On September 27, 1916, Zawditu became the Empress of Ethiopia and was given the title the King of Queens. This marked a great significance in the history of the Ethiopian Empire as well as African history as she became the first female head of an internationally recognized state in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Empress Zawditu earned the right to the throne after the death of her father Emperor Menelik II’s only son when he was still a child. However, at the death of her father in 1913, Lij Iyasu, the son of Zawditu’s half-sister Shewa Regga, assumed power.
The new emperor saw Zawditu as a threat and ordered her and her husband to be taken out of Ethiopia. They were exiled until the nobles disregarded Lij Iyasu’s rule and ordered that Zawditu is made Empress.
Empress Zawditu ruled the Empire from 1916 to April 2, 1930, when she was found dead in her home. While others believe that she died out of shock at the death of her husband in battle, others suggest that she died after suffering from typhoid and a long battle with diabetes. Although her rule was short, there were significant milestones that make her a memorable ruler of the Empire.
For one, Empress Zawditu was successful at abolishing slavery in Ethiopia through the help and efforts of Ras Tafari Makonnen (Haile Selassie II). Soon after the abolition of slavery, Empress Zawditu also led Ethiopia into the League of Nations (now United Nations).
Empress Zawditu was a staunch Christian and built several churches in Ethiopia and helped firmly establish the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the empire with the hope that Islam would not be as firmly rooted in Ethiopia as Christianity.
Zawditu’s rule was also symbolic because her regent Ras Tafari Makonnen handled the state’s affairs. Ras Tafari was also named heir apparent as none of Empress Zawditu’s children survived to assume the role. There was an attempt to remove Ras Tafari from his regent post that was not successful, thus Empress Zawditu named Ras Tafari as Negus and he effectively became the ruler of Ethiopia at this point.
Iyasu staged a coup to regain the throne with the help of his father, Negus Mikael of Wollo. Empress Zawditu’s forces defeated Negus Mikael at the Battle of Segale and Iyasu left the region. Iyasu was captured and jailed, with Empress Zawditu begging for mercy on the vanquished would-be leader.
Empress Zawditu strongly admired British Queen Victoria and adopted many of the Queen’s ways and methods. However, Empress Zawditu was also a firm believer in preserving the culture and was against the modernization of her Empire that made them do away with tradition, heritage and culture.
Born on April 29, 1876, to Emperor Menelik II who was then the King of Shewa, Zawditu was married off at the age of 6 to the son of the then Emperor, Emperor Yohanness’ son Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes. The marriage was an attempt to squash all disputes between Zawditu’s father and the empire but the plan did not work.
Empress Zawdiitu married 3 times but had no children of her own. At her death, she was succeeded by Tafari Makonnen who upon becoming Emperor was renamed, Haile Selassie.
To date , she remains the only woman to have ruled as Empress of the Great Ethiopian Empire.