Gudit (or Judith; also known as Esato) is a semi-legendary non-Christian queen (flourished c.960) who laid waste to Axum and its countryside, destroyed churches and monuments, and attempted to exterminate the members of the ruling Axumite dynasty. Her deeds are recorded in both the oral tradition and incidentally in various historical accounts.
The accounts of Gudit are contradictory and incomplete. Paul B. Henze wrote, “She is said to have killed the emperor, ascended the throne herself, and reigned for forty years. Accounts of her violent misdeeds are still related among peasants in the north Ethiopian countryside.”1 Henze continues in a footnote,
- On my first visit to the rock church of Abreha and Atsbeha in eastern Tigray in 1970, I noticed that its intricately carved ceiling was blackened by soot. The priest explained it as the work of Gudit, who had piled the church full of hay and set it ablaze nine centuries before.2
There is a tradition that Gudit sacked and burned Debre Damo, which at the time was a treasury and a prison for the male relatives of the king of Ethiopia at the time; this may be an echo of the later capture and sack of Amba Geshen by Ahmed Gragn.3
The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini first proposed that the account of this warrior queen in the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, where she was described as Bani al-Hamwiyah ought to be read as Bani al-Damutah, and argued that she was ruler of the once-powerful kingdom of Damot, and that she was related to one of the indigenous Sidamo peoples of southern Ethiopia.4 This would fit with the numerous references to matriarchs ruling the Sidamo polities.5
If Gudit did not belong to one of the Sidamo peoples, then some scholars, based on the traditions that Gudit was Jewish, propose that she was of the Agaw people, who historically have been numerous in Lasta, and a number of whom (known as the Beta Israel, have professed the Jewish religion since ancient times. If she was not of a Jewish origin, she might have been a convert to Judaism by her husband, or pagan. 6
It was during the office of Patriarch Philotheos of Alexandria when Gudit started her revolt, near the end of the reign of the king who had deposed the Abuna Petros. As Taddesse Tamrat explains, at the time “his own death in the conflict, and the military reverses of the kingdom were taken as divine retribution for the sufferings of Abuna Petros.”7
This chronological synchronicity with the tenure of Patriarch Philotheos, and the intervention of king Georgios II of Makuria, provides us a date of c.960 for Gudit. A contemporary Arab historian, Ibn Hawqal, provides this account:
- The country of the habasha has been ruled by a woman for many years now: she has killed the king of the habasha who was called Hadani. Until today she rules with complete independence in her own coutnry and the frontier areas of the country of the Hadani, in the southern part of [the country of] the habashi.8
Taddesse Tamrat has speculated that one effect of Gudit’s otherwise ephemeral rule, might be the pockets of various languages related to Amharic scattered across southwestern Ethiopia (e.g. Argobba, Gurage and Gafat), which could have been Axumite military settlements isolated by her conquests and later Sidamo migrations.10
- Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000) p. 48
- Henze, Layers of Time, p. 48 n.14
- Recorded by Thomas Pakenham, The Mountains of Rasselas (New York: Reynal, 1959), p. 79.
- Conti Rossini’s argument is taken from Taddesse Tamrat’s summary in Church and State in Ethiopia (1270 – 1526) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 39
- O.G.S. Crawford, Ethiopian Itineraries, circa 1400-1524 (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1958), p. 167.
- Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People second edition, (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 60ff.
- Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, pp. 40f. Although Taddesse Tamrat states that the name of this king is not known, E.A. Wallis Budge in his account of the tenure of Abuna Petros (A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, 1928 [Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970], p.276) calls him Degna Djan, who reigned perhaps as late as c.1100; this would obviously conflict with Conti Rossi’s chronology.
- Quoted in Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State p. 39. Habasha is the Arabic form of Abyssinia, i.e. Ethiopia.
- Stuart C. Munro-Hay, Aksum, an African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991) p. 101.
- Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, p. 41.