Zewditu I – Empress of Ethiopia

Empress Zewditu (source)

Empress Zewditu (source)

Zewditu I, Empress of Ethiopia, was the first internationally recognized female head of state in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. She reigned from 1916 to 1930 and was the first Ethiopian Empress regnant since Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, as well as the last Empress regnant.

Born on April 29, 1876, Zewditu was given the name Askala Maryam at her baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. Her parents were Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and his consort Weyziro (Lady) Abechi, although, she was raised primarily by her father and his consort Baffana, because of her mother’s death when she was young. She had an excellent relationship with her father and also with the woman her father married, and who became Empress, Taytu Betul. Menelik had three acknowledged children, Zewditu, her older sister Shewa Regga, and a son who died in infancy.

Beginning in 1886 at the age of ten, Zewditu had three political marriages which were short lived, beginning with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, heir of Emperor Yohannes IV. This was an attempt to cement an alliance between the two rulers which didn’t last, but Araya Selassie died two years later without any children by Zewditu and she returned to her father’s home. In spite of the conflict, Yohannes had high regard for Zewditu and sent her home with a valuable gift of cattle.

The next two marriages ended in death and divorce. In 1900, Taytu arranged a marriage between her nephew, Gugsa Wale, and Zewditu. Gugsa Welle was a poet and book lover, and the marriage appears to have been happy. Zewditu had no surviving children, although she had a daughter by her second marriage who died in 1895 at age four.

Menelik II (source)

Menelik II (source)

In 1899, Yohannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma and Menelik took the Emperor’s throne as Menelik II, making Zewditu a possible fourth in the line of succession. The first two candidates were deemed unsuitable by Menelik, the third was Lij Iyasu, the son of Menelik’s oldest daughter, followed by Zewditu. After having a stroke in 1908, Menelik named Lij Iyasu as his heir, but because he was only 13 he also appointed Tessema Nadew as regent. However, Empress Taytu undermined his choice, hoping to substitute Zewditu or her husband Ras Gugsa Welle, Taytu’s nephew, as successor.

After a series of strokes, Menelik became paralyzed and Iyasu was acknowledged as heir, but he wasn’t considered the best choice for Emperor. He was impulsive, egocentric and prone to be cruel. After Tessema Nadew died in 1911, Iyasu refused another regent. During the next few years, there were several coup attempts as well as an attempt to poison Iyasu. Finally, in December of 1913 Menelik died, but when informed of the death, Iyasu continued playing a mock battle game. He also refused to allow any form of public mourning for the Emperor.

Empress Taytu and Zewditu were both immediately expelled from the palace, but it was a month before word of the death made its way to the aristocracy. Iyasu was uninterested in the day-to-day running of the government, which continued under his grandfather’s cabinet of ministers and Fitawrarri Hapte Giorgis Denagde, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and minister of war. Many of his activities were deemed dangerous to the future of the country, especially during WWI, and his frequent trips away from the capital gave the ministers time to plot his downfall. On September 27, 1916, Iyasu was deposed in favor of Zewditu and she was proclaimed Empress by the nobility and the church.

Although Zewditu was proclaimed “Empress, Queen of Kings, Elect of God, and Lion of Judah,” she initially wasn’t allowed to exercise power alone. Her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed heir to the throne and regent. Also, distrustful of the Empress Dowager Taytu and her relatives, the aristocracy forced Zewditu to separate from her husband. Gugsa was sent to the north and eventually given the governorship of Beghemidir, although he was denied the title of king.

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Iyasu escaped arrest and went into hiding. His father King Michael of Wollo raised an army and declared war, but was defeated quickly and made to pay homage to Zewditu. Iyasu was found a few months later, and imprisoned at Sellae. Zewditu made sure that both Iyasu and his father were treated with dignity and kept in luxury, although Iyasu always referred to her as his “poor naive aunt” for her kindness.

