Women’s History Month 2013: Spotlight on Empress Taitu Bitul

Empress Taitu Bitul, one of the key leaders at the decisive Battle of Adwa on March 1st, 1896. Ayele Bekerie reflects on her contributions in celebration of Women's History Month 2013. (Photos: wikimedia)

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie, PhD


Updated: Friday, March 1st, 2013

Mekelle, Ethiopia (TADIAS) – Empress Taitu Bitul was actively involved in Menelik’s government. She exemplified the possibility of reform and transformation from within. She was a persistent critic of the nobilities and ministers of Menelik. Born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family, Taitu had a comprehensive early training in traditional education. She was fluent in Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopian language. Mastering Ge’ez was a rare achievement for a woman at that time. Education is often the privy of male children, who continue their traditional schooling in the churches and monasteries for an extended period of time. Those who passed the arduous levels of scholarship would be allowed to serve as deacons and later priests in the thousands of churches and monasteries throughout the country. Their studies include Ge’ez literature, chant, choreography and translation. Besides, Taitu was a great benefactor of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. She contributed land and building materials to several important monasteries. She also supported the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem, Israel.

Taitu was married to Menelik at the age of forty-three and she was four years older than him. Apparently Menelik’s reverence for Taitu was in part dictated by custom. He was being respectful to an elder. On the other hand, the deference might have been earned as a result of the loyalty Taitu brought to the marriage from important northern regions of Begemedir, Lasta and Yeju. Clearly the marriage was more than romance; it was in fact, a political marriage intended to calm the competing Rases of the northern region. According to Qegnazematch Tadesse Zewelde, Taitu was co-equal with Menelik, who consulted her prior to making important decisions.

Taitu was known for her courage and uprightness. She urged the Emperor to reject the now infamous Wuchale Treaty of 1889 as soon as the discrepancies between the Italian and the Amharic versions were discovered by Aleqa Atsme Giorgis, a historian and a councilor to the Emperor. Taitu led her own battalion at the Battle of Adwa. At the Battle of Mekelle, she advised Ras Mekonen to cut off the water supply to the Italians in order to disgorge them from their entrenched and heavily fortified positions at Endeyesus Hill on the eastern part of Mekelle City. Tadesse also identifies Taitu as the receiver and analyzer of intelligence information collected by spies, such as Basha Awalom Haregot and Gebre Igziabher. Historians characterize the intelligence data obtained by Awalom and Gebre Igzabher as crucial importance to the Ethiopian victory at the battle. The information enabled Menelik to attack the Italians, at a site of his choosing, at Adwa instead of Adigrat, near the Eritrean border where the Italians expected to have a relative logistical advantage. The Italians were hoping that he would meet them in Adigrat, close to where they had a well-protected military base.

Because of the many absences of the Emperor from the capital city, Taitu virtually managed the affairs of the government in consultation with key ministers. Menelik conducted several campaigns both in the north and southern part of the country against his old and new rivals.

From the royal residence in Addis Ababa, a city that she founded, Taitu made a concerted effort to break the monopoly of political power by Shoan nobility. She used every opportunity to diversify the power base through marriage and other means. Through weddings, she weaved a complex web of partnerships between the Shaon nobilities and those of the northern highlands. It is true that she favored her relatives to be close to power. She presided over many arranged marriages favorable to her cousins whom she anticipated to take over from Menelik. And yet she spoke her mind and consistently defended national interests. Regardless, her removal from power at the end of Menelik’s reign and his prolonged illness soon after the battle, the opportunity to further pursue the full meaning of Adwa was not seized.

Following the war Taitu and Menelik shared the enormous task of building a newly reconstituted country with diverse population and cultures. Differing qualities of two great Ethiopians crystallized into an effective and successful leadership. Independence and cooperation defined Taitu’s relationship with Emperor Menelik II. Their marriage was that of equals characterized by trust, respect and reciprocity.

Taitu Bitul was an authentic Ethiopian leader. Her deeds at a critical moment in Ethiopian history not only saved Ethiopia from European colonization, but it also paved the way to decolonize Africa. Her advice and action resulted in the defeat of the Italian army at the 1896 Battle of Adwa. Taitu epitomized Ethiopian leaders at their best. She consistently fought hard for the public good. She knew and defended national interests by overcoming challenges both from within and from without. Her leadership immensely contributed to the process of nation building and modernization at the beginning of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, Taitu was forced out of power unceremoniously during Menelik’s long illness and later death. Lij Iyasu, the heir to the throne, failed to cooperate with her or at least to seek her counsel. Iyasu was overthrown by anti-Taitu group of Shoan nobility, three years after he assumed power at the age of fourteen. To her credit, Empress Zewditu who succeeded Iyasu maintained good relations with Taitu, but power had shifted to Ras Taferi, the regent who became Emperor Haile Selassie.

