By Andrew Laurence
Historically, kings rather than queens ruled ancient kingdoms of the past. However, there are a few notable exceptions especially in Africa. Many people do not realize that some traditional African cultures were matriarchal, which symbolically represented the positive ongoing rebirth of nature, as opposed to the western patriarchal system which represented dominance over nature. Throughout history we see the influence of women being integral to the affairs of state, family, religious and even military life. Never was it more influential than in early African civilizations. Whether it was Hatshepsut in Egypt, Amina in Hausaland, Nandi in Zululand, Nzinga in Angola, or Yaa Asantewa in Ashantiland, women have played a profound role throughout all of Africa’s historical affairs.
Even if one looks to the beginning of western civilization in Greece and Rome they will see the African origin of the relationships between the gods and goddesses. For example, Andromeda, the beautiful daughter of the Ethiopian King Cepheus, would be named for the Andromeda galaxy. From Isis and Horus to Nefertiti and Akhnaton the women were always a symbol and active participant of a balanced life in African history. While the rest of the world adopted the supremacy of male rulers, Ethiopia especially maintained a great tradition of the equality of women leaders up to the 20th century. In Ethiopia, even though HIS story recounts the battles of fortune and control of men, one can’t leave out the HER story of resistance against colonialism and war to peaceful religious and social coexistence.
The following is just a sample of historically well documented achievements of great women leaders of Ethiopia. The kings of Ethiopia often derived their legitimacy through the queen. These queens ran the civil administration, led armies against military foes, promoted long distance commerce and diplomatic relations, and engaged in massive building programs. It is a hope that one day women will once again be embraced as a dynamic and integral player in world sociopolitical affairs and takes her rightful place as great leaders in the future.
Queen Makeda (Queen of Sheba) (960B.C.) Makeda made peace with the powerful Jewish King Solomon. As detailed in the Bible, the Koran and Ethiopia’s Holy Book, the Kabre Negast, Makeda bore a child with Solomon named Menelik whose offspring would begin a royal lineage that ruled Ethiopia down to the 20th century as the “conquering lion of Judah.”
Queen Kantake or Candace (Amanirenas) (332B.C.) Kantake was common name for a long line of Queen-Mothers who ruled Nubia/Kush/Meroe/Ethiopia. Queen Amanirenas was a military strategist who defended great African empires from Roman armies of the time and intimidated the Greek Emperor, Alexander the Great. It is said that Alexander stopped his world conquest at Ethiopia’s border because he didn’t want to risk defeat by a woman.
Queen Gudit or Yodit (Judith) (960) Queen Yodit’s origin is disputed as being of either of Sidamo stock or Agaw with Jewish heritage or perhaps a convert. Known as the warrior Queen, in an attempt to restore the Jewish origins of the Christian kingdom of Axum, Yodit led a devastating army that conquered Axum for forty years and made way for the Zagwe dynasty.
Queen Eleni (Helena) (1500s) Wife of Zara Yakob, and given the title of Queen Mother by Emperor Baeda Maryam, Eleni acted as regent and advisor to a number of kings. Her influence and good judgment was widely respected, especially with the ongoing threat of invasion by the Ottoman Turks.
Queen Sabla Wangel (1560) Wife of Emperor Lebna Dengel, Sabla conformed to the model of wise Ethiopian queens who were deeply involved in affairs of state, while retaining the qualities of gentleness and mercy often attributed to women. It fell to her to live in dangerous times, which required not only diplomatic talents, but also courage and fortitude in battle and defeat. She negotiated with the Portuguese for the defense of Ethiopia. Many women refugees today would have particular sympathy for her sufferings and endurance.
Queen Mugasa (Mentewab) (1730-1769) Wife of Emperor Masih Sagad (Bakaffa), the enlightened and liberal-minded, Mentwab succeeded in reconciling the followers of the two major monastic orders, who had for centuries engaged in bitter disputes over church doctrine. She was also a great patron of the arts and literature, financing the building of many fine churches and stimulating the production of richly illuminated manuscripts and paintings.
Queen Taytu (1851-1918) Taytu is acknowledged to have wielded considerable political power as the wife of Menelik, both before and after they were crowned Emperor and Empress in 1889. The Empress held a hard line against the Italians, and when talks eventually broke down, and Italy invaded the Empire she marched north with the Emperor and the Imperial Army, and commanded a force of cannoneers at the historic Battle of Adwa which resulted in a humiliating defeat for Italy.
Queen Zewditu (1876-1930) Zewditu became Empress of Ethiopia in 1916. She was the eldest daughter of the future emperor Menelik II. She was a strong believer in the preservation of tradition in Ethiopia, and supported by the Church for her conservative views. The turbulent times in Ethiopia required her stabilizing force until modernizing forces prevailed. None of her children survived into adulthood and she was compelled to crown her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen emperor Haile Selassie I.
Queen Menen (1883-1965) She was crowned Empress with her husband Emperor Haile Selassie I. She championed the cause of education, providing for schools for poor children and technical training for women. She was a loyal steady hand for the Atse Selassie I, especially during the Italian invasion. Menen organized the women’s groups to provide aid to wounded soldiers. Outspoken critic of the all wars she contributed to the building and restoring of the many churches destroyed by the Italians.
(Primary Sources: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, JSTOR (Scholarly Journal Archive)