Taytu (c. 1850–1918)

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Taytu (c. 1850–1918)

Empress of Ethiopia, an important contributor to the modernization of her country, who led troops in battle and devised strategies crucial in defeating the Italian army in 1896. Name variations: Taitu; Tauti; Queen of Shoa. Pronunciation: TIE-too. Born Taytu Betul Hayle Maryam, probably in 1850 or 1851, probably in Mahdere Maryam in Begemder, Ethiopia; died on February 11, 1918, in Addis Ababa; daughter of Betul (a warrior) and a mother whose second marriage was to a lay administrator of the monastery at Debre Mewi; married five times, the last, in April 1883, to Sahlé Maryam, who became Emperor Menelik II (or Menilek); no children.

Upon marriage to Sahlé Maryam, became queen of Shoa (1883); with husband's ascent to imperial throne, became empress of Ethiopia (1889); during the struggle against Italian armies, devised the strategy which defeated the fort at Adigrat (February 1896); led troops at the Battle of Adwa, Italy's final humiliating defeat (March 1, 1896); increased her power as regent after Menelik suffered a stroke (1906); lost the battle to guarantee the throne for a member of her own family after the death of Menelik (1913).

Dates of birth were not considered important in Ethiopia in the 19th century, so it is impossible to know exactly when Taytu Betul Hayle Maryam was born, although it was probably in 1850 or 1851. She belonged to a prominent family, descended from Emperor Susneyos (r. 1607–1632), and the most likely site of her birth was Mahdere Maryam, in the province of Begemder. There were two boys and two girls in the family, and Taytu was the third child. Her father, a warrior named Betul, died in 1853, of wounds sustained at the battle of Ayshal. After his death, her mother married a lay administrator of the monastery at Debre Mewi, where Taytu must have received her education, which was exceptional for an Ethiopian woman of that time. She could read and write Amharic, and knew Ge'ez, the language of the sacred texts handed down over centuries in one of the world's oldest Christian nations. Taytu also composed poetry, played chess, and performed on the begenna, or lyre.

Like most Ethiopian girls, Taytu made an abrupt transition from childhood into adulthood when she was married at age ten, to an officer in the army of Emperor Tewodros II. Sex was considered normal for Ethiopians of Taytu's age. Although the marriage bed was regarded by Ethiopians as an arena in which men conquered women, it was not unusual for Ethiopian women to marry several times or to take several lovers.

Taytu's first marriage started off badly, however. A few days after the ceremony, Tewodros put her husband in chains for some minor offense, and the young bride was forced to follow the army on foot, "chained at the wrist, grinding grain and cooking for the soldiers." This marriage eventually ended, and Taytu wed Kenyaz-mach Zikargatchew around 1881–82; he was the brother of the consort of Menelik (II), the king of Shoa. After her second husband beat her, Taytu announced she was going to visit her mother. When she left, a great deal of her abusive husband's property as well as many servants went with her. She never bothered with a divorce settlement, as she had, in effect, already profited considerably from the relationship.

Taytu married three more times before her final marriage, to Menelik. Although it was apparent by this time that she would never have children, her beauty and family connections made her a desirable match, and her union with Menelik II, beginning in April 1883, became one of history's most remarkable alliances. Born Sahlé Maryam, Menelik was heir to the throne of the Shoa (Shewa) kingdom in central Ethiopia, and had been battling Ethiopia's rulers for most of his life. His country had been virtually independent when in 1855 Tewodros II proclaimed himself emperor of Ethiopia and asserted control over the central part of the country. For the next ten years, Tewodros had held the young heir a prisoner at his court, until Menelik escaped, in 1865, and was proclaimed king of Shoa. The young king built Shoa into one of Ethiopia's strongest powers, seeking alliances with Europeans as well as within the country in order to acquire technical assistance and modern firearms. The Italians viewed Menelik as an ally, as did the French, who wanted use of his armies to stop the advance of the British into the southern Sudan. In 1885, when Italy occupied Ethiopia's Eritrean coast and began to push inland, Menelik remained neutral.

