OneWorld Magazine presents
WOMEN OF POWER IN ETHIOPIA
"In the later years of the Zagwe dynasty, towards the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Ethiopian rulers were once again Christian, there lived a woman of a different disposition from Gudit, the devout and beloved wife of the venerable King Lalibela, who created the world-famous complex of rock-hewn churches that bear his name."
Masqal-Kebra, literally "Glory of the Cross", was a strong and influential consort who
succeeded in persuading the head of the Ethiopian Church to ordain her brother as bishop - and is
said to have persuaded the King to abdicate in favour of his nephew. But, when she discovered the
nephew had mistreated a poor farmer, she advised her husband to take the throne back.
Known for her piety she is said to have built the Abba Libanos Church at Lalibela, in honour of her husband. In Lasta, the country around Lalibela where she was born, and in Tigre, where a monastery is named after her she was indeed, deeply revered. Indeed, Masqal-Kebra is numbered among the Ethiopian saints and two unpublished manuscripts of her life are preserved, one at Gannata Maryam Church near Lalibela, the other at Aksum.
Masqal-Kebra was typical of highly-placed Ethiopian women, who combined worldliness and other-worldliness, politics and religion, in a mix which is seen again and again in Ethiopian history.
Some three centuries later a Muslim princess from Hadya, in south-western Ethiopia, was given in marriage to the future Emperor Baeda Maryam to cement an alliance with her motherland. However, she was far from being simply a chattel in a dynastic arrangement. During the ten years of her husband's reign (1468-1478) Empress Eleni became well-versed in Christian theology.
She even wrote two religious works, one concerning the laws of God, and the other, the Holy Trinity and the purity of St. Mary.
In daily life she was pious and kind, and took an interest in the welfare of other people. Her character made her so widely respected that, far from retiring after her husband's death, she continued to exert political influence during the following three reigns.
She played a decisive role in choosing her grandson, Lebna Dengel, as Emperor. As he was then a minor, she served as one of the regents till he came of age. During her regency many churches were repaired and many more built. She also sponsored the translation of Greek and Arabic religious texts in Ge'ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Because of her political experience and skill, Eleni became the most important of the regents. She foresaw the menace of Turkish aggression at the coast and the need for allies to fend off the growing power of the vassal Muslim states threatening the Christian Empire's vital trade routes to the sea.
When Dom Manuel, King of Portugal, sent envoys seeking an alliance against Egypt and other Muslim powers in the Indian Ocean, Eleni welcomed these envoys, and sent an ambassador to Portugal with a letter suggesting joint action in defence of Christianity. Eventually however, when a second Portuguese mission landed in response to her overtures in 1520, Lebna Dengel had assumed the reins of power. Lacking the wisdom of his grandmother, he failed to grasp the importance of the alliance, a misjudgment which cost him dearly in later years. On the plus side, the chaplain to that mission, Francisco Alvares, left for posterity a detailed account of the Ethiopian court and the part of the country visited by the mission.
Eleni continued to exert a moderating influence on the impetuous young monarch until her death in 1522. The fact that Eleni was a woman was no bar to her exerting influence at court and wielding great power, in diplomatic as well as domestic affairs of state. Nor did it prevent her making a significant contribution to the Ethiopian Church.
3. Struggle and Loss | 4. Elegance and Power
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