Zewditu’s reign was a constant struggle between the reforming impulses of Ras Tafari and the more conservative wishes of Zewditu, Fitawrarri,the cabinet and the Orthodox Church. In the face of the colonizing of the African continent, Ras Tafari believed that modernization was the key to remaining independent. The conservatives disagreed and took a more isolationist stance. In many ways Zewditu was caught between the two. She was racked with guilt from taking the throne. Devoted to her father, she saw Iyasu’s reign as his stated wish and felt she had gone against that.

As time went on, the conservatives, who had put Ras Tafari in the position as regent, pressed him to consult Zewditu before instituting reforms. They also put pressure on her to resist him. Eventually, Ras Tafari had had enough, and with the support of the Mahil Safari military division, forced her to disband the cabinet of ministers and allow him to put his supporters in their places. He then was able to put reforms into place such as the abolition of slavery and entry into the League of Nations.

These reforms were of little interest to Zewditu who was a pious woman. She retreated into a life of prayer and penance. She was responsible for building several churches, hosted a visit by the Patriarch of Alexandria, and visited the Empress Dowager Taytu often. By 1928, there was little power left to the conservatives and a small uprising was unsuccessful. Zewditu was compelled to grant Tafari the title of Negus, and he was in effect the ruler of Ethiopia.

One final attempt was made when Ras Gugsa Welle raised an army against Negus Tafari and marched for Addis Ababa. Zewditu frantically tried to get him to back down, but he refused. Negus Tafari sent an army north and they met on the Anchiem plain on March 31, 1930. Tafari, now having access to modern military methods, flew planes over Ras Gugsa’s army, first to drop leaflets declaring Gugsa a rebel and promising excommunication from the church for those who participated, and second to drop a bomb. By the end of the day, Ras Gugsa’s army was defeated and he was dead.

Two days later, on April 2, Empress Zewditu also died. She suffered from diabetes and at the time was ill with typhoid, however, speculation about the cause of her death continues today. She was fasting for Lent which may have weakened her, then she was submerged in cold holy water to reduce her fever. Some say she died of shock from this treatment, others say that she died of grief when she was informed of the death of her husband. Still others say that she was poisoned as soon as victory was assured. However, there is no firm evidence to back up these theories and later her Swiss doctor gave her cause of death as diabetes.

Regardless of how she died, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Zewditu, was greatly mourned and remembered for her piety, generosity, and devotion to her father’s memory. She was also the only monarch in over a century to be given a state funeral after which she was laid to rest in the Masoleum Church of St. Mary Ba-eta with her father and Empress Taytu.

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)


Empress Zewditu – Queen of Kings
Zewditu, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jezebel and Asherah: Controlling a Culture by Slut Shaming the Queen

Today I am pleased to welcome Kyra Kramer, author of “The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters.”

Jezebel, the Painted Queen, is one of the most notorious women to have ever lived. Her name has come to literally mean a woman who uses sex to corrupt men and tempt them into sin. She is the ultimate trollop and has been slut shamed longer and more fiercely than any other woman in history. But why? Did she really lead her husband, King Ahab, astray from the paths of righteousness? Did she really use her womanly wiles as a weapon to destroy God’s chosen prophets? History and archeology suggest not. It seems as if Jezebel’s real “crime” was to embrace the Hebrew religion a little too well. Could she have been maligned not for turning Ahab away from Yahweh, but for keeping him loyal to Yahweh’s feminine side?

ezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Most people don’t know it but Yahweh (AKA Jehovah or God or Allah) had a goddess consort named Asherah for thousands of years. In fact, Asherah may have been more than a consort. Just as a coin has two sides but is a single object, or like the Holy Trinity represents a single deity, Asherah may have been God’s female ‘face’ — the female hypostasis of God. This means that to venerate Asherah was not necessarily a distinct form of worship, but rather would have been an official part of the Hebrew religion itself.

Asherah disappeared from official Judeo-Christian dogma roughly three thousand years ago, but archeological evidence shows her presence throughout Israel and the ancient Near East for millennia before that. In several instances her name is directly linked with Yahweh. An archeological site in eastern Sinai, called Ajrud, found inscriptions on ancient Israelite stelae that decree, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah/asherah”, “by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”, and “I bless you by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”.

