Taytu Betul: the Great Ethiopian Empress who Said ‘NO’ to Colonization

Empress Taytu Betul of Ethiopia
Empress Taytu Betul of Ethiopia

After learning about the origin of the name Addis Ababa, from Empress Taytu Betul‘s visit to its location, I could not help but talk about the Empress herself.  Who was Taytu Betul?

Well, Taytu Betul was Emperor Menelik II‘s third wife and was thereby Empress of Ethiopia.  She was his confidante, a loyal wife, a commander, and a brilliant military strategist.

Taytu Betul (also Taitu Betul), whose name Taytu means Sunshine, was a sunshine for her nation when it was about to fall into the hands of the Italian colonizer.  Perhaps, there would not have been the famous Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, which marked the Ethiopian victory against colonialism, without Empress Taytu, for she inspired it.

Emperor Menelik II, of Ethiopia
Emperor Menelik II, of Ethiopia

Empress Taytu Betul was born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family.  She had a comprehensive education and was fluent in Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopian language; which was a rare achievement for a woman at the time, as education was mostly reserved for boys.  Taytu was the third of four children in an aristocratic family related to the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia.  Her uncle, Dejazmach Wube Haile Maryam, was the ruler of Tigray and much of Northern Ethiopia in the 1840s, and a rival of Emperor Tewodros II.  Her father’s family were the ruling family of Semien province, claiming descent from Emperor Susenyos I.  Her grandfather was Ras Gugsa, a member of the powerful ruling family of Yejju, of Oromo origin, which had ruled as Regents in Gondar during the Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”).  After four failed marriages, Taytu Betul was married to Emperor Menelik II (he was still King of Shewa at the time) in 1883 in a full communion church service and thus fully canonical and insoluble, which Menelik had not had with either of his previous wives (whom he had divorced).  Their marriage was not just about romance but was also a political marriage sealing alliances with the northern regions of Begemder, Lasta, Semien, and Yeju.  She remained his wife until his death in 1913.

The Battle of Adwa, 1896
The Battle of Adwa, 1896

Empress Taytu was a loyal and respectful wife to her husband Emperor Menelik II.  According to royal historians, she was co-equal with Menelik, who always consulted her prior to making important decisions.  She was the one who pushed him to declare war against Italy at the Battle of Adwa—tearing up the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale between the Ethiopian Empire and Italy, a treaty whose article 17 had two different meanings in Amharic and Italian versions: The Amharic version recognized the sovereignty of Ethiopia and its relationship with Italy as just a diplomatic partnership, while the Italian version made Ethiopia Italy’s protectorate.  The moment that discrepancy was uncovered, Empress Taytu was the first to agitate the hesitant Emperor and other men to stand up for liberty, dignity and against Italian aggression. 

Edition of the Petit Journal of August 1896 titled: "Negus Menelik II at the Battle of Adwa"
Edition of the Petit Journal of August 1896 titled: “Negus Menelik II at the Battle of Adwa”

Empress Taytu, as a military strategist, facilitated the downfall of Italy at the Battle of AdwaShe had her own battalion, which she bravely commanded in the battlefield, fighting in the frontline and motivating men against retreat.  She also mobilized women, both as fighters and nurses of wounded soldiers.   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.  Taytu was also the receiver and analyzer of intelligence information collected by spies, which historians have characterized as of crucial importance to the Ethiopian victory at the battleThis 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 Menelik would meet them in Adigrat, close to where they had a well-protected military base.

Empress Taytu Betul in Le Petit Journal of March 1896
Empress Taytu Betul in Le Petit Journal of March 1896

Independence and cooperation defined Taytu’s relationship with Emperor Menelik II.  Their marriage was that of equals characterized by trust, respect and reciprocity.  After Menelik was incapacitated due to strokes in 1906, she essentially governed the country, angering all the rivals to the throne.  She was ousted from power in 1910.  After Menelik II’s death in 1913, she was banished to the old palace at Entoto.

Taytu Betul 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 for the decolonization of Africa.  Her advice and action resulted in the defeat of the Italian army at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, a mighty European army defeat at the hands of Africans.  Taytu strongly defended national interests by overcoming challenges both from within and from without.  Just as there was no Menelik II without Taytu Betul, there would have been no Ethiopia without Taytu’s great strength, courage, devotion, and determination. Taytu Betul was truly Ethiopia’s sunshine, and should forever be remembered as one of the greatest empresses of Ethiopia and of Africa as a whole.  Please check out Tadias.com which has outstanding information on this great empress.  Enjoy this video about the Battle of Adwa.



18 thoughts on “Taytu Betul: the Great Ethiopian Empress who Said ‘NO’ to Colonization

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  6. Abebe

    Thank you for sharing this, we need historian who introduce the unique and incredible history of Ethiopia to the outside world. Keep it up, please!


  7. Zena yohannes Araya

    This woman”s Legasy should be reviewed by All Ethiopian women and men Africa and the rest of the world and pass to generations to come and tell the undenyeble.


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