OneWorld Magazine presents

Struggle and Loss

by Rita Pankhurst

Women In Power
" After Eleni's death Emperor Lebna Dengel's own wife, Sabla Wangel, began to assume as significant a role in Ethiopian history as Eleni's had been. This was the time when Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, nicknamed "Gragn" - the left-handed - led a revolt from his birthplace in the Emirates of Adal, in the lowlands towards the southern entrance to the Red Sea."
At times with the help of Turkish musketeers, he conquered more and more of the Christian highland state, so that the royal family had constantly to be on the move. Sabla Wangel's eldest son was killed in battle and her fourth son, Minas, was taken prisoner, saved from execution by Ahmed's wife, Del Wambara. Sabla Wangel shared in her husband's attempts to stem the Adal tide until he was forced to find refuge on the impregnable top of Mount Dabra Damo, where he died in 1540.

Sable Wangel's second son, Galawdewos, then came to the throne and the war continued. While he was fighting in the south of the country a year later, the long-promised help from Portugal arrived. From the mountain fortress in the north, where she had remained after husband's death, the Empress negotiated with the Portuguese before descending to their camp. She was met by their commander, Christovao da Gama, the son of the explorer Vasco da Gama. Seated on a mule she reviewed the contingent of 400 Portuguese troops who paraded in front of her.

Sabla Wangel's presence rallied support for the Portuguese whom she advised, encouraging local farmers to supply them with provisions. Many joined the Portuguese to drive out the invader, whose soldiers burnt many settlements and churches. She was present during a number of battles, tending the wounded, tearing her headgear and clothes to make bandages, and mourning the dead, among them the Portuguese commander himself. In 1543 the remnants of Christovao's force helped Emperor Galawdewos defeat and kill Imam Ahmad. The latter's wife, Bati Del Wambara, succeeded in escaping, but her son, Muhammad, was taken prisoner.

Sabla Wangel was then able to negotiate the exchange of her son Minas, for Ahmad's son, plus a ransom in gold. Minas had been handed over to the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, as a symbol of Adal vassalage. The exchange succeeded, despite doubts on both sides, thanks to the joint efforts of the two women, Sabla Wangel and Del Wambara.

Six years of continuous fighting later, Galawdewos was killed, after which his brother Minas came to the throne. During his four-year reign Sabla Wangel continued to be influential in court and religious affairs. In the controversy engendered by the Jesuits, who had entered the country during Galawdewos's reign, and were aiming to bring Ethiopia into the Roman Catholic fold, she was a steadfast supporter of the traditionalists who wished Ethiopian Christians to remain Orthodox. But this did not prevent her from interceding on behalf of foreign Roman Catholics who had fallen foul of the Emperor. Her intervention saved from execution both the Portuguese adventurer Bermudes, who had angered Galawdewos, and the Spanish Jesuit Patriarch Oviedo, whom Minas had condemned. Her last achievement was to ensure that her grandson, Sartsa Dengel, one of several rival contendants, came to the throne. Her choice was a wise one as he succeeded in defending the integrity of the realm throughout his thirty-four year reign.

Sabla Wangel 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. Many women refugees today would have particular sympathy for her sufferings and endurance.

Del Wanbara - literally "Victory is her seat" - held the title of Bati. A contemporary of Sabla Wangel's, she was the daughter of Imam Mehefuz, governor of Zayla, a port on the Gulf of Aden close to what is now Djibouti. He was also the de facto ruler of the state of Adal. She married Imam Ahmad and, ignoring the protests of his soldiers, accompanied him on his expeditions of conquest in the Christian highlands. At times she had to be carried on their shoulders up and down steep and rocky mountain slopes, twice in a state of pregnancy. She gave birth to two sons - Muhammad in 1531 and Ahmad two years later - during campaigns in the mountains of Tigre.

After the defeat and death of her husband in 1543 and the capture of her young son Muhammad, she fled to the north-west of Lake Tana, and eventually succeeded in returning to Harar, then at the centre of Adal power. Her first task was to make arrangements for the exchange of her eldest son Muhammad for Emperor Galawdewo's brother, Minas. She was in a good position to achieve this ambition because Minas's life had been spared through her intervention. It was no easy task, however, as his captors feared, rightly as it turned out, that if released, he might come to the throne, and be a powerful enemy. Del Wanbara was determined to avenge her husband's death and, nine years later, agreed to marry the Emir of Harar, Nur Ibn Mujahid, son of her first husband's sister, seeing in him the best prospect of achieving her aim. Emir Nur began by rebuilding Harar, which had been sacked, and enclosed the town with a wall which can be seen to this day. Having reorganised his forces, he undertook a new conquest of the Christian highlands and, in 1559, killed Emperor Galawdewos in battle, thus fulfilling Del Wanbara's wish to avenge the death of her first husband.

Del Wanbara and Sabla Wangel were in some ways mirror images of each other. Both were strong wives closely involved in their husbands' battles: Sabla Wangel in defending the Christian highland state, Del Wanbara in supporting the attack on it by a Muslim army. Both lost their husbands in the struggle, and knew what it meant to be a fugitive. Both suffered the agony of seeing one of their sons taken into captivity. Both fought with all their might for their sons' release, and had enough influence to achieve it. Thus both were examples of women of immense strength of character, able to fight for their own kin, but also women whose actions inspired their followers and helped change the course of history.

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


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