Lord of Wisdom
It’s not unusual for college students to address their male professors as Sir. Some are even addressed as Dr. when appropriate.
Sitting in Gizachew Tiruneh’s office, however, is a card with the double honorifics “Sir Dr.” written in front of his name. The card was a gift, created and signed by his students, to celebrate what is perhaps a unique accomplishment for a college professor.
In the spring of 2022, at a ceremony held at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Ethiopian Crown Council knighted Tiruneh as a Knight Grand Cross of the Star of Ethiopia. At the same time, they bestowed upon him the title of Blaten Geta, which traditionally translates as “Lord of Wisdom,” and in more modern translations means “Minister of Pen.”
The honors were a complete surprise to Tiruneh and came 41 years after he fled to the United States to escape a violent Communist coup in his homeland.
“While I was in high school, the revolution broke,” Tiruneh said of the 1974 uprising that ended 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian monarchy in Ethiopia. “Ninety-five percent of students and professors and the intelligentsia were against the regime. I was part of that group.”
As recounted in his 2014 autobiography, “On the Run in the Blue Nile,” Tiruneh’s opposition led to his name appearing on a kill list. He escaped to the countryside and remained in hiding for three years, constantly moving to escape detection by death squads.
“My brother was caught and killed,” he said. “My friends were caught, a lot of them killed. And I survived at least six near-deaths. Grave danger six times.”
The last time was when, using a friend’s identity, he absconded to the United States.
“They could have killed him if they found out. I had nightmares for five years,” Tiruneh said. Thankfully, his friend eventually escaped, as well.
Since being ousted, the Ethiopian Crown Council has been “a monarchy in exile,” Tiruneh explained. An expert on democratization and international relations in Africa and the Middle East, Tiruneh has collaborated closely with the internationally-based council for several years. He is working towards getting the monarchy formally reintegrated into the Ethiopian government to serve in a ceremonial, largely symbolic capacity and formally restore its cultural importance.
“I’m really excited about that because the Ethiopian monarchy has been the face of the country,” he said. “Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was not colonized by European powers. It has thousands of years of rich cultural history and was one of the first countries to become Christian, back in the fourth century AD. Ethiopia’s monarchs maintained that until 1974.”
An associate professor of political science and director of the International Studies Program, Tiruneh’s work at UCA first caught the Crown Council’s attention several years ago. In 2015, Tiruneh published “The Rise and Fall of the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia: Is the Kebra Nagast a Time-Bound Document?” In the Ethiopian language of Amharic, Kebra Nagast translates as “Glory of Ethiopian Kings.”
“The Kebra Nagast is a Judeo-Christian-based text believed to have been written in the 6th century AD, to legitimize and glorify the Ethiopian monarchs as guardians of the Judeo-Christian religion,” he said.
In 2017, for his exploration of the text’s historical context, Tiruneh was named an Officer of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia. In the Order, officers are second in a hierarchy: Member, Officer, Commander, Grand Commander, then Knight of the Grand Cross.
This year, for his work to restore the monarchy to a role in Ethiopian life, the Council fully knighted him.
“The recognition was a big surprise for me,” he said. “I was expecting, if anything, to become a commander or a grand-commander, but I skipped all the way up to the top. It’s a huge honor.”
He said the ‘Sir’ appellation is technically inaccurate, though his students’ gesture is greatly appreciated.
“Being knighted in Ethiopia is the equivalent of being knighted in the United Kingdom but we don’t use “Sir” for knights like Europeans do,” he added.
For all the prestigious recognition, which he called the climax of his career, the newly knighted UCA professor said the most gratifying things are teaching bright minds and hearing from them years later.
“Getting those emails from past students who have become successful, that really is a very big plus for me,” Tiruneh said. “That means a lot.”