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Taytu Betul: The Cunning Empress of Ethiopia

(The following is a post by Fentahun Tiruneh, area specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

color illustration of a woman

S. M. Taïtou, Impératrice d’Abyssinie,” Le Petit journal. Supplément du dimanche. Paris, March 29, 1896. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

She was raised in an aristocratic family. She was church-educated and is said to have excelled to the heights of composing traditional oral Qene poetry. After four failed marriages to important personages, she married Menelik when he was the ruler of Shewa. When Menelik became the emperor of Ethiopia in 1889, she became the empress of Ethiopia two days later with the regal title of “Etege Taytu Betul, Light of Ethiopia.” She was barren, but a good step-mother to Zewditu, the daughter of Menelik begotten from his first wife, and whom she tried to help ascend the throne in her last days.

B&w illustration of a woman with four children around her.

Empress Taytu and her entourage. La Guerra Italo-Abissina: Bulletino Illustrato, Num. 24. Maggio 1896. Milano, Italy. African Section Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Empress Taytu Betul (1853-1918) understood internal and foreign politics. She counseled the emperor on the devious notions of the colonialists. The Emperor consulted her before he passed a decision on key governance issues. (Zawalde, p.13) The diary of Augusto Salimbeni – an Italian engineer who was part of the delegation for the Treaty – provides evidence that

Empress Taytu played a significant role in the process of unification [of Ethiopia]. She clarified issues for Menelik, and she had an individuality and warmth as a woman that was rarely seen by foreigners. (Prouty, p. 199)

Combined with her compassionate nature was her passion and resolve to safeguard her country’s independence and history.

Of all the good qualities for which Empress Taytu is credited, her dedication to the emperor during the crisis that followed the dispute over the Wichale Treaty stands out. The supposed Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was discovered to include in Article 17 the intention of Italy to make Ethiopia a protectorate. This infuriated Taytu. During the course of the deliberations, the empress demonstrated considerable indignation and determination to oust the Italians of Ethiopian territories. As tension mounted, the empress persuaded the emperor to declare war against Italy. This culminated in the 1896 Battle of Adwa.

Cover of Le Petit Parisien with a b&w illustration of a group of men signing a treaty.

The Signing of the Treaty of Wichale. Le Petit Parisien, 1896. African Section Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Count Pietro Antonelli, the lead negotiator is said to have remarked, “Menelik is playing games on me by giving up his regal authority to a woman.” To this the empress issued a retort,

“My womanliness and your manliness is going to be tested on the battle field. Do not absent yourself!” (Zewelde, p.19)

The empress seemed to be the main architect of the battle as she had her own contingent of close to five thousand troops and 100 women, including Princess Zewditu Menelik. She took command of provisional and medical operations during the battle, and positioned herself as a powerful moral force. Most importantly, she commanded operation to prevent Italian military access to all sources of potable water. This strategy worked in favor of the emperor and the Ethiopians prevailed in the battle. In the event of the Italians’ second coming (1935) Empress Menen, spouse of Emperor Haile Selassie I admitted the exemplary role of Empress Taytu when she said, “I shall do it as the august Empress Taytu did in her time. “ (Lancaster New Era, p.9)

Empress Taytu not only excelled in matters of war, but also in times of peace as a champion of development. She founded Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia and named it. She built the Etoto Maryam Church, which still stands to date. She gathered homeless orphans and educated them to be deacons, priests, and raised many others to several prestigious government positions. She erected the first hotel, Etege Taytu Hotel, after her name that stands till today. She also established an association to promote agriculture and trade among many other initiatives.  (Zewlede, p. 30)

Emperor Haile Selassie I indicated in his memoir that Menelik’s cabinet members resented Empress Taytu’s handling and running all major functions of government, and plotted to overthrow her. The interregnum between the avowed passing of Emperor Menelik and the ascension to power of Emperor Haile Selassie was full of intrigues and conspiracies. Empress Taytu struggled to maintain balance between the feuding groups, with the hope to help Princess Zewditu ascend the throne. But she finally was unable to withstand the crafts of her enemies and succumbed. The empress was ultimately exiled to Entoto and passed her last days in a reclusive life of prayer and fasting.

a b&w illustration of Taytu and the Treaty of Wichale.

[Empress Taytu Tears the Treaty of Wichale with indignation]. Chris Prouty, “Empress Taytu and Menelik II,” p.95.

Count Pietro Antonelli, who once derided and resented the empress because of her intransigence during the negotiations of the Wichale Treaty, wrote of her,

“The Empress like all other Ethiopian women is brave. She had a strong character, sometimes haughty-and is interesting appearance. Her look is commanding and at the same time has finesse…In sum, she is a great lady, who perhaps in another milieu would have been a Christina of Sweden or a Catherine the Great.” (Prouty, p.137)

Powerful or controversial, Empress Taytu rose to the occasion and helped lay the foundation for a modern Ethiopia that is today. As such, her legacy has become a significant part of the contemporary Ethiopian history.

For reference questions contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room via Ask a Librarian or (202) 707-4188.

Color illustration of a woman warrior on horse.

Empress Taytu at the battlefield in Adwa. Detail of an iconic art by Shibiru Nuru on the Battle of Adwa, 1968 Eth. Cal. African Section Collection, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Learn More

Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. 2003-2014.” Edited by Siegbert Uhlig ; editorial board, Baye Yimam … [et al.]. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

H.I.M The Empress Zauditu of Ethiopia, full length, seated, facing left. n.d. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Lancaster New Era. August 26, 1935.

La Regina Tahaitu. 1935. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Le Petit Parisien. 1876-1944. Paris [France]: Verdien.

Prouty, Chris. “Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910.” Trenton: The Red Sea Press, 1986.

Rubenson, Sven. “Wiçhalé XVII; the attempt to establish a protectorate over Ethiopia.” Addis Abeba [Institute of Ethiopian Studies], 1964.

Taklayasus, Bruk Makonen. “Etege Taytu Berhan z-Itoyopya.”  [Addis Ababa]: Zed A Matamiya Bet, 2014.

Zawalde, Tadasa. “Ya Etege Taytu Btul Acer Yahewat Tarik 1882-1910.” [Addis Ababa]: Kuraz Asatami Derejet, 1981.