The following article highlights Empress Taitu Bitul, one of the key leaders at the decisive Battle of Adwa on March 1st, 1896. It is an excerpt from a recent historical research paper by Profesor Ayele Bekerie that will be published here in three parts in conjunction with and celebration of the 117th anniversary of the battle. (Tadias)

Tadias Magazine By Ayele Bekerie, PhD



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 education in the churches and

monasteries for an extended period of time. Those who passed the arduous

levels of training would be allowed to serve as deacons and later priests in

the thousands of churches and monasteries throughout the country. Their

education includes 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 the King. Apparently the respect and reverence Menelik

had for Taitu were in part dictated by custom.  He was being respectful to

an elder. On the other hand, the respect 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, who is credited as the founder of Addis Ababa as the capital city of

Ethiopia, 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 characterized 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 military and logistical

advantage. The Italians were hoping that he would attack them in Adigrat,

close to where they have a well- fortified 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 or new rivals.

From the royal residence in Addis Ababa 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 marriage, she weaved a complex relationship between the Shaon

nobilities and the nobilities 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 relatives whom she anticipated to taking over

Menelik. And yet she spoke her mind and consistently defended national

interests. Unfortunately, she was removed from power in the last years of

Menelik. With her removal from power and prolonged illness of Menelik

soon after the battle, the opportunity to further pursue the full meaning of Adwa was not seized.

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 decisive

advice and action resulted in the defeat of the Italian army at the 1896 of

Adwa. Taitu epitomizes what is best and intelligent among Ethiopian

leaders. 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.

Independence and cooperation define her partnership with Emperor

Menelik II. Their marriage was a marriage of equals characterized by trust,

respect and reciprocity. 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.

Taitu was a poet, Ge’ez literate, military strategist, diplomat, hotelier,

industrialist, banker, philanthropist, institution builder, and church patron

Taitu has registered many firsts. She founded the capital city Addis Ababa.

She established the first international hotel, now called Itege Hotel. She

led a battalion in a major and decisive battle against the Italian army,

established a wool factory, candle factory, built the historic Menbere

Tsehay Qidist Mariam’s Church at Entoto, and uncovered the deceptive

article of the Ucale Treaty. Taitu was removed from power unceremoniously

at the time of Menelik’s prolonged illness and later death. Lij Iyasu, the

chosen heir to the throne by Menelik, failed to co-rule with her or at least

to seek her counsel. Iyasu was overthrown by anti-Taitu Bitul group of

Shoa, three years after he assumed power at the age of fourteen. To her

credit, Empress Zewditu had maintained good relations with Taitu, but the

executive power rested with Ras Teferi, the regent who later became

Emperor Haile Selassie.

Taitu’s pioneering work in the field of politics, economics, culture, social

welfare, military have added to the definition and implementation of

national agenda and interests. She brilliantly pushed for what unites

Ethiopians. The founding of Addis Ababa as a new capital city allowed

Ethiopians to migrate and settle in this uniting place from all regions of

the country.

While the two books mentioned above made a concerted effort to

document and narrate the biography of Taitu Bitul, Ambassador Mengiste

Desta offers a more detailed chronology and contextual explanation than

Tadesse Zewelde. Tadesse, on the other hand, utilizes primary sources,

eyewitness accounts to write his readable narrative.

Mengiste also turns his book into a campaign to build a public memorial

for Taitu Bitul 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 memorial, 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 courage, wisdom, loyalty and vision of seeking and maintaining

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 marriage 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 ensured peace and stability during the frequent absences of

Menelik from the Capital, originally located at Addis Alem in Shoah and

later moved to nearby Addis Ababa at Entoto.

Furthermore, she fully engaged herself in activities that significantly

contributed to national interests. She founded and named Addis Ababa

(New Flower) as a permanent seat of the central government. She built a

house in a land fenced by Negus Sahle Selassie, the Shoan king and the

grandfather of her husband. Taitu built the house while Menelik was in

Harar in a military campaign for an extended period of time. Upon his

return, Menelik approved her initiative and moved with her to the new

house in Addis Ababa. (Negus Sahle Selassie shares credits with Taitu with

regard to the founding of the city)

Taitu opened the first modern hotel, now known as Itege Hotel located in

Arada qebele of the capital, in Ethiopia a little more than a century ago and

she also became its first manager. The Hotel serves local and international

cuisines. Again Atse Menelik supported her action by becoming a regular

customer of the hotel and by encouraging the nobilities and government

officials to patronize the business. Besides establishing yengeda bet, she

has pioneered and encouraged both local and international tourism.

Taitu, in an attempt to modernize the Ethiopian economy from within

and to counter the heavy handedness of the Abyssinan Bank, a foreign firm,

she started a domestic financial institution where indebted traders were

able to obtain loans and continue trading.

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 turned local raw materials into candles. Church costumes were

designed and made by tailors in an organized fashion thanks for her

pioneering effort.

On a religious front, Taitu built the historic Menbere Tsehay Entoto

Mariam church. She also built a residential multi-storied building in

Jerusalem to be used by priests and pilgrims from Ethiopia.

These are some of the major accomplishments of Taitu. By any

measurement, Taitu is a national treasure that deserves national

monument and her legacy continues to inspire the young generation to

know, build and defend national interests. — This piece is well-referenced

and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie

directly at:

About the Author: Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at the

Department of History and Cultural Studies at Mekelle University.

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