Evidence of Asherah also lingers in the written historical record of Judaism, if you know how to spot it. Asherah was associated with trees and groves, and was often symbolized by a wooden pole or tree. She was so strongly connected to trees and tree images (especially oak, palm, tamarisks, almond, terebinthes, and poplar) that Biblical mentions of planting trees near altars, shrines, or holy places are forgotten references to her. Furthermore, the multiple mention of burials of holy men and women taking place near (or under) sacred trees are also contextual remnants of her worship.

Several passages in the Bible suggest miracles Asherah wrought via her sacred trees. For example, when Jacob’s father-in-law tried to trick him after promising him every spotted member of his flock:

“Jacob … took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted” (Genesis, 30:37-39). Why would Jacob use poles made from poplar and almond trees to facilitate this miracle if it were not to call on Asherah, the feminine half of the God of Abraham, for aid? Additionally, when Joshua reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews, he recorded it “in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. 27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God” (Joshua, 24:26-27).

An oak tree in the sacred place of Yahweh was almost certainly a symbol of God’s feminine aspect, Asherah.

Acceptance for Asherah worship was also implied by what wasn’t said in sacred text. When Jehu overthrew Ahab’s son and became the unlawful king of Israel, his excuse was that God commanded him to purify Yahwehism. Nevertheless, Jehu didn’t tear down or desecrate a religious structure built by Ahab to honor Asherah, which suggests Asherah WAS a part of orthodox Yahwism. In 1 Kings Chapter 18, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were slaughtered in Kishon Valley because they worshiped a false god, but there is no mention of an execution for the four hundred prophets of Asherah that had accompanied Baal’s priests. Why would the prophets of Asherah be spared if they were not legitimate practitioners of Yahwism? Finally, devotion to Asherah was not explicitly condemned in the earliest books of the Hebrews and seldom even in the later works. If her worship was so closely connected to that of Baal, why was her veneration treated with kid gloves? The lack of prophetic criticism for the worship of Asherah is a strong indication that devotion to her was once a normal part of Yahwistic piety.

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah’s legitimate status among Hebrew practitioners opens up the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jezebel acted as a priestess of Asherah as part of her responsibilities as queen of Israel. As an official part of Yahwism, the goddess Asherah would have doubtlessly had state celebrations and rituals in her honor that would have been overseen or implemented by the highest ranking woman in the nation, which was obviously the wife of the king. Jezebel is mostly connected to Baal in popular culture, but it is practically a given that she was a follower of Asherah. Not only did four hundred prophets of Asherah “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), her father was recorded historically as being a priest of Astarte [Asherah] or a priest of the Goddess. That means that Jezebel would have been, at least in practice, a pluralistic Yahwist who venerated Asherah along with her Hebrew husband.

Of course, we know in hindsight that the fundamentalist arm of the Jewish religion was victorious in the end. The Hebrew conservatives, known as the deuteronomists, eventually eradicated almost all evidence – even the memory – of Asherah as a part of the Yahwistic godhead or consort to God. One of the ways this happened was with creative editing of the early Hebrew texts. The veneration of Asherah was repackaged as having always been counter to the will of Yahweh and having never been an acceptable part of Yahwism. Although the idea of an exclusively masculine God only became significant during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, the deuteronomists rewrote the earlier records and cleared out as many direct references to Asherah as they could. Over time, the people forgot that there had ever BEEN any other form of Judaism. The idea that God has both a male and a female aspect was not just removed from the orthodox belief system; the very concept of it was lost to believers because it never existed in the first place.

This was not an overnight process. It took hundreds of years to remove Asherah from the state cult and codified texts, and even then she remained in Jewish rituals long after she had ceased to be formally acknowledged as a part of Yahwism. Nor has Asherah disappeared entirely even in modern times. The menorah — the seven-branched candlestick used during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – appears to be modeled after the seven-branched stylized “Tree of Life” that represented Asherah and thus serves as an unrecognized and unspoken testament to Yahweh’s female aspect.

