Gudit (Ge'ez: ጉዲት) was a non-Christian queen (flourished ca. 960) who laid waste to Axum or Zuma and its countryside, destroyed churches and monuments, and attempted to exterminate the members of the ruling dynasty of the Kingdom of Aksum. Her deeds are recorded in the oral tradition and mentioned incidentally in various historical accounts.
Information about Gudit is contradictory and incomplete. Paul B. Henze wrote, "She is said to have killed the emperor, ascended the throne herself, and reigned for 40 years. Accounts of her violent misdeeds are still related among peasants in the north Ethiopian countryside." 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.
There is a tradition that Gudit sacked and burned Debre Damo, an amba which at the time was a treasury and a prison for the male relatives of the king; this may be an echo of the later capture and sack of Amba Geshen by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi. Gudit is known as ʿEsato in Amharic, which means "fire". Gudit is so related to the destruction of the Axumite Empire, that the name ጉዲት in Amharic is commonly translated as "destruction".
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 Sidama people of southern Ethiopia.
In more recent perspectives on the issue of the ethnicity of Gudit, there has been less certainty on to her actual identity and yet more certainty on the unlikelihood of her being of Judaic belief or associated with the Beta Israel. To quote from Kaplan (1992):
"Despite the Judith legend's popularity and its prominent position in the traditions of both Jews and Christians to this day, there appears to be several good reasons for rejecting the depiction of the tenth century queen of the Bani al-Hamwiyah as a Falasha. Although some Ethiopic sources do portray Yodit as a Jewess, these generally identify her as a convert rather than the product of a well entrenched indigenous religious community. The material recorded by Bruce, which contains the earliest complete account of the legend, must be considered suspect on several grounds. In general, the story he presents appears to have been heavily shaped by events after the tenth century including later battles between the Christian kingdom and Beta Israel and the sixteenth century Muslim conquest of Ethiopia by Ahmad Gragn. More specifically Bruce's claim that Judith intended to extirpate the Solomonic line is highly questionable in light of contemporary evidence that her primary adversary was the haḍani who had already curtailed the Aksumite king's power. Bruce's depiction of Judith as a Jewess also leaves unanswered the question of why her five successors all had "barbarous [i.e., pagan] names" (to use his term), and how they came to pass power on to the militantly Christian kings of Lasta. Thus while Bruce may well, in this case, have only been faithfully transmitting traditions he collected, serious doubts must exist concerning their reliability. The suggestion that the Falasha queen Yodit, putative conqueror of Aksum, is in fact the pagan queen of the Sidama, vanquisher of the haḍani is not as startling as it might appear at first glance. By transforming the queen from a pagan to a Jewess and her primary area of activity from the south of Aksum, Christian tradition neatly places her within the primary categories of Ethiopian political-religious discourse. On some levels, the Judith traditions can be said to mirror the themes of the Kebra Nagast. Both the Queen of Sheba and Judith are depicted as converts to Judaism. However, while the former is credited with a crucial role in the establishment of the Solomonic dynasty, the latter is said to have conquered the city and deposed its legitimate rulers. In both stories, the opposition between evil Jews and good Israelites figures prominently, with the tenth-century Judith being identified by later traditions with the "Falasha" (Jews), medieval enemies of the Solomonic (Israelite) kings. For the Beta Israel the identification of Yodit as one of their own rulers not only places her in the context of their later wars against the Christians and thus gives their struggle a greater antiquity, but also allows them to claim a rare, albeit temporary, victory. Thus, the Judith traditions much like the Kebra Nagast are most valuable to the historian read not at the level of a simple historical narrative, but as a symbolic statement concerning the interconnections and tensions between religion, legitimacy, and political power in Ethiopia."
Rossini's assertion, mentioned by Kaplan, of her possibly being of Sidama ethnic origin has also as of recent been cast aside and more recent works on Damot do not speculate as to the whether or not she was originally from said polity (which was a substantial ways away from the known distribution of the ethnic Sidama). This is also compounded by a lack of definitive evidence that Aksum was involved with any polity as far south as Damot. This same skepticism is held towards evidence supposedly drawn from the assertions of Benjamin of Tuldela's Sefer Ha-massa'ot, which as is noted in Kaplan (1992) to be a work influenced by his "propensity to tailor his descriptions to suit the "truth" of the Bible"; alongside the reality that he never visited this region in the Horn of Africa. The question of her ethnicity in reality remains a thing of debate that is not easily answered.
It was during the office of Pope 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."
This chronological synchronicity with the tenure of Patriarch Philotheos, and the intervention of king Georgios II of Makuria, provides us a date of ca. 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 Haḍani [from Ge'ez haṣ́ani, modern aṣ́e or atse]. 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.
- Gudit. The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1 'From Early Times to the End of the Zagwé Dynasty c. 1270 A.D.,' copyright © 1975
- The Queen of the Habasha in Ethiopian History, Tradition and Chronology. School of Oriental and African Studies.
- Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000) p. 48
- Henze, Layers of Time, p. 48 n.14. His visit among others to various churches in Ethiopia can be read here Archived 2006-06-28 at the Wayback Machine.
- Recorded by Thomas Pakenham, The Mountains of Rasselas (New York: Reynal, 1959), p. 79.
- Ethiopian Jewish Women. Jewish Women's Archive
- Yohannes Gebre Selassie; Iwona Gajda; Berhe Hiluf (2009), "Pre-Aksumite Inscriptions from Mäqabǝr Ga'ǝwa (Tigrai, Ethiopia)", Annales d'Éthiopie, 24: 33–48.
- 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
- Kaplan, Steven (1992). The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. New York University Press. pp. 128–129. ISBN 0-8147-4625-X.
- Bouanga Ayda. Le royaume du Damot : enquête sur une puissance politique et économique de la Corne de l’Afrique (XIIIe siècle). In: Annales d'Ethiopie. Volume 29, année 2014. pp. 27-58.
- Phillipson, David (2012). Foundations of an African Civilization: Aksum & the Northern Horn 1000 BC—300 AD. James Currey. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-84701- 041-4.
- Kaplan, Steven (1992). The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. New York University Press. p. 150. ISBN 0-8147-4625-X.
- 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 ca. 1100; this would 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.
- Knud Tage Andersen, "The Queen of the Habasha in Ethiopian History, Tradition and Chronology", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 63 (2000), pp. 31-63