By Yamrot Girma Teshome, Gender Studies, ASU
Queen Eleni of Ethiopia is among many African women who played key political and intellectual roles in the Early Modern period. Her biography is one of the histories of Ethiopian women from different ethnicities and cultures that have had a lasting impact on the nation’s socio-cultural and political reality. Yet is often untold. Women like Eleni have challenged the social and political norms of the time through education, political leadership and diplomatic relations. The experiences of such women provide evidence of their strong leadership and diplomatic skills, as well as their resistance to political and colonial pressures in the medieval and Renaissance eras.
Queen Eleni lived between1450-1522. This coincided with the restoration period of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia, where the successors of the dynasty sought to build a stronger Christian empire and expanded to the South. However, until the end of the 16th century the empire faced threats from internal and external forces namely, the Ottoman Turks and Muslim states in Ethiopia (Pankhurst & Gerard, 2014). In 1520, a Muslim leader from the east named Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Ahmed Gragn) assumed leadership, marking the era of war between the Christian highlanders and the Muslim Emirates. It was during this time that Eleni emerged. The Christian rulers engaged in continuous campaigns to quell rebellions and raids from the Muslim states. In some cases peaceful negotiations took place between the two states through intermarriages and the stationing of armies to encourage assimilation (Abebe, 2011; Deressa, 1967). The marriage of Eleni to the Christian king Be’ede Mariam is essentially based on such political rationale. Queen Eleni who came from the Muslim state of Dawaro converted to Christianity soon after her marriage.
Her engagement in political affairs began after the death of her husband in 1478. She was the advisor and guardian to her young step son King Eskender and her own son Na’od who later came to power. She took part in key political decisions; and this was not received well by a Betwoded (Earl/duke) who wanted to have her removed from the royal court. Some argue that she was behind a palace coup organized that later led to the Earl’s execution. Eleni also played a key role in foreign affairs during the rule of her son. When King Na’od died in 1508, Libne Dingil, her grandson, was declared Emperor at the age of 11. Once again, she was running the country as a guardian until Libne Dingil became 20 years old.
As a wise and trusted Regent Queen or guardian to three successive young kings, Eleni had commanded the respect and acceptance of the royal family, the religious leaders and the people as a whole. Her internal and external diplomatic skills were unparalleled. She maintained good relations with the neighboring Muslim emirates of Adal and Dawaro through peaceful negotiations and intermarriages. Externally, she reached out to King John II of Portugal for assistance against the Ottoman Turks, whom she believed were using Ethiopian Muslim emirates for their own colonial and expansionist mission. Eleni enlisted the aid of Portuguese naval forces to fight against the Ottoman Turks (Ullendorff, 1966), and decided to send an envoy to the King of Portugal. Eleni’s historic letter to the King of Portugal was written in Ge’ez. It was later translated into Portuguese. Interestingly, the letter explained her motives for diplomatic ties, not her desperate need for assistance (Mekuria, 1969). Eleni’s effort was continued by Libne Dingil, and his wife Queen Seble Wongel. They sent requests for assistance from the Portuguese when their kingdom was almost destroyed by the onslaught of Gragn’s forces. In the end it was Eleni’s guidance for foreign diplomacy that saved the Christian empire from absolute destruction.
From among the advisers of the kings, Eleni was the most senior in terms of age and maturity. She was also well-versed in the traditional education of the time which was reserved for men. Throughout the years, Eleni had developed her knowledge of the Christian faith and theology. She was not only well-read in church literature and holy books, but had also ordered and overseen the writing of two books about the “Holy Trinity” and the “ Virgin Mary”; as well as the translation of several religious books from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew into the Orthodox Church language of Ge’ez . Historians explain that she was respected and mourned as the father and mother of all when she passed away.
Abebe, A. (2011). History of Ethiopia: Anderzei bartnisky & yoana mantel nietchko. Amharic Translation from Polish. Alpha Printing.Deressa, Y. (1967). History of Ethiopia: Sixteenth century. Berhan and Selam Printing Press Written in Amharic.
Mekuria, T, T. (1969). Ethiopian history: From emperor libne dingil to emperor theodros. Berhan and Selam Printing Press. Written in Amharic.
Richard Pankhurst and Denis Gerard. (2014). Ethiopia photographed: Historic photographs of the country and its people taken between 1867 and 1935. Routledge.
Ullendorf, E. (1966): The Ethiopians: An introduction to country and people. Oxford UP.