There are several biblical records of direct conflicts between those who still wanted to co-worship Asherah and those who wanted Yahweh to stand alone. The prophet Jeremiah told Jews living in Egypt that if they did not stop their reverence for Asherah then God would punish them. Defying the prophet, the people resisted this command:

15 Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, 16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” 19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Jeremiah 44:15-19

Likewise, the prophet Hosea was in despair because the Israelites “consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant. Therefore your daughters turn to prostitution and your daughters-in-law to adultery” (Hosea 4:12-13). The prostitution and adultery Hosea speaks of is the continued worship of Asherah in her sacred groves, which was described by deuteronomists as “harlotry” because it was “cheating” on Yahweh — failing to maintain Yahwistic purity — in their opinion.

Clearly, the conservatives faced an uphill battle in eradicating Asherah from Judaism, even centuries after the death of Ahab and the establishment of deuteronomistic authority. The situation must have seemed especially dire for fundamentalists during Ahab’s reign. The deuteronomists of Jezebel’s time couldn’t have known that their version of the Lord would become the orthodox version of the Hebrew religion. For the contemporary conservatives, Jezebel’s worship of Asherah (which would have been seen as a righteous act by the majority of the Israeli populace) was terrifically problematic. As the queen of Israel, Jezebel’s influence would have been seen as a formidable obstacle for the fundamentalist cause to overcome because she promoted and participated in the populist worship of Asherah. With the queen bolstering the goddess, it would be even more difficult for Jewish extremists to convince the Hebrew people that Yahweh had no consort.

From a deuteronomistic perspective, Jezebel had to die and her death had to be seen as a punishment from God to undermine those who considered Asherah to be a part of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the queen’s murder was portrayed.

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

According to Biblical text, Jezebel died after being thrown out of a window at the behest of the God-sent usurper Jehu. In Canaanite royal society, the “lady-in-the-window” motif was a common way to represent many goddesses throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Asherah. For Yahwistic fundamentalists the act of looking out of the window would have been symbolically linked with the “harlotry” of goddess worship. If Jezebel, looking out of the window, was the representation of Asherah, then having the queen thrown down from the window served a twofold purpose. It wasn’t just the queen who died. Jezebel’s fall symbolically represented the destruction of Asherah worship in Yahwism.

Okay, but why did Jezebel get slut shamed? Asherah worship did not indicate unfaithfulness to Ahab, her husband. Nor are there Biblical texts indicating Jezebel had sex with anyone else. If she committed no sexual infidelities or transgressions, how did she become remembered as a strumpet? Well, it comes back to the fact that devotion to Asherah was seen as the worst kind of “harlotry” by the conservatives. Jezebel’s harlotry was particularly bad because it served as an example and support for others who wanted the continuation of Asherah in official Yawheism. Over time, Jezebel’s polyamorous spirituality became confused and conflated with the physical act of intercourse. Thus, Jezebel the harlot who worshiped Asherah became Jezebel the slut.

By recasting Jezebel from a devout queen to an evil slut, those Hebrews who supported Asherah worship – especially the women – could be implicated for immorality because they followed in Jezebel’s footsteps. Women would have their honor and reputation denigrated if they were found to venerate Asherah, making women less likely to risk private rituals or pass that knowledge on to their children. Public rituals would become a source of shame, something ‘good girls’ didn’t do. Worshiping Asherah had come to mean that a woman was like Jezebel, and no one wanted to be an evil slut in the eyes of her people. The flame of Asherah was rapidly snuffed out after her followers were branded de facto sluts.

Jezebel was slut shamed in order to control an entire culture and eradicate the last traces of Asherah.


Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

The Jezebel Effect book coverHave you heard that Catherine the Great died having sex with her horse? Or perhaps you prefer the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers and slept with her brother? Or that Kathryn Howard slept with so many members of the Tudor court that they couldn’t keep track of them all? As juicy and titillating as the tales might be, they are all, patently untrue.

Modern PR firms may claim that no publicity is bad publicity, but that, too, is untrue. The fact that Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft, and that Jezebel is remembered as a painted trollop rather than a faithful wife and religiously devout queen, isn’t a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it’s a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability. This is The Jezebel Effect.