Taitu’s pioneering and enduring work in politics, economics, culture, social welfare, military have added to the definition and implementation of a national agenda. She pushed for common issues that united Ethiopians. The founding of Addis Ababa as a new capital city allowed people to migrate and settle in this new town from all regions of the country.

While the two books made an effort to document the biography of Taitu, Ambassador Mengiste Desta offers a more detailed chronology and contextual explanation than Tadesse Zewelde. Tadesse, on the other hand, utilizes primary sources and eyewitness accounts in his readable narrative.

Mengiste also turns his publication into a campaign to build a memorial for Taitu in Addis Ababa. He is urging committees organized to carry out the project to bring it to fruition. In an attempt to highlight the importance of a public tribute, the forward of Mengiste’s book is written by the Coalition of the Ethiopian Women Association that was established in 1996.

Menelik’s skills of military strategy and diplomacy are combined with Taitu’s good judgment, loyalty and vision of seeking and maintaining cohesive national interests. Taitu, unlike Baafina (the ex-wife who sought to undermine the king), consulted, caucused, shared and reinforced strong leadership with the Emperor. The married couple and partners became formidable leaders to face and resolve many challenges both in times of war and peace. They made Ethiopia’s transition to modernization an irreversible march of time.

It is also important to remember that Taitu brought to the union her northern experience and knowledge given her link to Gondar, Semen, Begemedir and Yeju nobilities. In addition to her insight of the inner workings of Atse Yohannes and Atse Tewodros’s palaces. In other words, the marriage can be characterized both as political and as the saying goes yacha gabecha.

Taitu insisted on remaining a respected person (not a dependent) by seeking ways to improve her life through education, a rare and groundbreaking approach given our entrenched and backward notion and praxis on gender. She studied Ge’ez in Gojam at Debre Mewe monastery. She also composed poetic verses both in Ge’ez and Amharic. Taitu, who is known as the light of Ethiopia, also played harp and kirar (a remarkable combination of spiritual and secular musical instruments) and designed decorative curtains for churches and monasteries.

What is more impressive is Taitu’s contribution to governance and nation building. She fully engaged herself in activities that significantly contributed to national interests. She named Addis Ababa (New Flower) as a permanent seat of the central government. She ran the administration during the frequent absences of Menelik from the Capital, originally located at Addis Alem before it was moved to nearby Entoto. She built a house in a land fenced to mark holding by the Shoan king, Negus Sahle Selassie, who is Menelik’s grandfather. The building commenced while Menelik was in Harar in a military campaign for an extended period of time. Upon his return, he approved the initiative and moved with her into the new house in Addis Ababa. (Negus Sahle Selassie shares credits with Taitu in regards to the founding of the city)

Taitu opened Addis Ababa’s first modern hotel, now known as Itege Hotel, a little more than a century ago and she also became its first manager. The restaurant serves local and international cuisines. Again Atse Menelik supported her entrepreneurship by becoming a regular customer of the establishment and by encouraging the nobilities and government officials to patronize the business. Besides inaugurating yengeda bet, she has launched and encouraged both local and international tourism.

In an attempt to modernize the Ethiopian economy and to counter the heavy handedness of the Abyssinan Bank, a foreign firm, Taitu started a domestic financial institution where indebted traders were able to obtain loans and continue commerce.

She set up the first wool factory in collaboration with experts from Turkey and India thereby paving the way for possible Ethiopian industrial age. Taitu also used local raw materials to manufacture candles. Church costumes were designed and made by tailors in an organized fashion thanks to her innovative efforts.

On a religious front, Taitu established the historic Menbere Tsehay Entoto Mariam church. She also commissioned the construction of a multi-storied home in Jerusalem to be used by priests and pilgrims from Ethiopia.

These are some of the accomplishments of Taitu. By any measurement, she is a treasure that deserves a national monument and her legacy continues to inspire the young generation to know, build and defend the country.

This piece is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: abekerie@gmail.com.

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Mekelle University.

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