Taytu Betul: Ethiopia′s strategic empress | African Roots | DW | 10.06.2021
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African Roots

Taytu Betul: Ethiopia's strategic empress

Taytu Betul, regarded as one of Ethiopia's greatest leaders, was the wife of Emperor Menelik II. She was instrumental in defeating Italian imperialists and also founded Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city.

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Taytu Betul: Ethiopia's strategic empress

Who was Taytu Betul?

Taytu Betul was an Ethiopian noblewoman who, together with her husband, Emperor Menelik II, ruled Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913. She is remembered for her resistance against and victory over the Italian colonial forces and her political power at the royal court. She is the one who chose the area of Ethiopia's present-day capital city and named it Addis Ababa.

Who was Taytu Betul before she became an empress?

Taytu Betul was born into an influential aristocratic family related to the Solomonic dynasty around 1840 or 1851, according to the sources, in Debre Tabor, not far from Lake Tana. She was first married off at the tender age of ten, not unusual for a noble girl at that time. She is said to have had a string of unhappy marriages and finally married her fifth husband, the King of Shewa, who later became Emperor Menelik II. At the time of their marriage, she had already accumulated some measure of wealth and properties. 

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How did Taytu Betul become so powerful?

Taytu Betul and Menelik's marriage was a powerful political union, as both parties brought alliances in northern and southern Ethiopia, respectively, to the table. Once the pair became emperor and empress, they forged more allegiances with the region's various rulers, partly through political prowess and partly through military force. 

However, Taytu Betul also made sure that she wasn't just the emperor's wife, but was involved in most political decision-making, diplomacy, and military campaigns. Historians say that she was seen as Menelik's equal and often took a tougher stance on matters than her husband.

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Taytu Betul: The one who spotted Italy's deceit

What was Taytu Betul most famous for?

Taytu Betul was renowned for her leading role in the war against Italy that culminated in the battle of Adwa. Taytu is said to have commanded 5,000 infantry and 600 cavalry in the fight against the Italians, who were trying to colonize Ethiopia. Taytu had vehemently opposed deals with Italy and the Treaty of Wuchale, which effectively made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate on paper. When Menelik and Taytu finally rode into battle against the Italians, Taytu played a crucial role in strategizing and leading her troops to the front. She scored a significant victory at an Italian-built fort in Mekelle, where she defeated the Italians by cutting off their water supply. 

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Was Taytu Betul an unusual woman for her time?

Ethiopia had had its share of powerful women, the mothers or wives of rulers and many women joined military campaigns — perhaps not taking up arms themselves, but supporting the armies through cooking, cleaning, and keeping up the morale. It was less common for women to command entire troops as Taytu did. In some artistic depictions of the Battle of Adwa, she is seen in the midst of fierce fighting — there is, however, no evidence that she ever took up arms herself. She was able to read and write, which made her unique. Taytu also liked to play chess, enjoyed music, and played the stringed Begena.

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What happened after Menelik's death?

In 1909 Menelik suffered a stroke, and Taytu took over much of the political work, effectively ruling the country herself. After some time, her rivals in the royal family pressured her into giving up power. Some historians believe that she had become too powerful for the liking of many at the court. 

When Menelik died in 1913, Taytu was ousted from the main palace and her political influence faded. She died in 1917. 

How do we know so much about Taytu Betul?

We know about her both through oral traditions, as well as written and visual documents. People at the Ethiopian court, foreign diplomats, Italian prisoners of war, and even letters from Taytu herself described her in detail. 

A Swiss engineer, Alfred Ilg, who worked for the emperor and empress, also documented the pair through photographs that give us an insight into palace life. 

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Professor Lily Mafela and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

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