Ackerman, Susan. (1993) “The Queen Mother and the cult in ancient Israel” Journal of Biblical Literature p. 385-401.
Cohen, Daniel. (2010) “Asherah: Hidden Goddess of the Bible” in Goddesses in World Culture
Dever, William G. (2012) The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
Kein, Jenny. (2000) Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism
Hadley, Judith M. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess
McKinlay, Judith E. (2004) Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus
Moascati, Sabitino. (2001) The Phoenicians
Seeman, Don. (2004) “The Watcher at the Window: Cultural Poetics of a Biblical Motif” In Prooftexts 24:1
Silver, Morris. (1995) Economic Structures of Antiquity
Yee, Gale A. (2003) Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible

Biblical quotes are from The New International Version (NIV).

Rani Lakshmibai – Warrior Queen

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (source)

Lakshmibai was the queen of the state of Jhansi in northern India at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as India’s First War for Independence. She was a leading figure in the rebellion and a symbol for her people of resistance to British rule in India. She was young and is remembered as fearless in battle. And, she made the list of Time’s Top 10 Bad-Ass Women in 2011.

Childhood and Marriage

Born into a Brahmin family, her given name was Manikarnika and she was nicknamed Manu. Her mother died when she was four, but she was well taken care of by her father and officials at the court of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bithur where he worked. Educated at home and given more freedom than many girls her age, she trained in archery, horseback riding, and martial arts.

Manu’s birth year is given as various dates from 1827 to 1835, but sources agree that she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao in 1842. She was given the name Lakshmibai and as the Rani of Jhansi was called Rani Lakshmibai.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding. (source)

In 1851, she gave birth to a son named Damodar Rao. Unfortunately, he only lived to be four months old. After their son’s death, the Raja and Rani adopted a boy named Anand Rao, the son of Gangadhar Rao’s cousin. The adoption of Lakshmibai’s son took place in the presence of a British official. At the time he was given a letter from the Raja requesting that after his death the boy be treated with kindness as the heir, and Lakshmibai be appointed regent. The day before the Raja died in November 1853, Anand Rao was renamed Damodar Rao.

Annexation of Jhansi

Gangadhar’s grandfather had signed a treaty in 1817 with the British assuring his successors title to Jhansi and they had been pro-British since that time. But, in spite of the official precautions that the Raja took, and the long standing right of an Indian sovereign to choose his own successor, the British East India Company refused to abide by the agreement. Because Damodar Rao was adopted, they chose to apply the Doctrine of Lapse.

The Doctrine of Lapse stated that any territory under the power of the British East India Company would be automatically annexed if the ruler died without a direct heir. The policy had been used previously, but under the Governor General Lord Dalhousie between 1848 and 1856 the company took over eight different states. This contributed to a growing sense of discontent all over India.

Lakshmibai wrote at least three letters protesting the annexation and consulted British counsel John Lang, but was unsuccessful in getting it reversed. After her third appeal, April 22, 1854, an appeal was made to the Court of Directors in London. This also failed and she was given a monthly pension, the state jewels, and moved to the palace Rani Mahal.

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey, source)

Even though the government  changed hands, Lakshmibai was still recognized by the people as Rani and was probably one of the wealthiest people in Jhansi. She still had responsibilities to her son and the people and was respected, although she may have annoyed the British officials with her petitions. She also continued her practice of daily exercise including horseback riding and shooting.

The Rebellion of 1857

In May of 1857, word reached Jhansi of mutiny among sepoys in the army at Meerut. Lakshmibai asked for permission to raise a small force as bodyguard for her own protection. British officials agreed, but failed to take the same precaution themselves. On June 5th, sepoys in the Jhansi garrison rebelled, looted, released prisoners from the local jail and took possession of one of the forts in the town.

At least two British officers were killed and the rest took refuge in the other fort with their families. Two days later, the fort was besieged and they surrendered. Although promised safe passage by the mutineers, once the British were out of town one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths. They then turned their attention to Lakshmibai and demanded money.

