Figures in Black History
Though a subject of great mystery and differing opinions, most sources agree on one certainty. There existed an Ethiopian woman who in the 10th century AD led an army that attacked the Ethiopian state of Axum and is accused of laying waste to the Christian churches and monuments in the region, devastating the countryside, hunting down and killing numerous members of the 2,000 year old Solomonid dynasty, massacring perhaps hundreds or thousands of Christians and seizing the throne for herself.
Who she was, her origins and her motives have been lost in the annals of time. She is even known by several different names in varying texts including Esther, Yodit, Judith and Esato. European, Arabic and African scholars still debate her mysterious life, origins and motives to this day.
Some believe she was a member of the Zagwe dynasty. It is unknown whether the Zagwe dynasty was a descendant of the Solomonic dynasty or whether Gudit herself founded it.
Arabic documents state a queen was ruler of the once powerful kingdom of Damot. They claim her rebellion against the Axumite kingdom came as an attempt by Southern Ethiopia to resist domination by Semitic and Christian forces.
Historian J.A. Rogers in the early 1900s identified Gudit as one in the same with a black Hebrew Queen named Esther and associated her with the "Falasha" Jewish dynasty that reigned from 950 to 1260AD. Many Falashas today proudly claim her as one of their own.
Yet it is truly unknown if Gudit was of the Jewish faith. And many in fact believe she probably adhered to traditional African-Ethiopian based religion, hence her seemingly strong resentment towards a then encroaching Christian Axum.
Whatever her origins or real name, Gudit's conquering of Axum put an end to that nation-state's reign of power. Her attack came so swift and efficiently, that the Axumite forces were scattered in her army's wake. The Axumite king at the time sent letter to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt: pleading for him to send whatever forces were possible from the Christian world to aid against an unknown warrior queen who rode at the head of a horse-backed army that was systematically decimating his kingdom.
No help ever arrived. Gudit reigned for at least 40 years, unchallenged. The 2,000 year- old Solomonid dynasty was kept from the throne for another 300 years thereafter by the Zagwes dynasty of which Gudit was a part or perhaps even founded.
Although condemned by the returning Solominids as inept and brutal, it is actually thought that Gudit and the Zagwes were quite as capable at ruling as they were conquering.
And it is believed they were responsible for several architectural and other achievements during their 300+ year reign.
Whatever her origins or motives, Queen Gudit remains a controversial figure in the history of Ethiopia where the official chronicles yet attempt to overlook her existence as an aberration. But her amazing life has secured her place in history as a warrior, military strategist and powerful ruler. In Amharic she is remembered only as "Isat" which fittingly translates as "fire".
For more information see the following:
Budge, E.A. Walls, A History of Ethiopia, Vol. 1 (1928) pp. 213-15.
Finch, Charles S. and Larry Williams, "The Great Queens of Ethiopia" in Black Women in Antiquity, ed. by Ivan Van Sertima (1990) p. 33.
Ragsdale, Phyllis W., ed., A Salute to Historica African Kings and Queens (1993), p. 17.
Selassie, Sergew Hable, "The Problem of Gudit", Journal of Ethiopian Studies (Vol. 10 No. 1, January 1972) pp. 113-24.
OneWorld Magazine- Ethiopian Women of Power http://www.oneworldmagazine.org/focus/etiopia/women.html