In 1889, after the death of Ethiopia's Emperor Yohannes, Menelik proclaimed himself emperor. Menelik wished to modernize his empire, and since their marriage, Taytu had become an increasingly valuable advisor. One of his first ventures was to build a new capital at Addis Ababa, on a site chosen by Taytu in 1886. Modern roads and bridges connected the new city with the rest of the empire, the tax system was reformed, a national currency was created, a postal system was instituted, and railways were built. Menelik also promoted secular education, established medical care, and founded a government press. By the turn of the century, telegraph and telephone lines stretched across the country and a national bank financed new enterprises.

Meanwhile, however, many internal factions vied for power, and Taytu was ever vigilant in protecting her husband's interests. When Menelik was away in battle at one point, a message from the soldiers of Weldya, the capital of Yejju, reached the empress, informing her that the city was about to be overrun by rebel troops led by Zegeye, and that Weldya's army was prepared to surrender. Their message read, "We are afraid, as there are not enough of us." Since most of the army was away under her husband's command, Taytu decided to make a show of will power and strength by sending a small force with 300 guns to Weldya, along with a proclamation which read:

Take care that no dissension explodes between me and you. As for Zegeye, if I should hear that you permitted him to enter and govern Yejju, or even if I learn that you allowed him to drink water in Yejju from his cupped hand, we will become, you and I, mortal enemies.

Torn between their anxiety about a rebel leader and fear of crossing the powerful empress, the soldiers in Weldya rallied, defended the capital, and even captured some members of the rebel forces.

Reigned, aggrandized and made Ethiopia prosper.

—Chris Prouty

In 1889, Menelik signed a friendship pact with the Italians known as the Treaty of Ucciali. Drafted in both Amharic and Italian, the treaty was written in two distinct versions. In the Amharic text, Italy merely offered its services to Ethiopia as diplomatic intermediary with the outside world; but in the Italian version, Menelik later realized, the Ethiopian empire was now an Italian protectorate. Not surprisingly, these two very different versions soon led to war. Ethiopia had no intention of becoming a European colony.

When Menelik declared war, the Italians were not displeased, since Europeans had been victorious over native African armies for centuries. In Europe, an Italian victory was considered a foregone conclusion, but the strategists in Rome had failed to reckon with their foe. Ethiopia's dry and mountainous country provided perfect fighting terrain for those who knew it well, and the modern weapons Menelik had stockpiled allowed his troops to meet the Italians on equal terms. Finally, the Ethiopian army numbered well over 100,000, while the Italians sent only 17,000 troops.

In early January 1896, Menelik decided to challenge a contingent of Italian forces holding the fort at Adigrat. The assault proved calamitous, as the Italians were able to rain fire down on the Ethiopian troops struggling up to the fort at the summit; by nightfall, some 500 Ethiopian casualties littered the slopes. Taytu, who had accompanied her husband on this military venture, then proposed a different strategy—cutting off the fort's water supply. On January 9, 900 men from the empress' contingent crept down the ravine and cut off the stream supplying the fort, then settled out of firing range to wait. By January 18, Major Galliano had sent out a message to Italian headquarters calling for reinforcements. "The fort resists, but we have only two rations of water left. Our fall is near." The fort soon surrendered, with no further casualties.

With his empress at his side, Menelik prepared for the final assault on the Italian troops in early spring. On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa commenced, with Taytu in charge of organizing the defense perimeter, using her personal army of 5,000 men. Realizing that more than bullets would be required to win this engagement, the empress gathered 10–12,000 women and ordered them to collect and fill water jugs. Their duty was to provision the soldiers and care for the wounded, a strategy which proved of great worth in Ethiopia's arid climate. When the fighting began, Taytu rushed into the fray, calling to the troops, "Courage! Victory is ours! Strike!" It is reported that the "cannoneers to the right of where she stood fired so continuously that they succeeded in breaking the center of the enemy army." By 12:30 pm, the Battle of Adwa was over, at terrible cost to both sides. Casualties among the Ethiopian troops were between 10% and 15%, and among the Italians 50%. That night the empress returned to her tent and sat motionless on her throne, her face wet with tears.

