Q.7. I have always been interested in finding out more about Etege Taitu Bitul, Negist Zewditu and Etege Menen. I wonder if you could discuss who these women were and what , if any thing, these three women contributed in Ethiopian history? Another thing that has always intrigued me is the battle of Segele, what was this battle about, who was involved, where did it happen and when?


Etege Tayitu's (1856-1918) father was Dejazmach Betul Haylu Maryam of Semen, and her mother was Wayzero Hirut Gugsa of Y!jju aristocratic family. She had married a few times before Menelik took her for his wife in 1883. She was crowned Empress in 1889 together with Menelik. She had a considerable influence in the political scene even during her husband's reign. When Menelik was incapacitated, she became de facto power and made appointment and dismissal of high government posts. She was removed from power in 1913 by the Shewan aristocratic plot, and retired to Entot Mariyam church which she founded, and died in 1918. Tayitu was the founder of Addis Ababa, and had uncompromising stand against Italian colonialism. There is an interesting book on Tayitu written by Rosenfeld, Chris Prouty 1986. Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883-1910.

Zewditu was one of the two daughters of Menelik by a previous marriage. She was born of Wayzaro Abechu of Wallo around 1876. At the age of six, she was given in marriage to Ras Araya Selassie, the son of Emperor Yohannes. After his untimely death in 1888, she returned Shewa and married Wag Sum Guangul Zagaya, Dejazmach Webe Atnaf Seged and Ras Gugsa Wale respectively. The Shewa aristocrats forced her to separate from the last one, Ras Gugsa Wale, nephew of Empress Tayitu, in 1916. She was crowned as Empress in February 1917, four months after the battle of Segele. The Empress was not politically active, and drew her support from the "conservative" aristocratic circle, who stood against the regent, Ras Teferi. The Empress died in 1930. Just two weeks ago our library here has received a book (edited chronicle) on the reigns of Lij Iyasu and Empress Zewditu. Please read, Aleqa Gebre-Igziabiher Elyas, Prowess, Piety and Politics. The Chronicle of Abeto Iyasu and Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia 1909.1930. Koln 1994.

I am sorry that I know little about Empress Menen, who was the grand daughter of King Mikael of Wollo, whom we shall see later. I wish living relatives take the responsibility to write a biography of Empress Menen, if we do not have one yet. Shall we be lucky enough to read this biography?

The question what the three empress contributed in Ethiopian history lead us to the broader issue regarding Ethiopian Women in History. This is the most neglected research part of social history and as far as I know, it is a fresh field to study. At this stage what I can share is the impression I have on the role of Ethiopian women in military leadership. We can take Empress Tayitu who was known as good strategist. On the way marching to Adwa, the Ethiopian force was liberating Italian military post stationed in southern Tigray. In Mekele, the Italians had strong fortification, and engaged in artillery fighting. Seeing this Empress Tayitu order one of her commander to study the Italians water supply situation (by the way the Empress had her own army, both artillery and riflemen, paid and clothed by the empress herself). The commandant reported to her that there was 75 meter distance between the water reservoir and the Italian fortification. The Empress wanted to occupy the water supply and cut off the Italians. She consulted her plan and asked Menelik for a permission since he was the overall commander of the army. Menelik agreed and the Empress sent her 600 soldiers at night and seized the supply. The war and the siege lasted fifteen days, and in all the times the empress was preparing and sending fresh food to her army at night. Because of lack of water, the Italian army was forced to surrender (See Gebre SElassie, Tarik ze-Dagmawi Menelik, pp. 246-249). Once again, at Adwa, the Empress went right into the battle when the Italian force seemed to break the middle Ethiopian force (Gedam) where Emperors normally took position. Seeing the Empress rushing on foot, soldiers, including those wounded, dashed into the middle to revert the danger. Once it was over, the Empress spent the rest of the days in treating wounded soldiers.

This role of Tayitu represented the tradition of female warriors leading troops on campaign. (For a documentation study on this aspect, see Crummey, Donald, "Women, Property, and Litigation among the Begemder Amhara, 1750s to 1850s" in African Women and the Law: Historical Perspectives. Hay and Wright (eds.). 1982). Military leadership was one the sphere of activity in which Ethiopian Women achieved equality in an environment dominated by men.

Now to the battle of Segele. It is the bloodiest battle since Adwa, fought between the central army, about the size of 120 000 and the troops of Negus Mikael, numbering about 80 000 in 27 October 1916, at a place called Segele north-east of Addis Ababa. On hearing the disposition of his son, Lij Iyasu, King Mikael of Wollo and Tigre, marched to Addis Ababa with his army. In the first encounter, 17 October 1916, the Wollo army was victories, but when the central government send conciliatory messages and mediators to buy time, the Wallo troop stopped advancing into Addis Ababa, and King Mikael became relaxed. However, the Wollo army without knowing what was to come, was caught off by surprise, encircled and disbursed at Segele, and King Mikael was captured.

The political back ground to this battle is so complicated to be discussed here. In short it was orchestrated by both external and internal forces. Externally, the Allies (Britain, France, Italy and others) which were at war against Germany and Turkey (W.W.I), did not like the policy of Lij Iyasu who was favouring Germany and Turkey. Lij Iyasu favoured Germany and her allies to get support in dismantling Britain, France and Italy which had colony adjoining Ethiopia. His accommodation with the Muslims of Harar and Ogaden, thus to win Turkish support, and probably, obtain access to the see, was seen as a threat by the Allied power. Their opposition was welcomed by the Shewan disgruntled nobles who were disappointed by Iyasu's appointment policy, and intrigued to dispose him on religious pretext. (For a brief account see, Bahru Zewde 1991. A History of Modern Ethiopia. pp. 120-128).

Now I am going for lunch...

For next time I have chosen for you a profile on one of Menelik's general. In the mean time please send me points for discussion.

With Regards,

Tsegaye T.