There was little Lakshmibai could do at the time, she complied with the demands of the rebels for money under threat of violence and as soon as they left the area on June 11th she reported the situation to British authorities.  At this point, there was no government, so she took steps to stabilize the situation and three days later sent another letter to a Major Erskine who encouraged her to take charge until another official could be sent.

Over the next six months, Lakshmibai worked to protect the town and keep the situation stable. She had to defend against a rival for the throne as well as attacks from neighboring towns taking advantage of the absence of troops, and in one case claiming to act on behalf of the British. Throughout this time, she made repeated requests for help from the British and got no response. She also found it necessary to deal with the rebels in order to obtain the weapons she needed to build up her fighting force.

The Jhansi fort in 1857

The Jhansi fort in 1857 (source)

After spending most of her money and doing all she could, Lakshmibai wrote one last time to the British authorities. She closed her letter dated January 1, 1858, with this statement: “I beg you will give me your support in the best way you can, and thus save myself and the people who are reduced to the last extremity and are not able to cope with the enemy.”

The Final Showdown

There are conflicting reports of when Lakshmibai decided to oppose the British. To protect herself and Jhansi, she had been forced to cooperate with those opposed to the British; they had taken her throne from her, and the people were opposed to many things about British rule. They also received reports from villages and towns where the British had regained control. Some commanders were lenient, but others executed anyone they suspected of being a rebel, looted the towns and left the wounded to die.

The British force which marched toward Jhansi on January 5, 1858 was led by Sir Hugh Rose. He was apparently of the opinion that no leniency should be offered. One of his subordinates wrote to his parents, “Sir Hugh knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says. His first question is ‘Was this man taken with arms in his hands?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, ‘Then shoot him’ says Sir Hugh.” Hearing reports from other towns, Lakshmibai had no other choice but to expect the worst. So she prepared.

The siege began on March 21, 1858. She was given a chance to surrender, but the Rani knew that many of her supporters would be executed, so with the support of the people she refused. The British were outnumbered, but had a distinct advantage in weapons and training. The fort was surrounded and bombarded until finally a breach was made in the wall on March 30th.

At the same time, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived, forcing Rose to delay entering the fort. Even though Rose was forced to split his forces, he was able to keep continued bombardment on the breach to prevent escape while pursuing the newly arrived rebels to the Betwa river where he defeated them.

Although they were delayed, on the morning of April 3rd, the British entered the fort at Jhansi with orders to kill any male over sixteen. Vishnu Godse, a Hindu priest, wrote of the experience that it was four days of destruction of property and people “without distinction.” The fighting was intense and the Rani was in the middle of it, just as she had frequently been seen on the walls during the siege.

In spite of Rose’s precautions, sometime on April 3rd or 4th Lakshmibai was able to escape. There is a legend that says, once she knew her capture was inevitable, she tied her son to her back, mounted her horse and leapt over the cliff. The horse died, but she escaped and rode 100 miles to Kalpi. At Kalpi, she met with other rebels, but Rose pursued them and again forced them to retreat, this time to Gwalior.

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey source)

The fort at Gwalior was considered impregnable and Maharaja Sindia had remained pro-British throughout the rebellion. The British expected them to disband, but instead about 11,000 rebels advanced on Gwalior. After the first few shots, most of the Maharaja’s army defected and he fled to safety. Another Maharaja, Rao Sahib, was crowned and Lakshmibai was given a priceless pearl necklace.

On June 17th, they faced the British in battle. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, supposedly the most difficult position to defend. There are several accounts of how she died. You can read several of them at Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny, but the one I like the best is from Saul David’s book Indian Mutiny 1857, and taken from the diary of Edward Grey, a veterinary surgeon with the 8th Hussars:

“The Rani was on horseback … when the British cavalry [8th Hussars] made their surprise appearance, causing her escort to scatter … she boldly ‘attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded’, possibly by a sabre cut. A short while later as the British retired … she recognised her former assailant as she sat bleeding by the roadside and fired at him with her pistol. Unfortunately she missed and he ‘dispatched the young lady with his carbine’. But because she was ‘dressed as a sowar’, the trooper never realised ‘that he had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny, that there was a reward of a lac [lakh] on his victim’s head, or that at that moment she was wearing jewels worth a crore of rupees’.”

