OneWorld Magazine presents


by Rita Pankhurst

Women In Power

"Highly placed Ethiopian women, who combined worldliness, politics and religion are seen again and again in Ethiopian history. Rita Pankhurst recalls how women have been as important and influential as any man."

Lucy, alias Dinknesh - literally "you are lovely" - is the first woman in Ethiopian history, indeed in the history of the world. She was a dainty little person, an intrepid walker who came down from the trees some three million years ago in the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia. An American - French team of physical anthropologists led by Donald C. Johanson found 40 per cent of her skeleton in 1974, and named her Lucy after the Beatles song - though her Ethiopian descendants prefer to call her Dinknesh. The extent of her influence or power will forever remain a mystery.

Whereas Lucy's fossilised bones are real nothing is known of her story. But when it comes to the Queen of Sheba there is a great story yet no concrete evidence to support it. Do not deny her existence in Ethiopia, however.

One eminent Ethiopian historian, who referred to her at a public lecture in Addis Ababa as a legendary figure, was soon in trouble with the indignant audience.

According to the Ethiopian national epic, Kabra Negast , compiled in the 14th century, Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, who visited King Solomon in the Old Testament times, came from Tigre in Northern Ethiopia. She made the arduous journey across the desert and the Red Sea with her retinue and rich gifts to learn wisdom from the great king. Later, he beguiled her into sleeping with him and on her return, she gave birth to a son, Menelik the First. According to legend he was the founder of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty, which supposedly ended only with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

In Ethiopia it was considered quite natural that a woman should have held supreme power. Here was a woman to whom courage and endurance were attributed, who had intellectual and spiritual interests, and was willing to endure hardship in search of knowledge.

Two thousand years later, probably in the 10th century AD another legendary queen took the stage in Ethiopia. Although something of the Aksumite Empire she overthrew is known, from the inscriptions and monuments left behind, and from observations of foreign traders, there little more authentic information about her than about Makeda. There is evidence only that a rebellious queen led the forces which destroyed the old Christian order. Variously referred to as Gudit, Gwedit, Yodit, Judith, and as "Isat" - Amharic for fire - she was believed to be the founder of the Zagwe dynasty which ruled for several hundred years.

Alleged by some to have followed an indigenous religion, and by others to have been of Jewish faith, she was, all agree, a fearsome warrior who led her troops to victory over the Christian Aksumites. Whether real or legendary, she remains an impressive example of a woman military leader who wielded power.

Return to Ethiopia Index | 1. Women in Power | 2. Piety and Wisdom
3. Struggle and Loss | 4. Elegance and Power


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