Empress Taytu of Ethiopia – The founder of Addis Ababa




(public domain)

The future Empress Taytu of Ethiopia was born Taytu Betul Hayle Maryam as the daughter of Betul Haile Maryam and Yewibdar. The date of E.C. 1832 (1839-1840 in the Gregorian calendar) is engraved on her tomb as her date of birth, but it is probably not correct as marking birthdays is not an Ethiopian custom. Her family was descended from a daughter of Emperor Susneyos of Ethiopia – he had 25 sons and daughters. Taytu was the third born in a family of four children. This was remarkable in an age where child mortality was very high. Circumcision took place on children of both sexes, and for girls, this usually happened between day 15 and 80 of life. The baptism took place on the 80th day for girls, and Taytu’s baptismal name was Welette Mikael, which was an indication that she was baptised on the 12th day of any month as that day is always dedicated to St. Mikael. Shortly after the birth of her sister Desta, their father died in battle.

That same battle ended the reign of Ras Ali and led to the coronation of Emperor Tewodros. At that time, the family was at the monastery of Debre Mewi in Gojam. Her brothers were old enough to fight, and in 1857, they became prisoners of Emperor Tewodros. Menilek, The Prince of Shewa was also a prisoner, and they became acquainted. When he asked if they had a sister, he was told that she was in a monastery. Taytu’s possible marriage to him was probably vetoed by her family as he was a prisoner and she was probably safer marrying one of Tewodros’s generals. We don’t know much about her education, but we know she could read and write Amharic, knew some Ge’ez (the recondite language of sacred texts), she wrote poetry and played chess.

As was traditional, Taytu’s childhood had ended abruptly at the age of 10 when preparations for marriage began. Her mother supervised her doing chores and girls were taught to resist her husband’s advances on the wedding night as it was meant to be a night of conquest. Sometimes it was physically impossible to consummate a marriage if the circumcision (ranging from the removal of just the labia minora to the cutting away of the clitoris and the removal of the labia minora) had left the girl awkwardly healed. Any infection following the circumcision might have left her infertile. Taytu’s first marriage was to an officer of Emperor Tewodros, and it ended badly. “He (Tewodros) gave them a cruel wedding present by putting her husband in chains a few days after the ceremony, and she was forced to follow the army on foot like a peasant, chained at the wrist, grinding grain and cooking for the soldiers”, wrote Pietro Antonelli – a diplomat. Taytu was married at least three more times before becoming Empress, to a soldier named Dejazmach Tekle Giyorgis and Janterar Udie – the governor of Yejju. In 1881-1882, she married Kenyazmach Zikargatchew, whose sister Bafena was a consort of Menilek (they divorced in 1882 before he became Emperor). However, her fourth husband was cruel to her, and he beat her. She left him, taking many servants and properties with her.

Taytu probably met Menilek, by then King of Shewa (a region in Ethiopia), in August 1882 but any thought of marriage was initially delayed when he tried to have sex with Bafena who had gone to a convent to escape him. Taytu probably wanted to marry someone else, but Menilek bought off the man. They were married at Easter 1883, and Taytu’s first question to her husband was, “May I build a church dedicated to Our Lady?” He agreed. Shortly afterwards, he left on a military campaign, and Taytu quickly gained a reputation for her piety. She was also responsible for the founding of Addis Ababa or the “new flower” because of the mimosa trees. Two years later, it was the new capital.

In 1889, Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia was killed in battle, and although he named his natural son as his heir, Menilek immediately proclaimed himself as Emperor. Menilek and Taytu had two separate coronations on 3 and 5 November respectively. Taytu was crowned as Itege (literally sister of the country but also meant as Queen of Queens), and as it became dark, 82 lamps were lit in a single moment. Taytu also added “Light of Ethiopia” to her titles.

These years were one of famine for the people of Ethiopia, and from 1888 to 1892 over a third of the population died. The royal court was not short of food, but Taytu tried to set an example of austerity anyway. They also donated as much as they could, although there was apparently quite a bit of favouritism involved. Taytu also played favourite in the promotion of her brother and nephew, the son of her sister. In 1893, Menilek announced that Ethiopia would have his own coinage and the Treaty of Wuchale with Italy would be null and void as of 1 May 1894 (The Italians claimed that this made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate). The famine was on the wane, and Menilek was flexing his muscles. Then came war with Italy and on 11 October 1895, the royal family and the army left Addis Ababa. Taytu travelled with a household of about 100 women, including Princess Zewditu Menilek, her husband’s daughter by Weyziro Abechi.  Pietro Antonelli wrote, “Her Majesty… like all Ethiopian women, is very brave. She has a strong character – sometimes haughty – and is of an interesting appearance. Her features and colouring are like those of an Andalusian. 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.” The ensuing battle of Amba Alage was a victory for him. During the battle of Adwa, Taytu was praised. “The goodness of Menilek made brave not only the men but even women and monks. At the battle of Adwa, Empress Taytu and the women with her deserve special praise, for the spent that day doing a task not usually that of women.”

taytu
(public domain)

They had won the war, and they were both in good health. When Menilek’s health began to deteriorate in 1906, Taytu became more politically involved. He had suffered a stroke, and his behaviour had become unpredictable. He suffered further strokes in 1907 and 1908. A fourth stroke left him temporarily partly paralysed and from then on Taytu began to monitor his visitors. She was with him constantly. However, her behaviour was criticised, and it was believed that she was taking advantage of her husband’s condition. By 1909, she was in control, but it did not last long. In the morning of 12 December 1913 Menilek died. Taytu left in the night with a small entourage to the hills above Addis Ababa.

Taytu spent her days praying and fasting. Lij Iyasu was designated as her husband’s successor, but he was never crowned. He was deposed in 1916, and Princess Zewditu was proclaimed Queen of Kings in a surprise move. She was to be Ethiopia’s only Empress regnant. Zewditu invited her stepmother to come live with her, but Taytu declined the offer. She asked to go to Gondar to live out her days, but this request was denied. Taytu followed her husband to the grave on 11 February 1918 after a short illness. The new Empress had a mausoleum built for her father and stepmother in Addis Ababa.1

 

  1. Source: Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia, 1883-1910 by Chris Prouty  (US & UK)






About Moniek Bloks 2763 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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