Photograph of the Empress Zewditu. Image Credit: http://rastafaritime.blogspot.com/

By Gabby Storey

Zewditu was born to Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and Abechi, a noblewoman of Wollo. Zewditu was raised by her father and his future consort Baffana, and married to Araya Selassie Yohannes, the son and heir of the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV, plausibly before 1886. Due to her young age and Yohannes’ early death in 1888, no children were produced from this union. Zewditu had two further marriages before marrying Gugsa Welle, the nephew of her stepmother, Empress Taytu.

Upon the death of Yohannes IV in 1889, the throne passed to Zewditu’s father, Menelik. When Menelik died in 1913, his grandson through Zewditu’s half-sister Shewa Regga, Iyasu, took the throne, though he was never crowned or publicly proclaimed as king. In September 1916, owing to the political instability of Iyasu’s reign, Zewditu was invited to take the throne and titled Queen of Kings, or Negiste Negest.

Zewditu was initially restricted in exercising power, with her cousin Tafari Makonnen appointed as regent and heir apparent, as Zewditu had no surviving children. The early years of her reign were marked by warfare against Iyasu, who was eventually captured and arrested. The remainder of her reign is marked by her commitment to the Church and conservatism, as her heir, Tafari, moved towards a broader global outlook.

In 1928, a conservative uprising took place against Tafari’s reforms, but failed to instigate change. Zewditu was forced to grant the title of king to Tafari, and though he remained under Zewditu’s rule he was effectively ruler of Ethiopia. In 1930 Zewditu’s husband rebelled against Tafari to restore his wife’s power, but he was defeated and killed. Zewditu died two days later, on 2 April 1930. She was succeeded wholly by Tafari.

Recommended Reading

Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia Second Edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2001)

Belete Bizuneh, “Women in Ethiopian History: A Bibliographic Review,” Northeast African Studies. Women in the Horn of Africa: Oral Histories, Migrations, and Military and Civil Conflict 8.3 (2001): 7-32

Gebre-Igziabiher Elyas, Prowess, Piety and Politics: the Chronicle of Abeto Iyasu and Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia (1909-1930) ed. and trans. Reidulf K. Molvaer (Koln: Koppe, 1994).  

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