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