Africa is the birthplace of human civilization, and throughout history, it has been home of some of the world’s most significant leaders. Among those leaders are queens who led their kingdoms with precision and power, and have since left an indelible mark on history. We take a look at some of the most dynamic ancient African queens.
Queen Aminatu, daughter of Bakwa Turunku, was a great Hausa warrior who inherited her mother’s strong warlike nature. Her mother built the capital of Zazzau, which formed part of the seven original states of Hausaland in the 16th century. Aminatu was just 16-years-old when her mother became queen and she was given the traditional title of magajiya.
Amina chose to hone her military skills, and became one of the greatest warriors of Zazzau. She is credited as the architect of fortified walls in Hausaland, and as a warrior, she is known for her smart tactic as she increased the borders of Zazzau, ensuring that the kingdom became the centre of the North-South Saharan trade and East-West Sudan trade. Her career as a warrior princess spanned over three decades, and she is celebrated in song as “Amina daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man.”
Makeda, Queen of Sheba
According to Ethiopia’s 14th century royal epic, the Kebra Nagast or “Glory of Kings”, Makeda was a brave young maiden who survived being sacrificed to the monstrous serpent king Awre who was troubling the northern Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. It is believed that Makeda killed the serpent and was then proclaimed as the Queen of Axum.
Makeda is popularly known for her interesting story with biblical figure King Solomon of Jerusalem, who taught her about leadership and monotheism. They had a son named Menelik I (or Ebna la-Hakim), meaning ‘son of the wise’, who became the first Imperial ruler of Ethiopia and the first of a line of Aksûmite Kings.
According to historians, Makeda and her son brought back the biblical Ark of the Covenant to Axum. Through them, the lineage of great East African and Nubian kings was born. The legacy she left to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is the strong emphasis on the Old Testament, as well as a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which serves as a symbol of the connection between Makeda, Queen of Sheba, and Solomon the Wise.
Queen Nefertiti, whose name means ‘a beautiful woman has come’, is one of Egypt’s most prominent queens whose painted sandstone bust has become a global icon of feminine beauty and power.
On the walls of tombs and temples built during her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign from 1353 to 1336 B.C, when she was queen, Nefertiti is portrayed as a woman of power and authority, often driving a chariot or smiting an enemy. She and Akhenaten were responsible for Egypt’s major cultural and religious upheaval, establishing the cult of Aten – which saw the sun god Aten as the most important figure in Egypt’s polytheistic canon – and vigorously promoting Egyptian artwork.
It is believed that she was either born in the town of Akhmim or in a foreign country, which is now modern say Syria. It is believed that she was 15-years-old when she married Akhenaten, and together they had six children, including King Tutankhamun, who is described as a powerful pharaoh who, among other exploits, restored the traditional Egyptian religion. Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti often went on exploits together and were said to be genuinely in love, often kissing in public, which is a depiction that is not often seeing in ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
Queen Ranavalona the First of Madagascar
Queen Ranavalona the First ruled the large Indian Ocean island of Madagascar from 1788–1861. She is best known for being defiant against European colonialism, but is also said to have ruled as a dictator, often persecuting those who opposed her regime.
Her 33 year reign mainly consisted of preserving the political and cultural sovereignty of Madagascar in the face of European colonialism while creating a self-sufficient state for the good of her people. This led to her being viewed as a great sovereign and patriotic leader at heart, while colonists viewed her as a tyrant. It is believed that she was born in 1788 and may have been named Ramavo. It is also believed that she is of Merina descent, which is the island’s largest ethnic group.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt
Queen Cleopatra is one of the world’s most famous female rules whose life story inspired historians, ordinary people and storytellers, including William Shakespeare who wrote the play Antony and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was born to a royal family around 69 B.C to King Ptolemy XII. The throne was left to her and her brother after her father died when she was 18-years-old. Their relationship became strained after they assumed power, resulting in Cleopatra assembling an army to overthrow her brother. She would come to meet Julius Caesar of Rome when Caesar followed his rival Pompey into Egypt when he was seeking refuge from Rome’s civil war. Caesar helped Cleopatra defeat her brother in the Battle of the Nile, and it is believed that together they had a son named Caesarion.
Following Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra met Marc Antony, with whom she had 3 children. After a tumultuous love affair, Antony died after committing suicide, being falsely led to believe that Cleopatra had died in the battle at Actium. She in fact died much later after being bitten by an Egyptian cobra in 30 B.C. The two were buried together, as they had wished, and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
Queen Nandi of the Zulu Kingdom
Queen Nandi was the mother of Shaka Zulu, one of the Zulu kingdom’s greatest kings in Southern Africa. Queen Nandi’s story is one of resilience as a mother, and one of hope against social pressures.
She fell pregnant with King Senzangakhona’s son, who was considered illegitimate as the couple was unmarried. She endured great humiliation and rejection as a result, but still persisted with raising her son who was named after the iShaka beetle, which was initially blamed as the reason for her raised stomach as leaders tried to deny her pregnancy.
During Shaka’s reign as king, Queen Nandi had great influence over affairs of the kingdom, including being a voice of reason during political strife with neighbouring kingdoms. Through her being Shaka’s pillar of strength, he was able to go on his great exploits, extending the borders of the Zulu kingdom over a period of 12 years. Her death was marked by a long period of mourning known as “Isililo SikaNandi”.