas, but with less embroidery. Other nobles and clergy could also have such umbrellas carried over them, but the color red was reserved for members of the Imperial family and for religious church processions. The same color rule applied for cloaks and state robes. Gold embroidery could be worn on ones official robes and cloaks only with Imperial approval, and the ammount of embroidery must be in purportion to ones rank. When the Italians occupied their colony of Eritrea, they allowed for the first time, women of both noble and commoner status to use red umbrellas. When they later tried to institute a rule limiting red umbrellas to Eritrean women of noble birth and Europeans, there was such an outcry that they abandoned this regulation (the local mistresses of Italian colonial officials and military officers are said to have played a significant role in defeating this proposal). Following the restoration in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen abandoned every day use of imperial umbrellas being held over them. The umbrellas appeared only on major state occasions such as their Silver Jubilee in 1955, and the Empress’ Imperial Umbrella was held open over her coffin during her state funeral. People would regulate the depth of their bows according to the rank of those they bowed to in relation to their own social rank. Bowing remains the proper form of greeting between people of all social classes in Ethiopia, although an acompanying handshake has become common since the Italian occupation. The exchange of three or four kisses of alternate cheeks is common with those one is on familiar terms with.
The Emperors of Ethiopia adopted the practice of taking warrior or “horse” names. These names were given to their war horse, and the Emperor would be refered to “Abba” or “Father” of the horse. Thus Tewodros II was “Abba Tateq”, and Yohannis IV “Abba Bezbiz”. Menelik II was “Abba Dagnew”, Lij Eyasu (Eyasu V) was “Abba Tenna” and Emperor Haile Silassie was “Abba Teqil”. Other prominent nobles and generals adopted the same practice, with Ras Alula being “Abba Nega” and Dejazmatch Balcha being “Abba Nefso”. Ras Makonnen, cousin of Emperor Menelik II and father of Emperor Haile Selassie was known as Abba Kagnew. The former United States Military communications base in Asmara was called Kagnew Station in honor of Ras Makonnen.