By Rich Juro
Have you heard of Judit, the lady who overthrew the king of Ethiopia 1000 years ago, massacred his family, destroyed churches, ruled for 40 years, and founded a regal dynasty that lasted 400 years? Neither had I, till Fran and I visited Ethiopia several years ago and learned a few tidbits about her. Here’s the rest of the story:
We need to start the legend of Judit over 3000 years ago when the Queen of Sheba traveled to see King Solomon in Israel. The Biblical land of Sheba consisted of parts of Ethiopia and Yemen, which were across the Red Sea from each other. Supposedly, the Queen of Sheba visited and was made pregnant by King Solomon. Sheba then gave birth to Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. That legend expands to one much harder to believe: that Menelik I returned to see his father King Solomon. Then Menelik or his aides stole the Ark of the Covenant, brought it back to Ethiopia, where it has resided ever since. But that’s another story for another day…
The Ethiopian Jews, also called Beta Israel, have a definite but uncertain history. One theory goes that those they are descended from the time of Moses, going south from Egypt during the Exodus. Another possibility is that their lineage is from the tribe of Dan, which journeyed south at the time of the breakup of Israel in the 10th Century BCE. There are archaeological structures and written references, including the Bible, which prove that Jews were in Ethiopia 2500-3200 years ago. And they prospered…
Centuries later, according to the Beta Israel tradition, in the 4th Century CE, the new Emperor of Axum (northern Ethiopia) declared Christianity as the religion of the land. The Jews understandably didn’t like that, so they set up their own kingdom a distance away. 500 years later, the new Axum Emperor set out to expand his realm, which put him in conflict with the Jewish Kingdom under Gideon IV. Guess what? The Jewish Beta Israel army defeated the Axum Empire, but Gideon IV was killed, and his daughter, Judit, became the queen and his successor.
Here’s the gory stuff: Judit made an alliance with some pagan tribes, and around 960 CE the combined forces invaded the capital city of Axum. They then proceeded to sack the Treasury, burn the city, and destroy its churches and monasteries. Finally, they killed all the heirs to the Axumite throne so it couldn’t be revived. Judit governed for 40 years, and her Beta Israel descendants ruled the so-called Zagwe Empire for the next 300 years. (For comparison, our own USA has not even been a country for 300 years.) Several Europeans, including Marco Polo and Benjamin of Tudela, refer in their writings to the Ethiopian Jewish kingdom.
But in 1270 a man arose who claimed to be a descendant of the old Axum Emperor. For the next couple of centuries the Jewish kingdom fought with the newly resurgent Christian Solomonic dynasty. Eventually, the Christian Emperor Yeshaq won and decreed that only Christians could inherit land; the others were “Falasi”, which is probably the origin of the term Falasha, or landless person. And that’s why Ethiopian Jews refer to themselves as Beta Israel, and not the second-class term of Falasha. Most of the Ethiopian Jews retreated to the mountains around Gondar. They lived there until almost all moved to Israel under the Law of Return several decades ago.
The story of Judit is fascinating, but it’s primarily from oral tradition, so many of its details are subject to historical debate. The warrior queen may have been called Judit, or Gudit, or Yodit, or Esther. In Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, she is called Isat, which not surprisingly translates as “fire”. Whether she was Jewish is also uncertain. Some researchers think she was pagan or even a rival Christian family. Ruling for 40 years, she was probably a good administrator, but according to the (jealous) modern Ethiopians, she wasn’t.
But some facts are undisputed. There was a warrior queen in the 10th Century who excelled as a warrior, military strategist, and ruler. She also seems to deserve her reputation as bloodthirsty, but that was not uncommon for the era.
Fran and I were spent two weeks in Ethiopia in 2012. It’s a fascinating place to visit, especially the town of Lalibela. There you see 9 different churches carved downward out of the stone ground. You walk down outside steps to get to the entrance of the churches. Lalibela (“lover of bees”) is named for the king who as a child hid with the bees to escape his uncle-king who wanted to execute him. When he became king as an adult, supposedly he built the nine churches in 24 hours (but the legend goes that he did have help overnight from angels).
In the Ethiopian (Coptic) Orthodox Churches, there are many Jewish symbols and traditions: numerous Stars of David, Saturday services, pork is forbidden, words of Hebrew origin, etc. The Jews in the country were there well before Christianity, so maybe that’s why there are so many Jewish symbols and rituals. And maybe 300 years of Jewish rule also contributed to the usage.
Overall, the story of Judit, the Jewish warrior queen, is pretty well established. Its certainly unique to the history of the Jewish people, and maybe to any tradition. She was definitely a person to be reckoned with, 1000 years ago or even today.