Rani Lakshmibai's statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha

Rani Lakshmibai’s statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha. Legend says that she escaped with Damodar tied to her back. (source)


Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Early Life
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Annexation
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny
Rani LakshmibaiWikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:18, May 24, 2013.

The Sultanate of Women

Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan

During the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a period of about 130 years when the Ottoman Empire was ruled or greatly influenced by the women of the harem. This period is called the Sultanate of Women and the reasons for their influence were the same as in many other countries of the time. The Emperors were either minors, incompetent to rule, or simply had great respect for their mothers as in the case of Suleiman the Magnificent and his mother Ayşe Hafsa Sultan.

Ayşe Hafsa Sultan (c. 1479 – 1534), was the consort of Selim I and mother of Suleiman the Magnificent. From 1513 to 1520, Hafsa Sultan resided with her son Suleiman in Manisa (now in western Turkey) while he was the administrator of the area. She is responsible for the building of a mosque, primary school, college, and a hospice in Manisa where there is a monument honoring her. She also initiated the “Mesir Festival” which is still in practice today. After Suleiman came to power in 1520, she was one of the most powerful people in the empire. Pietro Bragadin, the Venetian ambassador to Suleiman’s court, noted that he saw “a very beautiful woman of 48, for whom the Sultan bears great reverence and love.”

Reconstructed scene of a Vâlide Sultân and her attendants in her apartments at Topkapı Palace

Reconstructed scene of a Vâlide Sultân and her attendants in her apartments at Topkapı Palace

Ayşe Hafsa Sultan was the first woman honored with the title Valide Sultan. The Valide Sultan was the title given to the mother of the Sultan. The title Haseki Sultan was given to the mother of a prince. The Valide Sultan had the most powerful position in the royal harem followed by the Haseki Sultan of the heir apparent. However, it was always possible for the Haseki Sultan to lose favor and her position in the harem, such as when Hürrem Sultan was given favor over Mahidevran Sultan.

Hürrem Sultan (c. 1500 – 1558) was born Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska, or Roxelana, in the town of Rohatyn in what was then the Kingdom of Poland and is now in western Ukraine. The area was often subject to raiding by Crimean Tatars, and during one raid Roxelana was taken captive and sold as a slave. Taken to Istanbul, she was selected for Suleiman’s harem.  Hürrem caught the attention of Suleiman, and encountered the jealousy of Mahidevran Sultan, one of his favorites and the mother of the heir apparent Mustafa. One day Mahidevran beat Hürrem badly and was banished to a provincal town with her son.

As the new favorite, Hürrem asked to be instructed in Islam. Suleiman approved this and when she said she wished to convert he was happy. After her conversion however, she told him that she couldn’t sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband. After a time, he agreed and made her his wife. Suleiman obviously favored her a great deal to do this, but he eventually went a step further and freed her so that she became his actual legal wife. This was rare and gave Hürrem great influence.

Hürrem Sultan

Hürrem Sultan

Hürrem gave birth to five of Suleiman’s children, including the future Selim II. At least two letters Hürrem wrote to the King of Poland survived and some historians believe that she influenced Suleiman to curb Tartar slave-raiding in her homeland. Active in charitable works, she established a soup kitchen, a mosque, two Koranic schools, and a women’s hospital. She has inspired novels, paintings, and musical works, including Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 63.

Another of Hürrem’s children, Mihrimah Sultan (1522 – 1578) followed in her mother’s footsteps (pictured at the top of the post). At the age of 17, Mihrimah was married to Rüstem Pasha the Grand Vizier under her father. The marriage appears to have been an unhappy one and Mihrimah continued the practice of traveling with her father throughout his empire. It is even written in Persian literature that she went into the Battle of Gizah with him on an Arabian stallion named Batal.