The decisive defeat of Europeans at the hands of Ethiopian troops was a major news story throughout the world. On March 7, 1896, The Spectator commented: "The Italians have suffered a great disaster … greater than has ever occurred in modern times to white men in Africa." Photographs of Menelik and Empress Taytu appeared on front pages around the globe. Soon Taytu's name and the title "warrior queen" were synonymous. In the best tradition of yellow journalism, the press published fictional stories

about the empress, reporting that she bathed in the blood of virgin girls, and blaming her for mutilations, for threatening to kill Italian officers taken as prisoners, and even for starting the war itself. The Italians remained convinced that Menelik would have compromised except for his bloodthirsty consort, and no one outside Ethiopia seemed to recognize Taytu simply as a patriot fighting for the freedom of her people.

Taytu had exercised great power since her ascension to the throne. After the Battle of Adwa, however, it was said that "nearly half of Ethiopia is in the hands of her relatives." Over the years the empress had secured control of the country through nepotism, marriage alliances, and accumulation of land grants. Her brother, Ras Wele, controlled Tigray and Yejju; her nephew, Ras Gugsa Wele, governed Begemder; Dejazmach Gesesse, another nephew, ruled Semen and Wjolkit; Ras Wele Giyorgis, her cousin's husband, controlled Keffa; and these were only a few of her relatives in the government. To maintain her power, Taytu also used her considerable revenues to arm, clothe, and feed her personal army.

Foreigners quickly noted Taytu's immense power. Certainly Taytu controlled the day-to-day operation of her country's government to a greater extent than royal contemporaries like Queen Victoria . She was also more cynical than her husband about the foreigners who flocked to Addis Ababa seeking government contracts. Addressing such business interests, Taytu would pointedly ask, "Where will our poor country find the resources to satisfy the needs you create? Frankly do you think our people will be happier [with a railroad] than they are now?" Such hardheaded bargaining benefited the empire and gained the country international respect.

Menelik suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1906. Although he recovered, his physical strength declined, and Taytu increasingly assumed the powers of regent. On October 27, 1909, a second stroke left the emperor paralyzed and incapacitated, and a battle for succession ensued, as there was no immediate heir to the throne. In 1908, Menelik had designated his grandson, Iyasu V, as his successor, appointed a loyal regent, Tessema Nadew, and created a council of ministers. Now, however, Taytu sought to maintain her own power by placing one of her relations in line for the throne. When Menelik died in 1913, Iyasu was made emperor and Taytu retired from the court, her plans for further rule apparently defeated. Three years later, however, Iyasu was toppled and replaced by Taytu's long-favored successor, Menelik's daughter Zauditu (1876–1930). Haile Selassie, who opposed Taytu, was appointed regent, a decision bitterly fought by the empress; when her further bid for power failed, she withdrew from imperial politics. Taytu died of heart failure on February 11, 1918. Zauditu lived until 1930, when she was succeeded by Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor.

Taytu lives on in memory, even in Italy, where expressions such as "Who does she think she is? Empress Taytu?" or "She is like Principessa Taytu" are testimonials to her imprint on the popular imagination. In Ethiopia, she is honored and remembered as a warrior, a modernizer, and a nationalist, a symbol of what can be achieved by the daring and brave.


Marcus, Harold G. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844–1913. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883–1910. London: Ravens Educational and Development Services, 1986.

——, and Eugene Rosenfeld. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. London: Scarecrow, 1981.

Rosenfeld, Chris Prouty. A Chronology of Menelik of Ethiopia. East Lansing, MI: African Studies Center, 1976.

Sanderson, G.N. "The Foreign Policy of the Negus Menelik, 1896–1898," in Journal of African History. Vol. 4, 1964, pp. 87–97.

Williams, Larry, and Charles S. Finch. "The Great Queens of Ethiopia," in Journal of African Civilizations. Vol. 6, no. 1, 1984, pp. 12–35.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia