Mural from the church of Abreha and Atsbeha in Eastern Tigray, Ethiopia. Legend has it that the blackened and soot filled ceiling was set afire by the warrior Queen Gudit, who is said to have conquered Axum around the 10th century.
Though a subject of great mystery and differing opinions, most sources agree that there existed an Ethiopian woman who c. 960 led an army that attacked and conquered the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, perhaps seizing the throne for herself. She is accused of laying waste to the Christian churches and monuments in the region, devastating the countryside and hunting down and killing members of the Axumite dynasty.
Who she was, her origins and her motives are incomplete in the historical record. She is even known by several different names in varying texts including Esther, Yodit, Judith and in the Ethiopian Amharic, Esato.
Some contend Gudit was the founder of the Zagwe dynasty, reigned for forty years, and was to have been succeeded by her descendants. However historical accounts place the Zagwe Dynasty around c.1270, after the fall of Axum. This dispute may lay with Gudit's life becoming confused with two female members of the royal family (Princess Mäsobä-Wärq or Princess Terde'a-Gäbäz), key powerbrokers in the transfer of legitimacy between the two dynasties.
Other historians have proposed that she was of the Agaw people of Ethiopia, a number of whom are known as the Beta Israel—and have a long tradition of Judaism. The sources differ here, some claiming that she may have been converted to Judaism by her husband, often rumored to be a Jewish prince. Others have identified Gudit as one in the same with a black Hebrew Queen named Esther and associated her with the "Falasha" (Beta Israel) dynasty that claims to have reigned in Ethiopia roughly around the same period.
In the 1920s Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini proposed that Gudit was ruler of the once-powerful kingdom of Damot, and that she was related to the Sidamo peoples of southern Ethiopia. Rossini claimed her rebellion against an encroaching Axumite kingdom may have been an attempt to resist domination by Christian forces. Rossini's claims were repopularized during the 1970s by Ethiopian historian Taddesse Tamrat.
Despite this confusion, a figure fitting Gudit does appear in contemporary historical writings.
The 10th Century Muslim scholar Mohammed Abul-Kassem ibn Hawqal states at the time:
"The country of the habasha [Abyssinia] has been ruled by a woman for many years now: she has killed the king of the habasha who was called Haḍani. Until today she rules with complete independence in her own country and the frontier areas of the country of the Haḍani, in the southern part of [the country of] the habashi."
In the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, the records speak of a warrior queen who rode at the head of a horse-backed army that was systematically decimating the kingdom. During the Patriarchate of Philotheos (c.979-1003.), an unnamed Axumite king is said to send out an appeal, describing how a woman, one queen of the Bani al-Hamuya, was laying waste to the country and harrying the Emperor and his followers from place to place in an effort to wipe out Christianity completely. Her attack came so swift, and was carried out with such military precision and efficiency, the Axumite forces—who had once been powerful enough to conquer Yemen and hold the Muslim world at bay— were scattered in her wake. The letter of the Axumite king pleaded to the Christian Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt to send whatever forces were possible from the Christian world to aid against this onslaught.
No help would arrive. In the historical accounts and folklore, Gudit conquered Axum and reigned unchallenged. Whatever her origins or motives, she remains a controversial figure in the history of Ethiopia, as a warrior, military strategist and shrewd ruler, who for some time struck fear into the region's most powerful kingdom. In Amharic she is remembered only as Isat which fittingly translates as "fire."
Selassie, Sergew Hable, "The Problem of Gudit", Journal of Ethiopian Studies Vol. 10 No. 1, (Jan 1972): 113-24.
Taddesse Tamrat, "A Short Note on the Traditions of Pagan Resistance to the Ethiopian Church (14th and 15th centuries)," Vol. 10 No. 1 Journal of Ethiopian Studies (Jan 1972): 137-150.