Mihrimah had considerable resources. She was a patron of the arts and promised to build 400 galleys at her own expense for her father in a campaign against Malta. When her father died, she lent 50,000 gold sovereigns to her brother Selim. Her power wasn’t just in gold, however. By the time Selim II came to power, his mother had died, so Mihrimah took on the role of Valide Sultan for him. In addition to encouraging her father to launch the campaign against Malta, there is also evidence that, like her mother, she wrote letters in a diplomatic capacity to Sigismund II, the King of Poland.

Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapı, İstanbul, Turkey. Photo: Josep Renalias (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapı, İstanbul, Turkey. Photo: Josep Renalias (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

One meaning of her name, Mehr-î-Mâh, is “Sun and Moon.” There is a lovely legend about Mihrimah. Two mosques bear her name in the area of Istanbul, Mihrimah Mosque and Iskele Mosque. Both were built by Mimar Sinan, Selim’s chief architect and an admirer of his daughter. It is said that he fell in love with her and built the second of the two mosques, Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapi, at his own expense without palace approval. The legend says that if you stand with a clear view of both mosques on the Spring Equinox (March 21, also her birthday), you will see that as the sun sets behind the minaret of the mosque in Edirnekapi, the moon will rise between the two minarets of the larger mosque.

Kösem Sultan (1589 – 1651) was the orphaned daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Her given name was Anastasia, and it is unsure how she got to Constantinople, but at the age of 15 she was a slave in the royal harem.

Kösem Sultan, from an engraving of her capture by the Knights of Malta during a naval battle.

Kösem Sultan, from an engraving of her capture by the Knights of Malta during a naval battle.

Kösem Sultan endured very tumultuous times during her life. She was the second wife of Ahmed I who came to power when he was only 13. Ahmed broke with the tradition of fratricide and instead sent his brother Mustafa to the old palace at Bayezit with his grandmother Safiye Sultan. This set the stage for several coups following his death at the age of 27.

Mustafa came to power when Ahmed died, but was displaced by a coup which put Osman II, the son of Ahmed’s first wife, in power. Osman was assassinated by the Janissaries, giving Mustafa a second chance, but Mustafa was mentally unstable and unable to rule. This led to his deposition by Kösem Sultan’s son Murad IV.

Murad was only 11 when his reign began and Kösem was appointed Valide Sultan and the official regent for her son. From 1623 to 1632, she ruled the empire, attending meetings of the cabinet (Divan) from behind the curtain. She continued this even after Murad reached his majority in 1632. During the time that Kösem ruled there were many problems, invasions, revolts, and rebellions. The Janissaries even stormed the palace and killed the Grand Vizier in 1631. Murad decided to exert his power and hopefully avoid the fate of Osman. This he did, but he died of natural causes in 1640.

On his death bed, Murad ordered the execution of his mentally unstable brother, Ibrahim, but the command was not carried out and Ibrahim became the Sultan. He was unofficially called Ibrahim the Deranged because of his mental condition and largely stayed out of politics at first leaving rule of the Empire again in the hands of Kösem. He was deposed and eventually strangled in Constantinople in 1648.

Murad IV

Murad IV


Ibrahim I


Kösem’s sons who ruled with her as regent.




Mehmed IV whose mother Turhan Hatice protected his position from Kösem Sultan

Mehmed IV whose mother Turhan Hatice protected his position from Kösem Sultan

When Ibrahim was deposed, Kösem presented her grandson Mehmed IV to the Divan as emperor, basically declaring herself regent again. Mehmed was only six years old and it was his mother Turhan Hatice who was Kösem’s undoing. Turhan Hatice should have been named Valide Sultan as the new Sultan’s mother, but Kösem took over. A power struggle ensued. Kösem planned to dethrone Mehmed and replace him with another grandson, possibly one with a less ambitious mother, but her plan was unsuccessful. Instead, she was assassinated leaving the regency in the hands of another powerful woman, Turhan Hatice, who happened to have been a slave captured by Crimean Tartars and sold into the harem.

Although  the Empire did not flourish under Kösem’s rule, she was mourned for 3 days. She was remembered for her charity work and for the fact that she freed her slaves after 3 years of service.

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire by Leslie Peirce
The Private World of Ottoman Women by Godfrey Goodwin